What Appears at Epiphany?
Epiphany in secular use means an appearing or a revelation. In religious use it means the appearing of a god. In Christianity, Epiphany is the appearing of the Second Person of the Trinity in flesh and blood. What else appears at Epiphany? The magi, a strange acting star, gold, frankincense and myrrh do, but that's all in the past. Something appears today in our celebration of Epiphany.
Condemnation does. We find unbelieving, cruel King Herod troubled by the news that the king of the Jews has been born. No surprise here. Herod was a descendant of Esau, not Jacob. He was not the rightful heir to David's throne. He was put there by pagan Rome. Now comes news that the rightful heir has been born. And not only was Herod troubled but all Jerusalem with him. It's hard to say why. Could it be because a troubled, half-crazed Herod surely meant more trouble for them? Could it be they were satisfied with their lives under Roman rule?
Whatever the case, they were troubled, but our condemnation doesn't appear in their being troubled but in our being so. What? You're not troubled? So you have no trouble with Jesus casting you from the throne and ruling your life in 2014? No trouble with giving King Jesus your absolute obedience? He commands, "jump," and you say how high on the way up. He says, "Sickness," and you say, "Thy will be done," as you crawl into your sickbed. He decrees, "Family troubles, work problems, economic difficulties," and you say, "Yes Lord!" Hardly. We want to be king of our own lives and have Jesus there to help our will be done. We want to keep sins as pets and believe what makes sense to us not what Jesus says.
On Epiphany my condemnation appears. I have more information about who King Jesus is and what He does, and yet I seek Him with less devotion, dedication, and determination than the magi did. If King Jesus doesn't appear instantly to help me, protect me, guide me, I don't seek Him in prayer, in Scripture, in Baptism, Absolution, or Communion. In fact, what I do is stay away from these. You think because you see me every Sunday and every Bible class that I must always be seeking King Jesus. How little you know of pastors and deceitful human hearts. I can go through the motions of believing and still be every bit as unbelieving as you are when you stay away from King Jesus coming to you in Word and Sacrament.
And see how my lack of joy at finding King Jesus in every syllable of His Word, in every drop of Baptismal water, in every crumb of the Body/Bread of Communion is condemned by the magi's joy. Our text contains one of the most joyous sentences in Scripture. "And seeing the star they did rejoice a mega joy exceedingly." Think of a kid Christmas morning getting that super special present. By comparison my joy is pallid, pale, pitiful and condemned. All I got from King Jesus is forgiveness of sins, everlasting life, and victory over Sin, Death, and the Devil.
Today my being troubled at King Jesus' arrival, my lackluster seeking of Him, and my tepid joy appear, but so does something else: Salvation. That's what Paul says in Titus 2:11, "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men." And you guessed it; "appeared" is the Greek verb epiphaino. The saving grace of God epiphanies today. He comes not in terrors as the King of kings but kind and gentle in the arms of His mom.
It was a Roman practice to take the sons of noblemen from other countries as hostages to insure cooperation. If that country rebelled or didn't send the money or troops Rome wanted, their sons would be killed. On Epiphany we see that God doesn't take our sons captive but gives us His own. God gives His "only begotten Son.God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God...being of one substance with the Father" to us. Surely this is not an act of war but of peace; surely we don't, can't deserve this, so surely this is grace. This is the simple mind-bending truth of John 3:16. God's great love is shown in the giving of His Son.
But Paul says more than God's unimaginable grace to sinners epiphanies today. Titus 3:4 says, "The kindness and love of God our Savior appeared." Yup, appeared' is that same Greek word epiphaino. But this translation doesn't do justice to what appeared. The word translated "kindness" is a Greek word more warm than our kindness. It's tolerance; it's gentleness; it's sweetness. And here Paul says it appears with "the love of God." This is the Greek word philanthropia which you recognize as our philanthropy. It literally means the love of mankind, and this is not the love of intellect and purpose but affection, tenderness, a love of the heart more than the mind.
Troubled, lackluster, joyless souls start to warm now. Both verses from Titus refer to the appearance of our Savior God showing grace, sweetness, and tenderness to mankind, to this mankind, to fallen mankind, to mankind as it is with all its bumps, bruises, warts, and filth. You must take God seriously when He says He gave His only Son for ungodly sinners, for His enemies. You can't think God appears to people only when they have cleaned up their act or themselves. That's no Gospel. The Gospel is not, "Change, be better; then I will forgive you." The Gospel is that God appears with grace, sweetness, and affection to the fallen children of men to redeem, forgive, and restore them.
Salvation appears today because here is the King of the Jews as Substitute and Sacrifice for all mankind. I can assure you today that the Law doesn't hang over your head as a big to-do list because King Jesus took your place under the Law's commands and demands. He was never troubled by God's will and always followed it. He always sought to do His Father's will even when it hurt. He endured hell itself for the joy of delivering you. In all the ways you fail, Jesus succeeded. Every time the Devil, someone else, or you kick yourself for all that you are not, remember Jesus was all that you should be in your place, and remember He has already been kicked, beaten, crucified, and damned in your place too.
The King of the Jews appears today not only as the Substitute for all but as Sacrifice for all. Stop punishing yourself in all the little and big ways you do for your sins. You don't satisfy an ounce of God's wrath against your sins by feeling guilty, by rubbing your face in your sins, by trying harder, or promising to do better. What satisfied God's wrath against not only your sins but the sins of the world was the innocent suffering and death of King Jesus in your place. His suffering not yours satisfied the Laws demands that sins be paid for. His blood not yours covers up your sins.
You are to believe that your salvation appears at Epiphany and with it a God who is gracious, sweet, and tenderly affectionate towards you. You are to believe that as you feel so tender, sweet, and graceful toward a child or grandchild that's how God for Jesus' sake feels toward you. That's how badly He wants to take you in arms, and as Homer says, "the embraces of the gods are not fruitless" (Odyssey, BookXI). The embrace of the true God certainly isn't, and that's why what appears at Epiphany is not only our condemnation, not only our salvation, but our sanctification.
First with the magi in the Gospel we are led to bow down and worship the God-Man Jesus. It is no more of a wonder that we bow before God appearing to us in Bread and Wine than it was for the magi to bow before God appearing to them in a flesh and blood Baby. With them and us our God is before us graciously, tenderly, affectionately. He was there to win their forgiveness, to defeat Death and Devil. He is here having done those things to give us the victory. Being embraced by the true God for salvation leads us to give gifts to our God no less than the magi did. We give gifts that acknowledge who He is and what we are.
Gold was given to kings as tribute by subjects who recognized a king's reign. You don't give your gold so God has money. You give it to confess that God in Christ is your King. Incense was given only to God. The magi were recognizing the toddler Jesus was their God. You offer your prayers, your thanks, your song to God in Jesus' name in recognition that you know of no God outside the Man Jesus Christ. Myrrh was used chiefly to embalm the dead. The magi gave it to Jesus recognizing that in claiming them, sinners that they were, meant that He would die. When you give your sins to Jesus you recognize that He is the once and for all sacrifice for your sins.
Finally our sanctification appears at our celebration of Epiphany today because we seek Him where He promises to be found, not where we want Him or think He should be. The magi followed a strange star and the Word of God that pointed them to Bethlehem and the Person of a Baby. We don't seek our King, our God and our Sacrifice in our reason or our wisdom, not even in heaven, or in beautiful, clean, powerful things. We seek our God where He says He is. On earth in our Baptism which looks like plain water we find the Death and Resurrection of our Savior. On earth in Words from dirty lipped pastors with our dirty ears we find the forgiveness Jesus won on the cross. On earth in Bread and Wine that is surely ugly by the standards of the world we find the beautiful Body and Blood of our beautiful Savior.
What appears at Epiphany changes everything. You often hear athletes, politicians, and talking heads covering these transitory things say that. "This changes everything" when not one meaningful thing has changed. Well Epiphany does change everything.
There our specially made goggles that flip the world upside down. People wearing them in experiments become extremely disoriented to the point they experience severe personal crisis, but then their brain adapts and flips the image so things are no longer upside down (Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 172). At Epiphany, if you look at what appears the condemnation should disorient you causing a severe personal crisis. But the salvation that appears reorients you to a new reality where you see a gracious, tender, affectionate King ruling your world who is worthy of gold, frankincense, myrrh, and more. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Epiphany of our Lord (20140105); Matthew 2: 1-12