I don’t know about you, but to me, the season of Christmas was like that Christmas Eve or Christmas Day dinner that required how many hours of planning and the whole day to prepare and that smelled so good and looked so nice on the table and once grace was said, took what, 30 minutes to consume and it was all over.
The Church’s season of Christmas is like that. After four full weeks of Advent preparation for Christmas, it doesn’t last very long. Just 12 days and three services. Our hymnal has 35 Christmas hymns in it. How are you supposed to squeeze all of those into three services? And “Pastor, don’t you know that you didn’t let us sing our favorites. AGAIN!”
So, today we begin the season of Epiphany. And you’re never are sure how long Epiphany is going to last because it all depends on when Easter is, which determines when the season of Lent begins. And since Easter comes fairly late this year, we’re in for a fairly long Epiphany – nine weeks. And our hymnal only has 24 Epiphany hymns in it. So, we’re going to sing them all.
January 6th is always the 1st Day of Epiphany which has a one in seven chance of falling on a Sunday. And I promise you, that is all of the counting that we’re going to do for the rest of this sermon.
“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 has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose, and have come to worship him.” Let the season of Epiphany begin.
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” means ‘to appear.’
The fact that “God appeared” is not all that remarkable really. All throughout the Old Testament, there are a number of ‘epiphanies.’ “And God APPEARED to Abraham…” “The Lord APPEARED to Isaac…” “The Lord APPEARED to Jacob in a dream…” God appeared to Moses, to Israel, to Samuel, to Gideon, to David, to Solomon, to Isaiah. The whole Old Testament is one long succession of ‘epiphany upon epiphany.’
God ‘appeared’ in voices and visions and dreams and burning bushes and pillars of clouds and pillars of fire. But here’s the most remarkable appearance of them all. Now, in these last days, He has ‘appeared’ IN THE FLESH.
And the irony of ironies is that it is His ‘EPIPHANY’ in the flesh that is hardest for us to recognize as the ‘APPEARANCE’ of GOD WITH US.
Voices and visions and dreams and burning bushes and pillars of cloud and fire are all much easier for us to recognize as ‘epiphanies’ of God with us than a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Or a man who’s appearance is so common that you’d never know just by looking at him that this is God. Or that same man all battered and bloodied and hanging from a cross.
So the single theme that runs through the season of Epiphany is to identify the man Jesus of Nazareth with the ‘APPEARANCE’ of God among us. At His baptism, we will witness the dove descending on Him and the voice of the Father identifying as His beloved Son with whom He is well pleased. We will see Him turn water into wine at a wedding; unroll the scroll of Isaiah and declare, ‘this is all about me.’ He’ll cast out demons from the possessed simply by ordering them to come out and command the fish of the sea to jump into the net and they obey.
And the goal is that, by the end of the season you believe in your heart and confess with your lips that Jesus Christ is the ‘epiphany’ of GOD WITH US. Because only when we can confess this, are we ready to begin the season of Lent and Holy Week as the light slowly fades into utter darkness and the stone is rolled over the tomb.
There’s been an ocean of ink spilled over who these wise men were and where they came from. We’re going to jump over all of that. It’s enough for our purpose here just to know that when Matthew says that they “came from the east,” he’s writing from a Jewish world-view, which is that Jerusalem is the center of the world. So when someone who comes “from the east,” it means they’re coming from the East of Jerusalem which is Persia or Babylon, which is Gentile country.
There was a time in Israel’s history when those who “came from the east” did not come bearing gifts. The Babylonians came from the east bearing weapons of mass destruction. And after a lengthy blockade of Jerusalem, the Babylonians destroyed the city and deported the whole population of Israel “to the east” – to Babylon. What a sad EXODUS that was.
It was the GREAT REVERSAL OF that EXODUS when Israel came out of Egypt with all of that Egyptian wealth that the people gave them as they went. Those were GREAT DAYS for Israel.
But in the Babylonian captivity, all of the people of Israel and all its wealth flowed OUT of Jerusalem to that pagan nation. Those were DARK DAYS for Israel. There was no light shining in Israel.
But now a GREAT REVERSAL is beginning. A light that has risen over Jerusalem. And this light triggers a change in the direction of the tides. At first, it’s just a trickle. How many of these Magi were there? Matthew doesn’t actually say. There may have been three or there may have been thirty. But the point is the nations, the gentiles, are beginning to flow INTO Jerusalem. And they’re bringing their WEALTH with them – gold, frankincense and myrrh.
This is just what the prophet Isaiah saw coming and declared to all who had been “walking in darkness” and “dwelling in deep darkness.” (Is.9:2) “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.” (Is. 60:1,3).
These ‘wise men’ that came from the east are just the trickle before the damn bursts. The word of the prophet is being fulfilled. “The abundance of those who live across the sea shall be turned to you. The wealth of the nations shall come to you.” The nations are coming to Christ to worship Him.
Initially the tide came in so slowly that it was hardly noticeable – a couple of local shepherds, a few wise men from the east. Then there were 12 and then there were 120 and then there were ‘great crowds,’ then ‘multitudes.’
And then He died and they all went away. And then He rose again and they still weren’t sure. And then He said, “don’t be afraid.” “I’m sending you out to East and the West and the North and the South.” “Go to all nations…”
AND IT WAS LIKE THE DAM BURST. The single star that those wise men saw rising over Bethlehem exploded like no fireworks display this world has ever seen. Even to this very day, that same light continues to rise in the darkness and lead men and women, boys and girls to come to Christ to worship Him.
And one day, that light rose over you.
• Not some strange star in the sky, but a small basin of water where God ‘appeared’ to you and you came to Christ to worship Him.
• Not some strange star in the sky, but a conversation with a friend, or maybe not even a friend who said, ‘let me tell you about Jesus.’ And God ‘appeared’ to you and you came to Christ to worship Him.
• Not some strange star in the sky, but a scolding long overdue, that basically said, ‘do you really want to live your life in sin. There’s a better way.’ And God ‘appeared’ to you and you came to Christ to worship Him.
• Not some strange star in the sky, but that tragedy and pain and sorrow and in the midst of your darkest day you cried out, “God where are you!” And God ‘appeared’ to you and you came to Christ to worship Him.
• Not some strange star in the sky, but a ‘still, small voice,’ inviting you to come and eat this bread and drink this wine. And you came to this railing and God ‘appeared’ to you and you worshipped Him.
For the Holy Spirit has come bearing gifts to give to Jesus. Not gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but you.
The apostle Paul put like this to the Corinthians, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6)
We’d be remiss, irresponsible and naïve if we failed to warn ourselves that there are forces at work that want to turn this tide and stop the inflow of the multitudes who are coming to Christ every day.
King Herod was flat out LYING when he said he wanted to join the Magi in worshipping Jesus. When he discovered that he had been “tricked by the wise men, he became furious and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under according to the time that he ascertained from the wise men.” (Mat. 2:16-17)
You can rest assured that every plan and purpose to extinguish this LIGHT OF THE WORLD will back-fire just it back-fired when the child was eventually found and arrested and nailed to a cross – and on the 3rd day, IT WAS FIREWORKS.
The devil knows that he cannot overcome Christ. He knows that he has been defeated by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But the devil still thinks that he can overcome you. He knows he can’t turn the light of Christ off in you, but he also thinks that he is so clever and cunning that he can actually get YOU to turn off that light that shines in your heart. He believes that he is so clever and cunning that he can convince YOU to turn around and go back to Babylon or Egypt to live in the darkness.
And the truth is, HE CAN, because he is very crafty and because we are very gullible. He is the ‘father of lies.’ It is a terrible tragedy to see men and women, boys and girls who have come to Christ to worship Him, return to the darkness.
The wise men were “warned IN A DREAM not to return to Herod.” Today, not by a dream, by the preacher we are warned “not to return to Herod.” ‘Do not be deceived!’ Listen to Christ who never lies. Live in the His light that shines even in the midst of the darkness.
For the day is coming when yet one more star will arise. And when it does, there will be no more darkness. And the voice of the angel will declare for the whole world to hear, those who are still alive and those who are in their graves, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” What an Exodus that will be.
A blessed Epiphany to you all.