Ephiphany, 1/7/24, “Stars & Light Illuminate our Lord”
Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The celebration of Epiphany brings with it thoughts of a great star, maybe a super-nova, in the sky over the stable where Jesus lay. And we also think of three visitors from a faraway land following that star; bringing gifts and reverence to a newborn baby. So becoming even more interested in knowing more about this visit, I did some searching and reading.
These visitors from afar were nothing like our own three “Wise Guys” who portrayed these visitors a few weeks back during our Nativity skit. These individuals are actually called “Magi” which is a plural form of Magoi in the Greek language, which designates Zoroastrian priests. These priests were neither kings nor wise men, but did have skills in interpreting dreams, an invaluable skill in Biblical times. (In fact, we can remember the story of Joseph and his own ability to interpret dreams, which influenced the Pharoah during a famine). These priests looked at mysteries of the universe through astronomy, astrology, and natural sciences.
Their belief system was a precursor to Islam. They were also well-known for telling fortunes and preparing daily horoscopes. Zoroaster himself was to have been miraculously conceived in the womb of a 15-year-old Persian virgin, and, like Jesus, started ministry at age 30, after defeating all of Satan’s temptations. He predicted that there would be other virgins who would conceive other divinely appointed prophets. Zoroastrian priests believed that they could foretell these births by reading the stars. And… like the Jews, Zoroastrian priests were anticipating the birth of a “true savior.” It was interesting to read that they had women practitioners of this religion, as well as men. But we hear about them (just as with Jesus’s disciples) with a lens of the patriarchal views of Biblical times.
So now we understand more why these visitors from far away Persia or Arabia were so interested in this star they saw. Since this was after the dispersion, when the Jews were scattered throughout the Roman empire and the East, they would have heard stories of the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning a Messiah. When they began their journey, they did not go directly to Bethlehem, but instead had traveled to Judea and then Jerusalem, where they would have expected a King or Messiah or Savior to be found.
Neither did they go to Rome looking for this King, knowing it was not a secular king, but one to whom they would pay homage as worshipers… and Gentile worshipers, to boot. It was the authorities in Israel who directed them to Bethlehem.
There were also many prophecies they would have heard such as the one in in Micah 5:2… “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me, one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” So, with much information and knowledge, AND guided by a star, they found Jesus in a lowly stable in the city of Bethlehem.
And there is an old joke that states this trio was not “wise” at all, since they came to this first baby shower with gifts that were NOT at all practical for a newborn baby! But the gifts were indeed worthy of a king! Gold… a precious metal and a sign of kingship; Frankincense… a costly and prized fragrance made from trees in Arabia and India which represents wisdom; and Myrrh… an antiseptic anointing oil made from the bushes in Ethiopia and Arabia — also known as an embalming fluid (an interesting insight into Jesus’s future). Myrrh is also, contrastingly and interestingly, a sign of long life and healing.
Matthew uses the story of the Magi to emphasize that Jesus is the true King of the Jews and that he is the descendant of King David… and… superior to all other kings. And the Magi gave him their kingly gifts, and paid homage to this newfound “king” by bowing before him.
Speaking of kings, we hear of King Herod in this Epiphany story. Herod, an Edomite, is the leader of the Jews at this time. He was famous for his building projects (such as the palace and the temple) but was also known for his great cruelty to anyone who even slightly disagreed with him, or could challenge his leadership. Thus, there was great fear of him; and living under his rule for the Jews was not easy. And even the news of a “new king” brought great anxiety to the Jews, as they knew this would provoke Herod into a frenzy. And indeed, Herod was extremely angry, but surprisingly also afraid of news of this new “king.” As observers, we wonder at his fear, since he held so much power. But Herod would have known this new king was one who was prophesized in ancient texts, and would be acknowledged as king by the Jews and the Gentile Magi from afar. And… this child-king would be ruling under the authority of God!
Unlike Herod, whose “strings” of authority were held by Roman leaders more powerful than he was. In fact, he is so filled with so much anxiety about the news from the Magi that he fabricates a story about wanting to “pay homage” to this new king and asks them to return and tell him where this “king” can be found. Imagine this small baby, creating this immense fear in such a powerful man. Fortunately, and as we can expect from God, the Magi are warned also in a dream not to return to Herod, nor give him any information concerning Jesus. And true to the horror that surrounds him, and the anxiety of the Jews, Herod displays his anger and disregard for anything not connected to him alone. He commits what has become known as the “murder of the innocents.” He orders the death of all male infants in Bethlehem who are under two years old.
This part of the story also tells us that the Magi did not arrive on the heels of the shepherds, as we hear in many Nativity Stories, but arrived years later, as the order came for children two and under. It took the Magi that long to find Jesus; they probably saw him as a child and not a babe.
But the main character in this story is God. Immanuel, “God With Us”, coming into the world for us and our salvation.
· God - ensuring His Only Son would be born to the Virgin Mary.
· Who had an angel declare to Mary that she would be the mother of the Messiah.
· Who told Joseph in a dream what would happen, and that he needed to take Mary as his wife.
· Who showed the world, by his choice of a city and stable, that Jesus came for all, and particularly for the poor and the downtrodden.
· Who sent a “multitude of angels” to lowly shepherds, who were then sent to “Go and See.”
· Who helped the Magi find Jesus and warn them in a dream not to confide in Herod.
· Whose prophets foretold this whole story to generations of His people.
· Who sent another dream to Joseph to flee to Egypt with Mary and their Son.
· Who would show us through Jesus’s ministry and teachings how we should live and how we should seek Him always.
· And most importantly, who knew what we would do to his Son and in spite of ourselves, who would give us the greatest gifts of all through His own death – everlasting life, peace and joy, forgiveness, HOPE, and a promise that He would be with us ALWAYS!
THANKS BE TO GOD!