Great Joy to All People – January 3, 2016
Isaiah 60:1-7, Matthew 2:1-12
January 3, 2016
The word “Epiphany” means “an experience of sudden and striking realization.” As I’ve said before, it’s what we would call an “Aha Moment.” You know, “Aha!! Now I remember where I put my car keys!!!” It’s that kind of feeling. But it’s much more than that!
In the Christian tradition, “Epiphany” was about the revelation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. It was a time when people suddenly realized that the “good new of a great joy” was “to all people!” But it was not just that. Epiphany is also considered to be about the revelation of Jesus Christ to the world as the Son of God. That means this “season of Epiphany” closely relates to (and actually contains) the celebration we observe next week “The baptism of our Lord.” Because the big part of that celebration, was not so much the interaction between Jesus and John the Baptist, as it was the decent of the dove and the voice of God. “This is my beloved Son…” And as I’ll say next week, (a bit of a teaser here!) we know that. It’s just part of our understanding about Jesus. But can you imagine the people then hearing it for the first time?!
So today we celebrate Epiphany, even though Epiphany actually falls on January 6th, which is Wednesday. So think about it then, too! But today I want us to think about the part of the story we just read. I want you to think about the Gentiles, specifically these Gentiles – these visitors from “the East.” I want you to think about the “sudden and striking realization” their story brought to the world. And in doing so, I want you to think about your own personal “Epiphany” – your own “Aha moment” of faith. And that will lead to next week when I will ask you once again to renew the vows you took at your baptism. (Or at your confirmation.)
As we think about these Wise Men, I’d like to remind you about the world into which Jesus was born. (Here’s where my wife would say, “Oh no! Here comes the history lesson!”) Well… yes. But only because we do have to know a little of the history to know what this means to us.
The world into which Jesus was born was, as I’ve said before, a Roman world. More specifically, it was a Greco-Roman world. Because, if you remember your history classes, the Romans patterned their whole society on that of the Greeks. And yes, the official language of the Roman Empire was Latin. But the universal language was Greek – which was the language of the New Testament. Of course, there were many other languages around, including the official language of the Jewish religion – Hebrew. And among the other languages in that world, there was Aramaic, which was the “mother tongue” of Jesus. Aramaic was a split-off of Hebrew.
Now, the reason I say all that is that we have to remember that the world into which Jesus was born was a very Jewish world! In his family, his community, his religion, and his history, the backdrop of Jesus’ life was Judaism. And that’s why the “Aha moment” in our story for today was so striking! Here were these Gentiles interacting with a very Jewish world – and a very Roman world, for that matter. We can’t forget Herod in this story!
So here, in Matthew’s Gospel – a Gospel written to the Jewish people, a Gospel in which Matthew used many Jewish references, in an attempt to show them that Jesus was the Messiah the Jewish people had awaited since the time of their (Jewish) prophets. And here in Matthew’s Gospel we find the only reference to this story about these Gentiles! I can’t emphasize enough the contrast of that!
Remember how they had made their religion an exclusive faith. It was a faith with a clear understanding of those who were “Chosen” and those who were not. Gentiles and Samaritans and other “outsiders” were looked down on. And into all that there came these men from another country, and certainly another religion – possibly Zoroastrianism. And they came asking “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and we have come to worship him.”
I love this story! It is certainly “an experience of sudden and striking realization!” And, as I suggested, it reminds us (or I hope it reminds us) of our own moment of Epiphany, our own moment when we realized – maybe suddenly – the significance of Jesus in our lives.
I hope you can remember that. I know there was just such a time in my life. I was raised in the Church. I knew all the stories. I learned the books of the bible when I was in Third grade! I can still sing that song!! But there came a time when the significance of God’s Son Jesus became real to me. I remember that time!
I hope the same can be said of you. Your time may have been one moment. Or it may have been a “growing realization” that took months or years. I don’t know how it came about for you, but I’d like you to try to remember it today! I’d like you to recall your own Epiphany story. I’d like you to think about it. I’d like you to try to remember what brought you here to this place over the years?
You see, the problem with certain important events in our lives, is that we people sometimes forget – particularly if those events took place long ago! The people of Israel forgot. Over the thousands of years of their history, there were a number of times they forgot about God and his covenants. That’s why there are two readings of the 10 Commandments in the Old Testament. One is in Exodus, and it recounts the events surrounding the giving of “The Law.” The other reading is in the book of Deuteronomy. And the main meaning of the Book of Deuteronomy is remembering! Because the people forgot!
It’s good for us to remember, too! Yeah, I’m sure there are things we’d rather not remember from our past. But some of the more significant things we should – especially the beginnings of our faith journey. So I invite you to do that today. And again, this is a prelude to next week when I’m going to ask you to renew the commitments you made at the beginning of that journey.
For now, remember what God said in the letters to the Churches in Revelation. To the Church in Ephesus, the spirit of God said this. “I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake. But you have forgotten the love you had at first.” “Remember that!” (Revelation 2:3-4)
Maybe we need to heed those words. Maybe we need to remember the love for God we had at first. Was there a time we had a great love for God, and we were willing to go wherever he called us? Has that love and devotion diminished? As I’ve been saying for a number of years now, what better time than the New Year to make a new start, or to make a new commitment to our faith? What better time to look back and see where it all began and to remember why we’re coming here in the first place?
So as your thinking about your “New Year’s Resolutions” – the ones you’ve made and maybe even broken already. I invite you to take a good assessment of your life of faith, and give some serious thought to what I’m going to ask you to do next week. Think about making that commitment to God all over again.
As you go through this week, think about these Wise Men – especially on Wednesday, the actual day of Epiphany. Think about the sudden and striking realization they brought to their world. Think about your journey and maybe even recall your own moment of Epiphany. And have a Happy and blessed New Year!
Eternal God, Lord of all time and places, help us to remember our journey. Help us to realize once again how important you are to us, and what you did because of how important we are to you! As we start a new year, help us to resolve to draw closer to you, to be more deeply committed to your kingdom, and to be more aware of the Joy you bring to our lives. For we pray in our Savior’s name, Amen.