8 January 2017
Text: Matt 2:1-12
In the name of + Jesus. Amen.
Every warrior, every strategist, every military historian knows about “the element of surprise.” The Lord Jesus invaded enemy territory not by means of a bombastic wind, a raging fire, or by a terrifying earthquake, but in something even better hidden than the “still small voice” that Elijah heard when God came to him.
For God came to us as a microscopic, single human cell miraculously fertilized and implanted in the womb of a virgin. He grew there in the safest palace of all, and was born in an obscure village, announced only to a few shepherds.
But God allowed the good news to slip out, and by means of signs in the sky, the announcement of the birth of the Messiah, the King, God in the Flesh, the One who has come to slay the devil and restore mankind to life, word was sent to “wise men from the east” – magi, men of great wisdom who were familiar with ancient Jewish prophecies as well as knowing how to read the signs in the sky – received this revelation, this Epiphany of Jesus.
They followed the extraordinary star that led them to the baby King, to Him “who was born King of the Jews.” And in their familiarity with the Old Testament Scriptures of the Jews who lived many generations in the east, they knew that they had to “worship Him.”
And so, dear friends, it was time for the gloves to come off, the troops were moved out into the open, the battle lines have been drawn, and it is time to commence firing in this war between good and evil.
The evil Herod, a half-breed Jew who stole the birthright of the kingdom by currying favor with the dreaded Romans, was “troubled.” And he should have been. For he was an impostor, a poser, an oppressor of, and traitor to, his own people. The real King has been born, and the real King is coming for the throne.
So the malignant pretender drew his dagger. And for once, the impostor king opened the scrolls of the Bible – not to hear the Word of the Lord, but in order to try to silence the Word by the sword. He learned that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. So he knew where to send his forces. He knew where the opening battle of open warfare would play out.
And he deceitfully sweet-talked the wise men, encouraging them to “go and search diligently for the child… that I too may worship Him.”
Of course, the alleged king had no such intention. The magi were “warned in a dream” not to pass this intelligence back to Herod. And this bought time for a brilliant maneuver to evade the attack. Sadly, the attack was waged against the Holy Innocents, boys under the age of two, who were slaughtered as what would be called today “collateral damage,” civilians in the war caught in the crossfire.
But the wise men came to the baby Jesus, and they did indeed “fell down and worshiped Him.” For He is the true King who has come to topple an even more pretentious pretender: Satan, the illegitimate prince of this world, the deceiver, the father of lies, the serpent, the accuser, the one who brought death to all of mankind and all of creation.
Satan mustered Herod and his cold-blooded murderers to do his bidding. But he was to be outflanked by the King of the Universe who has come to reclaim His throne.
And in case there is any doubt about the recognition of the King by the magi, they came bearing regal gifts: “gold and frankincense and myrrh.”
Gold is the stuff of kings. It was more precious than any other known metal of the day. It was fashioned into expensive jewelry. It was cut into bars and stamped into coins – usually bearing the image of a king – for trade. The bearer of gold was the owner of wealth. It was made into crowns so that all the world can see who the king is.
Frankincense and myrrh were even pricier than gold. These are rare resins painstakingly drawn out of specific trees in the far east. They are burned, and the oils emit not only a beautiful aroma, but these resins have medicinal value as anti-inflammatories that increase longevity.
Frankincense has a sharp aroma, calling to mind the sharp word of the Law as proclaimed by the prophets. Myrrh has a sweeter smell, reminding us of the work of the Old Testament priests in the temple, who offered sacrifices as a sweet-smelling aroma to the Lord, whose forgiveness is sweet to mankind.
And in these three gifts, we see a public and open confession of the Christ Child in His triple office: Prophet, Priest, King, receiving frankincense, myrrh, and gold.
The element of surprise is over. The revelation of Jesus Christ as Messiah, the promised Savior of mankind and restorer of the universe, is hidden no more. Epiphany means a revealing, a shining forth, and the days of the silent Word secreted away in the womb are over and done. The days of baby Jesus being spirited away to Egypt to escape Herod’s dagger are likewise in the past.
And the ultimate epiphany of who Jesus is was revealed at the cross, dear friends. For above the sacred head of Jesus was a declaration for all the world to see: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” The King willingly swapped a crown of gold for a crown of thorns. The Prophet chanted the sharp, bittersweet aroma of Psalm 22 upon the cross: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me” as He suffered and died while fulfilling all prophecies in His own flesh and blood. The Priest offered the sweet-smelling sacrifice of the “Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world,” a perfect oblation offered to the Father on our behalf, sprinkling the Lamb’s blood upon the ground, the same ground containing the remains of every dead man and woman from Adam and Eve to the present day. The Priest offered forgiveness from His cross: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
And from the cross, the Prophet, Priest, and King spoke as a triumphant general: “τετέλεσται!” “Mission Accomplished!” – usually translated into English rather weekly as “It is finished.” He completed the mission, crushed the head of the serpent, atoned for all sin, and destroyed the power of death by death. And death itself could not hold Him, for He was to rise again in the ultimate Epiphany of Easter.
For the greatest surprise of all is the conquest of the cross and the triumphant celebration of the resurrection. And for two thousand years, churches have been places of gold, myrrh, and frankincense, places of the Prophet, Priest, and King, places where wise men and women continue to fall down and worship Him, places where death is still crushed, where sins are still forgiven, and where the Word of God – both the sharpness of the Law and the sweetness of the Gospel are still proclaimed.
And though the element of surprise is over for the devil and his minions, the grace of God continues to surprise and amaze us, dear friends, even as we continue to bring our gifts to our King, offered in thanksgiving for His ministry as the ultimate Prophet, Priest, and King who gives us even greater gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
This is our ongoing Epiphany of Jesus Christ, our Lord, and we will bask in the Light of Christ until He comes again in glory. Amen.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.