Today we celebrate the feast day of Epiphany. What comes to your mind when you think about what an epiphany is?
The word epiphany comes from ancient Greek and means something along the lines of a sudden appearing or revelation. An epiphany is often a sudden moment of insight, an “aha!” moment. In a moment of epiphany, things suddenly become clear, especially when before there has been darkness and doubt.
The Christian festival of Epiphany celebrates God’s revelation in the midst of darkness and doubt. Even though Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season, it carries forward a lot of the same themes of Christmas. We continue to celebrate the incarnation of Christ – who is, in himself, the revealing of God in human flesh. On Christmas Eve, we read in Isaiah that “the people who walked in great darkness have seen a great light”; and today we read, “Arise; shine, for your light has come!” Epiphany is the revelation to all people that God faithfully keeps God’s promises.
Most specifically, today we read the story of God’s revelation to the wise men traveling from the east. This is a very familiar story. I know I’ve had “We Three Kings” stuck in my head all week! The magi tend to get lumped in together with the Nativity story, but their visit to Jesus and his family actually happened significantly later. And it’s worth digging into this story in its own right – because it becomes an important turning point in Jesus’s story, turning us away from the manger and toward the cross and the ministry of Christ. So today I want to dig into a few key aspects of this story.
Let’s start off with the gifts that the wise men bring. Matthew tells us that they knelt down and offered gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. These are not exactly your typical baby shower gifts. What is a toddler going to do with chunks of precious metal and dried tree sap and perfume?? But the people for whom Matthew was writing Jesus’s story would have immediately known the symbolism behind each of these gifts.
Gold was the kind of gift that you would lavish on somebody powerful and royal. The wise men recognized that Jesus was the heir of David, the King of Kings. Frankincense was well known by the ancient Israelites – it was one of the components of the sacred incense that priests burned in the temple as an offering to God. By offering Jesus a gift of frankincense, the wise men honored him as divine, as God in human form. And finally, myrrh might have been a jarring gift for Jesus to be given, even for the people originally reading this story. Where else can you remember myrrh being used in the bible?
Myrrh was commonly used for embalming and anointing the dead. Jesus was anointed with myrrh and aloes when he was laid in the tomb. By mentioning myrrh in his list of gifts, Matthew is pointing ahead to Jesus’ crucifixion and death. All three of the wise men’s gifts reveal to us the truth of who Jesus is: king and God and suffering savior.
Another significant aspect of this story is the wisemen themselves. This rich, symbolic revelation of the Messiah for whom the people of Israel had been waiting came from people who had nothing to do with Israel at all. We don’t know where exactly the wise men came from – Matthew simply tells us that they are “from the East.” [fun fact: Zoroastrian tradition holds that they were Zoroastrian priests from Persia!] But we do know that they were called to be witnesses of the revelation that had taken place. And that is very good news for those of us who do not belong to the people of Israel. The story of Jesus is not just about one people or one nation. Christ has come for the sake of the entire world – north, south, east, and west – we all matter, and we all have important roles to play.
The story of the wise men also introduces us to another important player: King Herod. Between the different gospels, it’s not entirely clear whether this is the same King Herod Jesus is handed over to or if it’s his son, but either way, this story sets the stage for the conflict to come. When Herod hears that the wise men are looking for the “King of the Jews” he is terrified – because they were not looking for him! He tries to get the wise men to lead him to Jesus, but they are warned in a dream to go home a different way. Herod is furious when they do not return. And, in his fear and fury, Herod sends his forces to kill all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger. This horrific act of violence starts off a chain of conflict between Jesus and the authorities that ends in his violent death on the cross. This story shows that the revelation – the epiphany – of Jesus as God-made-flesh had real consequences, good and bad. It wasn’t just a spiritual thing. It left real world political leaders terrified to their bones. And it left real world people filled with real hope for the real liberation that God had promised them.
There is one last way I think it is important to look at this story. The visit of the wise men is an affirmation of the faith of Jesus’ parents – especially Mary. God had asked a LOT of them. God called Mary to be the mother of the Messiah when she was still a teenager, and called Joseph to go along with it and support her. They responded to God’s call with bold faithfulness. They didn’t have a plan or preparation – I mean, I doubt there are many parenting books out there about how to raise the Son of God. But Mary and Joseph trusted that God would provide for them and show them the way. In this story, God does exactly that – and does so in the most surprising way imaginable. A group of magi from another country shows up on their doorstep – and from their lips, Mary and Joseph hear repeated the exact same things that they had first heard from the angel. And these visitors don’t come empty handed. They bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Of course we know that these are highly symbolic gifts, but in a practical sense, they are also highly valuable gifts. These gifts will help them to cover the expenses of raising a toddler – divine or otherwise – and they will help keep the family safe when the angel appears again and warns them to flee to Egypt.
This last way of reading of the story of the wise men has been speaking to me really strongly this week. I’ve been thinking a lot about where we are now as a congregation, especially with our annual meeting coming up in a couple of weeks. In our council president’s report, you will hear the story of how the Holy Spirit and a crafty synod staff conspired to bring us together. Calling a full time pastor was a bold act of faith for this congregation – and I’m sure you already know that that will be reflected in our budget for the coming year. But I think we can take courage from this story of the wise men’s visit that God responds to bold acts of faith in kind. Mary and Joseph probably never expected that wise men from another country would turn up at their door offering them treasure, but that’s just how God rolls! Oftentimes respond faithfully to God’s call not knowing how God will sustain us going forward – but God often provides for us in the most gloriously unexpected ways. Our acts of faithfulness are an invitation for God to do so again. And I have faith that God will.
Because Epiphany isn’t just about the surprising and awesome ways that God has shown up in the past. Epiphany is about the surprising and awesome ways that God shows up now. So expect that God will do the unexpected – and keep your eyes on the stars.