Do You See What They Saw?
In the catacombs, "The scene from the stories of the birth of Jesus that is universal is the visit of the Magi" (The Catacombs, 87). And I'm not sure about there, but otherwise how are they usually depicted? Travelling toward a star or standing round the manger. Well the only divine account we have shows a different scene. For one, it emphasizes their focus on Jesus. The star finally stopped "over the place where the Child was." "On coming to the house, they saw the Child with His mother Mary." "And they bowed down and worshipped Him." And finally they "presented Him [not Mary, not Joseph, not them'] with gifts." So, they worshipped and gifted Jesus, and that must have been based on what they saw. Do you see what they saw?
I say they saw what St. Paul tells Pastor Timothy was there. Right there in the arms of Mary is the appearance, literally epiphany, of the kindness of God. Chrestotes is not just kindness but goodness and generosity, and these are not qualities but actions. It's goodness expressing itself not in indignation against sin's badness, but goodness expressed in tenderness and compassion (Vine, 274). Chrestotes is strength blended with leniency and tranquility inviting to familiarity and sweet association (Lenski, 930).
Do you see what they saw lying helpless in His mother's arms? What epiphanied right there, in the flesh was not just the kindness of God and not merely the love of God as NIV translates but the philanthropia of God. You don't need to know Greek to know what philanthropy is. You know it's being good toward your fellow man. The Greeks however used it especially of the beneficent feeling of the gods towards men and not as we do as man toward men (Nicol, 4, 198). The word breaks down to the Greek word for affectionate' and people'. In Jesus appeared the almighty, invisible, omniscient God's tender love, His liking, of people. It's the genuine surprise expressed in the 1974 Life cereal commercial. Where Mikey the little brother who hates everything likes the cereal. The brothers exclaim in wonder: "He likes it!"
Luther made much of Paul saying God's kindness and love for mankind appeared. "They represent grace not only as procuring for us remission of sins, but as God ever present with us, embracing us in His friendship, ever ready to help us and offering to do for us according to all we desire; in short as a good and willing friend, to whom we may look for every favor and accommodation. Picture to your imagination a sincere friend and you will have an idea of God's attitude toward you in the Person of Christ, though a very imperfect representation of His superabundant grace" (Luther's Sermons, VI, 147). If you have or have ever had one real friend, you do see what the Magi saw. Your Savior God appeared and He was a friend. This is the scene in the movie where the person is on the verge of despair, defeat, maybe death, and the door creaks open and it's not Sin, Death, or Devil who appears, but their Friend. No wonder the Magi fell to their knees and worshipped.
Do you see what they saw? What they saw was salvation. The NIV is good in that it brings forward the main verb of the sentence: "He saved us." But it doesn't capture the Holy Spirit's emphasis that it is "not out of the works of righteousness which we did." Here the Spirit concedes you've done righteous works, good works. He's not highlighting the fact Isaiah 64 does that all our righteous works are filthy rags. No, the Spirit looks at the works you have done that are righteous. You held your tongue, once. You choked out a lust. You showed love to the unloving, mercy to the unmerciful, and were hopeful in hopelessness. Well, not even these truly righteous works saved you.
I don't know what righteous works the Magi did before this text, but gifting a fortune in gold, frankincense, and myrrh surely is a righteous work. But do you see that they give the gifts after seeing, after worshipping their Savior God? I'm getting a little ahead here, but this text can be summarized: "Our Savior God did save us through Jesus Christ the Savior of us." The point being the Magi didn't just see a Baby but their Savior. No wonder they fell on their knees, no wonder they worshipped Him, no wonder they gifted Him. Do you see what they saw? Or do you think dare I say feel' like your salvation is up in the air, a maybe, an if? That your sins haven't really been dealt with by God in Christ? That your guilt is still called for because Jesus didn't suffer, wasn't damned, and didn't die in it? That the Law still hangs over your heard unkept by Jesus? Then you can't worship or give to Jesus rightly because you don't see what they saw.
But in one sense you see more than they. God in Christ saved me is the great epiphany of the Magi, but they didn't see what you see. You see the means, the agency, the way God's salvation gets to you. "He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit." You can see and feel Baptism. That sacrament was still 30 years away for the Magi. For you, it's as close as that font. For you the means of regeneration and in Matthew 19:28, the only other place this word is used, it's the regeneration of all things for you the regeneration Jesus won on the cross is yours daily in Baptism. And so is renewal. In Revelation 21:5, the One on the throne declares solemnly, certainly, "Behold, I make all things new." That newness, that freshness, the un-usedness, the un-wornness that Jesus rose with is yours in the washing of renewal that is Baptism.
Do you get see what they saw? No, you can see more vividly then the Magi. You see that you're Lazarus coming out of the dank, dark tomb of death born again to life everlasting with not even a whiff of the grave, of decay, of death about You. What Ponce De Leon never found has appeared to you. A washing that regenerates. Imagine that: you dip wrinkled, weathered, diseased flesh in this font of rebirth and renewal and it comes out young, fresh, healthy. What you exercise, diet, take medicine in pursuit of appeared in the Babe the Son of Mary. If the Magi who saw less than we fell on their faces, worshipped, and gave gifts, what does that say about us if we don't? That we don't even see what they saw.
Do you see what they saw? See in Mary's arms is your King, and God, and Sacrifice. See Jesus' perfect life and His guilty death in place of yours, but see more than they could. The life you can't live and the death you don't want to die, are poured out on you generously in Baptism. The Titus text is specific here. These are poured out on you richly, generously in the Holy Spirit. Now, the Holy Spirit is in the Waters of Baptism, in the words that Absolve you, and in the Body and Blood of Jesus you eat and drink. The Holy Spirit means to regenerate and renew wherever He is. He is described as a wellspring of eternal life. He is able to give superhuman strength, wisdom, hope, courage, patience, and more. This Spirit who is beyond what any human can do, think, or imagine is poured out on you for Jesus' sake generously, richly, overflowing your cup, soul, life.
Sure, the Magi didn't see the means you do, but do you see the results they saw? That they have been justified by God's grace. If you're still justifying yourself, you don't see what they saw. If you still give reasons for your miserable sinfulness and sins, you're justifying yourself. If you still are asking for another chance, you're still self-justifying. If you're still promising to do better, you're not facing the full guilt of your sins but justifying them. You don't want to live here; in fact, truth to be told, you can only die here over and over again. Because the self-justifications you set up will be knocked down time and again by your sins, the heavy hammer of the Law, or the flaming arrows of guilt the Devil shoots into you. If you're justified by God's grace for Jesus' sake, it's all outside of you. It's in God's heart not yours; it's in God's judgment not yours; it's safe and secure from your doubts, your fears, your fallenness.
The Magi see the truth, they might even know it, of Proverbs 28:1, "The wicked flees when no one is pursuing." Yes, I've been chased by inhuman guilts, worries, fears, doubts. "But" Proverbs goes on, "the righteous, i.e. the justified, are as bold or as confident as a lion." See in the Babe the Son of Mary that you have been justified by grace given to you by the Holy Spirit without any merit or worthiness in you. And hear the roar.
Do you see what they saw? They saw that in this Baby they were kneeling before and worshipping that they were heirs not of something in this life but life eternal. How do I know this? Because Matthew 2 says, "They returned to their country." If I think someone is an earthly king and I've travelled hundreds of miles to pay my allegiance to him that's why the Magi gave gold I don't then leave his kingdom. And the Magi didn't; they know He's no earthly ruler; He's not just the King of the Jews but He's king of kings, of all peoples, places, tribes, and nations, and He's not just king for today or all the tomorrows there is. He's king for "time out of mind". And that's not just a 1977 lyric from Steely Dan, but from at least the 15th century (http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-tim1.htm). The idea of time out of mind' is depicted in the opening of any "Star Trek" series. You start orbiting slowly around a world and then rocket away at warp speed. The problems, the troubles, the afflictions that beset here and now are not minded by one who's living in a kingdom time out of mind.
Do you see what the Magi saw or what Herod did? Herod heard the news of Epiphany and was disturbed, and since I spend so much time that way I must be seeing what he did: my defeat and the end of my kingdom. And in a sense, it is. Scripture says Jesus appeared, epiphanied, to destroy the works of the Devil, and that includes my Old Adam and sinful nature. And that's all Herod could see. But the Magi see their King, and God, and Savior and that buckled their knees, opened their hearts in worship, and their pockets with gifts. Do you see what they saw? I don't always, but I do today. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Epiphany of our Lord (20190106); Titus 3: 4-7