The Feast of the Epiphany (Jan. 6)
January 10, 2010
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
Dear Friends in Christ,
Just imagine this headline in the Intercounty Leader: “Blind Italian Opera Tenor, Andrea Bochelli, Has Impromptu Concert in Coon Lake Park - Weather Ten Below” What would you think when you read that? About ten different questions would come to mind at once. What’s Andrea Bochelli doing in Frederic in the first place? How did he get there, and why? Who brought him? He is blind after all. And why is he doing a concert here? Isn’t that cold air bad for the vocal cords? One would expect to see an article under the headline that offered some explanation for this strange event. But the answer given is simply God led him here.
One of the problems with reading the Scriptures is that they’re so familiar that we are not surprised, even when we should be. Sometimes we have to clear our mind and try to role play a little bit. You have to pretend you’ve never read or heard this before. Then consider how you would react to this if this were new to you. The story of the coming of the Magi is rather like the Andrea Bochelli concert in Frederic.
The ESV translates the word “Magi” as “Wise Men”. That is a reasonable translation, but it doesn’t really tell us much. The word “Magi” is the plural of the word Magus. There are two meanings to the word Magi. The first is priests of the Zoroastrian religion. The Zoroastrian religion was practiced in the Parthian Empire. The Parthian Empire was a new Persian empire based in modern day Iran. The Zoroastrian religion was very interested in the stars and included the practice of astrology. That all makes sense. They came from east following a star. But Magi had another meaning. It was also used throughout the region to the east of Palestine for the personal advisors of the king. Thus Daniel was one of the king’s Magi in Babylon. It should be noted however that Magi are never kings themselves. At most, they are advisors to a king. We know they weren’t kings, but we don’t know exactly who they were. We only know the possibilities.
What were they doing in Judea at the time of King Herod? Their arrival would have caused quite a stir. The Parthian Empire was an enemy Rome. Palestine was strategically vital as it protected the province of Egypt, the bread basket of the Roman Empire. Were they there to carry out some plot to get Palestine back in Parthian control? No, they were there to pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews.
Why had they come at that moment? They had seen a star. It should be probably understood, while they were still in the east, in their homeland, they saw the star. They obviously didn’t follow it the whole way or they wouldn’t have went to Herod. What did they see? We don’t know. Again we can develop the possibilities, but we cannot be certain. But remember, only they saw the star. No one else is recorded as seeing the star. This leads us to think that they might have seen a certain alignment of stars and planets that led them to conclude a great king was being born in Judea. In other words they were practicing astrology, that is predicting the future by the position of the stars.
What can we say about such things? Many practice astrology in our own day. I remember the flap about Nancy Reagan consulting an astrologer. Indeed some of the early Lutheran theologians such as Melanchthon and Chemnitz were astrologers, whose work was highly prized by many German princes. Yet, God does not promise to speak to us through the stars. And how do we know this or that method of interpreting the stars is accurate? In the late 1960's we entered, according to one system of astrology, the age of Aquarius. This was supposed to be a time of world peace and harmony. I guess the stars were wrong about that. God’s Word has a much better track record.
So, we have an account of an event that is very startling. People are out of place for the wrong reasons. This group of eastern sages had come to Judea because of a star. But there is a larger point to this. The whole universe responded to the coming of Christ. Those who looked for such signs, wrong as they might have been to do so, nevertheless, saw them. Christ’s coming was not a secret event. Many knew of it. Even people from foreign lands. Nor are they shut out. Rather their worship and their gifts are accepted by God.
One of the specific themes of Matthew’s Gospel is that Christ is the Messiah for all people. He is the Jewish God, the Jewish savior. But He’s also God and Savior to the whole world. This is a given for the other Gospel writers. But not for Matthew. He feels he must prove this to his readers. So it makes sense that Matthew would record the coming of the Magi. They were there to show that Christ came for all people. In this Matthew ties us right back to Genesis and the garden of Eden. Through Adam all mankind became sinful. We are sinners because we are descendants of Adam. So it would make no sense for God to save only some people. He comes to all descendants of Adam. We learn this in the coming of the Magi.
One of the most the most beautiful choral anthems I’ve ever sung was called “Three Kings”. We sang this when I was in the college choir. It was written by Healy Willan. It does make the mistake of calling the Magi kings and makes the mistake of assuming that there were three. But it is a beautiful song that really sums up the whole point of the Feast of the Epiphany. At the climax the song goes “Ye kings, Ye kings, come in, come in, and kiss the feet of God.” And there it is. This Infant in Mary’s arms, this babe of Bethlehem, this is God. Not just for the Jews. But for you and me. For all people. And not just God, but a Savior from sin and death. And so we, with them, come in and kiss the feet of our God.