Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Feast of Epiphany 2016

“Where is this one born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” On the night of the Candlelight Evening at the Farmer’s Museum this year I spoke that line again and again to a stable full of visitors. It was a fun and memorable evening. The weather was mercifully warm, besides the fact that John Cannon, Paul Hager, and I were dressed in layers of garments trying our best to look like the Magi from the gospel story. It wasn’t my first time in the role of a Magi either, just a few years ago I was a Magi at our seminary’s Christmas party, and at least once in my childhood I played one in our church’s Christmas pageant.

My imagination has always been captivated by the story of the mysterious travelers from the east, and I am not alone. The picture of three wise men on camel back following a star to a babe in a manger is one of the most popular and recognized images from Holy Scripture. Tonight, on the Feast of the Epiphany, we commemorate that event, and as we do so I want to focus on three iconic elements of the popular story: the star, the travelers, and the babe in the manger.

First, the star.  I watched a fascinating documentary this week which presented a compelling case for understanding the star of Bethlehem as a real astrological event.  The case is presented by a lawyer named Rick Larson who became fascinated by the subject after doing research for a class he was teaching at his church.  He argues persuasively that Jupiter (the “king Planet”) and Regulus (the “King star) were conjoined in the night sky in the constellation of Leo the Lion, suggesting the lion of Judah, which would have indicated to the astrologers that a king would be born of the tribe of Judah. Nine months later there was a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus that together formed one dazzling star that led them to Jerusalem. Not only that, but around the time when the travelers would have arrived in Jerusalem, Jupiter entered retrograde motion and actually stopped directly over Bethlehem, just as the Gospel of Matthew suggests.

There have been other theories explaining the star, but I found this one to be especially compelling. I don’t have time to go into his case in detail but you can look up the film which is called simply, “The Star of the Bethlehem” or visit his website

Along with investigating astrological phenomena Larson also presents some fascinating biblical exegesis. As an evangelical Christian, he was somewhat nervous to be getting involved with astrology which he always associated with the occult. Indeed scripture has some strong warning against such practices associated with star worship or the belief that the heavenly bodies determine the course of events. Larson, however, argues that—according to scripture—the stars speak to us about their creator. They were placed there by him as guide posts to the truth. He cites psalm 19 which reads,

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world.
 (Psalm 19:1-4 NIV).

What this means is that along with his particular revelation of himself in the Word, God has also given to all people a revelation of himself in his creation, the book of nature. Even those who have never read the Bible or heard the name Jesus, are not wholly without a witness to God. Saint Paul writes,

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20 ESV).

This star also means that science and faith are not conflicting endeavors. The investigation of the natural world leads the mind of the believer to the contemplation of God and the heart to worship.

Next we turn to the travelers, or the wise men as they are popularly called. We are told very little in the gospel about who these individuals were. The names Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchoir are not included in scripture, but were assigned to them at a much later time. We are not even sure how many there actually were. We assume three based on the three gifts that they bring. What we do know about them is that Matthew calls them Magi, the word we sometimes translate as wise men. It is also where we get the word magician describing someone who practices the mystic arts. Most scholars connect these individuals to a caste of astrologer-priests from Persia based in the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. The name Magi was in fact often simply used as shorthand for a follower of Zoroastrianism.

Why would these pagan priests be interested in the birth of a Jewish king? Why would they come all that way to worship him?

Zoroastrianism is a monotheistic faith believing in one eternal God who created all things. Besides monotheism, they share many other beliefs in common with Christians and Jews including the idea that the world was created good but fell into corruption, the future resurrection of the dead, and the restoration of creation to righteousness.

The Persians conquered Babylon when the Jews were in exile and it was a Persian king, and Zoroastrian, Darius I who not only paid for the construction of the second Jerusalem temple out of his own funds, but also commissioned Jewish priests to offer prayer and sacrifice there on behalf of himself and his family (Ezra 6:8-12). Persians and Jews lived side by side for centuries and the Jewish scriptures and prophecies no doubt influenced the Zoroastrians who respected the Jews as fellow monotheists. They would have been familiar with the prophecies of Daniel which spoke of the Son of Man who would be given royal authority over all people. Zoroastrian texts even speak of a great deliverer who would be born of a holy maid who would bring restoration by destroying the powers of evil.

In telling us the story of the Magi, Matthew wants to show the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, such as our reading from Isaiah, which speaks of the kings and dignitaries of the gentiles paying homage to Israel’s Messiah. I believe this story also demonstrates to us that, along with being the long awaited messiah of the Jews, Jesus is the fulfillment of everything good and true even of the pagan religions. Jesus will be the savior of all people. Here we have a foreshadowing of the Gospel coming to the gentiles.

(Click here and here)

Finally let us turn to the Babe in the Manger who is this promised deliverer destined to be the savior of the world. The three gifts that the Magi bring proclaim who he is. First, gold is a precious metal associated with wealth, splendor, and opulence. It proclaims Jesus’ royalty and divine authority. Second, frankincense is a white resin used as perfume or incense. It is commonly burned in worship, representing holiness and the prayers of the faithful. This gift thus proclaims the divinity of Christ. Third, myrrh which was commonly used to perfume the bodies of the dead, proclaims to us that Christ was born to die in order to rescue us from sin and death.

Although Jesus found no welcome among his own nation, and his birth was unheralded by his own people with the exception of the poor and despised shepherds, these travelers from a foreign country recognize his true identity and honor him.

What about you? Have you recognized the truth about this child born in Bethlehem? The heavens themselves declare his majesty. He is the fulfillment of all our most noble and cherished longings. He is King, Lord, and Savior. What will you offer him this day?