The Feast of the Three Miracles
The Eastern Church celebrates the birth of Christ and His Baptism on Epiphany calling it the "Day of Light." The Western Church from which Lutherans descend celebrates the Visit of the Magi. The celebration of Epiphany predates that of Christmas (Reed, 479). Early on, Epiphany was also called "The Feast of Three Miracles", celebrating the star leading the Magi to the manger; Christ turning water into wine, and the Baptism of Jesus (LW, 58, 357, fn. 5).
The first miracle we celebrate today is Christmas coming to the Gentiles. Since virtually none of us are Jewish by descent or faith, this is a big deal. Jesus point blank states, "Salvation is out of the Jews." When a non-Jew wanted help for her demonized daughter, Jesus said, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." When Jesus sends the apostles out the first time, He charged them, "'Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.'"
Where would we be if these were not just the Old Testament Church's marching orders? Where would be if the New Testament wasn't for all nations? We would remain as non-Jews are described in Scripture: people sitting in darkness. Or as Paul describes us over against Jews as "Gentile sinners." Or more pointedly as "dead in our trespasses and sins."
But we take for granted that the Lord did not just redeem His chosen people. He didn't just save descendants of Abraham but all descendants of Adam. Our Collect for today, 1,500 or more years old, celebrates this. "O God, by the leading of a star You once made known to all nations, Your only-begotten Son." Can you ho-hum this?
Read the New Testament; see how Peter and the early church struggled with salvation being for non-Jews. And what a surprise and glory it was to then non-Jews when they were told Christ was for them too. Can't you see this is the background for Scrooge waking up on Christmas morning thinking he missed it but finding out he hadn't? This is behind Karen finding out there was a way to save Frosty. Every holiday special that has what is given up as lost, missed, ruined, but saved at the last minute is a rip off of the miracle of salvation coming to the non-Jews that we celebrate today.
The second miracle we celebrate is water to wine recorded only in John 2. Ask yourself why hasn't the Church ever had difficulty celebrating a Babe in the manger and full-bearded Man on one Feast day? It's because all events in the life of Christ are about us and our salvation. The miracle of water into wine was celebrated on Epiphany though it happened 30 years after the visit of the Magi because it's Jesus' first recorded sign. The historic appointed readings covered this miracle every single year, but since 1978 when we switched to a 3-year cycle, we only get to revel once every 3 years in what the church use to yearly.
There's a lot to celebrate in the Wedding at Cana. God in flesh, though described as Man of Sorrows, is shown to delight in hobnobbing with humanity. He imbues the common things of life: marriage, love, and sexuality with holiness. If Jesus really came preaching a message that these things were somehow forever ruined by our sinfulness, the first miracle He is recorded as doing would not be at a party celebrating those things.
The same thing has got to be said about turning water into hundreds of bottles of wine. This and are other details trouble Christians who have a problem with alcohol as a substance. They ran out of wine; did they really need more? You've been to enough wedding receptions to know that usually enough is enough. And the headwaiter's words to the groom about serving the best wine after people have well-drunk not before, really bothers some Christians. What gives? The first place we find Jesus is at a party where people are celebrating married life and drinking well? Now that's a miracle!
The Holy Spirit says that Jesus turned water into a wine as His first sign. It's more a sign for us than them because we know the whole story. We've been to the manger; we've seen shepherds and Magi worshipping Jesus as their King and God. Read Greek mythology. When the gods come among men it is usually to trick them, tease them, and then blame them for not recognizing them. What does the true God do? He comes among them with blessing not testing, giving not taking.
Let me illustrate this. If the President, a sport's star, rock star, or movie star, showed up at your wedding or your child's, wouldn't you be honored, moved, humbled if you knew it? The people in John 2 we're shown a sign, a billboard with a flashing arrow saying, "God in flesh and blood is among you, is with you, and He doesn't disdain the joys of flesh and blood and even adds to the party."
What did Moses do with water? He turned it into blood. Yuck! Jesus turns water into good wine, and stay with me now, because Jesus is not finished. He tells servants to take water from the pots used for the ceremonial washing away of uncleanliness and take it to the headwaiter. That's all He does. He turns water into wine without a specific command. The servants dip into water and get wine. Three years from now in an upper room on another big party night, after the Passover, He will take wine and give His blood to His apostles. He will tell them that this wine is the blood of the New Testament shed for the forgiveness of their sins. What miracles Jesus works with the water and wine of our life and the blood of His.
Today we celebrate Christmas coming to gentiles, Jesus turning water into wine, and Baptism coming to Jesus. We could've missed this event this year because the Baptism of Jesus is celebrated the First Sunday after Epiphany which is this Sunday. The Western Church "missed it" for centuries because on the day the Eastern Church celebrated it, they celebrated the Magi's visit. Luther lamented this loss. We regained the celebration when we switched from the historic appointed readings to the three-year cycle. Now what we never celebrated is celebrated every year. This year we catch it by returning to the ancient Feast of the 3 Miracles.
Luther remarked of the Baptism of Jesus by John, "How marvelously backward this is" (Ibid. 44)! John, knew that too. Jesus came to him for Baptism confessing sins; only those confessing sins were being baptized. John said, "I have need to be baptized by You." Jesus replied baptizing Me is how all holiness is fulfilled. Unless you have a way to be holy before God, unless you don't have any sins that embarrass you, shame you, guilt you, the Baptism of the Jesus in your place is a big deal. So, if you do lack holiness and have plenty of sins, shame, and guilt, see Jesus standing there in the muddy Jordan and hear Him confessing what is yours as His.
Jesus' Baptism is His public inauguration into the office He has held since He entered the Virgin Mary's womb. He publicly receives the Holy Spirit as a Man. He's publicly declared the Father's beloved Son, in whom the Father is well-pleased. Everything is riding on Him. If as a man, Jesus can keep the Holy Spirit who doesn't remain where sins rule, then He will be able to give Him to all men. And no sooner does He go away from being baptized than the Devil pounces on Him. He pulls out all the stops to get Jesus to give into sin. If He had, He couldn't bear your sins in your place, He would have His own. If He had, the Holy Spirit would've departed from Him, and the Man Jesus couldn't give what He no longer had. And Jesus couldn't eat your sins by chewing all the sorrow, swallowing all the tears, drinking all the guilt by His suffering and dying. No, He would have His own sins to eat and drink.
The miracle here is that God was willing to give up His only beloved Son and the Son was willing to be given up for sinners such as us. And the image here isn't God, Father and Son, looking at basically good people who have acted badly. No, Paul puts the lie to that in Romans 5. Jesus is given up while we were still ungodly sinners, enemies of God. The picture to see is an earthly father giving his only son and the son willingly to be given over to torture and death to ransom someone who hated them, had hurt them, and still laughed about it. That is unimaginable, and it is miraculous that this is what really happened.
There's another miracle going on in the Jordan. We sing about it in a hymn. By being baptized in the very same waters we are no new water has been created since creation the sinless Jesus sanctifies the wave of water that we're baptized with. By "touching it with His holy body" Jesus doesn't just "confirm Baptism but also" sanctifies "it and fills it with blessing" (Ibid. 48-9). You think no I think if only I could have seen the star and Magi worshipping a Baby as their King, and God, and Sacrifice, I would be so much firmer in faith. I think if only I had tasted the wine Jesus made from water, I would have a much higher regard for His blood He gives to me as Wine. But I've been Baptized. Jesus promises be that in the Waters of Baptism I have 3 miracles. That of forgiveness, rescue from death and the devil, and eternal salvation.
Jesus' Baptism makes my Baptism more powerful than any sin I've ever committed, rescues me from the death and devil I can't overcome, and gives me a life that never ends. I'm going to live forever. I'm going back into the Garden of Eden; I'm going up to the New Jerusalem, and nothing: not sin, not death, not devils, not guilt, not a bad conscience can stop this from happening. These all must release me because the Water of Baptism won't let them stick to me.
Miracles aren't far from us. Every time we keep our Christmas tree up till January 6 we celebrate Christmas coming to those who never expected it. Every glass of wine we drink or every time we take Jesus' Blood as wine, we can ponder anew what the Almighty can do. Every time we make the sign of the cross or come in contact with water we can celebrate the miracle of God with us in Baptism. Think miracles don't happen today? Today we feast on 6 of them. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Epiphany of our Lord (20180107)