In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Dear Brothers and Sisters Enlightened with the Light of Christ through Water and the Word:
Well, the Magi are in the Narthex, and that can mean only one thing: it's Epiphany.
Now Epiphany — just like many other Christian words and phrases — has both a narrow and wide meaning. Narrow: The Feast Day we celebrate today, on January 6. Wide: the entire season after the Feast of the Epiphany (This year from JAN 6 to FEB 6—five Sundays between the twelfth day of Christmas and the first day of Lent: Ash Wednesday.)
So don't be surprised when someone comes up to you later today or for the next five weeks and says, "A blessed Epiphany to you." It's O.K. It's just part of the Church Year Christians have been observing since the 3rd century).
But now that we've established that we're now in the season of Epiphany, what is it, what does it point to, and what difference does Christ wish it to have in our lives and those around us?
First, then, what is it?
"Epiphany," like: "Wow! I just had an epiphany!" You don't need to be a Christian to use the word, but it doesn't have the same meaning for the world that it does for us here this morning. Epiphany is much more than a light going off in our head when we discover something enlightening, like, "If I go to the grocery store and hardware store at the same time, I'll save on gas." or "If I wouldn't bring up that sensitive subject in front of my wife during the dinner party, I wouldn't be sleeping on this couch."
Epiphany means for the Church what it means in the Old and New Testament: It's Greek for manifestation, appearance, revelation, especially Christ's manifestation of his saving glory to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi. That's why it is today, January 6th, that the Queen of England makes a journey to the Chapel Royal and there presents offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ and his saving glory is proclaimed throughout the entire Scripture, but especially in one very special place in the New Testament Gospel accounts: John 2:11, at the Wedding at Cana. Here we read that: "This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him."
But this morning's Gospel reminds us that Jesus' glory was revealed way before water was miraculously changed into wine under the direction of a thirty-year old Messiah.
The Holy Gospel According to Saint Matthew, the second chapter:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1-2 ESV)
The Magi had been enlightened by the star that came to rest over the city of David: Bethlehem. Through the Old Testament Scriptures brought to their distant nation by the exiled children of Israel, these astrologers had picked up on something that had gone unnoticed by the one who occupied the throne in Jerusalem: the light of salvation was being revealed in the heavens, for not only the eyes of those living in and around Jerusalem, but the eyes of all nations. And so it was that foreign dignitaries inquired at the doors of the Jerusalem palace: "Where shall we join you in worshipping the King of the Jewish nation?"
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’” (Matthew 2:3-6 ESV)
Great King Herod, impressive builder, glorious ruler, terrible reader of Holy Scripture. "Where is the Messiah-King to be born? Assemble those of the court who know their Scripture and have taken it to heart. Ask them where we should expect the One Anointed by God Himself — the very Son of God — to be born!"
Poor, unbelieving King Herod, now besides himself as he wondered what all this would mean for the kingdom he was slowly but confidently building. Would he have to step down from his position of power and prestige? How could this be — right in the middle of his great efforts to make a name for himself. What would he do now that these foreigners had somehow beaten him to the punch and were first in line to greet the newborn Messiah of Israel? What to do?
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. (Matthew 2:7-10 ESV)
The strangeness of King Herod's questioning of them, when he should have already held all the answers concerning the birth of his very Messiah — the Messiah who's birth was manifest to all the nations from heaven itself — all of that took a back seat to the joy these Gentile emissaries experienced as the star guided them to the goal of their months of searching: the house in Bethlehem where the infant Jesus lay. "Our journey has reached it's end: Behold! The newborn King of Israel! The Messiah of the Jewish people and all who would come to put their faith in his redeeming work! Behold! The Christ-child!"
And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11 ESV)
We don't really know how many Magi there were, but we know three things.
First, they found Jesus and Mary his mother in the house they had settled into after that eventful night of the child's birth in the stable of the inn.
Second, they brought three gifts, sacrifices of thanksgiving that communicated their appreciation that this Son of God and Mary's Son would bring salvation to many, to as many as would put their faith in him. Gifts that also foretold what kind of Messiah Christ would become — no, what kind of Messiah Christ was, beginning at his lowly birth: a King deserving of the gold of the nations, a Priest deserving of the sacred fragrance of frankincense, and a Prophet deserving of the myrrh used to give honor to the sacrifice of God's prophets at their death.
But, third, these foreigners from a distant land got it right when it came to the order in which gifts are received and given. They saw, they received the Christ child and the gift of salvation manifest in him, and then — and only then — did they respond in faith-created joy as they gave their humble gifts to the lowliest of kings. Their gifts did not appease God's wrath or convince the newborn king that the magi had sincere hearts worthy of heaven. Their gifts did not motivate the Messiah to put in a good work for them with "the man upstairs." It was a pure, adds-nothing-to-their-salvation response of joy and thanks and freely-given appreciation.
Through the star in the heavens, a gracious God sent out an epiphany, a manifestation, an appearance of his mercy and heart of forgiveness for, first his chosen children of Israel, but also, at the same time, all nations who would receive in faith the redeeming light beaming from the star and the manger.
This was the King of Kings who would fulfill what the gifts of these Gentiles pointed to: a King who would complete his priestly calling by the offering of his very self for the sins of the world. For it is at the Cross where this King fulfills his calling to be the glory of his people Israel and a light to lighten the Gentiles.
What difference does Christ wish his Epiphany to have in our lives and those around us? When and where in our day-in, day-out lives do we as Baptized Christians give witness to Christ's saving Epiphany for all people?
Every time we join Simeon in his song of joy and thanksgiving as we take the Christ child into the arms and into the hearts as he comes to us, the undeserving, at his altar.
Have you joined these Magi in confessing your faith in the lowly Christ-child and his reign of grace and mercy and forgiveness through his substitutionary sacrifice? Will you again confess him as the saving glory of Israel and the Light that brings light to souls throughout the nations of the world? Then hear Christ himself as he says of Peter's confession, and the Magi's confession, and your confession this hour:
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will." (Matthew 11:25-26 ESV)
This morning, arise, shine, for your Light has come, even Christ Jesus our Lord and King!
A blessed Epiphany to each of you,
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.