Light Shines on All

Text: Matthew 2:1-12
Date: The Epiphany of Our Lord + 1/6/13

Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! When the magi from the east came to acknowledge the newborn King of the Jews it was not a summit of three or four kings but only one: the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Of course there was another king lurking in the background, an evil and ruthless king named Herod. But that king did not come in the name of the Lord. So today we hear the Word of the Lord that says it is only through King Jesus that “Light Shines on All.”

On Christmas Eve you began the twelve days by lighting small candles. This had significance far more than merely providing a cozy, nighttime atmosphere. For the appearance of the Savior began to show, as Saint Paul said it, “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). Now after the twelve days of Christmas on the Epiphany of Our Lord we hear of the magi from the east drawn and led by the light of a star. In this mysterious event, reported only by St. Matthew, we learn that true faith and worship come only as a result of the light of the revelation of God. St. John said it most famously and powerfully in the first chapter of his Gospel:

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (John 1:4-9)

The Epiphany of Our Lord, always on January 6, has fallen on a Sunday only six times[1] now since my ordination as a pastor (1979). Though in previous congregations we would gather for the Divine Service on this date whenever it happened to fall during the week every year, fewer people generally attend than on a Sunday. So we have had few opportunities to preach on these texts from Isaiah 60 and Matthew 2.

John Henry Hopkins, Jr.’s carol, “We Three Kings,” has never appeared in an orthodox Lutheran hymnal. Though it is a popular Christmas song, it seems to be the primary reason certain unbiblical details have been lodged in peoples’ minds. For there were not necessarily three but could have been two, three, four or more visitors from the east. All agree they were most certainly not kings but sorcerers, astrologers or practitioners of occult learning who often served in royal courts. Furthermore they were not necessarily “wise” in any learning that has to do with truth or religious faith. In fact that would lead to the exact opposite of what the Evangelist wishes to communicate here.

The point of Epiphany is that you need the light, the revealing or revelation of God to rightly perceive Jesus as the Messiah and Savior of the world. The magi noticed an unusual star that somehow (by God’s design) signified to them the birth of a king among the Jewish people. It seems that no one else saw or took particular notice of this star, as when they came to the capital city of Jerusalem (the obvious place to look for a king in Israel), it seemed no one else knew of it.

The Roman king Herod didn’t care about the stars. He cared about power and so the appearance of a rival troubled him. Because of his murderous reputation “all Jerusalem” was troubled also. He thought, “It’s good to be king.” They thought, “Don’t get the king angry!”

The one thing that Herod did that was right was to assemble the chief priests and scribes of the people to inquire of them where the Christ was to be born. For without hesitation they pointed to the Biblical passages of Micah 5 and Second Samuel 5 where it was prophesied that Bethlehem of Judea would be the birthplace of the Messiah. It was the “light” of the revelation of God’s Word that directed the magi. But wait! Why only the magi? Why did not any of the chief priests or scribes of the people go with them? It seems that just blathering Bible quotations at people like a magic incantation does not necessarily result in faith or belief! Likewise there are many today who, not only privately but quite proudly and publicly reject God’s Word.

Sent on their way by the devious direction of Herod the star reappeared to the magi and miraculously led them not just to Bethlehem but somehow also “over the place where the child was.” This was nothing short of a miracle of the same God that once directed His people by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night!

Here is another misconception of the crèche or manger scene that has the magi kneeling along with the shepherds and the animals surrounding the holy family in a cave or stable. For Matthew says they were now living “in a house” maybe even for a few years. The magi acknowledged this newborn King with expensive gifts. Then, as God was still in control of things, He warned the magi in a dream not to return to Herod, but go back to their own country by another way.

The point Matthew wishes to make here is that saving faith comes to people as a gift, as enlightenment of a truth that cannot be discovered in any other way than by the revelation of God. Faith comes to people not by human wisdom as St. Paul so clearly said:

Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe…. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Cor 1:20-21, 25)

So call the “star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright” a foolish fairy tale if you wish. To the Gentile magi it was the light of divine revelation.

Our Lord’s earthly mission was a battle between light and darkness from beginning to end; from the darkness of the murderous threat of Herod the king to that final Friday when “there was darkness over the whole land…while the sun’s light failed” (Luke 23:45). But the darkness has not prevailed. For Christ is risen from the dead. The light of salvation through the forgiveness of sins wins the day in every heart who receives that light shining through the Word of God. For, as we said with St. Paul at the beginning, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:5-6).

St. Paul in today’s Epistle calls the Gospel a mystery. We should expect for ourselves nothing less mysterious than Gentile magi being led by a star to a Kingly newborn. Did they even know this was not only an earthly king of the Jews but the eternal, heavenly King and Savior of the world? Do you know that? If you do, it is not, finally, because you’ve got it all figured out. It is only because the light of God’s Word has shone in your heart where God Himself has created the gift of saving faith. Faith is the gift of God given so that you can call it your own, saying, “I believe.” Furthermore, saving faith is for all, for this Light Shines on All.

[1] 1980 (Grace English, Chicago), 1985 and 1991 (St. Paul, Wood River, IL), 2002 (St. Mark, West Bloomfield, MI), and now 2008 and 2013 (Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI).