Let’s start today with a little explanation of what Epiphany is, and why we celebrate it. So, the dictionary definition of little-e “epiphany”, not the specific festival, is “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience,” or “an appearance or manifestation, especially of a deity.”
So “an epiphany” is the appearance of something, especially a God, or an insight into the meaning of something.
With the birth of Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas, we celebrate the appearance, the manifestation of God here on earth. And so in a way, Christmas, too, is an epiphany. But on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany (which we’re celebrating here on January 5th), is a special, particular kind of epiphany.
Because on Christmas, who was there? Mary and Joseph, of course, and the shepherds, who had been directed by the angels – shepherds who were basically your average Jewish blue collar workers, but whom we might characterize as being from the wrong side of the tracks. By Christmas morning, Jesus has been announced to, introduced to, adored, worshipped, praised, honored, yes, but only by Jewish people. On the Feast of the Epiphany, we celebrate the Wise Men, the Magi, coming to worship the Christ Child. These are kings from the East – people of a very different culture, priests, even, of a very different religion, and now Jesus, the king of the Jews, has been revealed to, is being worshipped by, even them.
The specific individuals who were the Magi that St. Matthew speaks of, saw and worshiped the Christ Child. But they are also representative of the entire Gentile world, of all people who are not Jewish. Here, on Epiphany, with the visit of the Magi, we see the answer to David’s prayer in Psalm 72 that we read, “May all kings bow down to him, and all nations serve him.” It is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy to the Israelites, that, “nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn…all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”
This is why we celebrate Epiphany – on its own, and as kind of one last hurrah for Christmas – it is in this moment, when the pagan kings – representing each of us who is not Jewish, each of us who was not among the very first to see – it is at this feast of Epiphany when they come to worship, that we celebrate that the revealing of God Himself, and God’s love for us, in the baby named Jesus, has indeed come to and for the whole world – Jew and Gentile, shepherd and king, young women and old men, and everyone in between. God is revealing himself to the whole world, and to each one of us.
Throughout the season of Epiphany – which will last clear up until Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, we read the stories of Jesus’ ministry as he is revealed, over and over again to different people in different circumstances, to be God incarnate, to be the One who is God, and who has to come to earth to be with us and to be for us. This is the lesson of Epiphany – that in Jesus Christ, we ourselves encounter none other than God himself.
The Wise Men came from afar, brought their gifts, met and worshipped the God who transcended everything they were familiar with – themselves, their culture, their religion, and even the classic dividing lines of society – Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, shepherd and king – and then, after that encounter, they returned home by a different route.
This is also instructive for us. Yes, the wise men, having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they went home another way. There is, of course, historical accuracy to this statement. Herod was out to remove all threats to his power, and that included infant kings, and anyone loyal to them.
And yet there’s also another level to this statement. Because the Magi have met Christ, they have met God and now, having come and worshipped, they cannot go back the same way. Something has changed – their allegiance to the Lord now trumps their respect for Herod who had provided them with directions in the first place.
This is like you, too, I believe.
When you meet the one who has been born King of the Jews, the one who is king of the whole world, king of kings and lord of lords…when you hear and see that he is revealed to you – you, yourself -- when you find him in the water and word of your baptism, when he comes to you in flesh and blood right here at this altar, when the words of Scripture leap off the page, when you hear that your sins have been forgiven, and stripped of their power to bind you, when you see that even death has lost its sting – when you encounter Christ, not just for “the whole world,” and not just for “those people who need him,” but when you encounter Christ for you, you cannot help but be changed. You cannot go back the same way you came, because you are now different, for having encountered Christ.
You are different because Christ has made you different. You may not look different. And let’s be honest; you may not even feel different. The Son of God, who has been present in Heaven since the beginning of Creation, has now come to Earth to be with us, to be with you. Not to take pounds and inches off your waistline, or even to make you be more happy and pleased with what you have, as though he was some sort of New Year’s Resolution fairy. That’s not why Jesus came, and those aren’t the benefits of Epiphany. The benefits of Epiphany, of an epiphany of Jesus, are even greater. He comes to transform your soul. To take your sins and your burdens, and even your death away from you, and to trade you for his righteousness, and his freedom, and his life. In what Lutherans call the Glorious Exchange, you, like the wise men, go home differently because God has exchanged your stuff for his, so that you will become more like him.
When you leave here today, you will have heard the words of Scripture read, and the Gospel proclaimed. You will have tasted the forgiveness of your sins and praised your Savior, through hymns and liturgy, for his marvelous gift. God will – once again, as he does each week – come to you to transform you and send you home a different way. You don’t come to Christ because that’s what good people do – Christ comes to you precisely because you aren’t good people, because you need to encounter and worship the One who is good, because you need to be changed and sent home a different way.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Epiphany – we rejoice that God has revealed himself to us, and to all the nations; we rejoice that he chooses to come to us, each one of us; and we rejoice that he sends each one of us home different than the way we came.
Praise the Lord for this marvelous Epiphany!