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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 01/06/2011

The story of the Wise Men is at the center of Matthew’s telling of the nativity story.  For Luke, the first ones to come and worship Jesus are the shepherds, but for Matthew it’s the Wise Men, the Magi, and it is they who follow the star; the shepherds didn’t need guidance, they already knew the way to Bethlehem but the Wise Men followed the star which becomes one of our primary Christmas symbols.  It is a wonderful story and it’s one of those around which there is much legendary material especially concerning the identity of the Wise Men, their names, where they’re from and so forth.  The biblical details are much more limited such that we’re not even told that there are three Wise Men; that comes out of the fact that there are three gifts but, as long as it’s recognized as such the legendary material adds color to the overall story.

The day is called the Epiphany of our Lord and Epiphany means appearance or manifestation or revelation, to be made known, so regardless of whether we just consider the biblical evidence or if we include the legendary material along with it, either way the question becomes what is revealed or made known and what is our response?

The obvious short answer to the question of what is revealed is that the child, Jesus is revealed as the Messiah.  For the Wise Men, it is their observation of the stars that has told them this or at least has told them that the king of the Jews has been born; they might not have known much about Jewish expectation of a Messiah.  Their assumption though, was that such a child must be born in Jerusalem, the royal city of David, so they went there only to be told by those who knew more about such things than they did that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem at which point they looked back at the stars and saw that the star they had observed announcing the birth would lead them to the exact place where this child was, and so they went.

So the child Jesus was revealed to the Wise Men as the Messiah…but we already knew that.  Actually, Matthew’s audience already knew that too.  Jesus is announced as the Messiah in the first verse of the gospel at the beginning of the genealogy and is identified as the Messiah again at the end of the genealogy.  Jesus’ birth is also announced by Matthew as the birth of Jesus the Messiah; so in chapter 1 that fact is pretty well established.  What Matthew’s original audience perhaps didn’t know and what we still can struggle with, is that Jesus is the Messiah for all people and that is one of the key revelations concerning this story. 

The assumption is that Matthew’s audience was primarily Jewish, but in his telling of the story, other than Mary and Joseph, the first people to whom the identity of Jesus was revealed were these foreign kings or Wise Men who weren’t Jewish.  That detail makes this an event that has meaning for all people as the arrival of the Wise Men signals that boundaries have been crossed, boundaries of traditional faith as well as national and ethnic boundaries.  This represents a major challenge to the prevailing wisdom of the day and is also part of the central epiphany of this story, that this child is the Messiah and that he is the Messiah for all people.

The idea of Jesus as the Messiah for all people is still something of a struggle for some; there always seem to be those who want to limit Jesus’ role and I get the idea that Matthew expected his readers to struggle as he builds tension about this into his gospel.   In this Epiphany story Gentiles are the first ones to know the identity of Jesus and in some parts of the gospel Jesus is quite willing to cross the aforementioned boundaries of religion and ethnicity and nationality.  But in other parts of the gospel Jesus  tells the disciples to stay away from the Gentiles and only go to the lost sheep of Israel.  When the Canaanite woman comes for healing he tells her that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.  There’s inconsistency about this built into the gospel so I think it is something Matthew knew would be a challenge, something that he expects us to wrestle with and come to terms with.

With Jesus identified as the Messiah for all people, the second part of the question is what then is our response?  The traditional focus of this story tends to be on the Wise Men and the three gifts and while that isn’t a bad focus it can cause us to miss the answer to the response question, that answer centered in a phrase that (speaking of threes) appears three times in the text.  That phrase is “pay him homage.”  In Greek it’s only one word and in the old Revised Standard Version it was translated as worship, but in the New RSV they changed it to pay him homage in order to emphasize the physical nature of what this word means as the Greek word was used to describe the custom of prostrating oneself at the feet of a king; worship included that physical action. 

In this story, this action is mentioned three times.  When the Wise Men arrive in Jerusalem they announce that they have come to pay homage to the new king.  Herod then says, “When you find him, let me know so I can pay him homage,” which of course was a lie, and when the Wise Men do arrive in Bethlehem, they do what they said, they kneel down and pay homage.  It’s only then that they give the gifts, the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 

That might seem like a minor detail, but the order has significance, homage first and gifts second.  The Wise Men start with worship.  They establish their relationship to the Christ by kneeling and paying homage to him.  In this physical act of worship they offer themselves first; only then do they offer their gifts.

As the Christmas season liturgically ends tonight we have this reminder of worship first, followed by gift giving.  It’s a reminder that might have been more appropriate back at the beginning of Advent or whenever people started their Christmas shopping.  I’m sure a lot of people have no idea that the tradition of giving gifts at Christmas comes from the gifts of the Wise Men but even more significant than that you know that for many worship is completely absent from Christmas gift giving.  The giving of gifts can be a beautiful thing all by itself but when it is a response to worship, when it’s tied to thanksgiving for receiving the gift of a savior, when that connection is made it becomes an even more beautiful thing.

That connection is what is highlighted in this story we hear tonight.  Worship first, then gifts.  The first response to the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah is worship and that is why, in my opinion, worship ought to be the central activity of any church and why worship also ought to be central to the life of anyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ.  All else flows from that.  For all those people who say “I can worship God without going to church,” that may be true, but I doubt it.  The question for them is, “You can, but do you?”

For the Wise Men though, they did worship, they did pay homage to the Christ child.  You could say that they presented four gifts, not three.  The first gift was their worship in which before anything else, they offered themselves.  We can’t offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child, but we can offer our worship, we can offer ourselves; and so we do.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
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not me
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one who
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