The Light Goes on for the Holy Family and Ours
Epiphany is probably not a word you use a lot. It has 3 meanings: The appearance of a supernatural being; this Holy Day which commemorates God in Man made manifest; and the sudden understanding of the essential meaning of something. This is the light bulb going on above the guy's head in a cartoon. This is saying, "I got it." Or, "Oh, I see." Today with the visit of the wise men, the light goes on for the holy family and ours.
The holy family has just had 2 years of normalcy. After the shepherds came Christmas night, after Simon and Anna made a big to-do over Jesus 40 days later, we read of no more special things. Jesus didn't juggle the furniture like a baby Superman. He didn't create pigeons out of mud and make them fly. He didn't glow with a halo. You can see how the light bulb of just who Jesus was and what He had come to do could get dimmer.
The bulb gets dimmer for us too. After the rush and crush of Christmas, we're probably glad to get it all behind us. Baby Jesus gets put away with the manger scene. We're ready to get back to our daily grind. Enough of these holidays which weren't really holy days. But Baby Jesus won't be so easily dismissed. He's like something that glows in the dark. You don't really notice it until all the lights are off. So, at the beginning of the drab days of January, the light bulb can go on for us as it did for the holy family.
One thing that turned the bulb on for Jesus' family was the visitors. Two years before Jewish shepherds showed up looking for a Savior. Now visitors came from the east, probably from Arabia or Babylon. They're not simple shepherds, but Magi, or wise men. They weren't really kings but men of learning who studied nature, astronomy, and medicine. Most notably, they were Gentiles. Epiphany has often been called "the Gentile's Christmas." By means of angels and then by shepherds, the Lord announced the birth of the Savior to the Jews. By means of a star and wise men, He announced it to the whole world.
Surely for the past 2 years the holy family had noted this strange star which didn't behave like a star at all. Do you remember the Hale-Bopp comet? Every time you went outside you looked at it, didn't you? You couldn't help yourself, and neither could Mary and Joseph. What was it? What did it mean? Then after 2 years they find out that the star pointed to Baby Jesus! The wise men told Herod, "We saw His star." You know you can pay money and have a star named after you for all time. It's a much bigger deal when God puts one in the sky and moves it around for you.
Two years ago when the shepherds showed up they told Mary and Joseph what the angel had told them. This Baby is the Savior, Christ the Lord. Then the shepherds went away glorifying and praising God. Now that's a big deal, but it's a bigger deal to have wise men from the east bow down and worship Him. It's bigger still for these dignitaries to give Him, not His mother or stepfather, special gifts.
The light should be getting brighter for you. You should see that arrival of Jesus is far bigger than you think. It's bigger than you. Bigger than this church. Bigger than the world. His coming is of cosmic significance. Just because the world can put Christ away as easily as they do their Christmas decorations, doesn't mean He passes into insignificance. Here is the lever and fulcrum which God has placed upon the world to move the weight of the world's sins, to lift the finality of death, to overthrow the fearsome power of the Devil. Even though most of the world can ignore Him, He still, today, draws people from all over the world to come and worship Him.
After 2 years of raising a child that was normal in everyway, the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Baby Jesus got dim, but visitors from the east and the gifts they brought caused that light to grow brighter. Just as the gifts we get say much about who we are. So the gifts Jesus got say much about who He is.
The wise men bring Jesus gold. Subjects gave gold to a king to recognize his rule over them. They also gave frankincense. This fine smelling white resin flows from various types of trees when the bark is cut. In the 2nd century we know it was 10 times more costly than gold. The Old Testament proscribed that frankincense be offered to God. The wise men gave Jesus frankincense because they recognized Him as God. They didn't just bow before Jesus as you would a king, but they worshipped Him as only God should be. Finally the wise men gave Jesus myrrh. Myrrh was used to reduce suffering and to prepare a body for burial. This is the equivalent of giving a baby a casket as a gift.
These gifts turned the light bulb way up for Mary and Joseph. Though outwardly so powerless and kingdomless, Jesus was really a king. He had a star pointing to His birth and subjects bringing Him gold. And though Gabriel had called Jesus holy and shepherds called Him Lord, Jesus hadn't done one God-like thing. But now the wise men give gifts and worship to Jesus as one only should to God.
The light bulb goes on for Mary and Joseph and for us too. Men, politics, governments, or economics, don't rule the world King Jesus does. Allah, Vishnu, a supreme being, or some nameless almighty god doesn't rule the world King Jesus does. And He doesn't rule from far away but from flesh and blood. Jesus isn't just a God who is far away reigning and ruling all things from heaven. He's on our skin in Holy Baptism; He's in our ears in Holy Absolution; He's in our mouths in Holy Communion. As the wise men didn't look for their God in the faceless heavens but in the Baby Jesus on Earth, so we look for our God in Waters we can touch, Words we can hear and Bread and Wine we can eat and drink.
The wise men's gifts turn up the light, but one of the gifts is like a black light. It puts an eerie glow over everything. Gold and frankincense are delightful gifts, but myrrh? Giving a coffin to baby? What were they thinking? They were thinking the truth. As the king and God of sinners, Jesus would have to suffer and die. If you're going to claim sinners as your own, then you'll go where they go; you'll suffer as they do; you'll die as they do. You won't abandon them come sin, death, or Devil.
Their eerie gift of myrrh showed that this Baby must suffer to be the King and God of sinners like them and us. To claim us for heaven, Jesus must take care of our sins. The punishment to pay for our sins is death. The soul that sins dies, promised the Lord. But sins against God are an eternal debt, so only by dying eternally could an ordinary man pay it. Jesus is true man, but He's not ordinary. He's also God. God's blood in Jesus is eternally rich, eternally powerful. His suffering and death is of eternal value. In Isaiah we're told that His stripes, His wounds, His cuts, His bruises heal us. They heal us, but they hurt and killed Him, so He had need of myrrh.
Think of a rheostat light that you can turn up brighter. The light bulb gets brighter for Mary and Joseph from the visitors, from their gifts, and from the Baby's enemies. From Jesus' enemies, the holy family learns that not everyone needs a King, a God, a Sacrifice. Not everyone can see God when He wraps Himself in flesh and blood. And finally not only isn't Jesus loved by all people, some hate Him, and their hatred knows no bounds. It's not just dislike. It's not just unbelief. It's murder. Herod is willingly to kill dozens of babies in order for just a chance at killing Jesus.
So did you think that maybe this Christmas the world would fall down in worship of Christ the Lord? Did you think perhaps that as strains of "We Three Kings" came over the mall's sound system people would suddenly be struck by what it means to sing of Jesus rising as "King and God and Sacrifice?" No wonder we get so disappointed and despairing at Christmas. We expect what Scripture says will never happen.
This God we hold so dear, so precious, so helpful, merciful, kind and forgiving is absolutely hated by a world that has no King or God but self and needs no Sacrifice because it has no sins. Open your eyes; it's a miracle that you and I see our King and God and Sacrifice wrapped in the Waters of Baptism, the Words of Absolution, and the Bread and Wine of Communion. It is a miracle that these 3 things are holy to us. The fact we bow and worship at this altar before our Lord Jesus wrapped in Bread and Wine is as big of a miracle as 3 wise men bowing before a Baby and worshipping Him. But it's a miracle that God willingly and regularly performs. Don't think He's finished yet. Not only does He make the light get ever brighter for us to prevent us from slipping off into the dark night of despair. He makes the light go out from us.
His star shined on the whole world but only a few wise men followed it. But they in turn shined on Herod, his priests, scribes, the holy family and finally on us. We shine the light again on the world around us as we gather to celebrate Epiphany, read about it, sing about it, preach about it, eat, and drink it. Some on whom it shines will be Herods, mortal enemies of Christ Jesus and of us. Some on whom it shines will be priests and teachers of the Law, not caring enough to even go look where they know Scripture says the Christ is.
But some, just a precious few, will be like the holy family and ours. The light will go on in them, and they'll rejoice that they have a Savior and Lord, a King, a God, a Sacrifice in flesh and blood. And once the light of Christ goes on in them, it automatically goes out from them. It is possible for a light to be dimmer at times, but it is impossible for a light not to shine. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Epiphany of our Lord (20060106); Matthew 2: 1-12