Monday, January 12, 2009

Sermon for January 10-11

The Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord (January 6)
January 10-11, 2009
Text: Matthew 2:1-12

Dear Friends in Christ,
Sometimes we have expressions to describe something. The lightbub went on. He suddenly got it. The elevator finally went to the top. He wrapped his mind around it. It dawned on him. He had an epiphany. Yet, we don’t always understand the words we use. Epiphany doesn’t mean to figure something out, though it is often used that way. So for example, if Barack Obama suddenly came to the conclusion that Ronald Reagan was right and the way to fix a faltering economy is to cut spending and taxes, one might say he had an epiphany. That would indeed be a dramatic change in his thinking. And yes, this word is often used this way. But what does that word, epiphany, really mean? It means to be revealed as God. So far from figuring something out ourselves, an epiphany is when something is revealed to us from outside of ourselves.

After the season of Christmas, which is literally Christ’s Mass, we have the season of Epiphany. The two seasons fit naturally together. Yet, they are opposites in many ways. In Christmas the focus is that God is revealed to us as a man. In Epiphany, we focus on the idea that a man is revealed to be God. Thus in one of our Epiphany hymns we sing “God in man made manifest.”

The season of Epiphany is framed by two of the great revelatory events in Christ’s life - His baptism and His transfiguration. At both of these events, God the Father confirms to the world that this Man is indeed God the Son. Traditionally, the interior texts were focused on the great miracle texts. In recent years, with changes in the lectionary system we see more missions texts. This is, in my opinion, one of the great weaknesses of the three year lectionary. These missions texts are focusing us on telling people about Jesus, but they never explain what we are to tell them about Jesus. The traditional approach is more catechetical in that it teaches that Jesus is God. That’s something we can tell people.

Between the season of Christmas and Epiphany there is a natural transition. That transition is the Feast of Epiphany itself. Epiphany begins to move us out of the manger and into the world. The event itself, that is commemorated, is the coming of the Magi. These gentile scholars came following God’s revelation in the sky.

Who were the Magi? They were priests of the Zoroastrian religion. The term also applied to the advisors to the various eastern monarchs in Persia and Babylon. Thus, for example, Daniel might well have been listed among the Magi of his day. In this broader sense the term “wise man” might well indeed apply. Likewise, when we examine the practices of these eastern monarchs we see that they frequently had foreigners among their advisors. So the court Magi of the Parthian Emperor, would have been a pretty international group. And it is most likely that the Magi who came to worship Christ, were from the court of the Parthian Empire - Rome’s chief rival in the east.

The Magi were also practitioners of astrology. This is the belief that the events of this world are determined by the positions of the stars. Thus Nancy Reagan would figure out when the stars were aligned just right for her husband to meet with this or that person. While they were in their eastern land, they saw a star that they interpreted to mean that a divine king had been born in Judea. We don’t know what they saw. We don’t know if it was spectacular or not. It might have meant something only to them. It probably appeared some time before Christ’s birth foretelling it. So they well could have arrived within a few days of Christ’s birth. Scripture is clear however, that they were not at the stable with the Shepherds. The Magi found the Christ child at a house in Bethlehem. So it was at least a day later, though perhaps as much as several months. And from the various clues in Scripture, we can say it was less than a year after His birth. Further, due to the stresses on the timeline of Christ’s life as a whole, it would seem that an early arrival makes the most sense. This allows for Christ to have been born very shortly before King Herod’s death in March of 4 B.C.

Why is this important? It is significant that God would place a sign in the heavens for the whole world to see. Christ does not just claim to be the God of the Jews. His claim is universal. Christ is God alone. There is no other god, apart from the God revealed in the Child of Bethlehem. Christ is the God of all people. Thus His coming is declared to all people, though many didn’t know how to grasp it. But that is not the point. God placed this sign in the sky for all future generations, so that we would be assured that Christ is indeed our God. More than this, that Christ came for us. He came to take our sins away. He didn’t just come to save the Jewish people. Rather the Jewish people were to be God’s witnesses in the world. At times they did function this way. The witness was so profound that King Nebucudnezzar of Babylon declared the Jewish God to be God above all gods. And the Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great, ordered and financed the construction of the second temple in Jerusalem. But all too often the Jewish people failed to be God’s light in the world. Yet, from among the Jewish people, the true light of the world came - a Savior who is Christ the Lord. As the angel said - this shall be to all people. So was Christ the Jewish Messiah? Yes, at least the One that God intended. But He is our Messiah as well. He is the One who came to make peace between God and man by taking away our sins.

Epiphany - to be revealed as God. In Christmas we looked at how God was revealed as a man. In Epiphany, we look at how a Man is revealed to be God. And we begin this season by reminding ourselves that Jesus Christ, the Babe of Bethlehem was born as God and Savior to all people. He was not just a local, tribal god. Christ was God to the Magi. They are invited in to worship their God. And so for us, all the people of the ages since. We are invited into the house, not to see someone of earthly import. We are invited in to worship and kiss the very feet of the One true God, Who is, incredibly, also our Savior.

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