Today, is Epiphany Sunday. Technically, Epiphany occurs tomorrow on January 6th, but what about this word “epiphany.” Apart from the religious term, what does that word mean to you? It comes from a Greek word meaning “to reveal.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word is used more now than double that of two hundred years ago. The most common secular definition is “a moment of sudden realization or insight” (Lexio, https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/epiphany). The folks over at Literary Terms calls an epiphany, “an “Aha!” moment. As a literary device, epiphany is the moment when a [person] is suddenly struck with a life-changing realization which changes the rest of the story” (From <https://literaryterms.net/epiphany/> ). A popular related idiom is “a light bulb moment.” Suddenly, a connection is made and the light bulb goes on. You can see. You have a new understanding. So, the word “epiphany” has a frequently used meaning that goes beyond the church, and yet, there are so many people who don’t really understand what it means from the Christian perspective. It has more to do with that original Greek meaning to reveal, rather than the sudden insight that it has come to mean.
In the Greco-Roman world the word had a connotation of not just any old revelation, but the public appearance of a state official in a local province. So, the early church adopted this term for the revelation, the brilliant appearance of Christ in the flesh for the world. That is why Epiphany follows Advent (the arrival) of Christ. We have the arrival of the Light, which is Jesus. Then, we have the revelation, the outside acknowledgement, which comes through the Magi.
So until about two hundred years ago, the celebration of Christmas usually did not occur prior to Christmas Day. Preparations might be made, but the celebration BEGAN on December 25th and ran through the twelve days of Christmas with a gift exchange happening on Epiphany, symbolizing the Wise Men and their gifts to Jesus! Now, our culture wants to front load all of this. I remember reading articles in October and November saying that the earlier people put up their Christmas decorations, the happier they are. Of course, by the time December 26th rolls around, they’ve had enough and want to take everything down. That is something that we will need to do today and through this coming week … un-decking the halls, so to speak.
Does it matter whether we celebrate the days leading up to Christmas or after? As the exact date of Jesus’ actual birth is not known, and December 25th was picked for a variety of other reasons, it really doesn’t make any difference. What is important is that we don’t forget that through Jesus, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5) As hard as it had tried and continues to try. What is important is that , “In him was life, and that life was the light of all [people].” (John 1:4) What is important is the revelation of that light, and who recognized it first, outside of Jesus’ immediate family, the Magi, people from far outside of Israel.
Recently we have heard a couple of Old Testament readings that talked about the world, the nations, coming to Zion, to Israel, to worship the true God. In December, we had the reading from Isaiah 2:2-3:
2 In the last days
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
3 Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
Then, this morning we read from Isaiah 60:3, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” The appearance of these people from outside Israel is an indicator that this had begun.
So, let us read about this epiphany, the revelation and recognition of this person called Jesus. Our text comes from Matthew 2:1-12:
2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’” (Micah 5:2,4)
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
In the beginning of the service, we sang “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” but were there three kings? Were they even kings? The truth is that we really don’t know. We can see in the text that it doesn’t mention a number or call them kings. We do know is that three gifts were mentioned. These people arrive without warning, and we know that their entry into Jerusalem was auspicious enough that King Herod and all Jerusalem were disturbed. Not only that, but Herod gave them an audience. If they were kings, princes, wise, or at least wealthy, they likely would not be traveling alone like we see them pictured on Christmas cards. Traveling was dangerous, especially with the value of the gifts they were transporting. If they were indeed wise, they would be traveling with an entourage. For it to be impressive enough to disturb Herod and all of Jerusalem, it would have to be pretty large.
Of course, if you know anything about Herod the Great, you know that if Herod is disturbed, everyone is disturbed. He was not an Israelite, but an Idumean, a group of people who converted to Judaism centuries before. He conquered the area and then made a deal with the Romans to solidify his power. Despite his impressive public works, such as completing the Second Temple, he was not liked by the people. He claimed to be Jewish, but his ruthlessness and lifestyle made practicing Jews doubt this. He ruled as a tyrant. He was also paranoid and very jealous of his power, to the point of having members of his own family killed. To be fair, that wasn’t so terribly unusual among royal families. But, naturally the claim that there was a new born “king of the Jews” would get his full attention. After all, that was supposed to be his title. No one said that Herod was dumb. He knew that his power was under threat. In the next, passage he tries to have Jesus killed by killing all boys in Bethlehem under age two. For Matthew’s Gospel, Herod is more than a ruthless tyrant. He demonstrates the resistance of the world’s power to God’s rule and plan of salvation through Jesus.
However, Herod does something very helpful for our travelers. They have come looking for the “king of the Jews” where you might expect to find a king, the country’s capital, Jerusalem. Herod has sons who will become kings, but that is not who the Magi meant, so Herod calls in his wise men, the chief priests and teachers of the law. Where is this special king that the prophets foretold supposed to be born? Bethlehem. Great! The Magi merrily continue on their journey.
Do you know what we do not hear? We don’t hear how the Magi and the chief priests and teachers of the law all go to Bethlehem. When you think about it, doesn’t that seem strange? They know that the Magi have arrived looking for the king of the Jews, a person so important that they saw a sign in the sky to announce it. The sign was so dramatic that they set off on a journey that could have taken years to make. Jesus is estimated to be about two years old at this time based on Herod’s assassination order. The Magi are traveling, seeking something they know nothing about. Whereas, the teachers of the law and the priests have the knowledge, but they aren’t seeking. They stay in their positions of comfort and relative power. They claim to be wise, but they don’t move when they are given information that the one that they have been waiting for has been born. Knowing and seeking are not the same thing.
Sadly, the visit of the Magi did not inspire the ones with the knowledge. Sure, they could have been afraid of Herod, with good reason, but what is that compared with the coming of the Messiah and the power of God? Were they sure that they would recognize the signs of the Messiah when he came? Were they so secure in their knowledge that they dismissed the Magi all together?
Who are we in this narrative? If we’re not careful, we can become the priests and the teachers of the law. Are we so secure in our knowledge that we are convinced that we will see every sign, that we won’t receive information from unexpected sources? There is a saying that there is nothing like a new Christian. The enthusiasm, the lack of experience, the energy. They don’t have the personal history with the faith, with the church to tell them what has been tried and failed. All they can see are the possibilities, so they try things. They don’t know that it can’t be done, so they go out there and do it. They can be an incredible force for good. Those of us who are veterans in the church can be inspired and energized by that enthusiasm, but so often there is a dismissive attitude. “What can these people teach me? We’ve never done it that way before. Or, we tried that, and it didn’t work.” And of course, there is learning from those outside of Christianity that can actually increase our faith, the revelation of Jesus to us.
Our job is to help people see, to reveal the light of Christ to the people around us. How do we do that? One is whether we feel that we have adequate knowledge or not, we have to remain seekers. The Bible is full of God’s promises if we continue to seek after God.
- Deuteronomy 4:29
“But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul.”
- Proverbs 8:17
“I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me.”
- Jeremiah 29:13
“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
- Matthew 7:7 (& Luke 11:9)
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
- Acts 17:24-28 (Paul speaking in Athens)
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” [Emphasis mine.]
It is through the seeking that we are open to seeing the signs, especially during “disturbing” times. They were disturbing in Herod’s day. They are disturbing now. Not all signs will be as obvious as spectacular astronomical events. Often, it will be in the little everyday things of life: a brilliant sunset, an unexpected encounter with a friend, seeing a small creature hidden among the foliage, or the smile of a child. These signs and more can lead us to God.
As Derek Weber says, “When the light is seen, when a glimpse of what is possible is given, when a vision of the depth of love God has for all of creation is revealed, then there is only one proper response. Matthew tells us that the intent of the magi from the very beginning was to worship. ‘We have come to [worship him],’ they declared to the troubled courts of Jerusalem. And when they get to where the child resides, the first thing they do is worship. It is only after worship that they get to the gifts.”
The gifts need to wait. Worship comes first because the Magi didn’t come all that way just to give a baby some gifts. “No theirs was journey to worship, to worship the one who was a light to all the world.” Then, they gave. They presented the gifts fit for a king as a tangible way of extending that worship. They gave as an act of gratitude, a way to celebrate, their own sign of the condition of their hearts. That is the way it is with us too. When we receive the gift of grace, of pardon, of redemption, of relationship with God, we become receivers who want to give.
As we celebrate Epiphany, we celebrate the recognition of Jesus as the Christ. Now, we are to give, to embody, the presence of Christ, shining that light into the darkness of the world. In the words of Henry Van Dyke found at number 89 of your hymnal:
Joyful, joyful, we adore thee,
God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before thee,
Opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
Drive the dark of doubt away.
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light of day!
(“Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” vs. 1)