Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Matthew 2:1-12 after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'” 7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
This is a truly terrifying and yet a comforting Gospel: terrifying to the great, the learned, the holy, the mighty, because they despise Christ. Comforting to the lowly and the rejected to whom alone Christ is revealed.
There are three main characters in this narrative: the Magi, king Herod, and the Star. The Magi are the first gentiles to physically come to the Christ. This signifies the spiritual coming to which our epistle reading refers. They are the lowly to whom Christ alone is revealed; all true believers for whom the birth of a King fills them with joy and awe.
These pious magi left their land, their homes, their possessions and disregarded them all so that they might come and find Christ. These are the ones who courageously confess Christ and his truth in spite of what their eyes see; in the face of opposition and ridicule from the world around them. Yes, even in the midst of their own troubles and sufferings at home.
They saw his Star when it appeared to them in the eastern land from which they had come. To them the Star was a sign, and they used it for just that, a sign that God had designated. Unlike so many of us today, they didn’t look for scientific explanations, understanding, or reason. They didn’t write it off as global warming or a Russian plot. They understood it for what it was, a new Star that God had created as a sign of the birth of his Son, the eternal King, the creator of the stars and sun and moon. It is a new and different Star unlike any other you have ever heard or known before. It didn’t make any difference to them if there were some natural explanation, such as a comet or conjunction of the planets or any of the other of the scientific speculations you can hear about at the Adler Planetarium’s annual Christmas Star program. That was not the point. Just as the sun and moon and stars were first created for signs and for seasons and for days and years, so this Star, whether it be a natural phenomenon, or a miraculous event, was a sign from the creator of the birth of His Son.
They saw the Star in the eastern lands in which they lived, be that Persia, Arabia, or Babylon. It appeared when they were still at home and so they left for the Land of the Jews in search for a new king. They did not see the Star again until they departed Jerusalem on their way to Bethlehem. How did they recognize this sign? I do not know. Perhaps they had read from the Jewish scriptures the words of Balaam that say, “A star shall come forth out of Jacob.” No matter how, it was by divine revelation that they understood the sign.
But whatever, they were thinking of a King in the normal sense of a temporal king and for this reason, after the Star appeared and then went away, they headed toward Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish nation. For surely, if a king were born it would be in the palace, with all the splendor of a royal court.
But when Herod the king heard this, he was troubled and all Jerusalem with him. Why should this trouble him? After all, the Israelites were waiting for Christ whom God had promised them. The humble and pious were waiting for him with great expectation and like Simeon and Anna were glad when they foresaw his coming.
But the powerful, the learned, the rulers, the great were greatly afflicted. Herod had much reason to fear. He was a foreigner and had made himself unpopular with the Jews. This new King might spur a revolt and possibly lead to his assassination. And the Israelites feared Herod and the Romans. Rather than trust God, rather than rejoice in the fulfillment of his promise, they were terrified at the prospect of rebellion and bloodshed. Just as those who reject the Christ today must be mortified at the promise of an eternal judgment at the coming of Christ.
So, Herod assembled all the chief priests and scribes and inquired of them where this King was to be born. They searched the scriptures and there it is told he is to be born in Bethlehem of Judea. Now here we might wonder why Christ did not lead the magi to Bethlehem with the Star, but instead permitted them to lose their way and wind up in Jerusalem. It was so that his birth would be searched for in scripture. He did this to teach us to cling to scripture and not to follow our own presumptuous ideas or any human teaching. For we are far more inclined to seek spiritual advice from other sources, from the writings of men, from the wisdom of scholars, and from the knowledge of science than we are to seek Christ in scripture and trust the Word of God when what it says is different from what our eyes see. For it is not God’s desire to give us his scripture in vain. It is in scripture and nowhere else that he permits himself to be found. For who despises scripture and sets it aside will never find him. As Jesus himself says, “They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them. They will not be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
Hence, the magi were carefully prevented from finding Christ by their own efforts or with the aid of men or philosophy or science. They found him solely because of the prophetic, written word, and the star that shone from heaven, in order that all natural knowledge and all human reason might be rejected and repudiated except that which comes through the Spirit and grace.
The magi teach us true faith. After they had heard the sermon and the word of the prophet, they were neither slothful nor slow to believe. Apart from scripture they would have surely despaired of their quest to find the new born babe. Note the obstacles they faced. First of all they suffered the perils and difficulties of a journey of several months. Then they were led astray and were off the mark and came to Jerusalem. In the meantime, the star had disappeared. When they arrived in the capital city where surely a new born king would be found amidst great jubilee and celebration, they found the people there ignorant of any birth of a king. Instead of celebration, they found only fear and terror at the prospect of his birth. And when they departed on their journey to Bethlehem, instead of the people, the princes, the rulers, and the priests and scribes going along to greet and worship this new born king as would have been expected, no one from Jerusalem even bothered to go see their own king. It must have seemed strange to them. A king is supposed to have been born, and yet all is quiet here. If they were guided by human reason would they not have said, “Alas, in vain we travelled so far; the star deceived us, it was a phantom. But our star disappears and even his own people do not know of him. What a poor king do we seek. We are fools for allowing ourselves to be so deceived and duped.”
Still, rather than turn away, they battled and struggled to hold onto the word of the prophets. God then met them and gave strength through the star which again went before them.
Ah, what faith that was! How many thought that these were the greatest of fools who worship such a poor infant! Just as many call us fools today who worship a baby in a manger at Christmas.
What then is the spiritual meaning of this Gospel for the Christian today? It is this, that the natural birth of Christ speaks of his spiritual birth in us and ours in Him through the Word of God in Baptism. This gospel shows us the nature both of the word of God and of faith, and the trials and struggles of faith. For here we see how these men cling to the Word of God when all the world goes the opposite direction. When all the visible evidence points away from the Christ, faith points us to his cross and the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
What is the meaning of the Star to the true believer? It is none other than the new light, it is preaching and the gospel, it is the oral and public preaching. Christ has two witnesses to his birth and his kingdom. The one is scripture, the word comprehended in letters of the alphabet. The other is the voice of the words proclaimed by the mouth of men. Paul and Peter call this same word a light and a lamp. We cannot understand scripture unless the light shines. For by the gospel the prophets are illuminated so that Star must rise first and be seen. The Star signifies oral preaching and the bright revelation of Christ who is hidden and promised in scripture. This gospel teaches nothing but Christ, revealed and known to us in the Scriptures.
The coming of the magi and their quest for the new king show us nothing else than that the gentiles are enlightened by the gospel and come into the Christian church to seek Christ. Jerusalem is a figure of the Christian church where the Scriptures are searched and read, and the Sacraments are given to us which is the birthplace of Christ in us.
And Herod signifies those who, though they may attempt to appear pious and holy, despise both Christ and his word. He shows us the fear of death and eternal damnation that reigns in the hearts of those who do not seek the King of kings.
Cling, then, to the light of the Star which shines in your hearts through the Scriptures. And though you think you have lost the way and have been led by the deception of this world to the wrong place, the Gospel of Jesus Christ will fill you with peace and lead you on that way which is Jesus Christ himself. Amen.