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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

THE CHRISTMAS OF THE GENTILES

Epiphany


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 the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”


When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:


“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for out of you will come a ruler

who will shepherd my people Israel.’”


Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”


After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Matthew 2:1-12



Today we celebrate “The Epiphany of our Lord”. Epiphany – that’s a Greek word meaning “to show forth.” It celebrates the showing forth, or manifestation, of Jesus the Messiah to the Gentiles.


January 6th has been a holiday in the church since the earliest days of Christianity. Originally the day commemorated the baptism of Jesus. People came to the spot in the Jordan River where John had baptized Jesus. A service was held, the river was blessed, and then water was drawn from the river to be used in baptisms throughout the year. Later, the day was celebrated as Jesus’ birthday – and is celebrated as Christmas by the Eastern Orthodox churches. It’s called “The Christmas of the Gentiles” because it commemorates the coming of the Magi, or Wise Men, the first Gentiles to worship the Christ Child.


Tradition has it that the Magi came from Persia, today called Iran, to find the newborn King of the Jews. After the fall of Babylon, Persia became the great world power. The Magi of Persia would have known of the Jewish Messiah of prophecy through the preaching of Jews taken there in captivity by Nebuchadnezzar, men like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.


After Daniel had spent the night in the lions’ den, and had come out without a scratch, the Persian King Darius issued a decree that all the people in his kingdom must “fear and reverence the God of Daniel.” (Daniel 6:25-27) But that didn’t last very long!


Later, in New Testament times, Christians had preached the Gospel in Persia and had established the Christian church. But the land was overrun by the Moslems, and today Iran is ruled by fundamentalist Moslems who have no tolerance for Judaism, Christianity, or any other religion!


There were other times when Christian missionaries found doors closed against them. When Paul, on his second missionary journey, turned toward Bithynia, he was forbidden by the Holy Spirit to go there. In God’s wisdom it was not the time to begin mission work there. God had other, more fertile fields in mind.


There are times when even the most enthusiastic people become very discouraged and despondent in the mission work of the church. Even Elijah was ready to give up when he sat under the juniper tree and prayed to God to let him die. He was no longer hearing God’s wonderful promises. He heard – or thought he heard – the death knell of the kingdom of God on earth.


Had Elijah trusted God’s Word instead of his own eyes, he wouldn’t have become so depressed. The promises of God were clear. Again and again God had foretold that the Gentiles would come to the Messiah, and that His kingdom would be an everlasting kingdom. And in our case the Lord has foretold that the powers of Hell shall not prevail against His kingdom.


When people look into the future and foretell coming events, our own reason, judgement, and common sense must govern our response. Take the weather bureau, for example. It issues its forecasts, and we’d be stupid to ignore them, because the study of prevailing winds and temperatures and barometric pressures does indicate future weather conditions. But experience has taught us that the weather bureau can only draw its conclusions. It has no power to make its forecasts come true. It’s an entirely different matter when God forecasts the weather. When God instructed Elijah to tell Ahab that there would be no rain for three years, there was no rain, because God has the power to make His forecasts come true! When God told Joshua that the walls of Jericho would fall, they fell, because God had the power to make them fall!


When people foretell, our own common sense and judgement must guide our thinking and our action. But when God foretells, it’s no longer a matter of common sense and judgement. It’s a matter of faith! We’re never ashamed of God when we trust in His Word!


God foretold that the Gentiles would come to the Messiah, and it didn’t take long to fulfill that promise. Solomon had prophesied in his Psalm, “The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to Him” (Psalm 72:10a) and Isaiah prophesied, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Isaiah 60:3) And because God foretold it and brought it to pass, the Magi came from the East with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and knelt before the newborn King.


Their coming filled Herod with fear and jealousy. But the hearts of Joseph and Mary, Simeon and Anna, Zacharias and Elizabeth and others were filled with joy. To them, the coming of the Magi was an assurance that God’s prophecies would be fulfilled, that “kings would come to His rising.” (Isaiah 60:3) and that the Gentiles should worship Him. They saw the Wise Men as the first people of the mighty army of the Lord which would be made up of people of all regions and places, of all races and languages.


For our mission work, whether in a foreign land or right here in our own back yard, we also have God’s unfailing promises. We must not separate His command to share the Gospel, and His assurance that He’ll always be with us! His declaration that His Word shall not be preached in vain is always true because He makes it come true!


The Christmas season has once again pictured the incarnation of the Son of God, who is the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. And yet He came in poverty, in the form of a servant. This humility, which was beyond the understanding of the angels, was decreed by God from eternity, and dictated by God’s great love for us lost and condemned sinners. He came to be our scapegoat. Our sins were laid on Him, “that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”


But – “How can they believe in the One of whom they have not heard?” (Romans 10:14) As determined as God was that His Son should save all people, He is just as determined that all people should hear the Gospel of salvation. And they’re not to hear it from angels, but from those people who should be most eager and happy to share it – from His redeemed children on earth. That’s you and me!!


Love for Him in whom we have forgiveness of all our sins – gratitude to Him who redeemed us at such a great price – and pity for all those people who don’t know Him – must spur us on to be about our Father’s business! To our shame it must be said that we often grow dull, listless, discouraged, and critical. We need to pray every day, “restore unto me the joy of Your salvation.” (Psalm 51:12)


Actually, we should never be discouraged, because in the end there’s always victory when we’re children of God. God promised Abraham to make of him a great nation – and then commanded him to sacrifice his only son. God promised independence, glory and power to Israel – and then seemed to forget Israel’s children in the slavery of Egypt. God promised David a throne – and then let him become a fugitive. God promised to lead the Magi to the newborn King – and then let them discover that no one in Jerusalem knew of a newborn King. But these were only temporary setbacks. God restored the joy of His salvation in all of these situations when His promises were finally fulfilled.


We, too, must find the courage to meet with a setback now and then. In life’s darkest moments, God is nearer than we know. There came a day in the life of our Savior when all seemed lost. Caiaphas and his cohorts were plotting to take His life. The people He had taught and healed were turning away from Him. And over all lay the shadow of the horrible, torturous cross.


For Jesus there was no cave to hide in, as David did. For Jesus there was no juniper tree to moan under – like Elijah had. For Jesus there was no ship to sail away on – like Jonah did. For Jesus there were the certain and inescapable horrors of Gethsemane and Calvary. And what did Jesus say in that awful hour? “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you.” (John 17:1) In the face of death Jesus could speak of glory.


May the Holy Spirit give us Christ-like eagerness to lead people to eternal life. May the Holy Spirit give us Christ-like courage to meet our temporary setbacks. May He lead us, as He once led the Magi, to bring our gifts to the King, and to serve Him who first served us, and gave His life as a ransom for our souls.


Amen

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