We all know the Biblical story of the Epiphany, involving wise men from the east who traveled a great distance to find the newborn king of Israel. A star guided them to Bethlehem, where Jesus was, and where the wise men worshiped him.
That’s the story, right? Well, not exactly.
St. Matthew’s Gospel does not tell us a whole lot about the star that the wise men noticed, and that prompted them to leave their homeland in search of Christ. There are various theories about what this star was, held by people who do take the Biblical account seriously.
Some think it was not literally a star, but was a conjunction of planets. Others are of the opinion that it was a comet. Still others say that no natural explanation is adequate, and that the appearance of this star was a miracle plain and simple.
Whatever the star may have been, it did fulfill a divine purpose in the lives of the wise men. God definitely used it to get their attention, and to prompt within them a desire to seek out the newborn king of Israel.
Yet the star, all by itself, did not actually lead the wise men to Bethlehem, where Jesus was to be found. When the wise men had nothing more to go by than the star, they ended up, not in Bethlehem, but in Jerusalem.
The meaning and message that they read out of the star did not bring them to the modest house of Joseph the carpenter. Instead, they ended up at the opulent palace of Herod, the despotic Roman puppet king.
Geographically, the wise men were close. Jerusalem is only about six miles away from Bethlehem. But theologically, Herod’s home, and Joseph’s home, were just about as far away from each other as they could possibly be.
As significant as the star is – in the story of the wise men, and in the story of the Epiphany – it did not, all by itself, lead the wise men to the true king of the Jews, and to the Savior of all nations. It led them only to a usurper, and a satanic counterfeit.
What did finally put the wise men on the right track – toward the city of David – was the testimony of God’s Word, through the prophet Micah, to which the religious scholars in Jerusalem directed them:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”
The star had pointed the wise men in the right general direction. And after the wise men were enlightened by the details of the Biblical prophecy, and began to head toward Bethlehem from Jerusalem, the star reappeared, and once again went before them, “till it came and stood over where the young Child was.”
But without the clear and precise testimony of Holy Scripture, pointing them specifically to Bethlehem, they would not have found their Savior.
There are, we might say, a lot of “wise men” today, who are also searching for God, and for a relationship with God. St. Paul states in the Book of Acts that
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, …gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.”
This human religious search is prompted by various influences and experiences. Some people who are on this quest are thereby showing their strong sensitivity to the testimony of their conscience that there is a morally righteous God out there somewhere, with whom they should have a relationship.
St. Paul writes in the Epistle to the Romans that “the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness.” But this awareness of a higher divine power is not enough to bring people to Christ.
We can know, intuitively, that there is a God. And we can discern certain things about God through our sensitivity to the natural law that he has imprinted on the hearts of all human beings.
But the way of salvation is not accessible to us through these intuitions. The way for fallen sinners like you and me to be restored to our fellowship with God cannot be learned through this natural knowledge of God.
This kind of spiritual sensitivity and inner moral awareness is like a star in the sky, leading people in a general way toward their religious destination. But all by itself, such sensitivity and such awareness can get us only as far as Jerusalem. It will not get us to Bethlehem.
There is an increasing number of scientists today – especially younger scientists, who have not built a whole career on the assumptions of Darwinism – who are freeing themselves from the intellectual straightjacket of Darwinism, and from the philosophical assumptions of materialism and naturalism that come with it.
These scientists are not afraid to admit that in the “irreducible complexity” of so much of what see in the world of nature – in particular in the realm of biology, genetics, and the DNA code – presents scientific evidence to them of the existence of a mighty creator God.
These things did not create themselves, and they did not fall together haphazardly, but they have been purposefully engineered by some greater intelligence. And the scientists who can see intelligent design in the mechanisms of life would like to know more about that intelligent designer.
But the message of God’s redemption of the human race in the cross of Christ, cannot be read in the irreducible complexity of the eye ball. The strings of DNA that govern biological life in this world, do not tell us anything about the eternal life that Christ’s resurrection has made available to us.
The evidence for intelligent design in creation, is like a star in the sky, leading people in a general way toward a knowledge of God and of the things of God.
But all by itself, the awareness of such evidence can get us only as far as Herod’s palace. It cannot get us to the carpenter’s house, where Jesus, our incarnate Savior and Lord, is to be found.
Wise men who look for God only in the testimony of their conscience, or only in the scientific mysteries of nature, need to become wiser than they are now. They need to become as wise as the wise men of 2,000 years ago became, when they were enlightened by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures – God’s written revelation to man.
It is “the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” – as St. Paul writes to Timothy.
The historical events that are of such crucial importance for our salvation – such as the birth of Jesus, the dearth of Jesus, an the resurrection of Jesus – are not recorded in the inborn human conscience or in the genetic code of human DNA. They are recorded by divine inspiration, and on the basis of eyewitness testimony, in the pages of Holy Scripture.
How wise are we? Do we always seek Christ, and the salvation of Christ, where the Word of God tells us to look? Are we as firmly committed as the ancient wise men of today’s text were, to going to the place where the Scriptures tell us our Savior can be found, and where our salvation can be received?
Since his resurrection and ascension, Jesus is no longer present in a localized and natural way in only one place at a time – whether in Bethlehem or anywhere else. But he is encountered supernaturally in the places where he has promised to make himself available to his people.
Listen again to these familiar words from the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel, which Jesus addressed to his disciples:
“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
“I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” is a promise that is fulfilled chiefly at the times, and in the places, where the Word of Christ is taught and proclaimed, and where the sacraments that Christ has commanded are administered.
This promise of Christ’s saving and forgiving presence is not given in conjunction with the various “stars” that spiritually curious people follow in this life: whether it is the natural voice of the human conscience, or the natural evidence of intelligent design. This promise, and the certainty that Christ can be found where he has promised to be, are connected to his gospel, and to the sounding forth of the gospel.
As the wise men of the first century were instructed by the Scriptures, it became clear to them that who they were looking for would not be found in Herod’s palace. Jerusalem was not their final destination.
As the words of Micah touched their hearts and enlightened their minds, they now wanted to find the Savior of whom this prophet spoke. They now wanted to find Jesus. And they were not going to be satisfied with anything or anyone other than Jesus.
The truly wise men of today, whose hearts have likewise been touched and transformed by the inspired Scriptures, also want to find Jesus: not merely a morally righteous God whose forgiveness is unknown, and not merely a mighty creator God whose mercy is unknown.
They want to know – they need to know – the true God who is both righteous and the justifier of the unrighteous who repent and believe in him, through Jesus. They want to know – they need to know – the true God who is both their creator and their Redeemer, through Jesus.
You cannot find Jesus just by following a star. At best that might get you close to him, in a certain sense. But matters of the soul are not like horseshoes. Close doesn’t count.
You can find Jesus only by hearing, and believing, the message of the inspired Scriptures; and by going to where the Scriptures tell you Jesus is available to you and waiting for you, to bestow upon you his gifts, and to receive your praise.
Where Christ’s people are gathered in his name, around his gospel and sacraments, there he is, in their midst. And there you too will be, if it truly is Jesus – the King of the Jews and your own King – whom you seek.
You are not here, where Jesus truly is – to receive his salvation and to worship him – because you were led here by a star. You are in this place – to listen to Christ’s comforting gospel voice, and to feel his healing sacramental touch – because you have been led here by the teachings of the Bible concerning what Christians believe, what they do, and where they go.
The Scriptures supernaturally gave you a desire to be here, and they have supernaturally prepared you for the blessings you will receive here.
When the wise men in today’s text finally made it to Bethlehem, and realized that this was where Jesus would finally and truly be found, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”
And when you also find him – as God’s Spirit and grace have drawn you to find him – you too, with all truly wise men of all times and places, will rejoice exceedingly, with great joy.
“As with joyful steps they sped, Savior, to Thy lowly bed,
There to bend the knee before Thee, whom heaven and earth adore,
So may we, with willing feet, Ever seek Thy mercy-seat!” Amen.