Arise, Shine, For Your Light Has Come
Saint Matthew 2:1-12
“And nations,” that is, the Gentile people of the world, “shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” So said the prophet Isaiah, as we heard this morning in the Old Testament Reading. And as we heard last Sunday from elderly Simeon at the temple in Jerusalem, “for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” This day, dear friends, this Epiphany Sunday is set before us that we may give thanks to the Lord God for sending His Son to be, not just the Saviour of Jacob’s lineage, but the light of salvation for all people—for all the children of Adam—for you and me and the whole world that is loved by God our heavenly Father.
Saint John, in the first chapter of his Gospel, states that Jesus, the true light of the Father’s love, “shines in the darkness” of this world’s sin and unbelief, “and the darkness has not overcome it.” However, not everyone upon whom Christ the Light shines believes that in His coming there is life and salvation. As John the evangelist also says, “He,” that is Jesus, “came to his own, and his people did not receive him.” This we see, not only today in the wickedness of Herod directed against the Christ Child, of which Saint Matthew informs us, but also throughout all the Gospel accounts whenever sinful, idolatrous man comes in contact with the Holy One of Israel. Today still, two thousand years later, there remains an unholy hatred in many toward our Lord Jesus that burns with satanic rage, and this is among all people, Jews and Gentiles alike.
The Christ has come to the world, manifesting His glory in the cross, in purest sacrificial love, but sadly, so very many do not receive Him. Instead, many gleefully blaspheme and mock our dear Saviour. For example, recently I saw our own Prime Minister doing just this, by wearing a disgraceful “Christmas sweater” depicting the Last Supper with the heads of Christ and the apostles being replaced by cartoon emoji heads. Oh, what fun, he and so many like him think, to denigrate our Saviour and the faith that you and I have in Him.
But while such blasphemous behaviour surely offends us, the heart and mind that we share with our Lord, through our baptismal faith in Him, gives us to look upon such wicked evildoers with pity, for we know that their laughing will come to an end in judgment. As we sang in the Introit, “Behold the Lord, the Ruler, has come, and the kingdom and the glory are in his hand.” Christ will judge with righteousness and justice, and it will give Him no pleasure to condemn the unbelieving for whom He also died to save. So, in the Saviour’s love, we pray for their repentance and we turn our hearts from that sadness, to give thanks to the Lord our God for the wondrous blessing that we have been given, for as John the evangelist concludes his thoughts about the Christ making His Epiphany to the world says, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” And as God’s own child, you and I gladly say it: “I am baptized into Christ; I am a child of paradise!”
Saint Matthew begins his account that we have before us this morning with the words, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’” Despite the fact that these Wise Men have a place within the yearly celebration of the birth of our Lord Jesus, they did not arrive from their eastern land to gather with the shepherds around the manger at the time of His birth. As they told Herod, they did not begin their journey until after they had seen the star proclaiming the birth of him “who has been born king of the Jews.” The time involved in first coming to understand what the star meant, then in preparing for their long trek, and finally in making the trip itself, would have involved a great deal of time—perhaps as much as two years. That’s how Herod figured it, anyway, and why he later gave orders to his soldiers to kill “all the male children in Bethlehem, and in all that region who were two years old or under.”
Herod sent his soldiers to kill Jesus because the Wise Men had called Jesus the “king of the Jews.” As one who was not a true Jew, but an Edomite, set in power by the Romans, Herod knew that there were anti-Roman factions in Jerusalem and Judea who would love to see a true Jewish replacement for him come along. Herod understandably, but wrongly, saw Jesus as a potential cause for revolt and uprising against him—a threat to his rule that had to be eliminated—thus, the order to his soldiers. But as the evangelist tells us, Herod sent his soldiers on their bloody mission only after the Wise Men failed to return to him with news of where this king of the Jews was to be found. Herod, you see, had sent the Wise Men to Bethlehem, the town from where the prophet Micah had said the Christ would come, telling them, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” To the Wise Men, this sounded like a sincere and legitimate request, and not the murderous lie that it was.
So off they go, again following the star in the sky, when it “went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.” Oh, how joyous and happy they were when they entered into the house and “saw the child with Mary his mother!” They “fell down” before their Saviour “and worshipped him.” And then they gave to Jesus the treasures that they had brought with them—treasures, they originally thought, fitting for a worldly king—treasures that, for them now, take on a different significance when given to Him who is the King of kings and Lord of lords, whose rule is from everlasting to everlasting.
Many in the past have attempted to assign spiritual meaning to these gifts with gold representing our Lord’s kingship, frankincense a symbol of His priestly role, and myrrh a prefiguring of His death and embalming. And while there is some merit in allegorizing the gifts in this way, it’s perhaps better to see that, for the Wise Men, the gifts are no longer political tokens and items of ingratiation, but now gifts given in humble thanksgiving, representing the true spiritual gift that they offer up to Christ, namely, the gift of themselves. Through faith, they understand what Saint Paul would later write to the Romans, when he says to them, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Through their worship and offerings given, the Wise Men outwardly confirm the faith that God the Holy Spirit has inwardly worked in them.
This, dear friends, is the real miracle of the story of the Wise Men! It is the miracle of faith given, of faith received, of faith being lifted up in worship and praise. The “star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright,” is indeed a miraculous sign, but as I said, the real miracle is in the faith that God gives, for just look at what this faith has done in your life. Very simply put, faith receives the promise of the Gospel—the promise of Christ for you. In a way, you could say that faith is the star that God has placed in the dark night sky of your life to reveal to your heart and mind your Saviour, Jesus, the Christ.
Before this faith—before the shining of this star of wonder in your life—you were a people who sat in darkness—in the deep darkness and gloom of sin and death, in which you were held captive by the old evil foe. But then God miraculously shone His Gospel light upon you, and through this faith given by the Word of Christ in Holy Baptism, you beheld your freedom “from all sin, from death, and from the power of the devil;” you saw with joy and thanksgiving the salvation and life without end that Jesus has “purchased and won” for you—“not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.” By faith you are given to see and believe in the promise of the Gospel fulfilled in Christ for you.
Now, we’re told, at the conclusion of today’s Holy Gospel, that “being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, [the Wise Men] departed to their own country by another way.” This tells us that they were not only informed about Herod’s nefarious scheme, but also that the Christian life is lived, not apart from, but through one’s vocation. They returned to their own country; they returned to their families and their homes, their work in the royal court; they returned, but not as they went. They returned as men who now held Christ in their hearts by faith. The worship and praise that, in faith, they offered up to Christ in Bethlehem would continue to resound throughout their lives to come, shaping their actions, directing their thoughts, and guiding them to return, by faith, to the one through whom they have forgiveness and life and salvation.
At least, this is how I would like to imagine it was for the Wise Men—I’d like to imagine that some day we will all meet with them in the courts of heaven, and there offer up, with them, our worship and praise before the throne of God. But we live in a sinful world, don’t we? So it was for the Wise Men and so it is for you. You live in a world fraught with danger to the faith that you have been given, a world that is increasingly hostile to your life in Christ, a world that laughs at Jesus and urges you to join in the shameful mockery, a world that is constantly pulling at you with temptation and sinful allure to tear you away from faith in Christ.
There is no guarantee that you will remain in the saving faith, but you do have the sure promise of the Gospel that the forgiveness of sins is yours, freely given in Christ. And it is through the forgiveness of sins that your faith is strengthened and preserved. Your Lord Jesus is here speaking His Word for you to hear and giving you His Word for you to eat and drink—His true Body and blood—declaring in these Gospel gifts, “Your sins are forgiven; you have life and salvation in My name.” Therefore, dear friends, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” So it is in Christ, our Lord. Amen.