On Epiphany Sunday we usually hear the same story year after year. That’s the story of the visit of the magi, or wise men, to the young Jesus. But there are two other stories that need to be told, two other stories we need to hear. These also offer epiphanies, or revelations, of who this child is. These three stories offer glimpses of the glory of Christ.
The two stories that we’re not used to hearing both come from the gospel of Luke, where they immediately follow the story of Jesus’ birth. From Luke, chapter 2, 21 to 38:
Eight days after the child was born, it was time for his circumcision and naming. He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
Forty days after his birth, it was time for Mary’s purification according to the law of Moses, and at that time they took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. It is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord.”
For Mary’s purification they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. He was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.
Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple. When the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God.
He said, “Master, now you may dismiss your servant in peace, according to your word. For my eyes have seen your salvation. You’ve prepared it in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
Also there was a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years and then as a widow to the age of 84. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.
At that moment she came upon them. She began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Imagine going off to the biggest city you’ve ever seen and encountering two very strange people who approach you out of the blue and announce that your baby is not only precious to you but precious to the entire world.
I mean, you expect to encounter some strange people in a big city, but this is way over the top! You knew your baby was special. How do these people know? And how do they know so much about him? God must have revealed it to them.
Anna, the old lady, practically lives in the Temple. Seems like she’s always there. But Simeon, the old man, lives in the city. He was guided to the Temple by the Holy Spirit that day. Maybe it was a little nudge: “You ought to go to the Temple.” Maybe it was a big push: “You need to be in the Temple now!”
The Temple is a huge place; it covers 15 acres on several levels. It’s no coincidence that both Samuel and Anna show up at exactly the right place at the right time. They are there to witness two important things happening in the life of the holy family.
First, Mary undergoes ritual purification. She was ceremonially impure for seven days following Jesus’ birth. She has to stay in a kind of ritual quarantine for 40 days afterward. For a girl, it would have been 80 days.
A sacrifice is required. Normally, it’s a sheep. But for poor people, two turtledoves or two pigeons can be substituted. That’s what Mary and Joseph pay. It’s all they can afford.
While they are in the Temple for that ceremony, they also present the baby Jesus to the Lord. This is a serious matter. In the past, it was customary for many pagans to sacrifice their firstborn males to their gods. Many children were slain that way in Jerusalem’s Valley of Hinnom.
The Lord our God also laid claim to all firstborn males. But the Lord simply demanded that they be dedicated to the service of the Lord. God did not claim the blood of the child but the life of the child dedicated to God’s purposes.
That’s why Simeon could declare that Jesus would become a light for revelation to Gentiles and glory for Israel. And given Israel’s poor record of listening to her prophets, Simeon also could see that Jesus would be a source of division among his people, and a source of pain to his mother as well.
In these stories, God reveals something of the nature of Jesus to two old prophets in the Temple. In our third story, the one we’re used to hearing on this day, God shows off Jesus to some foreigners. Matthew, chapter two, verses 1 to 11:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising at dawn, and we have come to pay him homage.”
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.
Calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ “
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.
Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother. And they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
About those three kings: First, we don’t know how many of them there were, only that they brought three gifts to the young Jesus. These were gifts fit for a king – gold and aromatic spices – very expensive. Who knows how many givers had to pool their resources to afford them?
Second, they were not kings. Matthew calls them magi. They are stargazers – yes, even astrologers, but not like those you read in the funny pages or online. They are wise men, scholars who look to the stars and to ancient religious texts for clues to what is happening on earth.
They see a sign in the sky. They call it a star. It might be a rare conjunction of planets, similar to the one visible to us a couple weeks ago. They’re not dummies. They know the difference between a star and a planet, but they’re just like us; when they look up, they see stars.
Some translations say they saw the star in the east. Actually, the text says they saw the star at its morning rising in the eastern sky. The conjunction we saw Dec. 21 was visible to us at its evening setting in the western sky.
Something about this celestial sight leads them to believe that a king has been born in Israel. He must be a special king, because off they go on a long and tiring and expensive and dangerous journey.
When they finally arrive at their destination, they are not just pleased. They are overwhelmed with joy. They are delighted. They are ecstatic. And when they see the child – who is by now a toddler – they fall to their knees and pay him homage. They adore him. They worship him.
Every parent surely adores their two-year-old. But none fall to their knees before him in worship. This is an extraordinary level of veneration.
These men, who have sacrificed so much to come so far, are aware that they are in the presence of supernatural greatness, and they are humbled. They worship the little guy who stands before them, bright-eyed and happy, gurgling and blowing bubbles.
This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. This, this is Christ the King, the babe, the son of Mary.
“And the Word became flesh and lived with us,” the gospel of John says. “And we have seen his glory” (John 1.14).
These stories offer glimpses of the glory of Christ. Have you glimpsed this glory as well? Have you been called by the Holy Spirit to witness great things? Have you traveled a long and hard way to discover the Lord in your midst?
This, this is Christ the King. Let us haste, haste, to bring him praise. Amen.
This message was delivered online January 3, 2021, Epiphany Sunday, for Edgerton United Methodist Church.