Matthew 2:1-12; Luke 2
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
God appears. But unexpectedly. First, as a baby in the womb of a blessed virgin, as a fetus conceived in Mary without a human father. This Child’s Father is God, but His body is created from nothing. God appears, born like all babies, amid pain and blood and sweat, perhaps with only the carpenter Joseph as the attending physician. He does not appear in a white, antiseptic birthing room, but in the dirt and stench of a stable. Even there, where animals live, the Son of Man is homeless (Matthew 8:20). He is laid on a cradle of hay, in whatever cloths His parents had with them. His first visitors are not family and friends, with flowers and balloons, but stinking shepherds, with nothing to give the Savior. They come anyway, to see “this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15, ESV). And then they’re gone, telling everyone who will listen, praising God that He had allowed them to be witnesses of the newborn Savior.
God appears, the one for whom righteous men and women have long waited. After a month or so (Leviticus 12:4) in Bethlehem, God appears in His temple as Mary and Joseph make their way to Jerusalem to offer the appointed sacrifice. There, in the presence of God and the priests, were Mary and Joseph ashamed that they could not offer an unblemished lamb? All they could afford were the two pigeons of the poor. Do not be ashamed, poor parents! The Child whom you hold is the Lamb who will be slain for the salvation of all. He is the promised one who appears to Simeon and Anna, that odd, old pair waiting and praying in the courts of the Lord. Filled with the Holy Spirit, devout Simeon sees the salvation of God prepared in the presence of all peoples, and goes to his death in peace, according to the Lord’s word (Luke 2:29-30). And the long-widowed Anna, praying and fasting, starts thanking God; see her speaking and pointing to the Baby in Simeon’s arms. Do you wait for the redemption of Israel? she asks. Here He is, this infant. These are the ones to whom God appears, as a baby in the arms of the poor: to animals, to shepherds, and to the old and forgotten.
And now, two years later, He appears to pagan astrologers from who knows where. These very unwise wise men nearly get the Messiah killed with their loose lips in Jerusalem. Herod’s paranoia reaches new heights with the thought of a King born in his territory. Herod is king, and he will allow no infant usurpers to his throne. But this God has no intention of appearing in the palaces and fortresses of earthly kings. His Kingdom is not of this world, nor does it come from this world (John 18:36). But Herod is right to be afraid, because though Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world, it includes this world. The two-year old living anonymously in Bethlehem is also the creator of all that exists, and Herod would not be king if the Son of God did not allow it. Though Herod does not perceive what sort of King this is, Satan knows, and the Prince of Darkness tries to extinguish the dawning Light. So the first martyrs for Jesus’ sake are babies in Bethlehem.
But the toddler God appears instead south and west in Egypt, the land of slavery. Because God has seen the affliction of His people in slavery to their sin, and He has heard their cry because of their oppressors. He knows their sufferings and He has come down to deliver them (Exodus 3:7-8). And then He is called out of Egypt, the Son of the Most High God, and back again, finally, to Nazareth of Galilee. This, too, is an unexpected spot for God to appear. When Philip told Nathanael that they had found the One of whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Nathanael asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth” (John 1:46)? No prophet, let alone the Messiah, was supposed to come out of Nazareth, the backwaters of Israel (John 7:41-42, 52). But Jesus the Christ, who was born in the city of David according to the prophets, did indeed come from Nazareth, and He appeared to Nathanael, who said, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel” (John 1:49, ESV)!
And this Jesus, the appearance of God in human flesh, continued to show up in strange places, such as in the temple at twelve years old, teaching the teachers of Israel; in the Jordan River, to be baptized by an insect-eating, camel skin-wearing prophet; at a wedding, at which He makes sure that there is enough good wine to go around. And He appears again in pain, blood, and sweat on a Roman cross, forsaken and alone. These are the places at which God shows up, and in our time, too, He continues to appear in unexpected and, even, unwanted places. His very appearance as an infant is judgment upon those who put Herod to shame in their lust for the blood of children; even as He appears in forgiveness for those who bear the shame of their abortions. He appears among the poor and the poor in spirit, who know they have nothing to offer Him. And He gives them Himself, eternal riches that will not rot or rust; He does not fail to take care of those who trust in Him. And He appears as the Savior of the old and seemingly useless, whose lives are all but over. He does not ask whether their quality of life is high enough to merit living. He does not despise their creased faces or weak bones: He lets Himself be held by them as they go in His peace to the rest prepared for them. And, He appears to those who did not know they were seeking Him, in a place they would not have looked, had it not been revealed to them. They unsuspectingly stumble upon a God in flesh, rather than the false god of a comfortable, self-made spirituality. Some, by the grace of God, believe, falling on their faces before the cross. Others pay Him only lip-service as a good teacher or a nice guy, returning to their own land to worship gods of their own choosing.
And you? Do you receive Him as He chooses to appear? Or would you rather have a different sort of God? The epiphany, the appearing, of this God is not spectacular, not accompanied by pyrotechnics, as the world expects. He comes unrecognized by those who think He should be somewhere else, and welcomed by those who have the eyes to see that He comes when and where He wills. He does not give signs beyond what He does and says. He simply appears as the one who fulfills the words of an old Hebrew book; He does a few works, heals a few people, lives and dies and, they say, rises again. He appears in the strangest places: on an altar in Euclid, Minnesota; at a baptismal font in Fisher; in the mouths of sinners called to preach the Gospel; in some words of grace between co-workers; in the giving of some Christmas presents for a family who would otherwise go without; in the shoveling of a sidewalk for an elderly woman. If God is not ashamed to appear in these places, how can we look for something more attractive? The problem is not in God; it is in us. I want God my way, as if He were something from Burger King. You want God on your timeframe, like He is your household help. We want a God who will pluck our heartstrings and stir our emotions, without having to think too deeply about what is true and what is false teaching. Or we want an intellectualized God who will keep our emotions intact, and we can go on pretending to worship without actually feeling anything. All of these are idols, gods made in our images.
But the God of the universe, who has become our God by faith in the blood of Christ’s cross, appears as He will, when and where He chooses. Those Magi, bringing their gifts, did not find Him in Jerusalem, where the kings of Jews were, but in a house in Bethlehem. Whether they actually worshiped Jesus as God, or whether they simply paid Him respect as a king deserving of a special star, they are our ancestors, men outside the people of Israel. We, like them, have no claim on the grace of God; we are Gentiles who have received everything second hand. And so we come this morning, from God knows where, with our gifts to the Lord: gifts of sin and shame, doubt and disgrace, ignorance and apathy. He gladly accepts them in exchange for His sinless life. You and I, who were not a people, have become the people of God. You and I, who deserve no mercy, have been shown the greatest mercy (Hosea 2:23). “Saints before the altar bending, Watching long in hope and fear, Suddenly the Lord, descending, In His temple shall appear” (LSB 367, st. 4). Oh empty-handed people, with nothing worthy of the Savior, come and worship! Come and see this thing that has happened, which God has made known to us. Come and worship, worship Christ, the newborn King!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.