This text will be part of the Gospel which is appointed to be read in the Church to-morrow, and to-morrow will be the last day of the twelve which are appointed to wait upon the feast of Christ's blessed Nativity. The last day of the feast, and, as St. John said of another, the last an the greatest day of the least to us; for by this last day we cone to have but interest in the first, and by the light of this star to find out our right way to Christ.
I shall therefore take the opportunity of our meeting here together to-day, (which of all the twelve is the nearest to the last,) to look upon those Persons that looked upon this star, and to take our text out of that Gospel which belongs to the duty of Christ's Epiphany, the rather because this present Sunday (as by the course of our calendar it now falls out), hath no other proper Gospel of its own assigned to it.
[291/192] From this appearing of the star we call it the Epiphany; and when we call it so we speak Greek, for Epiphany is neither English nor Latin, but a word borrowed from the Eastern Fathers, which in their language signifies a manifestation, or the shining out of somewhat from above. From whence God let this star appear in heaven, thereby to manifest Christ to the Gentiles here on earth, and so to us.
And because there were more Epiphanies of Him than one, the Epiphany of the Dove and the Voice from above, in the next chapter hereafter, as well as the Epiphany of the light, and the star from above, in this; therefore will you have to-morrow the lesson at Hs baptism for the one, as you have the Gospel at the sight of this His star, for the other.
And though many other Epiphanies, or manifestations, of Him there were besides these which are remembered in the Church service all the Sundays following, yet this here hath carried that name from them all, both because it was the last of them all, and because it was one that did manifest as much of Him as all the rest did, that is, the divinity and the greatness of Christ there above, as well as the humanity and the humility of Christ here below.
The prophet Isaiah promised us that we should have two signs, one from the depth here beneath, and another from the height above; and though Ahaz, and such as he is, regarded neither, yet God gave them both; and those that are wise, wise as these men were, will look either way, and regard them both (both the shepherds' sign and the wise men's sign), of which two as we have hitherto looked upon the one, so are we now come to take a view of the other and to lift up our eyes from the humility of the cratch to the sublimity of the star. Vidimus enim stellam Ejus in oriente, 'for we have seen his star in the east,' where for the better method of the sermon, we shall observe these parts of the text.
(I.) The persons that saw this sight, who they were, and what manner of persons they sustain.
(II.) Then the sight itself, or the star that they saw, what manner of star it was.
(III.) And thirdly, the place in which this star first appeared to them, whereof' they say, vidimus in oriente, that they saw it in the east.
[292/3] In which three, if we meddle not in the pulpit with these things which we meet withal in the schools, Multa quæ sunt erudite questionis, yet there are many things in them to be enquired after by us, which peradventure we knew not before.
The sum and application of all will be, that as these wise men did, so we also may look out to see if we can set our eyes upon this star, and theft to guide our course by it how we are to go to seek, and to find, and to worship Christ, as they also did before us.
Of which that we may speak, &c.
Pater Noster, &c. 'For we have seen his star in the east.'
The matter of this text is the manifestation of our Saviour; and the manner of it is by a sign from heaven. A sign that was presented to certain persons of the last, with whom, as they stand here first, so are we now first to begin, and to enquire what manner of men, or what conditioned persons they were, that Christ should here first choose them out of all other men abroad in the world besides, to reveal and mani-fest himself unto them.
The legends and uncertain stories of them, wherewith the vanities of former times were wont to entertain the people in their sermons at this season, have abused the patience and the credulity of the world too much already when they could precisely reckon up their number, and tell every one of their names, and call that man an heretic that would not believe them to be the three kings of Colen.
And because there are amity now about us that are ready to say as much still, and to believe that tradition themselves no less than we believe this Gospel, if it might not be thought so much time and so many words lost, I would tell you how that legend hath been made up among them.
(1.) And first, for their number; there is an imperfect author, whom they have printed under St. Chrysostom's [293/294] name, (but it is none of his, nor nothing like him,) who delivers it for a tradition in his time, though no man can yet tell whenever that time was, that they were twelve in number, and neither more nor less, to wait upon Christ's person, than there are now days to wait upon his nativity. But to this tradition they hold not.
There was a Pope not long after that, as they say, knew more of it than St. Chrysostom ever did, and he reduced them to the number of three, leaving no other reason so to do but only because they brought no more than three offerings to Christ with them; whereof he thought fit to assign every man one. And to this tradition they hold them now, saying, many of them, that it is a general tradition of the Universal Church; though in the meanwhile there was never yet any Church (and there are Churches of far greater extent than theirs is) that either held it, or so much as ever heard of it, but their own.
And yet if they would not obtrude this, or ether such of their own traditions (as they have done of late) upon all other persons whatsoever, it were no great matter if (in such an indifferent and inconsiderable matter as this is), we suffered them to go alone by themselves aid enjoy their own private opinion; but the reason that they give of it is not worth the owning, as if every one of these men came to offer a several gift one to acknowledge Christ's royalty, another His divinity, and the third His humanity; for he was a [294/295] better Christian that said, Non singuli singu1a, sed singuli tria obtulerant. He that does not himself alone acknowledge all these three together in Christ, (as your Majesty does when you come upon that day to offer,) comes not to Christ as these men did, but keeps from him one; of his oblations, one of his due recognitions; either his gold, or his frankincense, or his myrrh is waiting.
(2.) Secondly, for their names. There was one Peter Comestor that furnished their legend with no less than nine of them together, three in Hebrew, and three in Greek, and three in Latin; and all of his own making, for he lived not in the world, and was not born till they had been above a thousand years dead in their graves, and he had never an author of whom to learn any of those names but himself shone. Upon whose credit some other men took them after-wards up, and made use of then for their several purposes. Whereof in Philip Melancthon's and Luther's time (for so they say themselves) their using of those names for certain spells that they had in those days, was one.
[295/296] (3.) And this added a third story to their legend, where, because St. Matthew said in his language that they were the magi, the common people were made to believe, in their language, that they were all magicians; as good a reason, that, as, because he said that they came from the east, there-fore that they were all Ethiopians, or those whom we call the black-moors of Africk, which is full south from Jerusalem.
(4.) But whatsoever their names or their country were heretofore, they have now, in a manner, lost them both, and are generally (by them that would teach us all how to speak) called the three kings of Colen, a town here hard by; not because they ever lived there, but only because they are said to lie there; or else they are much mistakes that say it, for as they cannot agree, nor tell who brought them thither, so I think it is as great a question whether they be there at all, when at Saragosa in Spain, some men are as confident that they have them there as others are at Colen that they lie buried (not so, neither, but that they are all put up in their silver shrines), among them. I doubt it is too true that which father Latimer said once of them, in one of his sermons upon this Epiphany before king Edward; that there is no truth in any of these stories at all. And so I leave them to their own uncertainties, that we may enquire after these persons here at a far better oracle, and there learn some instructions from them.
The best light we leave to see and know who they were is in the Scriptures, where if we look upon them as they are set forth in this chapter of St. Matthew, and in some other places that were written and prophesied of them before, we shall find that they sustain the nature and condition of four several sorts of persons. Whereof the first is, the persons of the Gentiles and heathen men; for they were men of the East, and at that door come we all in, east, and west, and [296/297] all, as St. Paul told them at Anitioch, at the door of hope which God had set open to the Gentiles, whereof these men were the first that ever entered in at that door; and when they entered, they did it not in their own persons alone, but in the names and persons of us all, all the Gentiles that should come after them, to whom they led the way to Christ, and left the door open for us ever since; for Christ That let them in, if we will but take the pains to seek Him and to come to Him as they did, we may be sure will never shut us out; but as by them He hath invited us, so He will be ready to receive us, and make good all those promises which both by His patriarchs and His prophets before, and by Himself and His Apostles after, He hath published to all the world. For so He did when He said first, that all the nations of the earth should be the better for him, by virtue of which saying, these first-fruits of the Gentiles had their interest in Him. And so He did again when He bid all the nations of the earth come to Him; by virtue of which saying likewise, both we ourselves and all other people besides, (all that do not either sit still and never look after Him, or do not go the wrong way to Him, when they seek Him,) all such may have their interest also in Him as well as these men here had.
(2.) Secondly, they sustain the persons of great and honourable men. For so much we have of them in this chapter, whereby we may fairly and clearly collect that they were men of some higher note and regard than other common men were. And tl_e prophecies that went of them before call them no less than kings and princes; to-morrow you shall have two lessons that call them so, more than once, (five or six times together,) besides that prophecy in the Psalms which hath been usually applied to them in the Church, that the kings of the isles should come and offer Him prersents, the kings of Arabia and Sheba should come and fall down before Him with their gifts.
[297/298] Or if that place be not precisely to be understood of them, but rather of some other kings and princes that came in long after them, (for if they were kings, they must be kings of some parts of the east, from whence St. Matthew says here they came, and not of any parts of the south, from whence it was that the queen of Sheba came, whom therefore Christ Himself calls the queen of the south,) and yet this hinders not but that Isaiah prophesied of them, as well as David prophesied of others; and so they might he kings still.
I had rather it should be so than otherwise; both for the honour of kings, that Christ should first of all call them to him before all others; and for the honour of us all, that kings should be our first leaders to Christ, and the ante-signani, the standard-bearers of our true religion towards Him. He that hath not a malignant eye to one of these three, either to Christ Himself; or to the presents that are brought him, or to them that bring Him the presents, will be willing enough to let them he here, as Isaiah called them long before, to let them be kings.
But however it be, surely men of great rank and con-dition they were, for they came not to Jerusalem here as men that went about their own private affairs, and nobody to regard or look after then when they came. But they made their entrance into the city after a public and a solemn manner; they are ushered in by a star from heaven; they come, if not as kings themselves, yet as the ambassadors and lieutenants of kings, at least. And they come from the whole body of the Gentiles, in the behalf of them all, to negotiate with the new-born King about their peace and alliance with Him for ever; a matter of greater state and more concernment than if all the kings and princes of the earth had met together at Jerusalem about their own alliance or peace, one with another. Whereupon the whole city takes notice of them, the king there, and the people, and all; and so great an embassy, so powerful a coming it was, that they were all amazed and troubled at it, Herod and all Jerusalem with him. Whether it was their great number that attended them, or whether it was their great treasures that they brought with them; or whether it was, chiefly, their business and their errand that they caused to be proclaimed [298/299] and published before them; or all these together; but somewhat it was that rendered them such persons, as that the king called together his council about him for their better reception and audience, and admitted them to his own private conference with him besides, giving them their despatch and their answer (which princes use not often to do, but to persons as great or as considerable as themselves), with his own mouth. So great persons they were.
Now from time greatness of their persons great men have their lessons, that as they have their interest in Christ as well as others, so it is their duty to look after him no less than others do; and wherever they can find Him, though it be in His great humility, in His cratch or in His cross, the cratch of His contempt, or the cross of His persecutions, or in any condition whatsoever, yet there to come and acknow-ledge Him, and with all their greatness, and all their train, and all the treasures that they have, to fall down at His feet and offer their service to Him; the great men of the world no less than the meanest shepherds of the field (of whom you heard last that they had their Angel, as well as these men had their star), to bring them both to Christ. For as He is no acceptor, so is He no excepter neither, of any person whatsoever, but looks for the same fear, and the same honour, and the same religion from them all alike.
(3.) Thirdly, as they sustained the persons of great and honourable men, so did they the persons of wise and learned men besides, which was the title (as a title more to be regarded than all their greatness), that St. Matthew here gave them. Though in calling of them the magi of the East he does in effect, and virtually, call them the princes of the East; for magi, though it be a word now indenizened into the Greek and Latin tongues, (wherein commonly the masters of those tongues that use that word have no very good meaning in it either, when they use it for such as Simon Magus, or Elymas the sorcerer was, in the Acts of the Apostles,) yet originally and properly the word belongs to neither of them both, being in itself (as Herodotus that knew it best, has [299/300] told us), a Persian word, where there was never a king that had not this name of Magus given to him, that is, a man learned and wise in all manner of natural and supernatural knowledge; whereof they accounted their knowledge in astrology, or their study of the stars, to be chief. And in that sense was it given to these men here; for from that place they came. In other places and in after times it came to be a word corrupted and to degenerate into a bad sense; but here it held in a good.
And a good use may be made of it; that as Moses was never the worse for being brought up and learned in all the wisdom and learning of Egypt, so shall neither any greatness of place, nor any greatness of knowledge, nor any height of wisdom and learning whatsoever (if it be rightly ordered), make any persons the more unfit for their coming to Christ, or keep them at all the farther off from Him, Whose super-natural and divine knowledge may well make the other subservient to it, but destroys it never.
(4.) Lastly then, they sustain the persons of faithful and religious men, without which all the greatness and all the wisdom or learning of the world besides will do us no good.
The star that was in heaven set fire upon another star that was in their hearts, which St. Peter calls the star of faith, that shineth out there no less than this star did in the firma-ment. A star that will bring every man to Christ, and make him wise enough; for it will make him wise to salvation, which is a wisdom far above all that worldly men have, and far transcending all that these wise men had before they had it.
Wise men they were before, and much knowledge they had, but never so truly wise till now that their knowledge in other matters brought them to the true knowledge of Christ, and that their looking up to heaven, to the light and the star there, taught them how to find their way on earth, and to come, with St. Peter's star in their hearts, to Him Whom St. John calls Lucifer orientis, that is, the bright morning star of all the world, without Whose light and influence, both they, and we, and all the world, had been still in darkness. But now it is oriens ex alto, and it was their wisdom to follow it, so will it be ours; and if we be wise, by one and the same [300/301] Spirit we shall think we know nothing till we come to know our right way to Christ, and how much it concerns us never to be seen out of it, if ever we mean to come where He now is.
And here I have done with the persons.
II. Follows now, to look awhile upon the star that was presented to these persons, vidimus enim stellum Ejus.
Where we have two things to see to; the first, that they saw it was a star: the second, that they saw it and knew it to be his star. Stella and stella Ejus; these two.
(1.) And first, for the star itself. To know what manner of star it was, it hath posed not only the greatest astrologers, (the diviners at the stars,) but the greatest divines too, the searchers into higher matters than they were able to reach; it hath posed them all that ever meddled in it. For when they have come, any of them, to look too curiously after it, it hath so dazzled their eyes that like men planet-stricken they can hardly tell what they say, and conclude about it they know not what.
The beginning and the ending of it, the place, the motion, the splendour, and many other peculiar it had, trouble them all; insomuch as some of them, after a great deal of time and labour lost, are fain to give it quite over, and say it was nothing else but either the Angel that appeared to the shepherds, or the Holy Ghost himself. But though it he most generally held with St. Austin that it was a new-created star, yet, as St. Gregory Nyssen said of it, (for it was an opinion older than St. Austin,) I see no reason for it at all. For why might not one of the very stars be now set to move at God's pleasure, out of the ordinary way and course of it for this purpose, as well as the sun and the moon were once made to stand still and not to move at all, for another?
We will therefore let all other men's sayings of it alone, [201/302] and rest only in these who say they saw it with their eyes, that a star it was. And if we will now look at it, as they did, more to increase our faith than to satisfy our curiosity, we shall find enough in this book of the Scriptures to content us, and to resolve us all the questions that need to be made about it. Leaving therefore the exact particulars of it to Him that first made it, and afterwards ordered it as He pleased best himself, and Who indeed only knows what it was, (for He can call all the stars by their names, which no man could ever yet do besides,) if we demand why God did here manifest his Son by a star? three reasons there are given of it, and being all grounded upon the mysteries of our faith and religion, they are good and useful for us, all three; but there is a fourth that is more sure and certain than they are, and to that, when we shall come to it, (for I see I shall be hardly able to reach it to-day,) we are to hold us.
(1.) But first, by a star it was, and no greater light; for though the Epiphany of Christ would have been more glori-ous, and more manifestation-like if it had been made manifest by the sun, or by the moon, from whence the sound of it would have gone out into all lands, and the news of it to the uttermost parts of the earth, that the whole world might have been stirred up at it, and so set to enquire after it, its twenty-four hours at furthest; yet because the fulness of the Gentiles was not to come in all at once, they had but their star-light at the dawning of the day, but afterwards they had the sun in his brightness, his full strength upon them, and then was Christ in his glory ; now He was in His humility.
(2.) But secondly, by a star it was, and no less light; it was neither a meteor nor a fire-drake, but a star it was, and a glorious creature it was. For the stars are the glorious inhabitants of heaven; and for one of them to wait upon Christ's humility here on earth, it was a sign that there was somewhat more in His person than was to be seem in His condition; more in that little habitation at Bethlem, over which the star stood, than was in all the world besides, and more to be honoured.
Whereof ye shall mark the Evangelists to be ever careful in mentioning these two together, his humility and His [302/303] glory, his lowliness and His majesty, all his life through.
If men be scandalized and offended at it when they hear of their Saviour in a cratch, where they themselves through their own pride and luxury had laid Him, let them listen to the celestial music that the Angels and the quire of heaven made about it, as soon as ever they had but named it to the shepherds. If they think much of his stable, let them look upon His star. He That was hungry Himself knew how to feed many thousands at a time; and He That died upon the cross, which useth to be the greatest scandal of all, was at the very same time disposing of paradise, which is the greatest power of all. Ye shall see a beam of this star still pointing to Him, and reflecting again from Him, in every thing He did.
(3.) Thirdly, by a star, as most suitable and agreeable to them here, that were seen in the stars and read in that book of the creatures, for the stars were the best books they had. And where they sought God in His works, God was pleased to reveal somewhat more to them in His word, and to meet with them in their own learning.
Qui disponit omnia suaviter, as the Wise Man speaks of Him; God disposeth of all things and applies himself so to all men, that otherwhiles He becomes that thing to us which we most affect and study. For He puts no man out of his way, (always provided that sinful courses and wicked studies be accounted no ways, for they are deviations, and running out of a man's way,) but otherwise the holy Ghost will pursue every man in his own way, if they be willing to listen after Him; and therefore He deals here with these men as He does often in other places of this book, He speaks usually in such forms, and after such a manner, as may most work upon them to whom He speaks. Of Moses and David, that were both shepherds before, God says that He took them to lead and to feed His people. To the Samaritan whom Christ found at the well, He took occasion to preach to her of the water of life. To those that followed Him to Capernaum for bread, He preached of the bread o£ heaven, and the food that should never perish, To them that were fishers, He tells them that they should be so still, though in a more [303/304] troublesome sea than they toiled and wrought in before. And to these men in the text, accustomed to the study and contemplation of the stars, He presents them with a star agreeable to their own employment, that so He might bring them that way, by their own way, to Himself.
And yet He does it not here by an asterism, but by one star only, and no more, the better to advance their learning from a natural and ordinary, to a supernatural and divine knowledge of Him. For those that are natural astrologers, to whom, as we read in Genesis, God hath given the stars of heaven for signs and seasons, they never use to calculate by one star alone, but most an end by the conjunctions of many aspects, by constellations and oppositions in the ascendant of one star against another, which here these men found not.
But this they found, that herein God did not so much put them out of this way as He set them forwards, and far righter in it than they were before.
Be but we willing to have Christ alway in our eye, to make Him the guide and end of our way, and He will never lead us out of it, but make use even of our own ways to bring us to heaven. For He is, as his Apostle was; He makes heaven all things to all men, that He might gain all. To the man that loves true pleasure and gladness, He presents it as all joy; and to the like ambitious man, as all glory; to the merchant-man it is a pearl; to the husbandman it is a rich field. To all men it is made all things, that they might come all thither to Him.
And these three are good lessons for us, and good reasons for the star.
(4.) But there is yet another, to which I must stick closer, and rely upon it more than upon all these, and that is the fourth and the last reason of all, if we could pursue it now; that God might be as good as His word, and found true in His promise, whereof He never fails.
For He had long since made a special promise to us all, that this star, by the name of a star, should arise upon us; orietur stella ex Jacob. It will take up some time to look upon it well. But there came one from the mountains of the east, fifteen hundred years before, and saw in his prophecy there, (which God Himself had put into his mouth,) the same star that the [304/305] wise men saw here, and the same light that Simeon saw after, saw it with his eyes; we say one of our hymns for it there every day, in memory that this promise of God was kept, and that this prophecy was fulfilled by it, the prophecy of orietur stella in Jacob; which is all the light we have now or ever they had before us, to bring us all out of the kingdom of sin and darkness to the kingdom of grace and glory; grace here and glory hereafter.
It is a good point, this, to be followed; but we are now at a good period to make our stand.
And because both the season is to be regarded, and the Sacrament to be attended, I will therefore suffer the time to take me here off from this sermon, There are in the text both this point and two more, which I propounded to myself at first to be stood upon and considered more at large; but there are more Sundays belonging to this Epiphany of Christ than one, and it will not be untimely both to make an end of this text and to make our best use of this star, upon any of them all.
To God the Father, Son, and holy Ghost, three persons and our eternal Deity, be all honour and glory, now and for ever. Amen.