Hot, Cold, & Lukewarm: A Sermon for the Epiphany of Our Lord on St. Matthew 2:1-12

Epiphany Icon (Magi)

It would be an understatement to say King Herod was a hothead. The beginning of his murderous plan is evident in today’s Holy Gospel when he sent the magi on an errand. He said: Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him (Matthew 2:8).

Herod, of course, is using the term “worship” very loosely here. Herod suffered from paranoia and in fits of rage killed close advisors, his wife, and at least two of his sons (Gibbs, Matthew 1:1—11:1; 122). His true intentions with regard to the Christ child become clear later in Matthew chapter 2, which says:

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the magi, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the magi.

Murder is the close cousin of anger. Murder begins in the heart, not in the hands. This is why Jesus says, You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment (Mat 5:21-22). Likewise, St. James says: Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:19-20).

Herod’s anger certainly did not produce the righteousness of God. So threatened was he at the news that there was a new King in town, he slaughtered all the male children in Bethlehem two years old and younger. And here we see that pure hatred is one of the sinful flesh’s reactions to Jesus.

With the birth of Jesus comes a message that threatens the sinful flesh beyond what it can bear. His message is the same to you as it was to Herod: you are not King, I AM. But just like Herod, you can’t stand to hear that you’re not king. We want to be in control, if not of the country, at least of our own lives. We want to call our own shots, to live life on our own terms, be in control of our own destiny. But you can’t. You’re not King. Jesus is. In vain do we rebel against Him.

Anger, murder, and rebellion are all examples of what we might call a hot reaction to Jesus. And how often we’ve found ourselves angry, angry with our lives and the way God has let them become. And this anger has even given birth to murder, for it was your anger that put Jesus on the cross. But there’s also a cold reaction to the Gospel.

With every passing year, our country seems to be growing colder and colder to the Gospel. In places where Lutheran education once flourished, now those schools are dying. In their place are institutions where the Gospel is denied and prayer is forbidden. Faithful churches are getting harder to find, instead being replaced by entertainment-driven big-box churches. Laws that once protected life and marriage have given way to legislation that destroys both life and marriage. And worse, Christians are more or less silent when it comes to speaking out against these things. How cold our country has grown to God’s Word, and how indifferent we’ve become!

But there’s a third reaction to Jesus, one somewhere in between hot and cold. Listen to what our Lord says in Revelation 3:

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.

Jesus can’t stand lukewarm Christianity. The Christian faith is not about going through the motions. The magi may not have known much about Jesus, but they came all the way from the East to see Him. We have something even better than Bethlehem in the Divine Service, but we struggle to get people who live right here in town to come out and fill the pews. The magi brought the finest of gifts to the Christ child: gold, frankincense and myrrh, but we struggle to pay our bills. These are all symptoms of a lukewarm Christianity.

One of the causes of lukewarm Christianity is worldly prosperity. You’d think that churches in a country as wealthy as America  wouldn’t have a financial worry in the world. The problem isn’t that we don’t have money, it’s that we love our money too much.

As Jesus says: For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. We think we’re rich, but in truth, we’re beggars. This was Israel’s problem in the Old Testament. When they slaves in Egypt, they knew they were beggars. They were without hope and cried out to God for deliverance (Exod 3:7). But the minute they got into the Promised Land and became secure, they no longer needed God—or so they thought. They began to say, my power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth, and they began to horde it for themselves (Deut 8:17). They had forgotten the Lord their God.   

It’s easy for us who have more than enough food and clothing to forget that we are indeed poor and naked before God. Jesus says you are naked and hungry so that you might come to be clothed and fed by Him. As He says: Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.

So repent for becoming angry with God and others. Repent for those times your love and zeal for God’s Word has grown cold or lukewarm. Repent for living for yourself and loving money more than Jesus. Keep the Sabbath. Spend time in God’s Word each day. Encourage the little ones to learn about Jesus, bring them or encourage them to go to Sunday School. Set your hearts on things above, store up treasures in heaven.  

For Jesus has covered all your anger and rebellion with the garment of His righteousness in Holy Baptism. He melts away cold hearts by His absolution. He replaces your love for things of this world with His love in the Sacrament. Our spiritual thermostat is a mess—we’re hot, cold, and lukewarm all at the same time—but Jesus does more than just adjust it. He comes into your midst, kindles the fire of faith in your heart and keeps it burning.

In the Incarnation, you see just how far Jesus traveled out of love for you. The magi came to see Him from the East and we come from however many blocks or miles away. But in the Incarnation, Jesus came all the way down from heaven and took on human flesh. And this Incarnate Lord still visits His people in Word and Sacrament today.

So follow the example of the magi and go to meet Jesus. Make it your highest priority each week to come and meet Him in the Divine Service. Yes, to bring Him gifts, but even more, to receive the gifts He purchased for you, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and innocent suffering and death.  

In giving Jesus into death for your sin, we see just how patient the Father is with the hot, cold, and indifferent. Jesus could have called fire down from heaven from the cross, but instead, He cried out, Father forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34). Jesus’ love for you is anything but going through the motions.

Here Jesus comes to troubled hearts and reassures you that it’s okay to not be in control. Congregations and schools may close, and life may not always go as we would like, but we know that not even the gates of hell will prevail against His Church (Matthew 16:18). Jesus is in control, and He works all things together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28).

God does not run and hide when things seem to be going badly. He accomplishes His good and gracious will especially in the midst of  suffering and death, as we see on the cross.For He did not spare His own Son, but gave Him into death for your sin. How will He not also with Him graciously give you all things (Romans 8:32)? Behold, the Lord, the ruler has come, and the kingdom and the power and the glory are in His hand, now and forever.

Soli Deo Gloria

+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. Matthew 2:1—12
The Epiphany of Our Lord: Hot, Cold, & Lukewarm
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