Here beginneth the 2nd Chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea, in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
Several years ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to fly to Denver, Colorado, for the Provincial Synod. As our Delta flight cleared the Mississippi River heading westbound, the populated areas of the East receded into the background and soon we were left with mile after seemingly endless mile of unpopulated land, where not even a road was visible. This continued for several hours until we finally touched down at Denver International Airport. I remember thinking that night how incredibly big the United States of America actually is. And I realized that I, and probably most people, had very little idea of the size and magnitude of our great nation. In fact, most people’s view of the world is conditioned strongly by the area in which they live. It’s kind of like the poster that I used to have in my living room, “The New Yorker’s View of the World.” In the poster, the buildings of Manhattan were quite vivid, but everything beyond it quickly faded into insignificance. Now, what does all this have to do with the Epiphany, that charming story of the Magi, or the wise men, who came to visit the baby Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem? What possible connection could there be between the vastness of the American West and this Biblical story?
In order to answer that question, we have to understand a little history. Specifically, we have to know something about the Messiah and Israel’s expectations for him. First, it’s important to remember that the people of Israel considered themselves to be God’s chosen people, a people set apart by a Covenant, a special contract, between God and Abraham. In this Covenant, God said that, “You will be my people and I will be your God.” For their part, the people responded by promising obedience to the Law that would be given to Moses. The expectation of the Jewish people was that God would ultimately give them dominion over the world. As Jewish thought developed and as the land was conquered, not once, but several times, that salvation was presumed to come from a Messiah, a Chosen One or, more literally, “The Anointed One,” who would come and restore the Kingdom of God. The Messiah would then place Israel at the head of all the nations and God’s divine order would be in place for all time. The important thing for us is the understanding that the Jewish people considered the coming of the Messiah to be an event whose effects would be primarily for them and that this coming was not necessarily for people outside of the covenant. Also, it would occur at the end of time. So, the expectation of Israel for the Messiah was both apocalyptic and redemptive for the Jewish nation.
So with this background, let’s look at the Gospel today. Jesus is born in Bethlehem because his father is from the House of David and the actions of the Roman Emperor had brought Joseph and the pregnant Mary to the city of Joseph’s ancestors. In that small town that exists just five miles due south of Jerusalem, the Holy Family was resting following the birth of our Lord. Into their humble dwellings come Wise Men from the East. Wise Men probably would have been astronomers, men who studied the stars and sought the signs of the age in them. This differs significantly from astrologers who seek to divine the future from the stars.
These Wise Men, the Bible doesn’t really tell us how many there were, had followed the star from the east, hoping that it would lead them to the Great King. They didn’t necessarily know where it would lead them and they didn’t what or who they would find. But they pressed on for what was probably hundreds of miles because they knew that they had to follow this star. First, it led them to Herod’s court, but Herod was not the King they were seeking. So they followed the Star and it led them to the stable, that glorious stable, where the Lord Jesus lay surrounded by Joseph, Mary, and the lowly creatures that dwelt there. They offered him gifts for a King: Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Much has been said about the significance of these elements but we’re not going to talk about them today. Instead, we’re going to look at the Wise Men’s visitation from a slightly different perspective.
As recounted by Saint Matthew, the coming of the Wise Men from a strange and foreign land changes completely the understanding of who the Messiah is and who he came for. The Messiah was not one who would come in power and glory. Instead the Messiah came as a helpless little baby. The Messiah was expected to be for the Jewish people only. But the visit of these Magi from foreign lands who came to worship him demonstrated a more powerful truth: That the love of God is not limited to this people or to that people. Instead, the love of God is for all who gaze upon and worship Jesus Christ as Lord. The Gospel today shows us that the plan of God is much bigger than we can ever imagine.
Down through the centuries, we have continued to follow the Lord. Here in Athens, we meet on this special hill and celebrate the Messiah who came to redeem all people. But Christianity and its saving message is so much bigger than our little church. It extends to every continent and every nation. Where we worship in freedom and with the protections of our Constitution, in other nations our brothers and sisters risk their lives every time they gather for the Holy Eucharist. And, in terms of time, Christianity has encompassed literally billions of people who have found hope and freedom from their sins in Jesus Christ for over 2,000 years. The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles that we call the Epiphany stands as a witness of God’s love for all people and His desire that all people accept him and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent. Only now, this Manifestation does not find its fulfillment in the following of the Star. Now its fulfillment is the following of the way of the Holy Cross.
The grandeur and expanse of the American West defies any one person’s ability to conceive of the size of our great nation. How much greater is the Lord, whose coming was announced by a Star and who won our redemption on the Cross.