Matthew 2:1 Now aafter Jesus was born in bBethlehem of Judea cin the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men1 from dthe east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born aking of the Jews? For we saw bhis star when it rose1 and have come to cworship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where athe Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6 a”‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will bshepherd my people Israel.'” 7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, athey offered him gifts, bgold and cfrankincense and dmyrrh. 12 And abeing warned bin a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
(Mat 2:1 ESV)
An ancient antiphon for Christmas Eve goes: “When all was still and it was midnight, your almighty Word, O Lord, descended from the royal throne” (LSB Altar Book, p 846, Antiphon for Christmas Eve Midnight). That’s often the way God works.
In the Darkest Hour of Man’s Night of Sin,
When There Seems to Be No Help on the Horizon,
No Hope for Salvation, That Is When God Acts.
God spoke his creative Word into the darkness, saying, “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3), and there was light. His creative Word accomplished that purpose for which it was sent. God spoke to the shepherds in the darkness of night: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Once again there was light, and his life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not, and cannot, overcome it (Jn 1:4–5).
Wise Men from the East, Gentiles, caught a glimpse of that light. They had only an inkling of what it might be, for they, too, with all the world, dwelt in the midst of deep darkness. But they were looking for a light. They were searching the stars, reading the stories, and searching the prophecies of wise men in other lands. They were searching for God in all the wrong places. They were searching for God in too many faces. Yet, still, they were searching; they were looking outside of themselves for help, for hope, and for light. God permitted them to observe the star, yet it was not the star that led them to Jerusalem, but it was his Word, which they had heard and read and searched as they groped around in the darkness. They had heard of a prophecy of a great king, and they came to worship him, indicating that they expected this king to be more than an earthly ruler.
The Wise Men were most likely astronomers, perhaps even astrologers, who searched and read the stars of the heavens, looking for guidance and direction in their lives. This may not be as bad as it sounds, for the stars were put in their place by our God and Creator, and they do indeed provide guidance and direction, marking north, south, east, and west, and the movement of the constellations across the heavens does mark the changing of the seasons. However, astronomy can become astrology, and that is idolatry, in the same manner as anything else, when the creature is feared, loved, and trusted before and above the Creator. The Wise Men were most likely guilty of this, as are we all.
Yet, the Wise Men stand in unique contrast to both Herod and the chief priests and scribes of the people of Israel. Herod and the priests and the scribes did not search the heavens and look to the light of the stars for guidance and direction. Moreover, though, while they were the keepers and interpreters of God’s Word, neither did they look to this Word for light, guidance, and direction. Thus, when the Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem at the palace of King Herod—for where else would you find a king but in a palace in a royal city, they thought—Herod remembered that there was a prophecy in God’s Word about such a king, and he quickly inquired with the keepers and the interpreters of the Word where this child King was to be born. The priests and the scribes knew right where to look, the prophet Micah, where it says, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2). The priests and scribes knew right where to look, and yet, they weren’t looking! When Herod finally took an interest and sought to find the child, it wasn’t out of fear, love, and trust in God or in his Word. Rather, it was out of fear, hate, and jealousy for his throne and for the one he believed was prophesied to take it from him. Herod didn’t want to come and worship the newborn King; he wanted to come and murder him!
Here we have an example of two kinds of people, both walking in darkness, but for different reasons and with different results. The Wise Men knew they were in darkness, and they were searching for light, even if they didn’t fully understand what that light was or would be. In contrast, Herod and the Jewish leaders were actually the keepers and interpreters of the source of all light, God’s Word, but they loved the darkness more than the light. They refused to be guided and directed by the light of God’s Word, and they chose to live their lives under the cover of darkness because their deeds were evil. When the Wise Men heard the Word, they made haste to Bethlehem to find the Christ Child to worship him. When Herod heard the Word, he was troubled, and his heart was hardened. Herod burned with anger and jealousy, with fear and hate for this newborn King of prophecy and for the Word of God that proclaimed him.
The light of God’s creative and life-giving Word entered into the world in the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ—and that has changed everything! Darkness has been penetrated and overcome by the light of Christ as it was first in the creation, only this time he went into the darkness himself, the deep darkness that covered the earth as he hung on the cross. He took the darkness of our sin upon himself, he died, and he emerged, so that it shall never again obscure, overcome, or prevail against the light. Wherever the light of God’s Word, the light of Christ, shines, there simply is no darkness. People still walk in darkness, in ignorance and unbelief. People still choose to dwell in darkness because their deeds are evil. But not you, O Jerusalem, city on a hill. You are filled with, and you shine with, the light of God’s Christ. You are not the light, but his light fills you like a lamp and shines out of you into the darkness of this world and on those who dwell in it, so that not only is your path illumined before you, but others may walk in safety through the valley of the shadow of death.
This is what the prophet Isaiah declares when he says, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Is 60:1). On your own, you have no light; you dwell in deep darkness. But when the light of the Lord shines upon you and fills you, you shine with his light, the light of the world for all to see. This is what Jesus means when he says, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light” (Lk 11:33). Likewise, Jesus teaches, “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness” (Lk 11:34). You see, the eye is a receptive organ; it receives and responds to the stimulus of light. If there is no light, the eye receives and sees nothing. But when there is light, the eye will receive it, unless it is not clear, or unless the eye is willfully closed. “Therefore,” Jesus warns you, “be careful lest the light in you be darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light” (Lk 11:35–36).
My dear Christians, whether you were once searching for light in the darkness, or you were all too comfortable dwelling in darkness and were afraid of the light, the word of God is spoken into you: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Is 60:1). “At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord,” writes St. Paul. “Walk as children of light” (Eph 5:8).
The Wise Men followed the light of the star and the light of God’s Word, and they were led to the Christ Child. There they worshiped him and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, gifts fit for a king. For Jesus is a king, but he is not like the kings of men. He reigns in selfless, sacrificial service, in humility and love. He rules, not with power taken from men, but with authority given by God, in righteousness, justice, and peace. The Wise Men had to be surprised at what they found, an infant child, helpless and humble, weak and vulnerable, and yet they believed the Word they had heard, that this child was the King of the Jews.
In the same way, the light of the Word of God has guided and directed you, not to the mountains of natural glory, not to the thrones of human power, but to the altar of sacrifice, where your King Jesus is present for you in the humble and lowly forms of bread and wine, that you may present yourself before him as a living sacrifice and receive his light and eat his flesh and drink his blood, the flesh and blood of the only Son of the Father, begotten before the foundation of the world, the Word and light of creation, made flesh and dwelling among you, Jesus Christ. In him is life, and his life is the light of men, that you may shine with his light, illumining the way to truth and life (Jn 1:4; 14:6).
While our resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus Christ now fills all things in heaven and earth, even the glorious mountains and the vast and deep oceans, even the expanse of the heavens with its billions upon billions of galaxies, stars, and planets, he is not in those places and things for your life, light, and salvation. He is where he has promised to be, in his Word made flesh, which he has attached to the humble, the lowly, and the ordinary things of his creation—bread, wine, water, and the words of a book read, spoken, and proclaimed to you “to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Eph 3:9).
Dear Christians, let us also follow the light of God’s Word to the place where it rests on the altar of sacrifice in the house of the Lord, where the Church gathers “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven” around the throne of King Jesus, the light of the world, God in flesh made manifest (LSB Altar Book, p 227, Proper Preface for Epiphany). Let us worship and bow down with all the children of light in praise and adoration, receiving his light, his love and forgiveness, and go out illumining the world and those walking in darkness and the shadow of death, that they might walk in darkness no longer, but seek, find, and receive the light of Christ and live, and thereby glorify the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit forevermore. Amen.