Epiphany Sermon

In this morning’s Gospel we heard the wonderful story of the wise men who came from a country far, far away in the East to worship the newborn “King of the Jews.”  This wonderful account of the Gospel according to St. Matthew has always been a favorite of many people and has inspired the imagination of Christian people throughout centuries.  According to tradition, there were three wise men, and we see depictions of these wise men in manger scenes and the Christmas crèche the world over.  Kittie and I saw some wonderful crèches in those magnificent churches and cathedrals in Paris when we visited there during Christmas.

The wise men in the Gospel were actually called Magi.  They were probably from Persia (modern-day Iran) and were astrologers/astronomers and philosophers.  The great Greek philosopher Aristotle, for example, wrote of the philosophical work of the Magi.

As Pope Benedict XVI points out in a recent book, in the later Christian tradition the Magi become figures of the universality of the kingdom of Christ.  They become kings from all three known continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe.  The black King in particular shows that “in the kingdom of Jesus Christ there are no distinctions of race and origin.  In him and through him, humanity is united, yet without losing any of the richness of variety.”[1]

The important thing about the wise men who visited the young Christ is that they were Gentiles.  They were not Jews.  They were not members of God’s chosen people.  The feast of the Epiphany which the Church celebrates today recalls the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.

This gospel account from St. Matthew is an exceedingly rich one, and so let’s pause and consider some of its details.  For example, notice that it was not King Herod (who was the Roman appointed King of the Jews) nor the religious authorities (the chief priests and scribes) who knew about the birth of Jesus the Messiah.  Rather, it was Gentiles—mysterious philosophers from far away—and it was only after these philosophers appeared on the scene and began asking questions about the birth of the new King that Herod and the religious authorities of Jerusalem began to look into the matter.

Isn’t it the case that so often the religious insiders miss the real story of God’s unusual but very real breaking into our lives?  It is often the outsider, the sincere seeker who is not part of the community of faith, who notices what God is doing.

And this points to an even greater and more important contrast in the Gospel account.  The wise men came to worship the new King and to bring him gifts.  Herod, on the other hand, wanted to kill the new King.  That’s why he secretly called the wise men and asked of them at exactly what time the star appeared.  Our King James Version uses the word “privily,” but that’s just an older English word for “secretly.”  Herod is operating in secret because what he plans to do is evil.

And Herod compounds his evil intention by telling the wise men a lie.  “Go and find this newborn child and then come and tell me where he is so that I too can come and worship him.”  Of course, Herod had no intention whatsoever to worship him.  And when the wise men fail to return to Herod with the location of the newborn child, Herod flies into a rage and orders the murder of all the baby boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem.

You see, when Jesus the Messiah, God incarnate, the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity, came into the world, his own people did not recognize him.  They did not acknowledge him.  As St. John tells us, “he was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.  He came unto his own, and his own received him not.”

But the wise men, the Gentiles, the outsiders do recognize Jesus. And they also take the logical next step. They worship him. They present unto him costly gifts. True worship of God, of Jesus the Messiah, entails costly sacrifice.

There’s a bumper sticker that says, “wise men still seek him.” There will always be true seekers of God in every age and generation. The question is, will they find Jesus? Will they find the true God, the real answer to all human desires and longings? And then, if they do find them, what will they do with that knowledge? Will they use it to worship, to fall down and present costly gifts of their time, resources, and talents?

Beloved in Christ, as believing Christians, as members of the one holy Catholic and apostolic church, we have seen the newborn King.  Our job, our sacred duty, is to worship him and to give him ourselves, our souls, and bodies as a living and costly sacrifice.  Are you ready to do that in this new year? And if so, what practical steps are you going to take to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth? 

 



[1] Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, trans. Philip J. Whitmore (New York: Image, 2012), 96.