In the beginning, while the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters, God said, ‘Let there be light and there was light.” (Gen.1:1-5)
And God said, “I will make you as a light to the nations; that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
And God said, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you… And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising…” (Isaiah 60:1,3)
And Magi from the east saw that light and came to worship the child on whom the light shone. (Mat.2:8)
And when the child became a man, He was baptized in the water, and the Spirit of God who hovers over the waters descended upon Him and the Father who said, “let there be light,” declared, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11)
And the beloved Son of the Father went to Cana for a wedding, and for the sake of the joy and gladness of the bride and the groom and all their guests turned water into the best wine and manifested His glory.” (John 2:11)
Welcome to the Feast of Epiphany! Epiphany is far more than just the celebration of the visitation of the ‘wise men’ from the east. Epiphany is all about the appearance of the Light that God spoke in the beginning enfleshed in Jesus Christ, to whom the nations come to worship, and be united to Him in their own baptism into His death and His life, and to be filled with joy and gladness through faith in Him.
If it sounds like the Festival of Epiphany is even more raucous and festive than Christmas, then you’re beginning to understand what this Holy Day is really all about. Christmas is celebrated in moderation. The Light of the World is hidden under a basket and only a few nearby shepherds are invited to the party.
But Epiphany is celebrated in abundance. Bright lights, expensive gifts, the heavens opened, the Father gives a speech, and lots of great wine. What a Feast! Is it any wonder that the Feast of Epiphany has been on the Church’s calendar long before Christmas ever was?
The Baptism of Our Lord and the Wedding at Cana each get individual treatment during the season of Epiphany, along with the Calling of Disciples, Casting out of Demons, Healing of the Sick, and as the grand finale, The Transfiguration of Our Lord.
But the Day of Epiphany rolls all of this together into one, glorious celebration of the appearance of God among man in His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. What we should have done to capture the essence of the Feast of Epiphany was to sing, ‘Light of Light, O Sole Begotten,’ ‘Hail, O Source of Every Blessing,’ Come Thou Bright and Morning Star,’ ‘As With Gladness Men Of Old,’ and ‘Come Join in Cana’s Feast’ all as one 22 stanza hymn. (You want to try it? Maybe next year.)
But since it’s really hard to squeeze all of the important themes of Epiphany into one celebration let alone one hymn or one sermon, the Church has historically used this day to focus its attention on the “Visitation of the Magi.”
As we have heard, “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
The account of the visitation of the Magi is rooted in Christmas and the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem where, as incredible as this sounds, God appeared.
That’s what the word ‘epiphany’ means. “Epiphaino” is the verb. It means ‘to appear.’ “Epiphaneia” is the noun. An ‘appearance.’
All throughout the Old Testament, there are these remarkable ‘epiphanies.’ “And God appeared to Abraham…” “The Lord appeared to Isaac…” “The Lord appeared to Jacob in a dream…” God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. He appeared all of Israel in the pillar of fire and cloud. God appeared to Samuel, to Gideon, to David, to Solomon, to Isaiah… and the list goes on and on. The whole Old Testament is one long succession of ‘epiphany upon epiphany.’
But now, in these last days, God has appeared to us, not in dreams or visions or burning bushes or pillars of fire – but in His Son, Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king.
There’s been an ocean of ink spilled over who these wise men were and where they came from. It’s enough for our purpose tonight just to know that when Matthew says that they “came from the east,” he’s telling us that they did not come from Israel, they were not Jews, they were Gentiles.
It is kind of interesting that Luke, who aims his gospel at Gentiles, reports on the visitation of the shepherds. Those shepherds were nearby and were certainly Jews. Luke is telling his gentile audience that there’s an order to God’s ‘epiphany,’ – He appears first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.
Matthew on the other hand, aims his gospel at Jews. And he reports on the visitation of the Gentiles. Matthew is telling his Jewish audience that Jesus is not just for the Jews. He is for Jews and Gentiles.
To Jews for whom Jerusalem is the center of the world, ‘from the east’ always means ‘east of the Jordan River.’ A vast stretch of land that reaches all the way to Persia and Babylon where incidentally, Israel had once been taken into captivity, and where, all the way into the 2nd century AD there remained large communities of Jews who simply never returned to Israel.
These ‘wise men’ would have certainly been familiar with these Jewish communities. And being ‘wise men,’ they would have certainly listened to their teachings and read their scriptures. In Numbers 24, the prophet Balaam oracles his vision of “God, Most High, the Almighty,” saying, “I see him, but not now; I behold Him but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel…” (Numbers 24:17)
So, what would have moved these ‘wise men’ to saddle up and head west at the sight of a very peculiar star in the sky? What else, but faith in the Word that they heard.
It sounds crazy, I know, that ‘wise men’ of all people should do this. To us, this looks like a very silly thing to do and maybe they were really ‘fools.’
But isn’t that just the way faith is? What reason calls playing the fool, faith calls the only way and truth and life there is.
Look at what great faith they have.
“When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him…” Herod was a certifiable lunatic; a madman possessed by jealousy and suspicion. So when Herod was troubled, all Jerusalem was troubled. There’s no telling what this maniac might do.
But not these guys. They neither back down nor compromise, but boldly confess, “We have come to worship him.” “Let this world’s tyrant rage…” Which he does. But his raging is in vain. And it accomplishes nothing. “His might is doomed to fail. God’s judgment must prevail. One little word subdues him.”
Both Herod and the ‘wise men’ hear the same Holy Scriptures read to them. “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rules of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”
But Herod receives the Word only to work it to his own purpose and gain, which is wicked and evil. While the ‘wise men’ receive the same Word in true faith, trusting that it will lead them to the goal – to worship the ‘epiphany of the Lord.’ And isn’t that just the way it is to this day.
We could stand to learn a lot from these ‘wise men’ about true faith and how it remains firm both in the face of opposition, and also in the face of contrary appearances and reason.
I can’t paint this picture any better than Luther does, and so I’ll simply let him speak for a minute here.
“First, they came to Jerusalem, the capital, and did not find him, the star also disappearing. Do you not think that they would have said within themselves, if they had followed human reason alone: ‘Alas, we have traveled so far in vain, the star has misled us, it was a phantom. If a king were born he should of course be found in the capital and lie in the royal chamber. But when we arrived the star disappeared and no one knew anything about him. We strangers are the first to speak of him in his own country and royal city! Indeed, it must be all false!”
“Besides, his own people are troubled and do not care to hear of him, and direct us from the royal city to a little village. Who knows what we shall find there? The people act so coldly and strangely, no one accompanies us to show us the child; they do not believe themselves that a king is born to them… O how odd and unusual everything appears at the birth of a king! If a young puppy were born, there would at least be a little noise. But a king is born here, and there is no stir. Should not the people sing and dance, light candles and torches and pave the streets with branches and roses? O the poor king whom we seek! Fools we were to permit ourselves to be deceived so shamefully.” (Baker 1:361f.)
But human reason and outward appearances are not the final authority for them. And they will not be dissuaded by them. They believe that the Word of God is wiser even than ‘wise men.’ And so off they go.
Isn’t it just like that for us too? Aren’t there times during this journey that we walk by faith, when nothing seems to make sense according to the promise that God has given us? In fact, aren’t there times when it can all appears to be so contrary to what we have been told and for what we have hoped? How many times have we said, ‘this is not the way we thought it was supposed to go at all’?
So we learn from these foreigners that we walk by faith that is led, not by the ‘appearances’ and circumstances that would confuse and mislead us. But we walk by faith in the ‘appearance’ of God, who was born in Bethlehem in the days of Herod, Who is faithful and true and will not let any who come to Him in true faith ever be put to shame.
So, we are not deceived by reason or appearances. Even if we were to see Him whom we come here tonight to worship, rejected by men, shamefully mocked, and condemned to death, even death on a cross, we will not be dissuaded. Rather, we will worship Him all the more because this is all according to His Word.
“After listening to the king, they went on their way 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.”
Can we imagine how relieved and happy they must have been to see that star once again? What assurance must have filled their hearts. Like a light shining in the darkness.
Like disciples huddled together in fear behind locked doors, and the risen Lord Jesus APPEARED TO THEM. “Arise, shine, for your light has come. For the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” (Is.60:1).
God led His people Israel through the desert by a pillar of fire by day. Here, He leads the gentiles by the light of a star. Now in these last days, He leads you and me by the light of His Word. Peter writes, “We have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Peter 1:19)
All the Gentiles from every nation on the planet are compressed in these ‘wise men from the east.’ They came to Jesus bearing precious gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh.
But now, in these last days, we come to receive the precious gifts that He has APPEARED among us to give – the forgiveness of all of our sins, His eternal life and the joy and gladness of being His bride in the wedding banquet that never ends.
Welcome to the Feast of Epiphany!