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The celebration of Epiphany commemorates the visitation of the Magi who came to pay homage to the King of the Jews. Some call it, “The Festival of Three Kings.” But they were probably not actually kings. And no one can be sure how many there actually were. So, a better name for this night would be “The Adoration of the Magi” or simply, “The Epiphany of Our Lord.”
There’s a lot of discussion about who these ‘wise men’ actually were and what they actually did and where they were actually from. Once you get that settled, then there’s even more discussion about the astronomical nature of the ‘star’ that alerted them to the birth of the Christ. I think in the past, I’ve dragged you through a lot of that, and I apologize. Because whether these visitors were “wise men,” (the word in the Greek is “Magi”) or kings, or which country to the East they were from, is not something that makes much difference to the real point of it all, at least as far as I can tell. It is where they do not come from and who they are not that is significant here. That they were either “Magi” or “Kings” “from the east” tells us that they were not from Israel and that they were not Jews, at least not by birth.
They were gentiles. In the Greek, the word is “ethnos,” from which we get the word “ethnic.” “Ethnic” food is food that is foreign. In the Hebrew, the word is “goieem.” In both Old and New Testaments, the word is frequently translated by the English word, “nations.” The “nations” are the ‘gentiles,’ the ‘non-Jews.’ When Jesus sends His disciples out to baptize “all nations,” it’s the gentiles that He is sending them go to and bring to Him.
The “gentiles” are those people who are not Jewish by birth. Gentiles cannot trace their biological family tree back to Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. The Muslims trace their family tree back to Abraham but, through Ishmael and not Isaac and Jacob. God made it clear that Israel was the nation through which the Messiah would come. Israel was the “chosen nation” which the Lord God shepherded, protected, and blessed.
It’s not that God didn’t care about the other nations and races of people. He did and does. He appointed Israel to be a “light to the NATIONS,” something that corresponds exactly with Jesus’ sending of the disciples out to “all nations” to baptize and teach. Israel was to be a light to the gentiles, and they were to bring the gentiles to the God of Israel.
The fact that so much in the Old Testament points to the gathering of the NATIONS, the gentiles, to the Lord, may come as a bit of a surprise. Maybe we thought that the God’s missionary zeal didn’t begin until the day of Pentecost when people from every nation were gathered in Jerusalem and heard the sound of the gospel preached in their own language.
In Genesis 12, God makes His great covenant with Abraham and says, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you ALL THE FAMILIES OF THE EARTH shall be blessed.” (3)
Throughout the Psalms, there is both surprise and wonder at how active God is among the nations. “All the nations you have made, shall come and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.” (Psalm 86:9_
The prophets repeatedly point to the gathering of the nations to worship the Lord, God almighty. The prophet Isaiah writes in chapter 2, “It shall come to pass in the later days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains… and ALL THE NATIONS shall flow to it and MANY PEOPLES shall come…” (2).
In chapter 11 he writes, “In that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal for THE PEOPLES – of him shall THE NATIONS inquire…” (10).
As we already heard, from chapter 49, “I will make you as a light TO THE NATIONS, that my salvation may reach to the END OF THE EARTH.” “Behold, THEY SHALL COME FROM AFAR….” (6,12).
From chapter 60, “AND NATIONS shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” (3). And this is just a sampling of the hundreds of references of the gathering of the gentiles to the Lord, God almighty.
One of the great frustrations of the Old Testament is that Israel is not the light to the nations that it should be. They somehow got the idea that since God had chosen them to be His special people that that meant that He rejected everyone else. So the gathering of the gentiles to the God of Israel, who as they confessed and truly believed, is the only true God, is disappointing at best.
But now, when the time had fully come, God sent His Son into the world. And Jesus Christ is the New Israel. Israel, the true Israel, Israel as God intended Israel to be, was all wrapped up in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger in the little town of Bethlehem. And immediately we see Him being the “light to the nations” that Israel was meant to be. First it’s the lowly shepherds who come to Jesus. Then it’s the foreigners who come to Jesus. Israel is drawing the nations to the Lord.
The visitation of the Magi marks the beginning of the gathering of the gentiles to the Lord. And this remains a dominant theme throughout the New Testament. We typically think that Matthew’s gospel is written to the Jews, but look how he begins his account of Jesus Christ with the arrival of the gentiles from the east to worship Jesus. And ends his gospel with the sending out of the disciples to ALL NATIONS that they may worship Jesus. Any gentiles who read Matthew’s gospel have got to be impressed with Jesus’ interest in them.
In his gospel, St. John reports, that during Holy Week, some Greeks who were in Jerusalem for the Passover came to the disciple Philip and said, “sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Philip ran and told Andrew and they both told Jesus and Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:22-23). The gentiles were seeking Him just as the Magi had.
Sometime after the day of Pentecost, Peter was preaching the gospel to a gathering of Jews and Gentiles in the home of a man named Cornelius, a gentile. Luke reports, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on ALL who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised (that is, the Jews) who had come with Peter were amazed, (why were they amazed?) because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. And Peter commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” (Acts 10:44-46)
The reason why we are belaboring this point about the gentiles is because this is what makes the Epiphany so important and wonderful for you and me. For we are gentiles by birth, outsiders by nature, and foreigners to the kingdom of God. We are the ones whom St. Paul was talking about in his letter to the Ephesians when he wrote, “You were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you once walked, following the course of this world… remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near…” (Eph.2:1,12).
And look, here we are, worshiping the One, true God, Jesus Christ, whom we call, our Lord. The visitation of the Magi marks the beginning of this wonderful gathering of nations to worship Jesus Christ.
We also want to touch on what it was that motivated these wise men to undertake such a journey. It was the sighting of a star. “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
This may sound a little strange at first. But when we consider that eastern nations like Persia and Babylon were known for their astrologers who charted the pattern of the stars and traced out their movements in the sky, its not hard for us to understand how they may have identified that something unusual was taking place.
But why did the associated this astronomical phenomena with the birth of the King of the Jews? This may not be too hard for us to understand either, when we remember that it was Babylon, that conquered Israel and transported the Israelites to Babylon in the 6th century BC. One of those exiles was a young man named Daniel who was appointed by the king of Babylon to oversee the work of the astronomers. In Daniel, chapter 2, we read, “Then the king placed Daniel in a high position…and placed him in charge of all its MAGI.”
And don’t you just think that this holy and devout man of God would have told them about the coming of a great king of the Jews? And if there was one prophesy in particular that would have certainly stuck with these stargazers, it would have surely been the prophesy of Balaam, who said, “I see him, but not now; I behold him but not near: A STAR SHALL COME OUT OF ISRAEL, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel, and it shall crush the forehead of His enemies.” (Numbers 24:17). Don’t you think that that would have registered with them? So, 600 years later, when they saw an strange star in the sky, they took it to be “His star.” And they went to Jerusalem to pay homage to the King of the Jews.
To the shepherds in the fields outside of Bethlehem, God sent His angels and the “GLORY OF THE LORD shone around them.” But to these foreigners from the east, God devotes a star to announce His coming and to call them to Himself.
40 days after Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph came to the Temple for the rite of purification. A priest on duty named Simeon, took the baby from their arms into his and declared, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all people, A LIGHT FOR REVELATION TO THE GENTILES AND FOR GLORY TO YOUR PEOPLE ISRAEL.” (Luke 2:32).
This bright light that draws men to the Christ is the theme of Epiphany. Jesus declares, “I am the light of the world.” (Jn. 8:12). He is the light that God spoke into the world in the beginning. “Let there be light! And there was light.”
He is the light that burst upon Saul as he was riding to Damascus that converted Saul to Paul who became the great apostle to the gentiles. ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 13:44).
It is still the same light that shines into the darkness and draws us to Jesus as it was for the Magi. But today we don’t look to the stars to lead us to Christ. In fact, today we say, stay away from horoscopes and astrology if you’re looking for the one, true God.
Today, we look only to the Word of God, which ultimately is also what led the Magi to Jesus. The star told the to go to Israel, and where else would you go to find the King of the Jews but to the capitol – Jerusalem? But once in Jerusalem, it was by the searching of the Scriptures that they were told where they could find the Christ.
The Psalmist declares, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Ps.119:105). Pointing us to something far more authoritative than a star in the sky, St. Peter declares, “We have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2Peter 1:19).
Today, we celebrate the visitation of the Magi. We give thanks to God that the light of His Christ has shined in our hearts and led us to worship Him. We pray that we may be a light to the gentiles in this community in which we have been placed, that they too would be drawn to come and worship the King of the Jews.