06 January 2020

The Manifestation of God in the Flesh of His Word

The visit of the Magi is the perfect hinge between the Christmas and Epiphany Seasons, because it indicates the right response to the Nativity of our Lord.  In seeking Him out, entering the House where He is found, and worshiping Him with their bodies and their gifts, the Magi exemplify the confession of Christ Jesus and the life of faith and love to which you and all the nations are called.

It is clear that St. Matthew has recorded this story, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in a way that proclaims Christ Jesus in the light of the Holy Scriptures.  Dr. Luther, for example, was pleased to see these Magi from the East as a fulfillment of the Prophecy we have heard this evening from Isaiah — in which case we know more about these foreign visitors from the Old Testament than the New.  Also suggestive are parallels with the visit by the Queen of Sheba to the earlier son of David, King Solomon; and Jesus Himself will actually call attention to that narrative at some point later in the Gospel According to St. Matthew.  But the One greater than King Solomon is here.

Indeed, the almighty and eternal Son of the Living God is here present in the human flesh and blood of Jesus.  The fact that the Magi come to worship Him as such demonstrates their faith in His Divinity.  “For you shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.”  But notice how carefully St. Matthew describes the object of their worship as “the young Child with His Mother.”  It is the true-God-in-the-Flesh to whom they pay homage, the Child born of Mary.

Let us give the Magi credit for such astute theological insight.  They did not have the benefit of Nativity scenes and Christmas pageants to guide their steps; there was no script for them to follow.  Their prostrate worship in the presence of a poor little infant is an astounding confession of faith.  Would that we, with all our Bibles and theology, had less pride and more reverent humility in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is here with you in and with His Word and with His Flesh.

For the Word became Flesh and tabernacles with us.  Only in this way do we behold His Glory, the Glory of the one and only Son.  Only in this way does He reveal God the Father to us.

But there is more to it than even this astonishing revelation of the one true God in human Flesh.  In contrast to the sincere and faithful worship of the Magi, you already know what Herod really has in mind for the Christ Child, and how he will slaughter the Holy Innocents in his vain attempt to destroy the newborn King of the Jews.  And even though Christ Jesus Himself will be delivered from that menace, you see and hear His Holy Cross and Passion foreshadowed in those events.

He came to His own, but His own did not receive Him.  He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, but the world did not know Him.  He was under attack from the beginning, and the Epiphany of His Divine Glory was manifested under persecution, suffering, and the pain of death.  It’s all foolishness to the world.  But for you, by faith, it is the grace and power of salvation.

Even the description of Christ as the “King of the Jews” foreshadows the epitaph on His Cross.  Indeed, it is precisely there on the Cross that He will conquer the kingdoms of this world and take His throne as the everlasting King of Jews and Gentiles alike: the Lamb once slain for sinful men.

Christians from at least the second century onward saw all of this revealed in the gifts presented to Christ by the Magi.  So also Martin Luther, for example, who interpreted the gifts in this way:

“The sacrifice of gold signifies the confession of the Magi that Christ is a King; the frankincense, that He is a Priest between God and man; the myrrh, that He died and was buried.  These three aspects apply to the humanity of Christ, but in such a way that He is God and that all of this happened to Him in mortal flesh because of His Divinity.

“He could not be the King over all things for our good, if He had not first reconciled God with us and quieted our conscience, so that He might rule and do His work within us in peace and quiet, as in His own Kingdom.  Therefore He also had to be our Priest.  But if He was to be a Priest and reconcile us with God, He had to satisfy God’s righteousness for us.  But no other satisfaction was possible than for Him to offer Himself and die and in His own Person conquer sin together with death.  In dying He became our Priest, and through His Priesthood He received the Kingdom.”

All of this our dear Lord Jesus Christ has suffered and achieved for you and all people.  In Him, “God became Man, so that man might (by grace) become divine (in Christ).”  He became like you in every way, save only without any sins of His own.  He lived your human life on your behalf, under the Law, and under the burden of your sin; and by His sacrificial death He destroyed forever the power that death and the devil held over you.  Therefore, also, by His bodily Resurrection from the dead, and by His Ascension into heaven as the One who remains the true Man now and forever, He has raised you up with Himself to the everlasting Life and Salvation of the Holy Triune God.

This is the great “Mystery” of the Christian faith, as described by St. Paul, that is, the forgiveness, life, and salvation of Christ, especially in His revelation of the true Divine Glory in His own Flesh and Blood.  Not only in His conception and birth of St. Mary and in His Cross and Resurrection, but so also in His Church on earth, in the preaching of His Gospel and in His Holy Sacraments.

The “Mystery of Christ” has thus been revealed to His New Testament Apostles and Prophets, including St. Paul; and these men, in turn, have made known the Mystery of Christ to His Church.

Such is the grace and mercy given by the Spirit of Christ to His Ministers of Preaching and the Sacraments down to our own day, as well.  And this is no small thing, that the human proclamation of the Gospel is in fact a bodily manifestation of the full Divine Glory in Christ; that the pastoral administration of such earthly things as water, bread, and wine — with nothing but a few simple Words — is a very real participation in the unsearchable riches of Christ.

However foolish and humble all of this might seem to human sight and sense, it is a demonstration in the Church of Divine Wisdom, which makes the principalities and powers sit up and take notice.  For in Christ, you have access to the heights of Divine Glory, beyond even that of the holy angels.

But now, as one who is thus given to follow in the footsteps of Christ, the incarnate Son of God, you should also understand that to share in His Divine Glory here on earth means that you are also counted worthy to share in His Cross and suffering.  For now, your participation in His glory is not “in spite of” the Cross; it is rather in the Cross itself, in bearing the Cross in repentance, faith, and love for God and your neighbors.  Precisely such as these — the Cross and sacrifice — are the true glory of Christ and the manifestation of His full divinity as the only-begotten Son of the Father.

Consider the example of the Magi.  Though they saw nothing but a rundown shack and a poor young Mother with her poor little Babe — not much of a king; more pitiful than one of their own servants — still, they did not falter.  With a great, strong faith they cast out all the misgivings of common sense, and, following nothing but the Word of a Prophet and the witness of a star, they accepted Him for a King; they fell on their knees, worshiped Him, and presented their treasures.

Do not be offended, therefore, by the lowly estate of your neighbors and of the Church on earth, but rather see Christ in them.  For the everlasting Kingdom of Christ is found among the lowly and despised, in persecution and misery, and under the Cross.  Those who look for Christ elsewhere do not find Him.  The Magi discovered Him — not at Herod’s court, not with the high priests, not in the great city of Jerusalem — but in that little town of Bethlehem, with lowly folk, with Mary and Joseph.  In a word, they found Him where no one in the world would ever have expected.

Like the Magi, you are able to recognize the true Divine Glory in the Cross of Christ and in His humble flesh and blood solely by the revelation of His Word, by faith in His Word.  For though the star attracted the attention of the Magi, it was nevertheless the Word of God concerning that Star of Jacob (the Prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24) that set them on their way to Jerusalem.  And it was not the star at all, but the Prophecy of Micah, that sent them to the Child in Bethlehem.

Thus, aside from the historical fact of the star in the heavens, let us be far more attentive to the theological implications contained in the words of St. Matthew and the Magi.  The real “Star” of the story (pardon the pun) — the Star of true significance — is the Morning Star now rising in your heart by the grace of God.  It was the Child, after all, and not the star, which the Magi sought and worshiped.  In Him alone are the Prophecies of Balaam and Micah fulfilled and made more sure.

Hence the startling contrast in this Holy Gospel.  The chief priests and scribes know where the Christ is born; and they ought to know better than foreign Magi who and what the Christ will be.  And yet, they are content with their knowledge, content to remain at home in Jerusalem with their Bibles, while the very Christ of God tabernacles in the flesh less than ten miles away.

The Magi, on the other hand, receive the Word of God as it is meant to be received, and so it drives them and compels them to seek out the Christ, their Savior and their God-in-the-flesh, to find Him and worship Him.  The Magi rely on the Word, to be sure, but they are not content with Scripture for its own sake.  They cling to it solely for the sake of the Christ, to whom it points and leads.

Those in our own day who think it sufficient or even preferable to stay at home with their Bibles and to forsake the Divine Service of Christ in His Church have missed the whole point.  They may search the Scriptures, because they suppose that in them they have eternal life; but they do not find it, because they do not allow themselves to be led by the Word of God to His Word-made-Flesh.

But, no — like the Magi, follow the guidance and direction of the Word to the place where Christ is present for you.  Enter the House of Christ, and see Him cradled in the bosom of His Church.  And here in this Bethlehem, in this House of Bread, receive His holy presence with thanksgiving.

It is not simply a matter of architecture, but surely a theological proclamation of Divine grace, when St. Matthew writes that the Magi “entered the House and saw.”  Called by the Word and Spirit of God into the House of the Lord, they are enlightened by His grace and grafted into the true house and lineage of Abraham.  Their lives are fundamentally changed.  They henceforth return to their earthly homes by an entirely different way — having been called away from the false belief and treachery of Herod (who is, by the way, no longer described as “the king”).

No longer are these Magi guided by an astral phenomenon, but rather by the Star who has risen for them in the flesh here on earth.  They came to worship Him and offer gifts, but He has blessed them with the richest Gift of all — a participation in His own Divine Life.  Sacrificing themselves by repentance and faith, they have received all things in heaven and on earth from Christ the King.

So also for you.  Your too-frequent failure to believe the Word, to follow the Star, to worship the Lord as you should — your tendency to live far more like Herod than the Magi — is resolved and forgiven, not by greater efforts or “New Year’s” resolutions on your part, but by the Epiphany of God in the Flesh, who has given Himself for you, even unto death upon the Cross, and who gives Himself to you here within His Church on earth, in the Sacrament of His own Body and Blood.

God grant you His grace, that by His Word and Holy Spirit you may follow the example of the Magi in receiving these gifts, confessing the Divine Kingship of Christ Jesus, your Savior, Lord, and God-in-the-Flesh, and so also praising His goodness with your lips, your body, and your life.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

No comments: