What Appears at Epiphany?
The word epiphany means appearing, so what appears on this 12th night of Christmas named Epiphany? On the basis of the text we could answer that the star, the wise men, and the gold, frankincense, and myrrh appear, but what really appears to me is my shame. This text functions like those ultraviolet lights crime scene investigators use. When they shine the light in an apparently clean room all these disgusting fluids appear. Shine this text on my life and a similar thing happens.
Take the wise men that came from the east following a star to worship the new born Jesus. "From the east" is taken by the early church fathers as Arabia, Babylon, or Persia. In any event, they came hundreds of miles. Based on the age of the children, two years and younger, that Herod eventually kills, they probably left their homes two years earlier. They left and followed a star based on a 1500 year old prophesy, "A star shall come forth from Jacob, and a scepter shall rise from Israel."
Why does this shame me? Why like an ultraviolet light does it reveal all the disgusting things I'd rather keep hidden? Because I have far less distance to travel and I have far more to guide me to the Christ, and I don't go; I don't go to where He wills to be found. The Christ-child is as close to me as my Baptism where He put Himself on me, and I run around naked. He is a close as the Absolution that forgives my sins and I put more stock in what a politician says, an economist predicts, or my conscience accuses me of. He is as close as the Bread that I eat and the Wine that I drink, and that doesn't motivate me to come 2 weeks in row let alone travel for two years.
The wise men had a star in the night that drew them from hundreds of miles away. I have the beacon of the Lord's Word shining day and night, and it can't move me from my doldrums. A star based on single prophesy moved them, comforted them, drew them, and all the promises of God don't move me, comfort me, or draw me except when I am in the depths and then only for a brief moment.
What appears at Epiphany is my shame. The wise men with far less to go on go a far greater distance and do far more when they get there. The wise men worship the Baby Jesus in His humiliation as their King, and God and Sacrifice. They fall down before a Baby, a toddler who looks no more like a King, a God, or Sacrifice for sin, than Bread and Wine look like Body and Blood, than these Words sound divine, than that Water looks rich in grace.
The wise men worship Jesus in His humiliation; I hesitate to worship Him in His exaltation. That's because while they came in search of their king, I'm content to rule my own life, fight my own battles. While they came in search of their God, I'm my own god. That's right. I think I should be feared like God; everyone ought to agree with me about everything. I don't think anyone at any time should dislike me because like God I deserve to be loved by all. And I don't need a God to trust completely because I trust myself above all things.
My shame doesn't end here. On Epiphany even more appears. These wise men who know so little about Christ and all He would do for them give Him gold, frankincense, and myrrh. I am like that government commercial on giving to charities which talks about the orphanage that was almost built because someone almost gave. That's me. I can't tell you how many times I almost gave. There's been times in my life I almost gave magnificent gifts like gold, frankincense and myrrh because with the wise men I saw what it meant to have a King, a God, and a Savior in my flesh and blood, but I talked myself out of it.
What appears at Epiphany is my shame. Like an ultraviolet light in an apparently clean room, it exposes all the disgusting things hidden in my heart. But my glory appears too. The three things that bedevil me most in this fallen world are put in their place by Epiphany.
First, politics is put in its place by the appearance of King Jesus. King Herod was one of the most wretched, powerful rulers of his day. Yet He trembles before the baby Jesus. Herod the Great, as he was called, was not so great before King Jesus, and that is my glory. We're now in a presidential election year. The feel in the air is that it all hangs in the balance with this election. War/peace, prosperity/poverty, life/death all hang on politics, politicians, and the almighty vote. King Jesus says, "No! I am the Alpha and the Omega; the Beginning and the End. I hold the scroll of history in My nail pierced hands. I unroll it for the good of My people. Those not My people tremble at this; My people rejoice in this."
The appearing of my King and God and Savior are my glory for not only is politics put in its proper place under King Jesus, so is science. We live in an age where science has triumphed. Our universe is a closed system operating only according to discernable, predictable laws. We've got this much oil, this much water, and this much air. You've got these genes, this many cancer cells, and this family history. The God who is a Man blows the idea of a closed system apart. He is the One with the sledgehammer as in the 1984 Apple computer commercial. He smashes to bits the general, oppressive picture that science rules, dictates, determines all.
The eternal God steps into finite time in the person of His Son, and the brightest and the best scientists of the time, the wise men, worship Him. The brightest and the best astronomers of the day followed a star that obeyed none of the laws of astronomy. It appears and disappears, moves before them, stops and stands over Baby Jesus. Epiphany shows me that I'm not at the mercy of what science can know or predict. I'm at the mercy of the God who hasn't left me at the mercy of time, space, or the laws of nature. I'm at the mercy of a God who is my Savior.
Yes, at Epiphany my glory of glories appears, my Savior. The wise men knew this and offered myrrh. Myrrh was used for burial, as a sedative for those crucified, and for anointing the high priest. Christ was offered myrrh 3 times. At crucifixion, where He refused it so he could feel the full pain of the judgment against our sins. Myrrh was used to bury Him; He used that for a couple of days. And here He is given myrrh as a sign of all the suffering, sorrowing, bleeding, and dying that is coming.
My glory is that my Savior has appeared. As we sing in the hymn, "Sin and death may well be groaning. / Satan now may well be moaning. / But what about us? The hymn goes on, "We, our full salvation owning,'/ Cast our every care away." With sin, death, and the devil defeated by the holy life and innocent death of Jesus, what care could we have? If my sins can't damn me, my death not kill me, and the Devil not defeat me, what on earth or from hell am I not saved from?
What appears at Epiphany is my shame and my glory but also my hope. Titus 2:11-13 shows how this hope comes from living between the 2 Epiphanies, the 2 appearances of Jesus. I'll translate so you can see this, "For the grace of God has epiphanied, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the epiphany of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ." We live from the Epiphany we celebrate today to the second that's on its way.
Paul says the first Epiphany brought salvation for all. Find one person, not included in that all. Baby Jesus lies in that manager for all. He is going to live a perfect life for all, bar none, and He will die a horrible, damnable death for allparticularly for me and you. What hope do the law and sin have of overcoming me or you or anyone at all if He brought salvation for all? At what point in time is my hope supposed to run out if Jesus brought eternal salvation to me?
Paul says this first Epiphany trains me to "renounce ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age." Those without hope don't live like this. They can only live in the here and now because there is no hereafter for them. The must seek their pleasures and joys in their fallen flesh because they know no redeemed one. Those who have no hope of the salvation Jesus brought at His first Epiphany can't renounce worldly passions because this world is all they have. For them to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives is not to live at all because to them God is not life and salvation but death and judgment.
Not so for us wise men and women who have seen their hope appear this Epiphany. Follow the rest of Paul's Epiphany sermon. Salvation has ephianied for us all. This exercises us, trains us in the eternal salvation we have while "waiting for our blessed hope, the Epiphany of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ."
The first Epiphany of our great God and Savior was an appearing for our salvation. That makes His second Epiphany our hope. We don't wait for Someone to shove our face in our sins to shame us, but to lift up our faces because He has forgiven us. We don't wait for Someone who is the great hope of our political system, but for the One who reigns and rules in the midst of all political systems for the blessing of His Holy people. We don't wait for Someone who can only do as much as science says He can, but for the One who has done and will do what science says can't be done: be born of a Virgin, rise from the dead, and raise the dead.
When you look at Epiphany in history or even now where is the focus? Always on the wise men. There are many delightful tales about them. You've seen them depicted a dozen different ways. They're different races, different ages; sometimes their royal kings, sometimes not. In any event, whether in art, song, or Christmas lore the appearing of the wise men looms larger than the appearing of God in Christ. But in the wise men's appearing appears my shame because they are wiser, nobler, and more faithful than I. But in the Epiphany, in the appearing of my God in flesh and blood, my glory and hope emerge. Come celebrate that again with me as He appears in Bread and Wine today. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Epiphany of our Lord (20080106); Matthew 2: 1-12