Pastor James Hopkins wrote this sermon for the Epiphany of Our Lord 1/6/2021. The service was broadcast live on Facebook at 7pm, and is now available on the FLC youtube channel. To follow along from home, the bulletin is available as a PDF: Epiphany Vespers Bulletin
The text for the sermon was the day’s gospel lesson. To read the Bible texts for the Feast of Epiphany, click here.
A couple summers back, I was asked to prepare the curriculum for a weeklong course in classical philosophy. That’s not so difficult a task on its own, but what made it extra challenging is that this course was for high-school kids – kids who would mostly be hearing this material for the first time.
They were on their way to college, and this class was to help prepare them as Christians for what they’d be encountering in whatever is presently passing for a philosophy course.
I don’t want to gripe too much about the agendas of higher education. College can be a good thing or a not-so-good thing; and there are plenty of variables. The common problem is this: that so much of the time, we make the age-old mistake of confusing knowledge and wisdom. They are meant to complement one another, but they’re not the same thing.
What’s the difference? One simple way of thinking about it, as I told the kids, and as I’ve told some of you, is this: knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, and wisdom is knowing not to put one in a fruit salad.
It’s rarely a bad idea to make distinctions like that; but it is an especially good idea today, as we celebrate Epiphany, the visit of the three wise men.
The first thing you should know about them is that Scripture never calls them “wise.” Not ever. Not once. I know the word appears there in verse one, and even again in verse seven. But as far as translations go, it’s not the best. The Greek word that many Bibles render as “wise men,” is “μάγους” (mah-gous).
By definition, the choice of that word by St. Matthew means that these three men were actually more like astrologers, or even sorcerers or wizards. They were men who peered into the darkness of a night sky, gazing at the heavenly bodies, hoping to learn something from the stars above them.
We should not be too hard on the translators, though. In truth, it is difficult to compare the magi to any class of professionals today. You might imagine them as men who have PhDs in something like astronomy – i.e. the scientific study of the stars, or, for those in the know, imagine they’re kind of like Paul Edmon.
But not exactly. These are also men who would take very seriously the horoscope section of a newspaper.
Unlike most academics, their apparent wealth indicates that first century Persia had a better way of dealing with student-loan-debt than we do. But that’s a different story.
In short, these men, these stargazers, are abounding with knowledge. Wisdom is a different question.
In this they are not alone. Herod may not be as intelligent as they are, but he has knowledge as well. Furthermore, he also has a host of chief priests and scribes to know whatever he doesn’t.
All together, from their knowledge of the Scriptures, you’ll note that they quote Micah 5:2. This verse informs them that the Christ will be born in Bethlehem.
Herod probably should have known that already, but he had no real reason to. He was a pretender king, and it would seem a pretender Jew as well. He wasn’t looking for the Messiah. He wasn’t hoping for the Christ. Really, the idea of another King seemed more like a threat than a Christmas present.
Herod may be unfaithful, impious, and corrupt; but he isn’t stupid. And so, his only request is that when they find this King, they return to tell him where He is, so that he can “worship” Him, too.
But Herod had no desire to worship Jesus. He only wants to know where Jesus is so that He can eliminate any threat to his power. And so, once he realizes the magi aren’t coming back, he kills every last baby boy in Bethlehem two years old or younger, just to be safe.
That’s what Herod does with knowledge. He turns it into power and uses it as a weapon.
All by itself, knowledge can be a temptation to power, control, and self-preservation. There’s so much information that knowledge seems to be an inexhaustible resource. Apart from wisdom, however, knowledge doesn’t do so much good.
Apart from wisdom you end up with disgusting salads, corrupt rulers, and a God who will remain forever beyond you: far away, remote, out of reach – like so many stars.
It is not a difficult thing to learn that the One called Jesus of Nazareth was born around the turn of the first millennium. Footnote: The year zero does not exist.
Neither is it a challenge to find the place of His birth on a map: Bethlehem of Judea. It’s only about 30 miles southeast of the airport.
It doesn’t take more than a few minutes working with the written history of the Roman Empire to find records of Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, and the report of His resurrection from the dead.
But all of that is knowledge. It is information. Wisdom is something else.
These men are wise when they heed God’s prophet Micah and then follow God’s star. These men are wise when they dare to follow that star to a humble-looking house. These men are wise when they present their gifts: gold for a King; frankincense for a Priest; myrrh to anoint the Body of a Prophet. These men are wise when they worship the Child in His mother’s lap.
I want you to take a moment and think about that. These men, with more knowledge than anyone, who enjoy riches and fame, now fall face down on the ground to worship a Toddler, a Child still in diapers, whose only approval of their praise was likely to smile, eat, burp, and go down for a nap. And yet they are not disappointed.
As they look upon this Child, they do not see more knowledge or information. They see the Solution: God’s Answer to sin and death forever. Worshipping Him, they are no longer just smart men. They are wise men. For they have received the Wisdom from on High.
Everything is different now. And so, heeding God’s Word to them, they go home by another way. No more Herod. No more magic. The stars that light the night sky have lost their charm. No more do they look up for knowledge; for true Wisdom has come down from on high. And they have held God in their own arms.
So now today, all of you – you who have been made wise unto salvation: you can join in their adoration – in their worship.
You don’t just know that Jesus was born; but that He was born for you. You don’t just know that Jesus lived; but that He has made His life yours. You don’t just know that Jesus died on a cross; but that He has done so for you. You haven’t just heard the rumors that He was raised three days later. You have heard His living voice, and touched His living Body – today in His Word, and this coming Sunday in His Holy Supper.
The story ends this way: for His sake and by His grace, we shall all go home together.
Not by our own knowledge or cunning, but by another Way.