Sunday, January 02, 2005

Sermon: Epiphany (Transferred)

2 January 2005 at Gloria Dei L.C.

Text: Matt 2:1-12 (Isa 60:1-6; Eph 3:1-12) (Historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today, we celebrate the Epiphany. This is a Greek word that means “manifestation,” or a “showing” of something. We usually use this word in English to mean something that very suddenly pops into our heads: that moment when everything clicks, the “aha” experience. Maybe you’ve been wrestling with a very difficult problem: a math equation, a puzzle, a mystery novel. You think and think until your brain hurts. Then it all hits you – usually at 3:00 in the morning. “Aha!” The answer comes to you from nowhere.

Or maybe you suddenly come to the conclusion that you have been headed in the wrong direction. Something happens that makes it clear as day, that you must repent and change direction. And when such epiphanies happen, you wonder how you could have missed it all this time. It’s like a missing puzzle piece drops into place, and suddenly everything comes together.

The Festival of the Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, the 6th day of January (which we are transferring to today) is something like that. Our Gospel text is a “Great Aha,” a stunning revelation, a bolt of lightning which makes everything bright and clear about who Jesus is. It is the account of the wise men, the magi, who were on a quest to find the great King, and they found him, manifested, shown, epiphanied as a helpless infant.

These wise men were probably Persian or Babylonian. They seem to have had contact with the prophecies of the Old Testament – probably since there were Jews living there from the Babylonian exile. The wise men were also astrologers, and an unusual star led them on this journey. They knew the baby King was a Jew, but they also knew something else: “we have come to worship him,” they said. Worship is only something offered to divinity, to God. These wise men were looking for, in the words of the Epiphany hymn: “God in flesh made manifest.” This search was obviously important to them in order for them to leave everything and travel by beast of burden and on foot several hundred miles in order to experience this epiphany.

The wise men were traveling based on faith. And think about how remarkable their faith was! These were Gentiles. They had no blood relation to the baby King of the Jews. They did not live in the holy land. In fact, they were considered unclean by the Jews. In spite of all of this, they made this extraordinary journey to find the promised King and to fall on their knees before him, presenting him gifts fit for royalty. Somehow, it was revealed to them, it was made manifest, it was shown to them that this Messiah would be a blessing not only to the Jews, but to all the nations as well. And like Abraham two millennia earlier, they left a faraway country in the east to set out to find the promised land, a land where the Promise himself was being made manifest, epiphanied to them and to the whole world, in the flesh.

But not everyone in the world was thrilled with the news. For on the throne of the Jews sat an imposter, a half-breed, a political hack, a Roman puppet king named Herod. Herod was the pretender sitting on Jesus’s throne. And like all pretenders, all fakes, all impostors, he became uneasy when people began speaking of the real king, the rightful heir. Herod conspires with his lackeys in the clergy, who consulted with Scripture, and laid out the unpleasant epiphany to the so-called King Herod. So hell-bent was Herod on preserving his bogus rule, that he would attempt to use these remarkable visitors, the magi, as pawns in a murder plot. Herod wanted the magi to lead him to the true King, not so that he might worship him (as he claimed), but rather so that he might snuff him out. And even when this plan was thwarted, Herod would seek to keep his throne by the mass murder of babies. In the name of convenience and lifestyle maintenance, people can even be convinced to take the life of helpless infants. For centuries, the Church has remembered these baby-martyrs on the 28th of December, a day that has taken on a new and sobering meaning in this country since the legalization of infanticide in 1972.

But Herod’s diabolical plan would not snuff out the true King. For Herod’s wicked scheme was made manifest, was epiphanied to the magi in a dream. And to their joy, the star reappeared, and led them to the Christ-child. And this, dear Christian friends, was the greatest epiphany experienced by the magi, for they gazed with their own eyes upon their God. They knelt in worship, and offered all that they had, gifts of created things given in love to their Creator. They gave him gold fit for a kingly crown (though this king would wear thorns). They gave him frankincense fit for a priest, though this Priest would be surrounded by the stench of death. They gave him myrrh, fit for the anointing of a prophet, although this Prophet would be anointed with his own bloody sweat. And having seen their God face to face, “God in flesh made manifest,” the helpless Almighty King, they returned home – different than they were when they left. For being in the physical presence of Jesus Christ, they had an epiphany.

These Gentiles were not to be left out of God’s long-standing promises to the children of Israel. Far from it. At the end of the Sunday liturgy, we often sing about Jesus as “a light to reveal you to the nations,” the word “nations” meaning literally in the Greek: “Gentiles.” This is the same Light, the uncreated Light, spoken of in our Old Testament lesson. Isaiah prophesies: “Arise, shine, for your light has come!” And this manifested light is nothing less than the “Glory of the Lord.” This is the very same light that shone as a pillar of fire above the Ark of the Covenant. And Isaiah promises that the Gentiles would indeed come to this light. And furthermore, this light would reflect off of them, and glorify them, and bless them, causing hearts to swell with joy! This is the “joyous light of glory” that brings salvation to the world, to Jew and Gentile alike. And Isaiah saw that the Gentiles would indeed bring gold and incense and offer them in praise to the Lord. Jesus is most certainly “God of God, light of light, very God of very God.” Just as Peter, James, and John witnessed a glorious epiphany of blinding light when our Lord was transfigured, the magi also saw his glorious light – in the form of the star that led them to his bodily presence.

And by this incident, it was made manifest to us that the Lord Jesus is King of kings, and Lord of the universe. He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. But he is also the enemy of the wicked. We “poor miserable sinners” would stop at nothing to snuff out this Light of the world. Like Herod, we would respond to this epiphany of “God in flesh made manifest” by plotting his murder.

The very same Jesus who lay in the manger would later hang on the cross. The same Jesus who began to breathe air as he emerged from his mother’s body would exhale his dying breath as she watched on helplessly, 33 years later. The same Jesus who would escape one Herod would later be condemned by another Herod, working with Pilate, and Caiphas – not to mention all of us – and would willingly die for all of us sinners who put him on his cross.

Yes, dear brothers and sisters, this is the most painful epiphany of all. Jesus was not condemned merely by a Roman bureaucrat, a handful of sadistic soldiers, a Jewish puppet ruler, corrupt priests, and a bloodthirsty Jewish mob – but rather by all of us. We strike Jesus in the head in mockery every time we sin. We drive in the nails every time we fear, love, and trust in other things before God. We smite him with the barbaric whip every time we use his name in vain. We join the soldiers and the mob in their torture of Jesus every time we cease to hallow the sabbath, despise our parents and other authorities, hurt or harm our neighbor, act and speak in ways that are sexually immoral, behave dishonestly with regard to our neighbors property, gossip, lie, or harm our neighbor’s reputation. And we drive the spear into his side every time we covet our neighbor’s wife or possessions.

This is not a very pleasant epiphany. And yet it is God’s honest truth. The Blood of Jesus is on our hands, but more importantly, dear friends, it is on our tongues. For this is the epiphany to end all epiphanies: Jesus died to give his life as a ransom for us, even for us “poor miserable sinners” who deserve nothing less than present and eternal punishment. The blood that we drew out of our Lord, he freely gives us to our benefit, to drink for our forgiveness, for our life, and for our salvation! The body we racked with pain and death is given to us every Sunday, here at this altar. And this is the most remarkable epiphany of all: the very same body born of Mary, worshipped by the angels and the magi, plotted against by Herod, this same body that worked miracles and was crucified, is the very same body that was raised from the dead, reigns over the universe, and is manifested to us, epiphanied to us, under the humble forms of bread and wine, of water, and of words.

So while the magi could only gaze upon the baby Jesus, maybe even daring to touch his holy body with their unworthy hands, we have a much greater epiphany than they. For his holy Flesh is taken into our unworthy flesh, and his life-giving Blood is drawn into our death-ridden blood. His perfect and eternal righteousness is bonded to our corrupt and mortal sinfulness. His light shines upon us, we who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, we are glorified by his arising over us. This is the mystery Paul speaks of, “revealed by the Spirit to his holy apostles and prophets.” This is indeed what Paul calls the “unsearchable riches of Christ.”

By virtue of this miracle, this epiphany, we, though unworthy, are able to let our light shine before the world. For in Christ, we have the gift of “boldness, and access with confidence through faith in him.” Bearing this gift of faith, we like the magi can leave this holy place where the Body of Christ is manifested to us, and we can also depart for our own country. And we, the Lord’s unworthy servants, may join Simeon in his song:

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace

Your word has been fulfilled.

My own eyes have seen the salvation

Which you have prepared in the sight of every people:

A light to reveal you to the nations

And the glory of your people Israel.

May our “God in flesh made manifest” bless you with the epiphany of his holy Body and Blood unto life eternal. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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