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Epiphany - The Wise Men

Who were the Magi? When did they arrive? What did they do? In the end, God reaches people through people.

Corby Stephens
Corby Stephens
15 min read
Epiphany - The Wise Men
Photo by Roma Kaiuk🇺🇦 / Unsplash

Table of Contents

The following text is the raw, unedited transcript from a sermon given on Jan. 1, 2023. You can also listen to the audio. Better yet, subscribe to the podcast! :-)

Alright. By show of hands, how many of you are people? Most of you? Okay, good, good to see you. Did you know? And maybe I've said this before that God uses people to reach people. So a quote I first heard from a pastor and evangelist named Greg Laurie from southern California. God uses people to reach people. How many other ways could God have done it though? Ways that to my sensibility. Come on God, why did you consult me would be more effective or permanent? Why not like write on the moon, God Is Real, you need Jesus or some kind of permanent angels circling the earth forever and ever. Although I'm sure people would find a way to not believe in that too. But why why use people? People are sinful, people are messed up because that was his decision.

Remember that Jesus isn't God's plan B wasn't like, let's try this law thing. Oh that didn't work out. Okay, I'm gonna send Jesus and see how that goes. It's it's all one plan God decided to use people to represent him. That includes especially Jesus of course. Now how did he decide which people to use? How did this work?

Well that's that's what I love. I love the old testament and I love the fact that it records this path that leads us to Jesus. Some people think that you know what genesis isn't a very full historical document. It doesn't record everything. You're right. It doesn't record everything that wasn't written to record everything. It was written to record what we needed to know to get us to Jesus.

We start with Adam Adam and Eve. They have kids and their kids have kids with one another because that's how it worked back then, there was no other choice. But it follows this genealogy. This one specific path to Noah, Noah has three sons. They have wives, Noah has a wife. The event with Noah's ark happens and they're the last eight human beings on earth. But it's through one of those sons that we reached, a man named Abraham who was a very flawed person, But God still chose him, didn't he? Through Abraham, we get to his son Isaac and to his son Jacob who was also called Israel who has 12 sons. And through one specific son Judah, we eventually arrive at King David and from King David, we eventually arrive at Jesus, that's that's the path that is followed. And it's always God using people to connect and reach people more specifically though God chose the hebrews, the Israelites, the jews, whichever of those terms you feel most comfortable with as his special people, he calls them. That you are my special people. You are a treasure to me and the purpose of them was to be a light and an example to the world to bring people to God.

That's what they were supposed to be for, along with the laws that they were giving and the amazing Tabernacle and all of its parts and its symbolism, which and eventually the temple and its beauty and symbolism that came from it and all the rituals that come from it. All of these things are designed to bring people to God. They were to be this light an example. Salvation was never meant to be for the jews, only it was to be through the jews to the rest of the world, the pattern that we see and as as Paul puts it, he says that he was sent to the jew first, then to the gentiles, Jesus says this himself, I'm sent to to God's people to God's sheep, but other sheep I have came to the jews first.

Eventually the message goes to the gentiles. This pattern turns up even around the birth of Jesus, doesn't it? Because when he is born he's born to who jewish parents. The first people to come and meet him are who the jewish shepherds, those are, the people he meets first and today I'm sorry, a little bit more eight days later he's taken to the temple for the sacrifices and so forth and he encounters Simeon and Hannah at the temple. Just that's that's the beginning of the pattern and today we arrive at the first gentiles to encounter Jesus fun fact, did you know that the sheep raised in Bethlehem were for temple sacrifice, Jesus is born in Bethlehem, what does John the Baptist call him the lamb of God, right, that's I just, I love this, these patterns, I love these pictures. The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, Jesus is both sheep and shepherd just as he is both servants and king human and God for us.

Who Were The Magi?

So this Sunday we mark the meeting of the Magi, which I think is a fun fun story. Now you are probably aware that there's a lot of stuff around the nativity and the birth of Jesus and a lot of stuff that we get comes just from tradition, things sort of just get mashed together. Some things are affected by culture. This morning I heard Cathy point out that it wasn't probably a wooden stable like this, it was probably more of a stone cave. But isn't this typically what we Western Americans who come from Europe tend to see things like that. So that's not, that's not biblical, Biblically accurate. No, but it still kind of communicates what's going on, doesn't it? So I am okay with like, well let's smash, you know, bring in the stone one. We don't have to go that far. But even the Magi themselves, who are we call the three wise men or the three kings, There's a lot about them that's kind of confusing and a lot of tradition has influenced who they were and what they were. And so I want to share a few things that I find very interesting things you may have heard before. But they help me make better sense of this, I think watered down story of, of the three wise men. That's another one of those stories. This version of it, you don't really see in the Children's bible.

The Magi go back at least to the 500 BC. In fact, Daniel, the Prophet Daniel was given the position of chief Maggie in Daniel chapter two after the scenario with the fiery furnace. I don't know if you read that recently, but he was at one point chief of this group of people and no doubt he had some influence over them. His understanding of God, the wisdom that God gave him the prophecies that God gave him no doubt made their way into the teaching of this group of wise men called the Magi. They were, they came to be sort of priestly in a way. But they were like, it's more simply put a little subsection of the kings government now, where, where did they come from?

So picture maybe you, maybe you have a map in the back of your bible, but you have you know, Europe, you have Rome, you have Israel and then you have other stuff. Well this other stuff was called the party in empire at the time. So you have Rome and part via these two empires that didn't necessarily get along and stuck right in the middle was Israel, so it was kind of a buffer state. It was kind of, it was Roman influence. We see that there's a Roman king appointed, but it wasn't fully Roman was it?

It was just they were still jewish, they were still more or less could govern themselves. But it was sort of stuck in between these two places. That would be kind of a tense place to be, wouldn't it? Not extremely peaceful again. These Magi were part of a branch of the government from the party in empire that were involved in appointing the king. That empire didn't have a birth line succession of kings. The government which was kind of like a parliament would appoint, who would be the next king.

And the Magi were part a subsection of those who would do that. So you could, you could call them kingmakers. So how would it go down if foreign kingmakers from a rival empire suddenly show up in this buffer state to Rome? That would be a little tense, wouldn't it? And it wasn't three guys on camels like this is like a political entourage. That would have been a whole squad of people armed maybe with a lot of protection. These are government officials coming to this foreign country, like a motorcade that we have today for government officials, not just, you know, hot out here in the desert, ain't it? It was, it would have been a bigger deal and it says that they followed a star, this is that they saw a star rise when they were in the east and then they followed it.

What Was The Star?

I personally you can totally disagree with me. I don't think this was an astronomical star. I think it was something more like an angel because stars don't change directions, do they? Stars don't stop over a house. Like if you've ever tried to walk at night and follow a star, it pretty much just keeps going, you could walk for days until you get to maybe the equator and be like, oh it's in a different spot, but not a few 100 miles and they don't hover over a spot so that you know, it's definitely right here, not hundreds of miles away.

So I think they were following something that was not just an astronomical phenomenon. So these three rival king makers or these rival king makers would have had a massive entourage. We don't know how many where they were, We just know that there were three gifts. It's probably where the three of them come from, but they're probably called the three kings because there was a corruption of the fact that they were kingmakers, not kings themselves. They stop in Jerusalem and ask the Roman appointed ruler who was given the title king, where is he, who was born?

King of the jews to slap in the face. This, this foreign power comes to the king and says, yeah, where's the guy, where's the real king was the one born king of the jews, not you just pretender to the throne and Herod was a nut job and that's a whole another talk. But he did not react well to this. And it says all Jerusalem was troubled and they were troubled because they know that if any kind of fight or uprising breaks out, Rome will come in and squash them.

Rome valued peace above all peace under their thumb, but peace nonetheless. So this is why, I mean, would you be troubled if three guys on camels showed up and like where's the born? Don't go away, We don't know, it doesn't matter. This was this was a much bigger deal than I think where we can understand outside of its historical context. They are eventually directed to Bethlehem which is south of Jerusalem. So if they came from the east, they had to then hang a left and go south. The star turned, the star moved again. I don't think it was a normal start.

When did they arrive?

Well, I was happy the first Sunday that the nativity was set up that the kings were not a part of it. The kings were funny in the back, they were in the back of the room. So they kind of migrated their way up here because it's, it's very likely that they were not a part of this scene with Jesus and mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the angel and then the wise men show up.

It could have been up to two years later because the word to describe Jesus as a baby means up to like a toddler. So it could have been a day later, it could have been a week later, it could have been two years later. Herod wanted all male Children under two years of age to be killed. That's another indicator as to when this could have been. But it does tell us that the family stayed in Bethlehem for a while. Again, we don't know how long. So these three kingmakers come, they worship Jesus in effect, they give him gold and frankincense and myrrh, which I'm sure the family was very thrilled to have being as poor as they probably were.

They leave by a different route and take the message that the Messiah had been born with them, which again no doubt Daniel left them with teachings and prophecy that led them to even look for a star in the first place. How did they know to look for a star? I don't know. But it was, I think it was probably Daniel left some kind of prophecy behind for them to pay attention to, Jesus chose to come to people, Jesus came to chosen people first. Sorry, let me read that in the right, I'm not Yoda sometimes I read like Yoda comes out wrong, Jesus came to the chosen people first, he came to the jews first, he came to God's God's chosen people first and then to the rest of the world.

This Should Not Have Been News

Now this should not this should not have been news to the first Christians, to the Jews because remember that the very first Christians were 100% Jews. The gentiles came in later and that was even a rough transition. But our our reading from Ephesians three is one of the places Paul points out this fact. He tries to build his own case as to who he is and the authority that he has. But he says in verse in chapter three verse three, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation as I have briefly written the word mystery.

It's kind of fun that the word mystery and revelation are both used in there. Mystery means something that has been hidden until now. It's we knew it was something that it's it's hidden. It's it's it's covered up, but now we know what it is and the word revelation means unveiling. So this Paul said this has been here the whole time, but it's only now being revealed, it's only now coming to light  which verse five, which was not made known to the sons of men in their generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the spirit.

This mystery is that the gentiles are fellow heirs members of the same body and part takers of the promise in christ Jesus through the Gospel. This tells me that the primary group of people that made up the church of Ephesus were jews? Why would you tell gentiles that that doesn't make any sense? He's trying to remind the jewish people in the church and the eventually the gentiles came into the church that this has been the case the whole time. Right? What was Paul's practice? He would go into a town, he would go to the synagogue and teach about Jesus until he was kicked out.

That's what he would do. And then he would say, okay done talking to you guys here, hello gentiles and then the church would be made of both. It would be made of one as it was always supposed to be. And I just I love that picture. I love that pattern of to the to the to the shepherd's first and then to the Magi to the ones who are kingmakers, not kings themselves. Yeah, so Jesus is found by those looking for him that's kind of, that's kind of key.

Jesus is found by those who are looking for him. Like the Magi were he is ignored by those who aren't no big deal, I don't I don't need him, I don't care about him. I'm not gonna think about him and he is hated by those who see him as a threat which is Herod or people today. I don't believe in Jesus, but I hate him. What, okay great. So what are we to do with him? We we should pray for and invest in those who are leaning forward, which is a phrase that may have shared before I got it from another, a friend of mine who leads a discipleship movement, he talks about how Jesus really spend time with people who are you ever been in a conversation with someone and it's interesting.

So what do they do? They kind of lean in like this right? People who are leaning forward, people who are interested people who are intrigued. Those are the ones we should, we need to be aware of. At least we don't know who they are. We don't know when they're gonna be ready, but those are the ones we should pray and invest in those who are leaning forward and don't waste too much energy on trying to batter someone into the kingdom. I mean, I have an amount of respect for street preachers who go to, I live near Portland's, I've been to a few blazer games and they're always outside in the paved area with a little microphone and a little bullhorn shouting at people that you're going to burn in hell unless you don't have Jesus, which is true, but who's ready for that message? You could argue. Well even if it's just one person, it's, it's enough. Okay. I can see that, but share with all but expect few right share with all but expect few. It's, it's the whole another talk. Sorry hello A. D. D how you doing? I'm doing fine, how you doing? Hello fellow A. D. D. People I know you got that.

The gospel is a light to those who know that they are in darkness. I'd like to think of it of praying for praying for people on the other side of the fence. You don't know who they are. People who you know what, you don't know, praying for those on the other side of the fence means maybe it's friends, maybe it's family members but they're not with you with Jesus on this side of the fence. And so you pray, you kind of pray God, go get them, make them ready, do something to them so that they want to follow you. They have to be ready to come over the fence instead of you. Like you know Jesus batting them with a stick over the fence, pray for those who are ready who who are leaning forward who who who wants to know him, that's why for for us who know him the gospel is a light and sometimes maybe we drift.

it's a light to those who have drifted who have been distracted and it brings refreshment and strength to those who need it. I like superhero movies and there was one version, there's there's so many versions of superheroes now it's kind of hard to keep track of but a while ago there was a movie called Superman returns and at the sort of the end of this movie, the climax of this movie, he's Superman and you know, Kryptonite is the stuff that makes kills Superman, he is crushed underneath this island of Kryptonite.

Somehow he finds the strength to push this island up out of the water and push it off into space. But as he's in space, he's like he's floating almost dead because he's used all his super strength and the Kryptonite has basically killed him as he's in around the Earth, he floats into the sunlight. Now the sunlight is good for superman, our son, it's radiation feeds his superpower. So as he is in the light of the sun, he comes back to life. I love that picture that as we're in the light of the S. O. N. We can have this light and because we're in him we have this nature that can receive this light.

Those who don't know him don't have that nature yet we want them to have that nature. We pray for them to come to a place where God can reveal himself to them to have this nature, that's what we pray for the world and no I don't wanna skip this, don't be afraid to share it because they might not receive it. You ever had that moment. I need to share, Jesus with people but I might mess it up and they won't get saved because of me, God is bigger than your mess up.

He just thankfully he is he's bigger than any way in which you think you can mess up sharing the gospel with somebody, the world and those who disagree with you with us or maybe you think you disagree with them, they're not our enemy, they're not there our mission. They need Jesus or the very least they need a breadcrumb trail left behind for them to come to him when they're ready. Maybe that's what you're doing. I'm hoping that's what we're doing. I would like us all to pray God.

Am I, am I leaving like Jesus is the bread of life, Am I leaving this breadcrumb trail behind me so that when somebody who needs it comes across it goes, that's what I need, that's what I'm looking for. And then they follow it and Jesus presents himself to them. That's what we can be doing. So will you isolate yourself and your faith from them. Like the people Jesus often fought with or will you be the star that those who are looking for something will follow? That's one of the many choices set before us today.

So let's let's pray to that end and let's see what God wants to do.

Lord, you are amazing, you could have done this any anyway, but you chose this way, you chose people in this room, you chose me and that is humbling when I stopped to think about it. You use people to reach people. You reach people who might be perceived to be an enemy, but they come to believe and worship and take the message back with them wherever they're from. Like the Magi did help us to be that witness, Help us to be that light.

That example we are, we are with the jews, the Israelites grafted into one tree. We are of one body. Like Paul said, we have one spirit. We have one mind of christ fill us with those things remind us when it's the most difficult and we're when we're facing the most difficult person instead of reacting in anger, reacting in with a smile at them with joy at them. And help us remember to maybe visually throw bread firm in their face. That's from you in love. Thank you Lord for what we're going to celebrate in a few moments at the table.

Your bread and your your body and your blood uh that you came to give to us as a gift. And as always, we're thankful for that. It's in Jesus name. We pray a man



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