Isaiah 60:1-3, Matthew 2:1-12
January 1, 2017
Ok quick review. The word “Epiphany” means “a sudden realization” of something. It means “a great revelation,” or “an unveiling,” of something unexpected or surprising. In the vernacular, I like the description of it being an “Aha moment!”
That’s what we celebrate today. An “Aha Moment.” Well, actually we celebrate it on January 6th, which is this Friday. Like Christmas day, Epiphany only occasionally falls on a Sunday. (And yes, I’d like to do something about that, too!) Epiphany is the 12th day after Christmas. It’s the day “My true love gave to me – Twelve drummers drumming.” So I’m guessing it was a rather loud day!
So, Epiphany is a sudden realization, a great unveiling of something, perhaps even something unexpected or surprising. And what was that “something?” God was coming into the world. And he came as a baby, the child of a poor couple, in a small town. And that alone might have been somewhat “unexpected.”
But, I think it’s clear that the most unexpected thing, and perhaps the hardest thing for many to accept, was that he came to earth to reach out to the whole world. Some thirty years later that same Jesus would say, “For God so loved the world…” Not “For God so loved his people…” And not even “For God so loved those who loved him or who would come to love him…” But “God so loved the world…”
So then, into that story, enter the Wise Men from the East. Here in this story, a story of which we have wonderful “mental images,” we see these visitors from a foreign land. They are wealthy, powerful men. They are leaders in their own religion, probably Zoroastrianism. (We mentioned that earlier in Advent.) And they have come to see the one born “King of the Jews.” There’s no doubt from this story that’s what they thought him to be! Did they see him as “Savior?” Maybe. As “God?” I doubt it. But “King?” Yes!
They had seen “something in the stars,” something that pointed to royalty and Israel. And so they set off looking for the “King of the Jews.” That’s what created this bizarre, almost surreal scene, one we have come to take for granted. Look at the manger scene at the back of the church. There they are, the Wise Men. They’re there right along with Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds – even though their “visit” may have happened up to a year later. Matthew tells us they went into the “house” to see the child.
I think we’ve softened the shock value of this story over the years. We read it in our “Bible voice!” And our minds are filled with wonder and amazement. And I don’t think that would have been the case for the people who were reading this for the first time. I think their minds would have been filled with shock and incredulity! Remember, they didn’t know all the parts of this story. Not until the Gospels were written years later, did people have a chance to know the various parts of the life and ministry of Jesus. We sort of know it, or at least we’ve heard it.
Now. after all the stories that may have been circulating, after all the rumors those people may have heard, after this man was crucified, which many of them may have witnessed, after all that, they were now reading or hearing about this part of the story. Wise Men from the East came to worship this child! Wow! Really? I think they would have been shocked!
And don’t forget, they were Jews! Remember that all of the Gospel writers had a reason for writing. Each one of them had a focus for what they told about Jesus. And Matthew wrote his Gospel to the Jewish people. He wanted to tell them that Jesus was the Messiah who was foretold in their scriptures. Over and over again in his Gospel we read the words, “This or that happened ‘in order to fulfill what was said by the prophet…’” And then there would be the quote.
So this wasn’t the fledgling Christian Church that was hearing about this. It was the Jewish community. And as you know the Jews of the time had a great aversion to people who were outside of their faith. And remember also that Matthew’s Gospel was the only place we find this story!
I think all of that makes this an amazing story! And I also think it has to be added to our understanding of Christmas. I think we should try to remember the shocking nature of this story, even though it has been softened over the years. Because there they are in our manger scenes. The Wise Men! There they are a part of this story, whether the other players liked it or not. And whether the people years later liked or not, that same Jesus would reach out to people who were not “good Jews.” And they didn’t like that! And then three years after that, when the Holy Spirit came upon the household of Cornelius, a Gentile, the fledgling church – most of whom were Jews – had to come to grips with the fact that the ministry of Jesus went out beyond the Jewish people!
That’s the “Epiphany!” That’s the “unexpected revelation!” And that’s what this story brings to our Christmas story. This story challenges us every year to think about those who are beyond the limits of our own “comfort zone.” Because the other part of this is that Jesus’ words in John 3:16 were also not, “For God so loved the people we think he should love…” And that can easily be as challenging for us as it was for the people then, can’t it?!
So I give thanks for those Wise Men and the challenge they give to our understanding of Jesus. May we, in this New Year, strive to look beyond our doors, and to seek those who search for the understanding and the meaning of this event. May we see all people as “the world” that “God so loved.”
Eternal God, we thank you that you loved us even before we loved you. We thank you that you have placed your light within us. Help us to let it shine for all the world to see. We give you praise and honor and glory, now and forever, Amen.