What Are We to Make of This?
The world's Christmas is long over. You won't find a Christmas song on the radio or in a store. The trees are down; the stockings unhung; what manger scenes there were are put away. Baby Jesus is safely packed away until next Thanksgiving when He'll be let out for a month or so. But here we are going once more to Baby Jesus on a Tuesday night. What are we to make of this?
Well, we can't make something of this based on what we don't know. We don't know how many Magi or wise men there were. All we know is there was more than one because the plural is used. Christian art has settled on 3 because of the 3 gifts. Who knows? Perhaps more than 3 went in together to buy them. Not only don't we know the number of wise men, we're not even sure what they were. Among Medes and Persians in Old Testament times wise men were into astrology, medicine, and dream interpretation. The prophet Daniel was president of such an order. The word “wise men” later was used of all scientists in general and even of quacks.
No one really knows what the wise men were, and no one really knows where they were really from. The text says from the east, but what does that mean? Church fathers Justin, Tertullian, and Epiphanius thought they were from Arabia. Jerome and Augustine thought they were from Babylon. Clement of Alexandria, Chrysostom, and Cyril of Jerusalem thought they were from Persia. Modern commentators generally agree that they were from the brightest and best of the gentile world, but early Christians like Ignatius, Justin, Tertullian and Origen thought they came from dark and bad countries. Their coming to Christ showed the power of astrology was broken. Later Christians like Chrysostom thought the opposite. The visit of the wise men proved astrology could be trusted.
We don't really know who the wise men were, where they were from, or even what the star they followed was. I have many articles in my files from national magazines and local newspapers dealing with what the star of Bethlehem was. Nobody agrees. Some say comet, others say exploding star, or the conjunction of several planets, and still there are others who say it was Jupiter appearing to make a loop in it's orbit.
All that we don't know is intriguing, makes for interesting discussions and reading, but none of it matters. I heard a pastor preach an entire Epiphany sermon on what the star might have been. Not one word of that sermon got close to Law or Gospel. It is majoring in incredibly minor things to focus on what the Bible doesn't tell you. Well what does the Bible tell us?
The Bible tells us that wise men followed a star for about 2 years that led them from the east to Jerusalem and then from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. What are we to make of this? We are to see that God leads His people by means of things that confound their reason and their science. The star first led them to Jerusalem which makes sense. Kings are found in major cities, but the star left them indefinite as to the exact place. So the wise men did the unmanly thing and asked for directions. That's amazing enough, but even more amazing is that the star reappeared, went ahead of them, and then “stopped over the place where the Child was.” These wise men were wise enough to know that stars don't stop and go, nor go on ahead of you, and they certainly don't stop and beam down like a spotlight on something.
The movement of the star did not make scientific or astronomical sense, but they followed it any way. Neither was it wise to go to Jerusalem and ask the king occupying the land of the Jews where the one born king of the Jews was, but they did that too. What are we to make of this? Would we, do we cast aside what we think, what we know, what science tells us and go where Scripture points us; do we go by what God leads us with? He doesn't put stars in the sky to lead us to the Christ, but He marks where Christ is today by the Gospel preached purely and His Sacraments administered according to how Christ instituted them.
These are foolish marks that many if not most people ignore. Many think Christ is found today where the greatest number of people are gathered, where people feel the most spiritual, where the most programs are for youth, singles, elderly, and couples. To find Christ in the plain preaching that sins are forgiven because Christ kept the law and died to pay for our not keeping it, is unimpressive. To find Christ in the Waters of Baptism is weak. To find Christ in the Bread and Wine of Communion is not only weak but foolish. But these are the ways God has ordained to lead people to Himself today. O that we could be caught up in Word and Sacrament as the wise men were in the star and so cast aside reason, pride, and doubt to rejoice that these bring us to Jesus even as the star brought the wise men to Him.
The wise men followed the star to where Christ was. Upon seeing Jesus what did they do? They didn't bow down gracefully to worship Him as the NIV translates. No, “falling down they did worship Him” as the Greek has it. They were completely undone and before what? A Child, a Toddler who as yet had healed no one, casted out no demon, raised no one from the dead. They fell down and worshiped a Child who perhaps had stinky diapers, drool on His face, and dirt on His hands. I'm sure people walked by Jesus every day and didn't bow, didn't worship, didn't treat Him any different than any other child.
What are we to make of this? They worshiped Jesus not because He was different than other children, not because a hallo hung over His head, not because angels were in the air sweetly singing, they worshiped Him because the Old Testament prophets had told of God coming to Man, God coming to rule on the throne of David. Such words made them bow their knees where their reason would have said otherwise.
So it is with us. We meet the Holy God in the 3 holies He has given to us. Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion. Though they look ordinary, plain and weak, though there appears to be no power in them at all, we treat them as the holy things that God says they are. The Water is “not simple water only,” we say in the Catechism, “but a life giving water rich in grace.” Something more than Water is in Baptism: The Word, the Christ, the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins are all there.
Likewise with Holy Absolution. It is holy and precious to us. It is the voice of God through the lips of a man. It is God sending away right then and there sins from a person through words spoken by a man. When sins are sent away, a person is holy before God, without sin. Absolution is a holy work, a holy event, a thing to be in awe and wonder of, a thing to bow before with thankful hearts.
Much more so is the third holy. Holy Communion. Here is the Christ on earth for us. As with the wise men, He veils His glory. We don't see God's holiness in Communion anymore than the wise men saw it in the Child Jesus, but it's there. We don't see the glory of our God and Savior either, but it's there. We don't see or hear the angels sweetly singing, but they are there along with archangels and all the company of heaven. We see nothing but Bread and Wine as the wise men saw nothing but a Baby, but they fell down and worshiped as we do because we go by what God has promised and said not but what we see and feel.
The wise men worshiped and then they opened their treasures. They didn't “present” them to Jesus as the NIV says. No, they “offered” them to Him like the Greek says. “Offered” is the word used to describe a gift presented to God. Their gifts were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. What are we to make of this? I have pages of information about this. The hymn “We Three Kings” sums all of it up well. Gold is what was given kings to acknowledge their rein. Frankincense was offered to recognize the presence of God. And myrrh was used to embalm people. So by their gifts, the wise men recognized the Child Jesus as King, and God and Sacrifice for our sins.
What are we to make of this? Is Jesus your king? Is your king one who ruled from a manger and a bloody cross the first time He came, and rules today invisibly from heaven and visibly only through Water, Words, Bread and Wine? In giving our offering, we're saying Jesus is our king. What all the world considers an absolute necessity to live, we give away to our King Jesus. By such offerings, we confess He not money rules our life.
What are we to make of the wise men owning Jesus as God? Is Jesus your God above, besides, beyond which there is no other? In our world and that of the wise men that's quite a confession to make. It is blasphemous to Jews to call any man God. The gods of pagans are always powerful. Yet, these wise men fall down and worshiped a Child. As do we. Jesus is our God though rejected by Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus. We know of no God, we worship no God apart from the flesh and blood of Jesus.
And what are we to make of the wise men giving a Child embalming oil because they knew He would suffer and die for their sins? Above all else we must see Jesus as our sin bearer. We don't give Him myrrh, but we give Him our sins by confessing them to Him. We give them to Him rather than try to excuse them or make up for them. We see Him washing them away in our Baptism, sending them away in our Absolution, and in Communion we hear, see, touch, smell, and taste Him assuring us that His Body and Blood were given and shed to carry our sins away from us..
What are we to make of this 12th night of Christmas? We are to see that the light of Christ which we celebrated on Christmas coming into the world we celebrate today reaching to the ends of the earth making wise men foolish and foolish men wise. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Epiphany of our Lord (1-6-04), Matthew 2:1-12