There are 12 tribes of Israel, 12 apostles, and of course 12 days of Christmas. Epiphany, January 6, is the 12th Night. 12's can help us appreciate Epiphany.
First there is the 12th Night. This is the Christian festival of Epiphany. It is the last of the 12 days of Christmas. It's the final celebration of the Christmas season which begins 12 days before on Christmas Day. 12th Night is also the name of one of Shakespeare's plays. He took the name from the Christian festival. The play is a comedy of mistaken identities. A woman dresses up like a man, and is mistaken for her twin brother.
Our 12th Night is also about mistaken identities. King Herod mistakes a Baby for a threat. First you need to get your Herod's straight. Three different ones are named in the Bible. This one, the baby killing Herod; the Herod who puts Jesus on trail; and the Herod who kills James, imprisons Peter, and is eaten alive by worms. The Herod in our text is by the far the most powerful and most brutal. He ruled over all the regions of Palestine and was given the title king' by the occupying Romans. He killed off those he perceived as threats. After 43 years of successfully keeping himself in power, it's almost laughable that he should mistake a Baby for a threat.
You know how you do that? By not knowing you need a Savior. Follow me. The wise men come saying they're seeking the One born king of the Jews. But Herod knows that this is none other than the Messiah, the Christ, the One the Old Testament Church waited for to redeem them. We know that Herod knows this since the text says, "Herod inquired of the chief priests and scribes where the Christ is to be born." Herod doesn't need a Christ, a Messiah, a Redeemer, and so is threatened by Him.
How about you? The Christ Child was good news to outcast shepherds, old Simeon looking for the consolation of Israel, and older Anna looking for the redemption of Israel, but He was bad news to old King Herod who had power, prestige, and privilege. Have you mistaken yourself for someone who doesn't really need a Savior, a Christ, redemption and consolation? Your sins aren't that bad; you're quite happy in the world with your life as it is. You'd rather go on living under the law where you get what you deserve since you're getting plenty. The order of the Gospel threatens you. You don't get what you deserve under the Gospel but what the Christ sends you. Sure He sends forgiveness and new life, but His grace also sent David his bed of suffering, Job his many woes, and Paul his thorn in the flesh.
We sing in the hymn that Herod is senseless for mistaking Baby Jesus as a threat since Christ "takes no realms of earth away." That's wrong. Jesus is born king of the Jews, and He does come to throw us off the throne of our lives. If we're happy with how we run our lives, we too will mistake the one who came to save us as the One who comes to defeat us.
This case of mistaken identity on our 12th Night is not a comedy, but the 12th Man can help us. The 12th Man comes from Texas A & M. In January 1922 the Aggies were in a hard-fought game with the top ranked college team in the nation. The coach used all of his players and had no more available. Then he thought of a former football player who was now playing basketball. He had the man suit up, and he stood the rest of the game on the sideline ready to go in if needed. Today the entire student body is the 12th Man, and so in the stadium they stand for the entire game.
We need a 12th Man. Over against the devil, the world, and our flesh, we've spent all our resources. Yet we still mistake the Christ who comes to save us as a threat. In order to help us, we needed someone like us. Unlike those delightful Disney movies, the Aggie coach couldn't use a dog that happened to be good at football. He needed another man to be the 12th man. Likewise, in order to help us with the raging devil, the fallen world, and our wicked flesh, we needed someone in flesh and blood to take our place, to do what we couldn't do. Our 12th Man couldn't stay on the sidelines. He had to come into the game and not just play with us, but play for us. He had to suit up and run all the plays exactly as they needed to be run. He had to take all the hits, all the tackles, all the pain in our place. And to do that so we wouldn't have to, our 12th Man had to be a real, flesh and blood Man.
But He had to me much more than that. Every man that had ever come before had ended up exactly like Herod: pleased with himself, thinking he was doing a fine job of running his life and certain he didn't need a Savior or a God telling him what to do. Adam ends up thinking he'd make a great god himself. Noah ends up a drunken sot after discovering men don't make great gods. Abraham plays god which ends up in him giving his wife up not once but twice. Shall I go on? David ends up with Bathsheba in his bed and her husband's blood on his hands. Solomon ends up worshiping every god but the true one. Elijah ends up on a mountain asking God to kill him. And Peter ends up denying the true God three times.
These are the places you will end up too if you try to correct your mistakes. The Law hasn't really convicted you of your sins if there is still the weakest breath of life in you saying, "I'll do better; I'll try harder; give me another chance." Peter got 3 chances and though determined and certain he would do better, ended in the same place every time: being his own God while denying the true One.
You don't need another chance; you need the 12th Man who is much more than a Man. He is also true God. No man or woman, not even perfect Adam and Eve, can win the game of life. All fall. All end up at worse thinking Christ is the problem not the answer, or at best thinking Christ can help them save themselves. But Christ didn't come to make the weak, strong, or the bad, better but to make the dead, living, the damned, holy, and the lost, found. Our 12th Man is like Superman. When Superman arrives, he takes over and does all by himself what ordinary men can't do. That's our Jesus. The 12th Night celebrates the 12th Man who is God in the flesh taking the field saying, "I'll take it from here." He takes all the Laws that accuse you and accepts responsibility for keeping them. He takes all your sins against those Laws and uses His blood, sweat and tears to cover them from God's eyes and wash them off of you.
So on this 12th Night we celebrate the coming into the game of Jesus our 12th Man. This is true, valid, and important Until the 12th of Never. You should all know this song. It has been recorded by 33 different artists from Johnny Mathis in 1957 to the Carter Twins in 1997. It's a love song based on a 16th century English song titled The Riddle Song. The point of the song Until the 12th of Never is that is how long the singer will love his girl "and that's a long, long time."
What we celebrate on our 12th Night, the arrival of our 12th Man, is not a passing moment but a lasting reality. Never again is God the Son without your flesh and blood. Never again is Man separated from God. This is the new reality that changes everything. This is what scientists call a paradigm shift. It's when you see something in a totally different way. The illustration used by the man who first coined the term in 1962 was a drawing that looked like both a duck and a rabbit. Another example of a paradigm shift is the people in Shakespeare's 12th Night. They go from seeing the girl as a boy to the girl she really was all along.
This is similar to the paradigm shift that happens in our 12th Night. We go from seeing Christ as a threat to Him as Savior, from being not just a Baby but our God. From now on wherever you place God you must place Man and wherever you place the Man Jesus you must also place the God Jesus. You may never, ever divide the two again. For example, you can't say the Man Jesus in on a throne in heaven while the God Jesus is here in the Spirit. No, where the God Jesus is the Man Jesus is. Is the God Jesus present everywhere? Of course, omnipresence is one of the characteristics of God. If a being isn't present everywhere, by definition that being can't be God. Jesus is true God; therefore, He is present everywhere. The Son born of Mary is joined to God the Son; therefore, Mary's Son is present right, here right now in His flesh and blood.
Luther had a very earthy, realistic way of speaking of this. In A Mighty Fortress he speaks of Christ the way I spoke of Him as being our 12th Man. Luther pictures the contest between us and the devil as a physical battle we were losing and then says, "But for us fights the Valiant One.Jesus Christ it isHe holds the field forever. He's by our side upon the plain."
Since Christmas, God is not far away from you. He's in your flesh and blood. While your flesh and blood ages, gets sick, and dies His does not. While your flesh and blood gives into sin, to worry, to fear, His does not. While your flesh and blood cannot defeat the devil, His can and did. Beyond the 12th of Never, your God, the true God of heaven and earth, is in the flesh born of Mary promising you that though your flesh and blood ages, gets sick and dies, in Him you don't die. Though your flesh and blood remains sin-prone and sinful, in Him you will not be damned. Though the devil can easily defeat you, in Christ he can't swallow you.
In Him, says Paul in our Epistle, "we have boldness and confidence." The decisive thing then is to be in Christ. In Baptism, we put on Christ. When we're in the Word studying, hearing, believing it, we're in Christ since Christ is the Word made flesh. And in Communion, since we eat and drink Christ, we are certainly in Him then. O what a night the 12th Night is! It celebrates the arrival of our 12th Man to redeem us, to help us, to stay with us beyond the 12th of Never and that's more than a long, long time; that's forever. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Epiphany of our Lord (20070107); Matthew 2: 1-12