Today we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ; that occasion over two thousand and twenty years ago when non-Jewish astronomers and philosophers from Persia read the Hebrew scriptures and took note that the God of Israel had promised to send a king to sit on David’s throne, who would be a great priest and anointed one who would save his people from the consequences of their sin and disobedience. Then, these scholars of their day noticed a bright light in the sky – one theory suggests that what they saw was the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter on August 12th in the year 3 B.C., a pattern that repeated 10 months later on June 17th, perhaps coinciding exactly with the time it would take to prepare for a journey, travel 800 kilometers across the desert, and then wait for an audience with King Herod.
The Epiphany – a word that means “a life-changing discovery”, a great insight, or a big “eureka” moment – is the realization that God’s promise that he would work through Israel to reveal himself to the entire world had happened with the birth of Jesus.
All of the Old Testament promises that God would bless the whole world through Abraham; that Jerusalem would not just be a holy city for the Jewish nation, but would be a beacon on a hill shining forth light and life for all the world to see; that the true glory of Israel would be in enlightening the nations with the truth of God’s mercy and love. This is the “eureka” moment, the realization that all of this is finally happening, that this Holy Child is indeed God’s Son, uniting God’s nature with human nature so that he can blaze a new path for humanity, a path of humble obedience that leads to life in place of the age-old path of pride that leads to death.
Who knew a bright light in the sky could mean so much?
Epiphany is a big deal.
For much of the Christian Church around the world, ourselves included, today marks the beginning of a season of Epiphany, a season from today until the start of Lent in which we focus on how Christ is revealed for the world to see, and how we are to respond.
And Epiphany is a big deal – especially for us gathered here today.
We probably never stop to think about it, but Christmas – that major celebration of the promised Messiah, God’s own Son, coming to earth – only applies to us because of the Epiphany. After all, as far as I know, none of us in this room are the biological descendants of Abraham, members by birth of the Hebrew people in accordance with the law given to Moses. It’s only by the grace of God, and his revelation of himself to the whole world and not just the Jewish nation, that we’re invited to be included in God’s great work of redemption!
It’s only by the grace of God… and that’s a key point we read in today’s Gospel as we hear of the wisemen coming to King Herod at Jerusalem – our relationship with God, our status in God’s covenant community, is not something that we can take for granted.
Just picture it: There in Jerusalem you have the beautiful, carved stone palace for the king, sitting on a hill on the western side of the city, almost directly across from the great Temple on the mountain of the Lord on the city’s east side.
Statues and art and tapestries depict the king’s greatness, while by this point, all the trappings of the Roman Empire are also displayed, while the soldiers in their blood-red tunics and bronze armour stand guard.
The king sits surrounded by the highest ranking priests and the expert teachers of the Old Testament law, those who see themselves as the exclusive keepers and interpreters of God’s will for the world.
And then, a messenger comes in and says “Your Majesty, there’s a group of foreign scholars here to see you.”
And this is where it gets interesting.
I’m sure they make an appointment and then enter in with all the pomp and circumstance you would expect in a royal palace; King Herod is sitting on a platform, I’d say he’s surrounded by his high-ranking advisors, and then what do these wisemen say? “Your Majesty… what a splendid palace you have, and thank you so much for your hospitality to us. Now, O King, please tell us where is the one who has been born King of the Jews?”
Can you imagine the look on Herod’s face?
The lesson we read this morning says that he was “disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him”, but I think that’s putting it politely. Imagine a foreign contingent arriving at a royal palace to celebrate the birth of the heir to the throne, except the king and his wife haven’t had a baby.
I’m sure they were politely removed from the room as the King totally lost it. Yelling at his advisors, “what do they mean? I’m the king of the Jews! What’s this star they’re talking about?”
The chief priests and the legal experts come together, perhaps shaking in their boots, embarrassed and now fearful of the King’s notoriously short temper. Trying to save face, they say, “oh yes, of course, we know what they’re talking about… there are some old prophecies that we forgot about while we were going about our business and trying to get by in the modern Roman world – a ruler would come out of that farming town about 9 kilometers south of the city, the town of Bethlehem.
A great revelation with a solemn warning.
With the Epiphany comes an embarrassing warning for all of us. God is in the business of revealing himself. You would think that these chief priests and experts in the Old Testament law would be the first to notice and recognize when the prophesies are fulfilled, and how embarrassing that it’s not just people outside the royal household, but foreigners – those who aren’t even Hebrews – who are now teaching them their own religion.
And it’s a warning to the Church, too. When we, like them, become too caught up in the business of day-to-day life, when we become too worried about how we make our religion fit in a changing society, without being too costly or overbearing, lo and behold, the proud chosen ones are left behind as God carries on revealing himself to whoever is searching for him.
What happens next? Well, Herod begins to weave a web of lies, feeling threatened that he may lose his worldly status – threatened to the point that he would lie and even kill innocent children to protect his so-called God-given right to rule.
Meanwhile, it’s foreigners, Gentiles, who fulfil the Old Testament prophecies with their gifts. Gold, a gift fit for one who would be King of Kings and Lord of Lords; Frankincense, the incense burned by priests in the temple and still used by millions of Christians around the world in their worship today, demonstrating that Christ is the Great High Priest, the one foretold by prophets who is able to enter the heavenly sanctuary and offer the blood required for the price of sin; and myrrh, the perfumed oil of anointing, the oil used to anoint kings and prophets, the oil used to prepare bodies for burial, proclaiming that he is the Messiah – a word that literally means “the anointed one”.
This is the Epiphany – the life-changing eureka moment that proclaims that Christ is the one who fulfills the Promises of God.
The Epiphany Challenge
But, we have a problem.
The anointed saviour of the nations, the light to enlighten all humankind has come into the world, but so many haven’t recognized him. So many, like Herod and the priests, were so busy with their goals and priorities that they forgot what they had been taught; many more, I’m sure, were just worn down with the struggle of everyday life that, if they even noticed Venus and Jupiter lining to make a bright light in the sky, they thought “oh, that’s nice” and went on their way.
But God is in the business of revealing himself.
And one of his great revelations – a great epiphany – is that he doesn’t want to use lights in the sky or the movement of planets and stars, but now wants to use us instead.
Every person who is baptized, whether we realize it or not, is called to be an epiphany – a revelation of God to the world. We are called to speak the truth and reveal the good news of God in Jesus just as that light in the sky called wisemen to cross the desert. We’re all called to do that – some of us do it well, some of us really need to work on it, but, if you’re baptized, there’s no escaping that duty to reveal Christ to the world.
And as we start this new year together, this is an opportunity for each of us to reflect on how we’ve done. God wants each of us to be that star that shines for those who are searching for truth, not pointing to ourselves, but leading the way to Jesus.
And how have we done?
I can guarantee you that there are many who are searching. Each of us rubs shoulders each week with those who have no direction in their lives, who are searching for meaning and purpose; each of us knows someone who is silently struggling, putting on a strong face to mask frustration, and disappointment, and pain; we’re all surrounded with people who, at the end of the day, feel like they don’t belong anywhere, like they don’t have anyone to really share their burdens.
And how have we done with showing them the way?
When they look to us, do they find a light inviting them out of the darkness, or do they find us silent, or perhaps worse, do they find us bewildered ourselves as we, like the priests and teachers of the law, have missed the point of our own religion.
You are to be an epiphany; you are to be a revelation, a “eureka moment” for those you meet. How many have we invited to church this year? Or invited to Kids’ Club, or offered to pray with, or even offered for them to talk to your priest in their time of need? Or do we only invite our friends to share our worldly concerns, to give us money for fundraisers, without inviting them to share in the benefits of belonging to a church family that cares?
These are big questions, but a new year is always a good time to start.
The point of Epiphany is that it’s only by the grace of God that we’re here; and that, one way or another, our great God is in the business of revealing himself to the world, and he wants us – he wants you to be a part of that.
Now, are you willing to be that light, to be that Epiphany for those around you?
May God help us to respond, as with all our promises at baptism: I will, with God’s help. Amen.