Matthew 2:1-12 (NKJV): 2 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”
3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
5 So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: 6 ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” 9 When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.
I want to give Anne Robertson credit on leading the way in 2006 for a well done description and explanation of this special time. Many of her ideas are used as part of the message below.
So, let’s discuss this special day of Epiphany, the holiday that Wise Men remember, but the church forgot. I know that most of you have probably not laid awake nights wondering about Epiphany. Many people have never heard of Epiphany; and although I had heard of it, I never really focused on it until Seminary (a few years back).
Epiphany falls on January 6, twelve days after Christmas which this year is on a Friday but acknowledged during worship the following Sunday — the day you’re supposed to get 12 drummers drumming–and the day we commonly remember the arrival of the Wise Men in Bethlehem. In Germany and in some other countries, there are large events during this time. Children dress up as kings and travel from door to door—kind of like we do on Halloween–only instead of collecting for themselves, they collect money for the poor, remembering that the wise men brought gifts to the poor Christ child.
Remembering the children dressed in their costumes in Germany when we lived there was the first contact I had with anybody actually celebrating Epiphany, and as I looked into it as a ministerial student, I began to wonder if we here in the states weren’t missing something.
Well, the more we study church history, the more we realize that we are missing a lot of things. Epiphany in the early church was one of the great feast days–second only to Easter in its importance. The third great feast was Pentecost, another day that has drifted into a religious background in many churches. And even Easter is greatly watered down today, waiting
for a bunny to bring gifts and candy. Easter used to be celebrated with an all-night vigil the night before and then the celebration continued on for the “Great 50 Days” ending with a huge festival on Pentecost. Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost were the focus of the church. No one even thought about celebrating Christmas until the fourth century.
So what’s the deal? “How come nothing epiphs on Epiphany anymore?” Why was Epiphany so important, and why is it so unimportant now?
For those of us who might have heard of Epiphany, chances are that we will know it as the day the Wise Men came. And that’s right — partially. The word Epiphany means “manifestation” or “revelation.” The coming of the Wise Men is celebrated as the time that Jesus as Messiah was revealed to the Gentiles. The Christmas story is seen to symbolize the spread of the Gospel—first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles; first to the poor, then to the rich; first to the ones who kept the Temple flocks in accordance with Jewish law, then to pagan astrologers, whose occupation the law expressly forbade.
But it used to be that Epiphany celebrated more than the Wise Men. In the days when Epiphany was a great church feast, it also celebrated the revelation of Jesus in his first miracle–changing the water into wine at Cana–and the manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God at his baptism. Those three things–the Wise Men, Cana, and the Baptism were all lumped together to symbolize the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and such revelation was cause for great celebration.
Epiphany celebrates the first signs that God gave to the world of who Jesus was. The signs were God’s way of saying, “Pssst…this is the guy!” and Epiphany was the church’s way of saying, “And we can never be the same again.”
So why doesn’t anything epiph on Epiphany anymore? (Or does it?) There may be several answers, but I think one of them is that, for the most part, we no longer expect Christ to be made manifest. We have stopped looking for the revelation of Jesus as God’s Son. The early church was a church full of excitement and expectation. They anticipated the return of Christ at any time, and the persecutions that they faced forced them to be aware of their faith and to live out or die for their faith every place they went, every minute of their lives.
Many Christians today have lost that sense of excitement and expectation. The early church celebrated Epiphany with the emphasis on God’s present manifestations to us and the expectation of God’s future and ultimate revelation. The point wasn’t to remember history but to be reminded that God appears miraculously to us in places and in ways that we don’t expect. That way we will be prepared when God does it again and be able to recognize God’s coming to us.
Notice that all the events celebrated at Epiphany took place outside of the established religious structures, taking place in a stable with Gentiles, at a river with a believed to be religious rebel and fanatic, at a wedding reception where the guests were drunk. And that is the way God still appears. God epiphs when and where we least expect it. If we’re not expecting to see God revealed every minute of the day and in every place we go, we will likely miss God’s coming entirely, coming away from wondrous miracles unmoved and unchanged.
The wedding at Cana was crowded, but only a few were aware that Jesus had worked a miracle in their midst. Most weren’t paying attention. They weren’t expecting miracles so they weren’t watching and missed an event that people have talked about for two thousand years. Bethlehem was so full of people that Mary and Joseph couldn’t even find a room to spend the night, but there is no indication that more than a handful paid attention at all to the new life that changed all of history, bright stars and shepherd’s stories notwithstanding.
If we want anything to epiph in our lives, we had better begin by expecting it and watching for it. If you are expecting company in your home, you aren’t going to miss their arrival unless they are purposely sneaking up on you. You’ve prepared for their coming, fully expect to see them, and always keep an ear out for the doorbell and an eye out the window. Yet how many of us expect God in that way? Do we prepare? For that matter, have we even invited God to come?
Epiphany in our lives begins with prayer and ends with a warning. The prayer is one that tells God how much we would like to have God stop by…prayers that asks God to be made manifest to us. How many times do you prepare for your day by asking God to be revealed in your co-workers, in the traffic on the way, in the clients or customers you deal with? How many times do you prepare for church by asking God to speak to you in the music, in the sermon, in the others in the congregation?
If you’re not expecting company, they might well show up when you aren’t home, or asleep, or too busy in the back to hear the knocking on the door. If you don’t expect God to appear or to speak or to touch your heart; if you’re not looking for God at every turn and listening for God in every voice, chances are you will be as clueless as the guests at the wedding or the people in Bethlehem when God finally appears.
Epiphany begins with expectant prayer, and it ends with a warning. After the wise men have seen the child and given their gifts, God warns them in a dream not to return to King Herod, and they go back to their own country by a different road. The visit to the Christ Child ends with a warning…Don’t go back the way you came. This could well be one of the greatest truths in all of Scripture. Once God has been made manifest to you; once you have been inside the stable…once you have seen your water turned to wine…once you have seen the dove descend and recognized Jesus for who he is…you must not go back the way you came.
When we leave the stable, we leave with a warning from God…things must be different now. The same old way will not do. To meet Christ requires that we turn from our former way and go out by another road. We are better off never to have seen the truth than to see it and ignore it.
Once you’ve seen Jesus, don’t go back the way you came. It’s simple, and it’s ignored by people every day of the year. We come to church, say the creeds and prayers, sing the hymns that declare the astounding news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. We hear the Bible that tells of the steadfast love of God. We hear what God expects of us, we hear of God’s mercy, we hear that we were created by God and for God; and we go back home the exact same way we came. We remain unchanged.
And we do the same outside of church. If we’re looking, the signs of God’s presence are all around us. It’s there in the trees and ocean and sky. It’s in the delivery room and the funeral home. It’s in the face of the guy under the bridge who will work for food, and in the hearts of the children who go up to hear the pastor talk just to them. God is present in the wagging tail of my dogs, Wicker and Cheyenne, and in the voice of a friend on the telephone. God is in all of those places and more, yet how seldom it is that we notice or allow the encounter to change us.
Don’t go back the way you came. It is the hands down most effective way to show others who God is. God is the one who transforms. God is the one who changes hearts and lives. God is the one who is willing to take pagan astrologers and use their gifts for the glory of God. If that change isn’t evident in your life…if you go back home exactly the same way you came, all your words are just so much noise. Generally, they’re even more offensive noise than they were before you met God in the first place. Don’t go back the way you came.
We all meet God in different ways and at different times and places in our lives. The message of Epiphany is that the revelation of God is talking about more than a one-shot deal. It’s not that Jesus came once and that was that. It’s not that we have just one time in our lives when God epiphs, although there may be one time that stands out for us.
The message of Epiphany is the same as we hear in the book of Revelation – that Jesus is the one who was, the one who is, and the one who is to come. The God who was made manifest in Jesus of Nazareth is the same God that was manifest somewhere, somehow in your home this morning–the same God that epiphed in the opening hymn, and the God that will be revealed in some way in the Bethel when we join for fellowship and prayer, or in the fellowship hall over coffee or the parking lot when you leave church. The message of Epiphany is “keep watch…for you don’t know the day or the hour when God will appear.”
But God is here to be encountered–beside you in the pews, in the sacrament of baptism and Holy Communion, in the Scripture reading, in the offering. From the songs we sing to the prayers we pray to the sermons that are preached, the ultimate purpose of all of it is to provide a place where we can experience the epiphany of God…a time that is structured in such a way as to encourage people to open their eyes and see the God who is here in our midst.
Let something epiph for you this weekend of Epiphany. Make space in your life to meet God. God is here right now, but God is also outside your door. You can find God on a walk through the woods; in your children and grandchildren; in the squirrels darting around your yard; in your neighbor and in the stranger in front of you in the grocery store. God is all around you, waiting to be revealed to someone willing to look. Expect it–expect it everywhere. Get up in the morning wondering where it will come and go to sleep listening for God’s voice. Read your Bible expecting to hear God and come to church or to the Bethel open to receive.
But don’t go back the way you came.