Be The Light of Christ in Epiphany by The Rev. Dr. Donald L. Hamer, Rector
Trinity Episcopal Church
Feast of the Epiphany
January 6, 2019
"Be the Light of Christ in Epiphany"
by The Rev. Dr. Donald L. Hamer, Rector
Isaiah 60:1-6 Ephesians 3:1-12 Matthew 2:1-12
Epiphany is one of the 7 major feast days of the church. The word derives from the Greek word meaning “to reveal, or “to manifest.” In many parts of the world, including most Spanish-speaking countries, it is a much larger holiday than Christmas, with people trading gifts in recognition of the gifts brought by Matthew’s wise men rather than a large man in a red suit. In the United States and much of the western world, we have cloaked the story of the wise men with a romantic sentimentality both in the Church and in popular culture. We have made them “Kings” and put them in royal robes and placed them in radiant light inside of a manger that looks like it was designed by Martha Stewart or Oprah. And all of this has tended to cloud the important ramifications of this story in Biblical history. So this morning I would like to rescue the Wise Men from their places in the annual Christmas Pageant and put them back in their rightful roles as key witnesses to both the promise – and the threat – that the birth of Jesus represents to the world.
To place this in perspective, we need to go back to the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible and of the Christian Testament. The prophet Micah, 5:2, which is paraphrased by Matthew in this morning’s Gospel, writes: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” The Hebrew Bible also foreshadows this event in Chapter 60 of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, where the prophet writes, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn . . . They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Is. 60:3, 6b.) Then in the Christian Testament there is the prophecy of Simeon after he has laid eyes on the infant Jesus when his parents have brought him to the Temple. Speaking to Mary and Joseph, he says: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” (Luke 2:34b-35).
And see the irony here: The Wise Men are gentiles who have no knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures of Isaiah and Micah that foretold the arrival of a Messiah. Their only knowledge of this event comes from their observations and their search for something greater than themselves. Contrast that with Herod, himself a Jew who considers himself the “King of the Jews.” When these strangers come from the East asking for the “King of the Jews” he perceives a serious threat to him and to his family and their status in society. What a contrast: We have these three gentiles who journey a long distance to pay homage to the King of the Jews, while Herod, who himself claims to be King of the Jews, wants to destroy him. The Wise Men represent the first gentiles in the Bible to recognize the coming of the Messiah and to perceive the enormity of what that will mean not just for themselves but for the rest of recorded human history.
And this epiphany – this revealing of who this infant really is – is just the first of a number of epiphanies we will hear of in the coming weeks – the miracle at Cana, the appearance of God in the form of a dove at the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, the transfiguration of Jesus before three of his disciples on the mountain, to mention only a few. And in each of these epiphanies, the world will come to know more about the identity – and the mission – of this man born of unwed parents in a muddy, smelly stable in Bethlehem.
But for today, what do we learn from this epiphany to the Wise Men? Well, first of all, we learn that this child came not just for the nation of Israel, but for all people throughout the world. That is the symbolism of the wise men – they represent all the peoples of the known world at the time. We learn that everyone – EVERYONE , without exception – has been invited to God’s birthday party, no matter what paths they may have taken on their way to the manger. And unlike King Herod, who preferred and felt entitled to the comforts of his royal palace, the Wise Men were able to see, and welcome, the King of the Jews not in a royal palace but in the dust and muck of a common stable in which God prefers to make an entrance into the world. This infant Jesus poses a real challenge to the comfortable, the powerful, the well-stationed in society who fancy that God favors them.
We need to be reminded that this child savior born into such humble circumstances will one day say things like, “The last will be first and the first will be last” (Mt. 20:16), and to say in a parable, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt. 25:40).
In the story of the Wise Men, Matthew offers us a depiction of an extraordinary hope: Peoples of the earth coming together united in their search for the King of the Jews and coming to recognize that the God of Israel is the God of the least and the lost, the God of the poor and the widow and the imprisoned, the God of the stranger and the refugee, the God of Justice, the God of servanthood and not superiority. All peoples offering gifts of themselves to the Ruler of the Universe.
Epiphany provides us with an invitation to discover the wonderful gifts that we find when we yearn for connection with the living God of all creation. St. Augustine wrote in The Confessions, “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee . . . O Lord.” St. Paul, himself a Jew, devoted his life and ministry to helping Gentiles find God form a connection with the King of the Jews. In this morning’s Epistle, he points out that he even went to prison for the sake of the Gentiles, to make sure they knew that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Eph. 3:6).
In the welcome of the Wise Men, as through the ministry of Paul, God welcomes all humanity to new life in Jesus, the Christ, the True Light. As followers of Jesus, and as successors to the Wise Men, it is our duty – as it was for John the Baptist – to testify to that light to all people. It is God’s universal welcome to all of God’s creation, shown through us – that constantly regenerates the Body of Christ, our family of faith, and makes it real to others. Churches, like Trinity, that strive to embrace such hospitality and welcome reflect the radiance of the Christ child and serve as a beacon for all who are restless to find a spiritual home. We become the new Star of Bethlehem for those who are seeking the promise of the Savior.
I would contend that epiphanies are not just a thing of the past, always beginning with words like, “Once upon a time…” By the gift of the Holy Spirit, and as latter day successors to the Wise Men and to St. Paul, we can make the Season of Epiphany come alive in our own time. The experience at the manger was an epiphany for the Wise Men. After they returned to their country “by another way” in order to avoid Herod, they provided experiences of “epiphany” to all in their own country with whom they shared their own experience and testimony to what they had seen. Paul also experienced his own epiphany when he was on the road to Damascus as described in Chapter 9 of the Acts of the Apostles, and he provided experiences of “epiphany” to the Gentiles in the many cities where he shared his experience and his own testimony.
How has the light of Christ appeared to you? By what light have you encountered the Christ Child? By what light have you encountered the risen Christ? We all have our own pathways to the manger, and each of us has our own unique, and equally valuable, ways of showing forth the light of Christ that we have experienced. But one thing we all have in common: We all are here because of the prompting of God, who is the source of our desire, our seeking, and, over the course of a lifetime, our finding. This morning Jesus invites us to give testimony to the ongoing revelation of the Word Made Flesh. I pray that this season of Epiphany and the days that follow may be a time for us to reflect on how we have experienced the light of Christ, and the ways in which we can be that light to others. Amen.