Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
There has been all kinds of attempts to explain and tell about the Wise Men. Part of it is because it seems so unexplained. How did they know to follow the star? Why would they come at the birth of this king yet it is no recorded that this was common at the birth of other kings? What was all this going on, why does it seem so random, and why does it seem so important most of us think really think of this as part of the Christmas narrative rather than something that was likely a year or two later?
First the star. What was this star and what led these wise men to follow it? As much as some have attempted to explain that they were astrologers who came because the star was so great and act as if no one else could have seen the star or thought to follow it, it just doesn’t flow. These men had the Scriptures to tell them the child born is the king of the Jews. How so? When God punished his people by letting Nebuchadnezzar destroy Judah and Jerusalem, starting in 599 BC, he brought them to Babylon for seventy years of exile. During that exile the prophets Daniel and Ezekiel lived among the people. From these prophets we can be sure that the wise men of Babylon and Persia would have learned the Scriptures. They would have learned of the Exodus, the promise of God’s covenant to redeem His people.
How can we be so sure of that? Simply because God’s people tell their friends and neighbors about the Savior. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego knew the difficulties and joys of telling others about the Messiah.
The Magi would have known and heard the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers (24:17):
I see him, but now now;
I behold him, but not near;
a star shall come out Jacob,
and a scepter shall rise out Israel.
They would have known that it was foretold that the scepter would not depart from Judah and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples, the Gentiles (Gen. 49:10). You see, without the Word of God from Genesis and Numbers it would have just been an interesting phenomena in the sky, a wondrous star, something to look at from afar. They would not have known where to look if it were not for the Word of God attached to the outward sign of the star.
But the wise men miscalculated. They think about the Christ as King of the Jews and therefore He must be in the Royal City and so they head to Jerusalem and do find the Christ child. They have erred. What do they do?
They are turned to more Scripture, as Micah prophesied:
And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no mean least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.
The Word is a trustworthy star, and it guides them straight to Christ. Without and apart from the Word, they would not have found Christ the King. (Luther, Epiphany Sermon, 1532.)
What is that would lead the Magi to travel hundreds of miles through cold winter, desert nights? It is that God had finally come to them. The idols of Babylon, all the knowledge they could acquire, did not fulfill their promise. They promised they would make them happy, they promised all their desires would be satisfied as long as they figured it out on their own, that they were captains of their own fate. They needed Him who is the Truth, not a god who was unseen and distant and left mankind to themselves, but the only true God who comes and dwells among His people.
The magi show what is to worship Christ the newborn King. It is doing something crazy like following a star because it is given in the Word of God, and even though no one else believes it. And as cute as it is to picture them giving gifts and making some rationale for now we give gifts to each other, we should see what it is they bring.
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The most precious thing they have, gold, and it will be money needed to flee to Egypt from King Herod’s rampage. They give their most valued treasure for the Savior, the Messiah, the Christ.
They bring the frankincense. They bring their prayers, as the Psalms proclaim, “let my prayer arise before You as incense, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” (Psalm 141:2) So while you pray in secret, with your family, here as the Church gathered together, we bring the incense, trusting that He who promised to hear them is faithful.
They bring myrrh. The most interesting of gifts. Myrrh was used to anoint a body for death, the body would be wrapped with myrrh. John records that Nicodemus would bring the myrrh and anoint His body as it was laid in the tomb. This Jesus must die. His body would need to be anointed. It’s like giving a gift certificate to the funeral home for a baby shower present. Yet, He must die the death of all sinners, including the magi and including you. He wraps Himself in your greed, in your lust, in your pride to be recognized for your gifts, and pride in your knowledge and abilities. All this sin is brought to Jesus, repent.
Here is worship. Confessing that Jesus died for you, repenting of your sin. Your death comes first in confessing Christ who died for you. Maybe the Magi didn’t perfectly understand everything they were doing. Maybe they knew these things, but it seemed complicated, perhaps sometimes they forgot, they may have gotten frustrated in waiting for God to reveal Himself, perhaps they had moments of fear, or they may have just been excited to be apart of it all and behold Jesus, God in flesh, and they may not have fully understood just how painful or terrible it would be.
They just knew that God had made promises in His Word. It may not have been flashy, and many missed it or ignored it, but God in His Word brought the Magi to worship Christ. You may not always be fully aware in your worship, you may not know every passage of what we confess, you may not pay attention fully to every sermon, and you may have feelings of frustration, doubt, anger, loneliness, lust, greed, and pride. Yet, here and now the Lord provides and gives you the same gift He gave the Magi, Jesus in the flesh for the forgiveness of your sins.
When we realize that our money is never enough, that our prayers are still not enough, and that our acts are not enough, what do we do? We come and worship. Not showing how great we are and what great things we can bring, but we follow the star. We go where the Word of God has promised to be to bring us to Jesus in the flesh.
We go where God comes to man and reveals Himself. In His preached Word, where God proclaims to you, “here and now, your sin is forgiven.” You come and kneel before Christ and receive Him who gives you Himself as He has promised and given you in baptism and in His body and blood.
They may have been late to the party, but all those who show up in our nativity scenes come in the same fashion, and it is the same for you. The Word came to them and told them, this is the Messiah, the Christ, who has come to redeem you, to die for you, and brings you to life. Merry Christmas!
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.