Audio OnlyJANUARY 6TH, 2018 PASTOR DON PIEPER
EPIPHANY SUNDAY Isaiah 60:1-6/Matt. 2:1-12
“WHAT AN EPIPHANY!”
In the opening verse of Matthew 2, we're informed that “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem..., wise men from the east arrived in Jerusalem, asking about the whereabouts of the newborn king...”
Okay, hold on, how do we know these guys were so wise? Did they pass a bar exam or go to wise guy school or something? I remember being called a “wise guy” when I was a kid – but it never sounded like a compliment! So is it an I.Q. thing or is there some kind of formal education required?
I'm not the first person to wonder about this. Cartoonists and critics have been musing for years:
As one critic put it, “What’s so wise about three grown men, wandering around in the dark, claiming
to follow some star? Doesn’t sound very wise to me!” In a cartoon from 11 years ago...:
Mary: Frankinsence and myrrh? What the heck am I going to do with frankinsence and myrrh? If they're such wise men they could have at least come bearing a couple of gift certificates!
Another cartoonist explored the untold story of the three wise women. After the three wise men left, the three wiser women arrived, bringing more pragmatic gifts of fresh diapers, casseroles and lots of formula. There's also this one, that my Dad sent me on Facebook a couple of weeks ago...
Caspar: Right. We've picked up the gold and myrrh...., but what on earth is THAT?!
So who were these guys? Our current understanding has been shaped and colored by additional
sources outside of the Bible causing no small degree of confusion about who these “wise guys” really were. Fact is, much about them is shrouded in mystery. Matthew's the only gospel writer who provides us any information about them and even here, it is rather limited. For instance, contrary to popular belief, we don’t actually know who these guys were. Tradition tells us their names were Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar but those names don’t appear anywhere in Scripture.
We also don’t know where they are from exactly. Matthew tells us they came from the east – but where exactly: Arabia, Mesopotamia, China, India, Chimacum? We don’t know. Films and greeting cards depict the magi arriving that first Christmas Eve but it’s apparent that they don’t arrive till later.
For one thing, Matthew tells us that they arrived in Jerusalem first, but not until after Jesus was born. Matthew also tells us that when they do arrive in Bethlehem that “they entered the house where the child and his mother were.” (Matthew 2:11) So by the time they arrive Joseph has obviously moved his young family from the stable to a house. We've also been led to believe that there were three magi but Matthew doesn’t say that either. He mentions that they brought three gifts from which the ancients assumed that there must have been three wise men. Maybe there was a fourth wise man...
Magi: “I, the Fourth Wise Man, bring fruitcake...” (That explains it...!)
Matthew’s reference to their coming from the east suggests that these “wise men” came from a number of places spread out over a vast area. The prophecy from Isaiah 60 also suggests that these wise men traveled in a caravan that would’ve included not only camels for their gifts and food but also for their armed escort, a necessity to insure safety from bandits and thieves, in light of the treasures they bore. Chances are there were quite a few more than three magi on the scene that night.
So there are unresolved questions, wrapped in mystery, questions about who these wise men were and where they specifically came from. But still, there is much we do know. We know they are not of the Jewish faith evident in that they do not claim this newborn king of the Jews as their king nor do they know the biblical prophecies. We also know that they are students of the stars, as they declare: “We saw his star, (the star of the newborn king of the Jews), as it rose in the east.” (Matthew 2:2)
That is, they've been tracking that star for some time. We know that they are esteemed men of means as the Jewish King, Herod Antipas, welcomes them to his court. We know they come bearing gifts fit for a king and come seeking to find that new born king in the nation’s capital..., and that they're as surprised as any to find this king, not born to royalty in the palace, but to a couple of refugees!
So there is, in fact, much we do know about these mysterious magi, as they're identified in the original Greek New Testament. But still, we have yet to resolve the question: “What’s so wise about these wise men, these star-studying magi from the east?”
We cannot answer that question based on our knowledge of their past. We just don’t have enough information. But three things we do know, about these mag-nan'-imous magi, point to their divine wisdom, the first of which being their inclination for investigation. That is, they're seekers...!
These students of the stars have stumbled upon something. Astronomers today know that what they observed was an alignment of the planets Jupiter & Venus and Regulus – an event that only takes place once every three thousand years and did, in fact, occur around the time history has identified as “the year of the Lord”. Such an alignment would’ve been very bright indeed and would explain a lot!
This cosmic and historical event was the theme of an annual showing at the Planetarium in Chicago when I was growing up. More recently, it was covered in the film, The Nativity....
[DVD clip from the film, The Nativity; ]
Having seen something in their star search these seekers from the east decide to investigate further. What’s noteworthy is the fact that they conduct this investigation themselves. That was not typical. When Queen Isabella sought a new trade route to the Indies she didn’t hop on a ship and set sail, she sent Columbus. When King Herod wanted to seek the Christ child out to kill him he didn’t go himself he sent out his troops. When Thomas Jefferson wanted to find a trade route across the Ameri-can wilderness, he didn’t jump on his horse and take off, he sent Lewis and Clark and the Corps....
Not so with the magi. They sense something big is going down. They interpret what they see in the night time sky as a clue that a king is to be born, and not just any king, but a king of kings. So what do they do? Do they make room in their daily planner to attend the next symposium on the mysteries of the cosmos? Do they hire a Corps of Discovery to send out on their behalf? No, they grab some camels, don some sporty traveling attire and head off to investigate this mystery themselves!
That is indeed wise. And we do well to do likewise. Too often we get so caught up in the business of life that we don’t pause to investigate life’s greatest mysteries: Why am I here? Does my life serve some greater purpose? Is there more to life than this?
[* Alpha DVD promo]
Like these three young stars of the U.K. we’d do well to investigate such timeless questions. Who knows, your investigation, as it did with the magi, may lead you to a life changing insight or experience! If you have yet to take Alpha, or have and seek renewed connection, come join us! After all, as it has been said, wise men – and women – still seek him!
So curious, so eager, to experience something deeper in life than what they’ve known so far, the wisdom of the magi is manifested in how far they went out of their way to connect with the Creator of the cosmos, the God who places clues before us that there's more to life than we can imagine.
A second thing we know about them is that this discovery had a profound impact on them. Matthew reports that, “After their meeting with King Herod, the wise men went their way, and the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem... When they saw the star, they were filled with great joy, as it led them to the place where the child was.” (Matthew 2:9-10)
Such is the experience of those who realize that they're being led...., and that which they long to know and experience at the deepest part of their soul is actually true! God does exist. And more than that we exist because He exists and we exist that we may seek him and finding him come to know that we matter not because of the things we do or don't do but because He loves us so much that He sent his one and only son, that whoever should place their hope and trust in him, may live a life of significance!
Realizing that God was leading them to this discovery of a lifetime brought great joy indeed!
As the apostle Paul declared to the Greek seekers in Athens: “God's purpose is for the peoples of the nations to seek after Him and feel their way toward Him and find him – though he is not far from any one of us... For God has set a day for judging the world with justice by the man He has appointed, and He proved to everyone who this is by raising him from the dead!” (Acts 17:27,31)
The wise men did just that! They went out of their way to seek after him, and in so doing set out with one purpose in mind – to bring gifts to this new born king and to worship him. That's the third thing we know about these mysterious magi, these wise men from the east.
The magi were wise because somehow they got it! Even though they knew little to nothing of the Bible nor the prophecies about a royal birth in Bethlehem, yet they still recognized a God moment was on the horizon and they pursued it with everything they had! They came to worship him as an act of humility and to give it up for the king of kings! Worship, after all, is not about us. It's all about lending our voices and our gifts and abilities, in union with others, to glorify and magnify the Lord.
As Mary so beautifully put it: “Oh, how my soul magnifies the Lord! How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For the Mighty One is holy and He has done great things for me!” (Luke 1:46f)
We, too, can follow in the footsteps of the magi, those wise men from afar who let it all go - all the stress, and distractions, and self-indulgence, and unforgiven hurts - and let it all go. They came to give it up....and to gain a kingdom! They came to worship the newborn king. They did this not only in spoken and sung words of praise but also by offering their gifts to His service. In the original Greek this is made clear by the fact that their gift-giving and their praise was all one sentence!
“And coming into the house, they saw the child and Mary his mother, and bowing down they worshiped him, offering to him their treasures of gold, frankinsence and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11) They gave him their all – contributing as well as praising! Even now, there's time to do the same!