The following is a sermon revised from one I preached back in 2006. It is based on a sermon by Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome in the Fifth Century. Although he argued for papal supremacy, he was a staunch defender of orthodox Christology and was known as a great preacher. His Christmas and Epiphany sermons are some of the best, in my opinion.
Sermon for the the Epiphany of Our Lord (January 6, 2008)
A short time ago, we celebrated the birth of the Savior of the World, born of the Virgin Mary. Christmas is such a special time of year. There is a certain aura about the season. It's a delight for the senses. Lights shimmer and twinkle in your eyes. The sweet and spicy smell of cookies baking wafts into your nose. Icy air bites at your unexposed skin as you step outside into the snowy weather.
Even for people who do not believe in Christ, there is magic to the season. I can't say for sure, but I think there's more to this sensation than just lights and cookies and snow and vague feelings of peace on earth. I believe it's because underlying all the celebrations at this time of year is the birthday of the Prince of Peace. Jesus brought peace between God and Man when he died on the cross, the Holy Lamb of God bearing the sins of the world. And the Nativity of our Lord is the prelude to His Passion.
Today is another special day and it begins a new season in the Church Year. It is the feast of the Epiphany, a day that often gets overshadowed in the aftermath of Christmas and New Year’s festivities. But the celebration of Epiphany is important. It causes our joy to continue, so that our praises and the strength of our faith may not grow cool, now that the mystery and the joy of the Christmas season is over.
Jesus was born as the King of the Jews. Out of all the nations of the world, God graciously chose the nation of Israel from whom the Messiah would come. Out of all the tribes in that nation, God graciously chose one, the tribe of Judah, from whom the Messiah's lineage would come. Out of all the women in Judah, God graciously chose one, Mary, from whom he would assume his human nature. But Epiphany reminds us that Jesus came to be the Savior of all people, not just the Jews. Even while he was still detained in the little town of Bethlehem, the infancy of the Mediator between God and Man was manifested to the world. Jesus did not want the early days of his birth to be concealed within the narrow limits of his mother's home. Instead, he desired to be soon recognized by all … since, of course, he was born for all.
And so, a star appeared to some magicians in the east who knew nothing about the “magic” of Christmas. But they soon would. Evidently, there was something special about this star. Was it brighter than all the others? Was it more colorful? All kinds of theories have been given about this star … an exploding supernova, an alignment of planets appearing as one big star, a miraculous event beyond all scientific explanations. Whatever it was (and I'll put my money on the miracle), it easily caught the attention of those that looked upon it. God himself who gave the sign, gave to those who saw it a special understanding of it. And after questions were raised about this star, the maker of that star offered Himself to be found.
The wise men followed the leading of the light from above. With steadfast gaze they followed the star. But when they arrived at their destination, they must have been surprised by the way that Grace made itself known. They thought that a king surely must be born in a royal city. But the One who had taken the form of a servant – and the One who had come not to judge, but to be judged – chose Bethlehem for His nativity. The royal city Jerusalem he chose for His passion.
Herod heard that a prince of the Jews was born. The Magi visit him, and he says to them, “Tell me when you find this child so that I may worship him, too.” But Herod had no intention of imitating the faith of the Wise Men. Behind his pious sounding words were deceit and murderous designs. Herod suspected a successor to his throne and his paranoia caused him to seek to kill the Author of Life. But what blind wickedness and foolish jealousy of Herod, to think that he could overthrow God’s plan. The Lord of the world offers an eternal Kingdom, not an earthly one. And Herod would not be the one to kill the Christ. That would come later. The Gospel must be first set on foot, on those beautiful feet of Jesus. The Kingdom of God must first be preached, healings first given to the sick, wondrous acts first performed. He that was born voluntarily also will die of His own free will, at a time of His own choosing.
The Wise men, therefore, fulfilled their desire, and came to the child, the Lord Jesus Christ, with the star going before them. They adored the Word in flesh, the Wisdom in infancy, the Power in weakness, the Lord of majesty in the reality of man. By their gifts the Wise Men openly acknowledged what they believed in their hearts. By their act of worship, they show forth the mystery of their faith and understanding. As the Lutheran commentator Lenski writes: “These were men who were often in the presence of the king of Babylon, themselves high, mighty, and wealthy. From the capital and King Herod they had come to this poor house. They treat it as the grandest of palaces and this little child as its most glorious king. How could they do this? Their hearts must have beheld what their eyes did not see.”
Worshiping the Child, they offered gifts. Gold they offered to a King, since that precious metal is a gift fit for a king. Incense they offer to God, since incense often accompanied prayers ascending to heaven. Myrrh they offered to a Man, since myrrh was used for burial and embalming … an Epiphany foreshadowing of Good Friday. And through these gifts, whether they knew it or not, they payed honor to both the Divine and Human Natures united in Christ.
Lift up your faithful hearts then, dear Christian friends, to the true star of Bethlehem, God himself, now graciously shining to you in the human flesh of the Christ Child, wrapped up in swaddling clothes. Adore the mysteries dispensed for your salvation, wrapped up in the spoken Word, in water, and in bread and wine. Kneel before him and worship him. Follow after humility which the Son of God graciously taught His disciples. Offer him your gifts of love and service as a thankful response for all that this Child has done for you.