The Persians are Coming: Looking for the King! (An Epiphany sermon)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is He Who has been born King of the Jews? We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.   [Matthew 2:1-3]

Herod was no gem.  All the way over in Rome, Caesar Augustus remarked in a play on words “I would rather be Herod’s pig (Greek: hus) than his son (Greek: huios).”  That’s because the Law considered the pig to be an unclean animal and was not to be eaten – therefore it had no fear for its life.

However, Herod had no hesitation to kill anyone who might even remotely threaten his throne.  His beloved wife, Miramne, and her mother were murdered; three of his own sons were murdered; his wife’s ambitious brother was drowned; he strangled his own brother; a High Priest standing in his way was murdered.  While he was dying, he commanded that prominent Jews be gathered at the Colliseum and upon his death were to be executed – because, as he grimly stated, since no one would mourn his death, at least tears would still be shed when he died.

Indeed, Herod was a man who knew power and used it.  His throne was hard won by begging, pleading, and bribing in Rome, and it held a delicious irony for him: he, a son of Esau, sat on the throne of David, son of Jacob.  He would surrender this throne to no one.

So when Magi came looking not for the current king of Palestine, but rather the One born “King of the Jews,” it was no surprise that all Jerusalem trembled.  Imagine the talkative stablekeeper who asked, “So what brings you to Jerusalem?” – only to be horrified by the answer.  “Oh, no! You DON’T want to ask Herod about that!!”

But the Magi go boldly “where angels fear to tread.”  Almost daring this tyrant with a capital “T” to do something, the Magi come before him with very little concern.  Why?  Just who were these foreigners?  For this you must turn to the Book of Daniel, there to discover an empire which had a soft spot for the Jews.

Even during the time of the seventy-years captivity, Persia had Jews in high offices – do not forget the influence of men like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo.  Most notable was Daniel, who was placed as chief of the wise men – or, the Magi as they were called in that country.  From this group comes the word “magistrate” – “of the level or strata of the Magi” – which denotes wisdom and discerning judgment.  They were the scientists and the keepers of the religion, which at that time worshipped not a multitude of gods but actually only one God, the Creator of all things.

Through Daniel, the Magi became acquainted not only with the Old Testament and its prophecies, they would become familiar with the festival year, and, even more, they would be guided by an actual prophet.  When the time came, Persia believed that God had instructed them to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple.  Even as “the remnant” of Jews returned, there were many others who stayed behind in Persia.

The Magi were among the cream of Persian society.  Certainly they would not be allowed to cross robber-infested desert without escort, without the elite of the Persian military, the Persian Cavalry (Cataphracti).  And Rome knew well this fighting unit of the Persians.  In the 55 years before Jesus’ Birth, Persia and Rome had quite a history: First Rome conquered Palestine, and then went on to war against Persia.  Persia’s cavalry decimated the Roman troops, and drove Rome from Palestine.  Rome conquered again and put Herod’s father in charge.  Persia again swept Rome out and Herod’s father had to run for his life.

When Mark Anthony subsequently conquered Palestine, he attempted to conquer Persia.  Again Rome’s armies returned in tatters.  As governor, Herod ran for his life while Persia swept Rome out and established Jewish rule.  Getting the Roman Senate to proclaim him “King of the Jews,” Herod returned for three years of war and five months of siege to finally sit on his throne in Jerusalem.  By the time that Jesus was born, in some people’s lifetime they would have lived through seven times, on an average of every seven years, in which Jerusalem was conquered.

Despite the four hundred fifty years between the return from captivity to the birth of Jesus, what Daniel had taught the Magi was not forgotten.  Then one day, signs in the heavens declared that certain prophecies were actually happening now and the Magi set out from Persia to greet a God-given “King of the Jews” – born as the rightful heir to the throne of David.  They didn’t need some mysterious vision or anything extraordinary like that – all they had was what you and I have: the Word of God and faith.

So now the Magi crest the hill with the Persian Cavalry escort, looking not for the usurper presently sitting on the throne, but the one BORN for the throne.  Jerusalem trembled, seeing murderous Herod on one side and on the other side yet another siege by the Persian fighting-machine, with themselves the cannon-fodder between.

Herod was scared: having only a Roman garrison stationed in Jerusalem, he could do nothing about these obnoxious Persian Magi.  Nor could he do anything about the threat to his throne, since after all, the Persians had always had that soft spot for the Jews – and Herod didn’t want to offend the Cavalry.

Even though the danger was very real and the threat of Herod’s retaliation hung over their heads, still how many in Jerusalem must have smirked to see Herod be so-o-o accommodating to these brash Magi looking for the One BORN King of the Jews.

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Many things in this story catch our interest.  The faith, understanding, humility, and boldness of these men are quite obvious.  Their gifts are a bit startling as well: gold we have no surprise at, since it was the symbol of kings.  But frankincense was an incense; in religious terms, its smoke symbolized prayer.  And myrrh was often a spice used in preparing a body for burial.  Now why would you bring that to a new-born King?

Traditionally, Epiphany has been the celebration of the non-Jews, the Gentile Christmas, so to speak.  The big part of the joy of this occasion comes from the declaration that the Messiah, Jesus the Christ, was not for Jews only, but for all mankind.  It began the season of Epiphany where Jesus would be shown to be the Savior of the sick, the hungry, the frightened, the seeker, the weak, the outcast – Jesus is the Messiah for ALL people.

These are useful and necessary themes to keep before us in regard to Epiphany, for the repeated message is that we too can stand under the salvation of Jesus, whether we are Jew or Gentile.  What a great comfort that has for us.

But there is an additional comfort in the playing out of the story, which also can be most reassuring for our daily lives.  We view Herod with horror, not only because he committed all kinds of atrocities, but also because he had such power that people were helpless against him.

Yet the Magi stood boldly against him, and HE was powerless against them.  There is a parallel here.  Satan and the powers of this world can also seem so overwhelming that it is easy to feel like giving up hope.  Yet like the Magi standing seemingly unruffled before Herod, we too have had a Hero Who has stood unruffled, unbeaten, against all the powers of darkness this universe has.

Even when Jesus was going to His death, you see Him as One very much in control.  The crowd sent to capture Him was thrown to the ground by His simple declaration, ” I AM ! ” [John 18:5-8].  Before the High Priest, He must give the Jews the ability before they could condemn Him [Matthew 26:59-66].  Before Pilate, Jesus quietly affirms that Pilate would have no power unless it were given to him [John 19:8-12].  Even on the Cross there is the fulfillment that no one would take Jesus’ life from Him, but He would hand it over [John 10:17-18; Luke 23:46].

The message that Epiphany has for us is that we too can stand, not by ourselves, but with Jesus – stand against what seems to be unbounded evil, and still stand firm.  Like Jesus, our bodies may experience harsh treatment, yet like Jesus – because of Him – control doesn’t lie with the king of this world, but with the King of ALL creation.

That’s not easy to always believe, and our faith does waver.  We begin to wonder if Satanic forces aren’t more powerful than we are.  It certainly can seem that way.  What can we do to stop such things as pornography, abortion, gambling, drugs, abuse, even terrorism? – and the list can go on and on.

Your own body and life can be such a battle to maintain control.  Even when you don’t intend to do anything wrong, still you do or say something that hurts someone else.  Sometimes the desire to be like Herod can be so strong – you will defy God and man in your quest to control life; you will destroy anything which you see as a threat to your goals; you will get somebody back and make them hurt; you will cheat; you will open the door to temptation now matter what the cost to others, to yourself, to your future.  Is it worth trying to fight anymore?  It just looks like evil will win anyway.

The Magi remind us that that isn’t true.  Something – Someone – far greater had been in control of their journey, and as they followed His promises and prophecies, they did achieve their goal.  Not that it didn’t take boldness, yet also humility!  It took boldness to stand against the obstacles of their travel, and to stand against Herod.  Yet they came in a humility that made them surrender themselves to the mission of coming face-to-face with the new-born King; the humility that would make them cast aside pride as they looked foolish going door-to-door searching for something which the promises said would be there; the humility that made them not stand, but kneel before the real King.

However, the point is that they met their King.  They achieved their goal.  You also have that same experience awaiting you.  No, you don’t have to go to Palestine or to any other far off place.  All it means is that you get off your seat and come and stand before your King here at the Altar.

And what a response!  Here He comes to share His very self with you in Holy Communion.  Like the Persian Cavalry which protected the Magi, He comes to be with you, but oh so much more! He will be in you and will surround you.  He will empower you with His involvement and guidance.  Backed by the authority of His eternal throne, He will touch your fears.  He will walk with you in your weaknesses, bringing His forgiveness as well as the strength of His unbreakable promises to bear on your efforts to live for Him.  He will guide you to YOUR goal, until that time when you also will kneel before your King and never again have to face Satan and his powers.

The Magi came not to merely observe a little Baby, but rather they came searching for the KING.  They did not “oo and ah” over a tiny form, but rather they fell down and worshipped this One Who was born to be Lord over all things.  They did not come to merely acknowledge a ruler over the Jews, but to bow before the Savior and Sovereign of their lives.  Will you also humble yourself and make your journey to your Lord and Savior now, casting aside pride and seeking to come face-to-face with your King throughout this life and into the next?  If so then come to His Altar, bow in humility before Him and let Him share Himself with you.

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