THE EPIPHANY OF OUR LORD

Epiphany-C
January 6, 2018
Mr. Rick Stark, Vicar of
Trinity Lutheran Church,
7210 Lisbon Street
San Diego, CA 92114

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“And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

By fortunate circumstance due to the recurring and predictable nature of the calendar, the Epiphany of Our Lord falls on a Sunday this year. That Sunday is today. And by even greater circumstance, but by no means a random one, you get to be in the house of our Lord, listening to the Lord’s Word, on the day we celebrate the Epiphany of Our Lord.

Whether you’re our congregation’s youngest believer, or whether you’re pushing your way into your ninth or tenth decade of faith, you are not here on account of your own goodness. You are here because by God’s grace and by His election, you have received your own “epiphany of our Lord and Savior” somewhere along your life’s path

But just what is “Epiphany”?  Many in the secular world think that Epiphany, which always occurs 12 days after Christmas, is the standard allotted time to take down your Christmas decorations.  In some cultures of the world, Epiphany is a grander, larger scale, celebration than Christmas itself. And just to the south of us in Mexico, Epiphany is commonly celebrated with such things as cutting the “King cake” and gifts left in shoes for the children.

The word ‘Epiphany’ comes from Greek and literally means ‘a manifestation’. In other words, it has to do with something being revealed that has previously been hidden, or at least obscured for some time. Certainly the people of the old world, even the people of Israel, didn’t have a full understanding of just who God really is and how He was going to bring about their eternal salvation prior to the birth of Jesus.

There were plenty of prophecies of how all this would happen. This morning, our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, foretold what would happen when God revealed His glory to the world: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. “Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you…”All people will be drawn into that glory, and all people will be drawn into God’s family.  And, from our Gospel lesson, we heard the quotation from Micah that was used by Herod’s advisors to direct the wise men to Bethlehem: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”

 These clues gave the people of ancient times a bit of a puzzle to consider. Each little revelation, each answer to a prophecy, put more and more information at their disposal. And, using that information, some eager souls attempted to predict the when, the where, and the how of the coming of the Messiah.

It’s kind of like our own day and age, where people attempt to use the far fuller content of the Scriptures to predict the end of times, or the time, the place, and the circumstances of the Savior’s Second Coming. Of course, to do this, they have to set aside Jesus’ own words, they have to disregard what Jesus Himself told us, that no one can predict it, “… for no one knows these things… only the Father.” Too often, though, in ancient times and now, all the speculation on the when, and the where, and the how of the coming of the Messiah misses the what — and, more importantly, it misses the whyof the Messiah’s coming.

Speculation like this will always happen. It is part of our sinful human nature to want to calculate, to speculate, or just plain guess about things which God, in His wisdom, has chosen to keep hidden from us for the time being. The ironic flip-side of that is, of course, that too many times we ignore that which God has already revealed to us.

Consider, for example, what we already know and what we don’t know about the wise men, or the “magi,” who came to worship the one born King of the Jews. We know that they came from the east, but what we don’t know is how far from the east, or that it was necessarily due east from Bethlehem. We can speculate, as others have, that they might have learned the teachings about the Messiah of Israel from Jewish exiles who lived in Babylon or more likely Persia. Or, they could’ve been from Arabia, or even from as far away as modern day India or China; we just don’t know. And, we need to be humble enough before God and with one another to admit that.

My apologies to Christmas card writers and the hymn writers, but we don’t know if these wise men were the “Three Kings of Orient Are.” Nowhere in the Bible does it say they were kings, nor does it say that there were three. (Most people assume there were three wise men because of the three gifts presented, the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which are mentioned in the Bible.) Isaiah does prophesy that kings will come to the brightness of the Messiah’s rising, but we can’t, with any certainty, connect that verse directly to this particular visit.

And what about the legend that the three wise men were named Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, or any names similar to that? There’s no biblical mention of names. They are probably something that cropped up in the Middle Ages in misguided attempts to answer people’s curious questions, instead of redirecting them to what really is important in this story.

Also of legend, rather than biblical accuracy, is the idea that the wise men rode in on camels. Again, Isaiah mentions that camels of Midian and Ephah and Sheba shall come. But Matthew’s account doesn’t document the wise men’s mode of transportation. There’s nothing wrong with picturing the wise men coming on camels, but there’s nothing to make it a point of certainty, either.

So, about now you’re probably thinking, “What’s your point Vicar? Are purposely trying to ruin our sentimental impressions of Christmas and the manger scene? Are you trying to upset our childhood memories? Or, confuse us with lots of details?”

No, not really. My hope in pointing out such details is that you’ll be encouraged to read the Scriptures, not just more often, but with a greater eye for what they contain and what they do not contain. And I would pray that you will know the difference when you hear people talk. Quite often we hear people say (or we might even say ourselves), “Well, I think the Bible says such-and-such…” But unless we know actually what it does say, offering our opinion can be dangerous, both to them and to us.

Now in these things I brought up here today, it’s really like what Pastor Brian would say, “It’s adiaphora!” It really doesn’t matter because it doesn’t change the important aspects of the Biblical account. It doesn’t change what really matters!

When we actually turn to the Scriptures, we may find that what God’s Word has revealed to us is significantly different, or sometimes even silent on the topic. And, it is sinful for us to quote God’s Word inaccurately for the purpose of convincing people of our own ideas, rather than what God’s Word tells us. We have likely all fallen victim to it at sometime or another.

Another hope I have in suggesting that you consider the content of Scripture more discerningly is that you’ll begin to see the connections God has put there for us much more clearly. Yes, the Bible is a difficult and mysterious book in many ways. But sometimes we make it much more difficult than it needs to be, because we want to carve it up into isolated snippets rather than trying to see the rich, broad minutiae of its tapestry. Sometimes the temptation is to use a particular verse, maybe out of context, to win ego-building arguments, rather than to convey the wholeness of God’s Law and Gospel message to a fallen, lost, and dying world. And in doing so the true message of God’s Word get’s lost.

Again, we should repent of our failings, for the power of God’s Word is not to be used for our own purposes, but for the His glory, and for the benefit of sharing His grace with others. We should pray for the motivation to more diligently and deeply read and study Scripture, pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance for better clarity and understanding of it, and finally, pray for the courage and opportunities to share that understanding with others, so that they might have their own “epiphanies” with the Lord.

If we allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit, to seek a greater understanding, God will not disappoint us. He will overcome that sinful desire to shape or twist His Word for our own purposes, so that He might accomplish His greater good. He will help us to see how Matthew’s account of the wise men’s visit truly does connect with Isaiah’s prophecy, with Micah’s prophecy, and with the entirety of all the other Bible books, as well. After all, the Bible itself is ultimately the inspired work of God, and not the work of the individual writers.

The wise men’s visit shows us several things. First, it illuminates how the message of God’s salvation through the Messiah had reached out into the world even before Christ’s coming in the flesh. The wise men were not just sitting around one night, observing the sky, and suddenly came to the conclusion on their own that this new star indicated the birth of a king to the Jews. This idea had to have been planted in their minds from some source with an understanding that the coming of the Messiah would be accompanied by great signs, including a great light from the heavens.

Among these revelations, recorded in book of Numbers, chapter 24 Balaam prophesied, “…a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” A special star or other astronomical events such as comets or meteors was taken to symbolize divine validation of a king’s right to rule.

Balaam went on, “Edom shall be dispossessed.” Now it’s no coincidence that Herod, the king who ruled at the time of Jesus’ birth, was not an Israelite king at all, but an Edomite who had been installed by the Romans as their puppet ruler.

When the wise men appeared, telling Herod that a star had arisen in Israel to indicate the birth of a Jewish king, he had good reason to fear for his rule. The Scriptures said that Edom would be dispossessed. You see, Herod was not an Israelite king at all, but an Edomite who had been installed by the Romans as their puppet ruler. Herod knew enough of Israel’s history and of the Jewish religion to realize that God often worked on behalf of Israel through supernatural means. However, the deception and violence Herod used in response, were manifestations of the same evil inclinations that we exhibit whenever we seek to shape things to our own desires, apart from the revealed will of God.

The second important point of this lesson is that prophecies in the Scriptures are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Even though Herod used Micah’s prophecy about the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem for despicable purposes, that was to kill innocent children, it nevertheless shows that Jesus’ miraculous birth took place exactly where God had revealed it would, the way God had said it would. For nearly 700 years, since the time of Micah, that information might have seemed of little importance. But in the prophecy’s fulfillment, those few verses take on immeasurable significance.

Thirdly, when the star finally stopped where Jesus was, and the wise men reached the end of their journey, they were pleased beyond measure. The text says, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” They were beside themselves with joy! (similar to the joy we heard bout with Simeon last week.) They may not have realized just what sort of king they were about to encounter, and even though he was merely a child at this point, they knew that something great and miraculous had come into their lives.

If only we could experience such joy when we come into contact with our heavenly King who came from God the Father, was born as an infant to suffer and die on that old rugged cross for our sins! And our life of faith is more than just an emotional experience!

How often do we allow our faith to be lived out in cold drudgery or in a bland routine? The Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier of the world has revealed Himself to you! He has chosen you to be His own, to receive the full favor of His grace, to receive forgiveness and to give you eternal life with Him in heaven! You should not just be excited about that, you should be joyful, thrilled, energized, and motivated to seek and follow His will!

A final key point of this lesson is that God continued to reveal Himself to the wise men even after they had followed the star and met the miracle of God in the flesh. He used another miraculous means—a dream—to show them His will. And, He prevented them from going back to Jerusalem, and protected the Holy family and the young Baby Jesus, so that His plan and timetable of salvation would not be interrupted or short-circuited by Herod.

You know, God does this for you, too, even today. He continues to reveal Himself to you in miraculous ways: The spoken word brings God’s power into your lives, each and every time you hear the declaration of absolution and the proclamation of the Gospel for the forgiveness of your sins. He doesn’t bring you gold, frankincense, or myrrh, but far more precious gifts of His own body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, satisfying your spiritual hunger and quenching your soul’s thirst, even as it burns away your sins with a power brighter and hotter than that of any star.

Maybe faith came to you as an infant or young child as you were baptized by loving, believing parents and given the Holy Spirit’s gifts by water and Word. Maybe, like others, you were reached later in life through the proclamation of that same Living Word, and the Spirit chose to enlighten your heart with the wisdom of the Gospel and then you received the gifts of the Holy Spirit through your baptism.

Either way is fine, really. God has chosen those means—Sacrament and Word, Word and Sacrament—to reveal Himself to us and to draw us near to Him. Through them, He grants us our own epiphanies. They may be personal ones, but they are by no means “little ones”, for the granting of faith is like a tectonic plate shifting in our lives and in our standing in God’s eyes. No longer are you aliens, strangers, and enemies to God. Instead, you are family, made His very own children—reborn, not as kings or queens of the Jews, but as princes and princess of heaven and earth – children of God, redeemed by Christ the Crucified, and royal citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Rejoice that the Lord’s Epiphany has come to you, revealing who He is and re-creating who you are, so that you may join the wise men in “rejoicing with exceedingly great joy” at His coming to the world for your salvation.

In the holy name of our God, who has been made flesh and was revealed to the nations, for all to see, and for all to believe, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

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