Sermon for Epiphany Of Our Lord, Year C
Based on Matt. 2:1-12
The Epiphany of our Lord is a feast, celebrated on January the sixth that rarely falls on a Sunday. Consequently, most churches in the West that I’m aware of don’t gather for worship on this day—although Eastern Christians do, and they associate this festival day with the Baptism of Christ. We in the West separate these two days.
“Pastor, what is this feast day of Epiphany all about anyway?” A curious parishioner asked me on one occasion. There seems to be no clear-cut, simple answer to the question though, as there appears to be an aggregate of several motifs incorporated into this feast day over time. Maybe it would be helpful for us to turn to some of those motifs and explore them a little. Perhaps that will shed more light—pun intended—on what this feast is all about and why we’ve gathered here to worship today.
We begin with the Greek word “Epiphany,” which means, “to reveal, to show, to make manifest.” In the birth of Jesus, the Gospel writers and the early Christian community wanted to communicate the message that this birth of Jesus—although presumably the same as every other human birth physiologically and biologically speaking—was different, special, wonderful, and out of the ordinary from a faith perspective. Why was this so? Because in the birth of Jesus, Matthew tells us, God’s long-awaited Messiah had finally arrived. Matthew in particular has a penchant for focusing on the Christ event as the fulfillment of Hebrew Bible prophecies. For this Gospel writer, the birth of Jesus marks the beginning of God’s special revelation, showing, and manifestation to humankind. Thus, the revelation, the showing, the manifestation of Jesus’ birth underscores his uniqueness, his “one-and-only-ness” as the divine-human Messiah. In short, Matthew is saying: “Rejoice! What people had been waiting for and longing for over the ages has finally happened. Jesus, God’s Messiah is born! What a wonder!”
Another motif or theme of Epiphany is that of using the natural world to reveal, show, and manifest a spiritually significant event. In this case it is, as Matthew tells it: “his star at its rising,” or “his star in the East.” In the history of the Jewish people, there were some very significant spiritual events that were revealed through the natural world. Two immediately come to mind: God calling Moses through the burning bush, and the parting of the waters, allowing Israel to make their exodus from Egyptian slavery. Moreover, the psalmist, while meditating upon how God reveals, shows, manifests God’s Self by using the creation, could declare: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”(Ps. 19:1)
According to a lot of commentators today, the star in our gospel passage was more likely the meeting of Jupiter with Saturn in the constellation of Pisces. The deeper, sublime theological-spiritual message in this natural phenomenon may very well be that with the shining of this heavenly light, comes God’s saving love in Christ, not merely for you and me and a few chosen people—rather, for the whole universe. God loves the whole creation and provides for its salvation through Jesus Christ. In this sense, Jesus is the Cosmic Christ. Or, as Colossians chapter one, verses sixteen and seventeen put it: “all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Hence, the extra-special radiance of the heavenly light is, itself, a telling, a revealing of the birth of Jesus, the Light of the world, along with the entire cosmos.
A third, similar motif or theme is that of the magi and their visit. Who were these people anyway? From our gospel we learn a couple of things. First, that they were “from the East.” The East may mean ancient Persia or Babylonia, as it was common in those nations to engage in the study of astrology. Others speculate that they belonged to an elite class or school of professional wisdom philosophers, teachers or priests. Obviously their study of the heavenly light and its movements revealed to them that the king of the Jews had been born.
That leads us to a second clue in Matthew’s text. He tells us that the magi knew Christ had been born, but they didn’t know the exact location. This tidbit of information is a clue to us that the magi were Gentiles, not Jews. They did not have access to the Jewish scriptures, which revealed the location of the Messiah’s birth. Matthew tells us that this information was given to the magi vis-à-vis the Jewish religious leaders, who, like Matthew, knew the messianic prophecy from Micah chapter five, verse two.
This detail of Matthew’s story contains the following significant theological-spiritual message. First, there is the irony of “outsiders,” non-Jews, Gentiles from foreign lands knowing of the Messiah’s birth through their study of astrology. This message is a mixed one. The upside of it is that God is an all-loving, all-inclusive God, and through Jesus Christ has provided for the salvation of all humankind. God desires and welcomes everyone to be a member of his realm. The magi visitation underscores the message that Jesus and his Gospel are spreading out into the Gentile world.
The downside of these magi is that they could not come to a complete wisdom or knowledge of the Messiah and his birthplace without the Jews and their scriptures. Astrology is inadequate and not a complete revelation from God. Indeed, astrology can even be misleading and dangerous, since it can cause people to place more trust in the study of heavenly bodies than in God the Creator who created them; to worship the creation instead of the Creator. Only through the Jewish people and their scriptures comes true, complete wisdom and knowledge of the Messiah and of salvation.
There is yet another motif or theme in our gospel passage—namely, the sages coming to Jesus, paying him homage and offering him their gifts fit for a king of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Matthew tells us that when they arrived at the exact location, “they were overwhelmed with joy,” as they bowed down and worshipped the King of kings, offering him their gifts. Is this not what gives us joy too? There is nothing quite like going on a long, challenging, sometimes even life-threatening journey, only to reach the final destination, the life goal of one’s hopes and dreams. To run the good long marathon race of life and complete the race, this brings much satisfaction, sense of accomplishment, and joy. To enjoy the meaningfulness and purpose of being on the right road, the right journey, knowing and trusting that we shall one day, by the grace of God, reach the journey’s end, what joy it is to finally complete the journey. This hopefully is something of what we do in the life of the church as we journey with great anticipation and expectation during the season of Advent and welcome with much joy the coming of Christ at Christmas.
The joy of these Eastern sages overflowed with worship of the Christ-child, offering him nothing but the best of gifts. The gift of gold represents Christ’s kingship; frankincense, used for offerings in the Temple, represents his priesthood as he bridged the gap between heaven and earth; and myrrh was used to embalm the dead and reminds us of Christ’s death on the cross for us all. The reference to three gifts led a later tradition to conclude that there were three magi, later called kings—even though Matthew doesn’t tell us how many there were or refer to them as kings. Eventually, they were even named Caspar, Melchior, and Belthasar, and some depictions of them in Christian art emphasized their diverse national origins.
What happens with our joy? Do we bottle it up inside and keep it to ourselves? Or do we, like the sages, express it in generous ways and means? How do we pay homage to the Christ-child, with measured, carefully calculated reservation or with a prodigal generosity? Do we offer Christ our best or only the leftovers?
I remember visiting a pastor who was provided with a substandard parsonage to dwell in, while most of his parishioners lived in very extravagant homes. In depriving that pastor of adequate living quarters, that parish was making a statement about how they regarded Christ himself—only the least and the leftovers were offered, while the best was horded for themselves.
On this Day of Epiphany, may we be granted something of the revealing, showing, manifesting Light of Christ that those Eastern sages encountered on that first Christmas. May we, like them, be filled with joy overflowing into a prodigal generosity—worshipping and offering Christ our most precious gifts fit for this our King of kings. For it was he who has first loved and given us the greatest gift of all; the gift of himself and his saving love, which overflows into each one of us and the entire cosmos.
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