a Sermon for Epiphany
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
Today we celebrate The Epiphany: a church holiday with two origin stories. A day that we know is important, but have trouble with understanding why. A day that pales in comparison to Christmas, and yet the church has historically understood as greater. In the Epiphany, we have a holiday that is confused, but may serve as a blank slate. A day to celebrate GOD in inspiring ways.
One of the first feast days, the Epiphany began in the East to mark the Baptism of Jesus. Adopted more than a century later in the West, the subject was changed from baptism to the Wise Men, giving the day a far different character.
In the East, the focus was placed on Jesus and His ministry, while in the West, that focus was obscured with other characters: the Wise Man, the Holy Parents, the Star, even GOD’s providence are placed in front of Jesus and His mission.
And yet, historically, the emphasis has been about Jesus: that this feast day is supposed to be about Jesus’s reach beyond Jerusalem and the Hebrew people. That Jesus was born to save everybody.
We don’t treat it that way. We treat it as the capstone of the Christmas story. Even those of us that are liturgical snobs about it are aiding in that interpretation. Don’t let the Wise Men near the manger scene before the 6th! We shout. Keep them isolated! They haven’t arrived yet! And now that they have arrived, perhaps taking the long journey from the back of the nave to the front, we can breathe a sigh of relief. Ah! It is finished! And shortly we will pack the whole set up and put it away and we can move on, because the story is over.
Mixing Up the Story
This is a testament to the power of the story. The story of a baby born in the manger because there was no room in the inn. The mild mother, the stoic father, the animals, the shepherds, the angels. The Christmas story as we receive it every year is one of the most evocative stories in the canon, as we feel it every year. We even feel our hairs bristle when Linus reads it at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas. And because it is so powerful, when the Wise Men finally arrive, bringing those strangely adult gifts to such a little baby, we understandably close the book. We feel as if this is a natural ending. It is, aside from that strange story in Luke of a 12 year-old Jesus visiting the Temple, the last word on Jesus before He begins His ministry.
But seeing The Epiphany as the end of a different story obscures that very understanding the church has maintained about the day from the beginning: that the day has less to do with who Jesus is and more to do with what Jesus has come to do. And I think we do that on purpose. Not truly intentionally. We just get caught up in Christmas and so we sing “We three kings from orient are” alongside “Joy to the World”. We also take that visit from the Wise Men out of its scriptural context. We pay attention to the visit, rather than the drama that surrounds it.
How They See Jesus
The evangelist we call Matthew has given us a great way to see this afresh. The Holy Family has returned home and time has passed since the dramatic birth. Some fortune tellers arrive in Jerusalem, looking for the subject of the signs revealed to them. Herod is frightened and tries to get more information about this baby. He sends the fortune tellers out and secretly plots to have killed all the boys born during a certain window of time. This, of course, is a not-so-subtle reference back to the time in which Moses was born, casting Herod as the villain, Pharoah.
This story is really nothing like the Christmas story. It involves an unlikely triad of foreigners coming to pay homage to a future king and a terrible earthly king, who gained power over the Jewish people by force and is directly aligned with Rome. It has a star that is able to move in the sky and stop through only the metaphysical power of GOD.
Even these crazy gifts: not a rattle, blanket, or package of Huggies, but money, incense, and perfume: are fit not for a baby, but for a king. When these foreigners arrive at the humble home of this messed up family, they don’t walk in to a tear-jerking soundtrack, with a Hollywood starlit holding an adorable infant; this isn’t a scene from a movie that warms our hearts in that way. They come in and they behold the future king. They bow down and give Him kingly gifts. And then they sneak away, trying to avoid the treachery of King Herod.
How We See Jesus
We know the word, epiphany in a different context. We know it as a word for revelation. “I just had an epiphany!” is a way of saying truth has been revealed to me. That understanding should color the way we are to see this day. After all, this is not Three Wise Men Day, but The Epiphany, The revelation. The day in which we commemorate who Jesus is revealed to be. The day we celebrate, not a cute, little baby, born in difficult circumstances, but the One who will transform the world. The One who has come to free us from bondage. The One who walks a different path—and calls us to follow.
On this day, the scope of GOD’s work in the world through Jesus is made plain. We can see that anything short of being different from the empire that controls us and walking a path that rejects that domination and violence is not discipleship. Jesus, the anti-king is revealed as liberator and savior. The powerful fear Him and take drastic action to prevent his ascension to power. It is a shocking and challenging vision that calls attention to not who Jesus is, but who Jesus will be; not who is emotionally affected by a little baby, but transformed by the Incarnate Word.
May we carry with us this vision of Jesus revealed by three unlikely foreigners: a vision that challenges us to see past our own comfort and to instead see who we are to be. And may we constantly seek what it means to follow the path Jesus continues to set for us.