In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king—behold! look!—wise men from the east came to Jerusalem” (Mt 2:1). We have heard this and seen this depicted so often that we don’t realize this visit by the Magi was something surprising and unexpected in Jerusalem in those days. The Evangelist St. Matthew often surprises his readers and hearers with the unexpected, things by which God is showing that He is in control and that neither His human creatures’ ignorance nor their ‘knowledge,’ not their foibles or their ambitions, will ultimately thwart His good and gracious will and purpose to save fallen mankind from its own sin, the flesh, death, and the power of the devil. Who were these Magi, and how were they received and perceived?
It is widely agreed that they were Gentiles, belonging to peoples and nations from outside of God’s chosen people Israel. We commonly call them wise men; but, what did they say? “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in its rising” (Mt 2:2). They pose their question in the city of Jerusalem, where Herod the Great rules as king. “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Mt 2:3). The magi were hardly politically savvy but rather naïve to the reputation and ways of Herod. When the people, and especially the chief priests and scribes, heard this business about the magi’s divination or fortune-telling by star-watching, they likely thought, “What silly and even wicked fools! Following the omen of a star? Moses and the Prophets forbid, condemn, and mock such divination by the stars, or by any other means.” The picture that the people of Jerusalem had of the magi from Scripture is from the Book of Daniel. They were among those summoned to interpret King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. They were all regarded as practitioners of the occult, the “dark arts,” trusting in a supernatural power opposed to the true God. Faithful Daniel, on the other hand, received from the true God the ability to reveal and interpret the king’s dream. The magi were not worshipers of the true God, the God of Israel, but often served kings who oppressed God’s people. So what are they doing here?
The magi could not find the Christ by either their natural knowledge or their interpretation of something appearing in the sky. Whatever it was that the magi saw, Herod and the people of Jerusalem were unaware of it until the magi told them of it. So contrary to many artistic depictions, it probably wasn’t a blazing star like a supernova. In any case, Matthew doesn’t tell us how they drew their conclusion of the star’s meaning. He does tell us that they do not know where to find the Christ Child until they are guided by Scripture, the Word of God. God had sent His Word to Joseph by an angel in a dream, that Joseph had no need to fear to take Mary as his wife, for the son in her womb was the Son of God, the Savior. This was in order to fulfill Scripture. Likewise by His Word in a dream God kept the magi from becoming unwitting pawns in Herod’s wicked plot to destroy the Child Jesus. And an angel of the Lord again told Joseph by dream to take Jesus and Mary down to Egypt to protect the Child from Herod—also to fulfill Scripture.
The magi seemed a bunch of foolish pagans for having followed a star. The chief priests and the scribes had the true wisdom of the revealed Word of God in their hands. They should have been able to figure out the Truth of the Messiah’s coming for themselves; but, even after they read Micah’s prophecy to Herod, they missed it. The magi heard the Word of God and followed it to the Savior. The chief priests and scribes and people knew the Word of God, but did not follow it to Him. So who are the true wise men, and who are the real fools?
In the eyes of the Intelligentsia, the Worldly Wise, the Elites, the Educated, the Smartest People in the Room, the Best and the Brightest Who Went to the “Right” Schools, we are foolish and naïve for believing the Word of God, and for holding fast to Jesus because God’s Word tells us that He is the only Savior of the world. Certainly it is foolish also to believe in Holy Baptism, for that, too, is given to us through the Word of God! Whether it’s by a splash of water or full immersion, it’s the grace of God in Holy Baptism that is held in disdain. Yet we have His sure and certain promise and presence in Baptism, as we are reminded every time we speak or hear the Invocation, calling upon the Triune Name in which we are baptized: “In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” At Jesus’ baptism, the true and Triune God reveals Himself: the Son is baptized and then ascends out of the water; the Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove from the torn-open heavens; and the Father is the Voice heard coming from there.
Consider the power which God displayed in the Creation. He created all things from nothing by the power of His Word. God simply said, “Let there be … and it was so.” Again, the world—and sadly, even many church people—regard belief in the Scripture’s Creation account to be foolish, and even dangerous. The real danger is in disregarding and disdaining the Triune God and His Word. He declares that He made all things good. If we see ruin, brokenness, and death, it is because of our rebellion against Him, turning from Him, the true God, to be our own gods. That was enough to condemn the whole lot of us to the consequence we chose and deserved: death, temporal and eternal. Heaven, that is, eternal life with God, was sealed, cut off from us. Yet the God who “separated the light from the darkness,” dividing the heavens in the First Creation, now at the baptism of Jesus has signaled the beginning of the New Creation by tearing open the heavens, “unbar[ring] the way to heaven’s crown,” the crown of eternal life.
Where John was baptizing wasn’t far from the Sea of Galilee, and therefore not far from Nazareth. As the crowds were going out to be baptized by John, Jesus came as did all the rest, without fanfare. While all the others who came to be baptized were confessing their sins, Jesus of course has no sins of His own to confess. At His baptism, Jesus is marked as the One who would bear the sins of the world. As one of our Christmas hymns says, “He undertakes a great exchange, Puts on our human frame, And in return give us His realm, His glory, and His name, His glory and His name” (Let All Together Praise Our God, LSB 389, st. 4). In baptism the great exchange continues, as He puts on our sin and death and shame, and in return gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation—and His Father and His Spirit—in His name.
Jesus has no need of the forgiveness of sins given in Holy Baptism; rather, He is the forgiveness of sins put into Holy Baptism by His baptism. I’ve mentioned it before, that in the Eastern Orthodox Church the Baptism of Our Lord is also called “the Blessing of the Waters,” and indeed His holy presence—the presence of Christ the Word—in the waters of the Jordan “made all waters to be a blessed flood and a lavish washing away of sin,” as we pray in Luther’s Flood Prayer. Even if you go to the Jordan River today, it’s not the same water in which Jesus was baptized by John. Water is powerful; it can kill, by drowning, and it can give life, hydrating the physical body. Yet it cannot kill the old self, the Old Adam, and it cannot give eternal life; only God and His Word have that power. What power is there in the water and the Word? Some will say that it has no power; it’s merely symbolic, that baptism is our obedience to God, how we come to Jesus. Apart from the work of God in Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit, we cannot obey God, nor can we come to Jesus. Let us despise human ‘wisdom’ which glories in itself, and instead hear the ‘foolish’ Word of the Lord, which is powerful and able to kill and to make alive—the Word through St. Paul: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3–4); and through St. Peter: “Baptism now saves you” (1 Pe 3:21); the Word of Jesus Himself according to St. Mark: “Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mk 16:16); and the Voice of the Father to each of us who are in Christ Jesus, begotten of the Father and conceived by the Spirit: “You are My beloved son; with you I am well-pleased” (Mk 1:11). Jesus must come to us, and in His ‘foolish’ Word and in this ‘foolish’ Baptism—and in the equally ‘foolish’ Supper of His body and blood—He does come to us, bringing the benefits of His ‘foolish’ Cross to us, and making us “wise unto salvation” (2 Tim 3:15), so that we may “turn many to righteousness” to know the Triune God in Christ by faith, and “shine … like the stars forever and ever” (Dan 12:3).
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.