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Epiphany 1: In the Light of God

January 7, 2013

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church for the Epiphany of the Lord, January 6, 2013.

 

Isaiah 60: 1-6          Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14          Matthew 2: 1-12

While we have all seen the journey of the wise men proceeding slowly through our sanctuary since the first Sunday of Advent, the wise men in my home have been on the move since Christmas Day. We put our manger up on the first Sunday of Advent, but we relegate the wise men to the upstairs of our home. You see, most homes have 13 steps between floors. So on Christmas night our wise men began their descent to see the baby Jesus, moving down a step each day of the twelve days of Christmas. This morning they journeyed in August’s hands from the final step to the stable.  Later today, we will take down and put away our Christmas decorations and our tree.

As a season, the Twelve Days of Christmas mark the time from Jesus’ birth to the arrival of the wise men on January 6th. After that, Epiphany celebrates God’s showing forth of Christ to the world.  Epiphany is both a day and a season.  As a day it marks the arrival of the wise men.  It is always January sixth, which means that Epiphany journeys, or migrates, through the days of the week, much like the wise men themselves.  When the wise men arrive at the stable, the Christmas season is over and we, together with his mother Mary, settle in to watch this child Jesus grow in wisdom and stature during the ensuing weeks.

In many parts of the world today, Epiphany is a bigger holiday than Christmas, with rituals of gift giving tied to treasure-bearing wise men instead of a jolly fat man in a red suit.  It’s Three Kings Day. I read of one custom where children leave shoes filled with hay outside their homes.  The hay is for the camels of the wise men, who then leave gifts for the children in the shoes as thanks before resuming their journey to Bethlehem.  You can easily find more customs like this by simply ‘Googleing’ epiphany and adding a country name.  I promise this will not only be entertaining but enlightening for those of us for whom the holidays are over when the tree comes down.   It can also serve to bring Christians from other parts of the world to mind as we broaden our vision during Epiphany.

That is Epiphany as a day. As a season, Epiphany is a gathering of witnesses to what God is doing, “… the season in which the identity of Jesus, his real identity, is made clear and clearer to all who will look and see.”  What God is up to in the birth of this child becomes increasingly clear to an ever-expanding circle of witnesses. As the late Peter Gomes put it,

“The circle gets bigger and bigger and bigger, more and more people are included in these manifestations, and from this Sunday to Easter day everything that we read and hear in Holy Scripture is an epiphany of Jesus. These epiphanies just get larger and larger and more vivid and bigger until we are included in every one of them, the manifestation of who and whose we really are. This is the important season in which we come to see who Jesus is, where he is to be found, and where we begin to understand what he is about.”[1]

Three stories fill out our observance of this season: the coming of the wise men on January 6, the baptism of Jesus next Sunday, and the wedding at Cana, where Jesus performs his first miracle at the prompting of his mother.  (And here is where I invite you, especially if you are a visitor, to come back next week, and the week after, as our worship celebration each week returns to these stories).

But then after that, our worship will focus on the ministry of Jesus, culminating in his transfiguration on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.  Then comes Lent and passion week, where we learn that we have not only been learning who Jesus is, what he is like and where he is to be found, but that we have been learning all along who God is, what God is like, and where God is to be found.  In Jesus, in his baptism and our baptism, in his final supper and in this supper, in his life, and in our lives, God is given to us.  And on Easter, we are given new life. Now that is a gift undreamt of even by the wise men.

But since this is Epiphany is “… the season in which the identity of Jesus, his real identity, is made clear and clearer to all who will look and see,” let us learn what we can today from the story of the wise men.

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One tradition holds that Epiphany celebrates the sharing of the gospel with the Gentiles, who are represented by the magi mentioned in this passage.  You see, in order to emphasize the universality of Christ, early commentators imaginatively reconstructed the physical characteristics of the magi to represent people of different nations and unpacked the symbolism of the gifts brought to the Christ child.  The Venerable Bede, an English monk of the seventh century, first gave the magi names: Melchior was described as ‘an old man with white hair and a long beard’, Gaspar as ‘young and beardless and ruddy complexioned’, and Balthasar as ‘black skinned and heavily bearded’.  The gifts of the magi are also interpreted: gold represented an appropriate gift for a king, frankincense symbolized an offering worthy of divinity, and myrrh, an embalming spice, foretold his death.  But the traditioning doesn’t stop there. More recently I have heard the wise men used to represent ‘The exotic, the secular and the scientific.’ And another preacher has suggested that they represent all true seekers.[2]

By the way, contrary to the popular image and our first hymn this morning, Matthew never says that there are three kings, or that they were kings, only that there are three gifts.  Matthew tells us they were magi, which is derived from the same root as our English word magic.  They have been imagined as coming from Arabia or Persia, but it is likely that Matthew had Babylon in mind.  The use of wise men works fine as a substitute though since astrologers were frequently advisors to rulers.  The idea of kings bearing gifts was likely taken from our psalm today, which speaks of a just ruler who defends the cause of the poor and crushes the oppressor and to whom foreign kings bring gifts and pledge obedience.

In Matthew’s story, the magi bring gifts to Jesus, bowing down before him as one would before such a just ruler.  But of course they visit the reigning King, Herod first.  Herod was a cruel, violent tyrant.  A Jewish man who ruled over Judea and Galilee on behalf of the Roman Empire, Herod taxed the Jewish people heavily in order to finance the building of temples and monuments to the Emperor, a lavish palace for himself, and a sumptuous court life.

After about twenty years the people finally began to revolt.  So Herod masterminded a recipe for suppressing revolt.  He got Rome to proclaim him “King of the Jews” – the one long expected as the fulfillment of Jewish prophesy.  Then he rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem with opulence and grandeur that rivaled anything seen in the ancient near east.  While he affixed the sign of the Empire, the golden eagle, to the main entrance to the Temple’s sanctuary, most of the Jewish people were either convinced by his title or the Temple renovations to support or at least passively tolerate Herod’s rule.

Not only was Herod crafty, he was famously paranoid about the security of his throne, having killed three of his own sons who he thought were trying to depose him.  In this passage from Matthew the wise men, in a move that was not so wise, go first to King Herod to ask where he who is called “King of the Jews” has been born for they have seen his star.  Not exactly a diplomatic high-point, asking a ruler where his rival challenger might be!  King Herod then invites them to let him know when they find this “King of the Jews” so he can worship him.  Oh sure.  The next chapter of Matthew tells of Herod sending out his secret police to find and kill all the first born male children under two in an attempt to eliminate the baby.  Even the tyrant Herod attended to the star, so that he could destroy the one its brilliance proclaimed king.

In a more figurative sense, the star that appears in the sky is the shining forth of the light from God, or of God.  The following of the star serves as a physical marker of a new outpouring of heavenly light.  On Epiphany, Pope Leo the Great wrote in the 5th century, “A star with new brilliance appeared to the three wise men in the East that “was brighter and more beautiful than others” attracting the “eyes and hearts of those looking on.” The determination of the magi “to follow the lead of this heavenly light” expressed a willingness to be “led by the splendor of grace to knowledge of the truth.” In this way, “they adore the Word in flesh, wisdom in infancy, strength in weakness, and the Lord of majesty in the reality of a man.” Similarly, so should we raise our ‘heart” to the “shining beauty of eternal light.,” revere the “mysteries devoted to human salvation,” and put our “energy” into all that has been done on our behalf.[3]

Finally, in the gospel of Matthew discipleship is often likened to a kind of shining, which recalls the light from the star that shined on the Christ child. Jesus tells his disciples, “you are the light of the world … let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven.”

How have you experienced the love of God during this Christmas season?  How has it strengthened you, provoked you, surprised you, comforted you?  How have you been changed by Christ’s coming?  How are you letting the light of Christ shine through you?

That the disciples and we are called to shine is important to remember in this season of Epiphany, for now that Christ has ascended and the Spirit has been given, we are the ones through whom this light shines forth.

(And here we sang, This Little Light of Mine).

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine (3x); Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine (3x); Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

Shine in places deep and dark, I’m gonna let it shine (3x); Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine (3x); Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.


[1] Peter Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living. William Morrow and Company, 1998.

[2] Bartlett and Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009.

[3] Leo the Great, Sermon XXXI, On the Feast of the Epiphany, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume 12. Hendrickson Publishers, 1985.

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