Well… the season of Christmas is over.
No seriously—it ended this past Wednesday.
The twelve days of Christmas are over and now we’ve entered into the season of Epiphany.
Epiphany… that’s not a word we don’t use very often but we may on occasion.
An epiphany is like a flash of insight—
it’s that “aha moment,”
that moment when something clicks into place
that moment when you realize something that you had never quite realized before,
that moment when the little light bulb goes “bing” over your head.
An epiphany could describe a lot of things.
If you’re a child first learning to read or first learning how addition or subtraction works you could call that an epiphany.
Aha! Letters and words and sentences— that’s the way reading works!
If you’re an adult getting back on a bicycle for the first time in years
and that suddenly the knowledge of how you ride clicks into place
you could call that an epiphany.
Aha! That’s how the way to do it—
that’s the way to pedal and balance and ride.
If we were going to use the word “epiphany”
in everyday conversation,
we would probably use it in those ways.
And it might be fair to think of the season of Epiphany along those lines.
Epiphany is celebrating an “aha moment” for the entire world.
After the coming of Jesus into the world in Advent and Christmas we say: “Aha!—that’s what God is like.”
Epiphany is the season of celebrating that the God who has come in Jesus has revealed himself to people who weren’t even looking for him.
To people who neither knew nor cared anything about the Old Testament or ancient covenants or Israel’s history.
To the wide world who neither knew nor cared anything about God—
God has revealed himself.
Epiphany is when we celebrate that a cosmic light bulb has gone “bing” in the world.
With the season of Epiphany,
we’re circling back around to a familiar text (if you were here during Advent).
This is one of the primary texts that the Church has associated with the season of Epiphany.
Matthew 2, starting in verse 1:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
In the Church’s calendar,
Epiphany is the season where we celebrate
that Jesus didn’t just come for a particular group of people.
The long-awaited king of the Jews has been born (v2)
but he’s a king born for more than the Jewish people.
Jesus is a king that draws all people to himself.
From his youngest days,
Jesus draws the least-deserving, least-expected people to himself
and they come to worship him—to honor him.
That’s what’s happening here.
We’re so familiar with it that I don’t think we often recognize
the strangeness of what Matthew is telling us.
Matthew is telling us the story of Magi (of all people!)
coming to honor—to worship—a child.
Magi—or Magoi—is the greek word where we get the word “magician.”
Sometimes this gets translated as “wise men” because (presumably) these travelers were well studied.
But I think that’s pulling the punch.
If you look through early Jewish and Christian writings,
Magoi and their practices are described in exclusively negative terms.
In Acts 8—for example—
Peter and John meet a shady guy named Simon.
Simon the Sorcerer.
Simon the Magos.
He’s a guy who’s
either swindling people out of money with cheap tricks
or he’s tapping into some kind of dark forces in the world.
being a magos, a magician, a magi—
is not exactly a good thing in the eyes of the people of God.
These are magi that are coming from the East (v1)—
from what used to be Babylon is an educated guess by scholars—
and they’re following a star.
These are guys who are following the ancient ways of Babylonian astrologers.
Now just listen to the way that the Hebrew prophetic tradition talks about Babylonian astrologers.
Here’s a little bit of Isaiah 47— words that are explicitly denouncing Babylon:
“Go down, sit in the dust,
Virgin Daughter Babylon;
sit on the ground without a throne,
queen city of the Babylonians.
No more will you be called
tender or delicate.
Take millstones and grind flour;
take off your veil.
Lift up your skirts, bare your legs,
and wade through the streams.
Your nakedness will be exposed
and your shame uncovered.
I will take vengeance;
I will spare no one.”
You have trusted in your wickedness
and have said, ‘No one sees me.’
Your wisdom and knowledge mislead you
when you say to yourself,
‘I am, and there is none besides me.’
Disaster will come upon you,
and you will not know how to conjure it away.
A calamity will fall upon you
that you cannot ward off with a ransom;
a catastrophe you cannot foresee
will suddenly come upon you.
“Keep on, then, with your magic spells
and with your many sorceries,
which you have labored at since childhood.
Perhaps you will succeed,
perhaps you will cause terror.
All the counsel you have received has only worn you out!
Let your astrologers come forward,
those stargazers who make predictions month by month,
let them save you from what is coming upon you.
Surely they are like stubble;
the fire will burn them up.
They cannot even save themselves
from the power of the flame.
These are not coals for warmth;
this is not a fire to sit by.
That is all they are to you—
these you have dealt with
and labored with since childhood.
All of them go on in their error;
there is not one that can save you.
That’s the kind of sweeping language
that the prophets used to condemn not only Babylon
but those who practiced magic or sorcery or astrology.
Let the stargazers and astrologers come forward—
we hear the voice of Isaiah say— they’re good for nothing.
Those kinds of people don’t have the power
to stop the fall of the kingdom of Babylon—
they people are powerless even to save themselves,
because the disaster that’s coming on Babylon is going to consume them too.
The fire will burn them up.
I think we need to bear passages like Isaiah 47 in mind to really appreciate Epiphany.
Epiphany is the season when we celebrate
that people who neither knew nor cared about God
have been drawn by God into his presence.
These are eastern astrologers—Babylonian astrologers—
the kinds of people that the prophets denounced,
but now… now they—even they—are starting to see what God is like.
Make no mistake,
centuries later they’re still just as powerless to save themselves.
They’re still obsessing over the wrong sorts of things.
They’re still star-gazers. They’re still idolators.
But we’re starting to glimpse the kindness of God.
God’s grace is always finding us and always guiding us.
The grace of God finds us—even in our idolatry.
The grace of God guides us—even in our stargazing.
These guys are looking for truth (presumably) in the best way they can
and God finds them where they are and guides them.
For some of us, that’s really stretching.
God’s kindness—God’s grace— defies all our neat categories of how God should work.
But our idolatry is where God first meets us.
If God didn’t meet us in our idolatry,
then God wouldn’t meet anyone.
But thank God—God reveals himself to us.
And that’s worth celebrating.
And notice how it plays out.
The Magi aren’t immediately brought to Bethlehem— to the presence of God.
God has revealed himself enough to bring them to Jerusalem,
but then the Magi are directed by Scripture (v5-6).
And Scripture—for one reason or another— is the way that God chooses to reveal himself, to guide us to himself.
God finds us in our idolatry—guides us even in our idolatry— but God doesn’t leave us in our idolatry.
God guides them to Scripture
and Scripture guides them to Jesus.
The star only reappears (v9) after the Scriptures say where it should.
I think this is the way that God always works.
We’re all eastern magicians,
we’re all Babylonian astrologers.
And God meets us—
all of us, every single one of us,
in our powerlessness, in our darkness, in our idolatry
and draws us into knowledge of him.
God doesn’t leave us where we are—
God reveals Godself through Scripture.
But then—and I think this is the crucial—
Scripture invites to come into the living presence of God himself.
Not just ideas about God,
not just theology about God,
but living interaction with God himself.
That’s where the story ends—
with these Magi being absolutely overwhelmed by great joy (v10)
and brought into the presence of God where they can worship him with their gifts (v11).
The least Jewish, the least expected, the least deserving
are the people who wind up discovering the presence of God.
These guys had been gazing at the stars;
they didn’t know the stars are gazing back.
These guys been chasing the heavens,
they didn’t know the heavens were chasing them.
None of this should have come as a surprise.
Isaiah himself had looked forward to the day
when this sort of thing would happen:
When the cosmic light bulb would turn on
and its light would illuminate the world.
A little further down on the scroll of Isaiah it reads:
“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
“Lift up your eyes and look about you:
All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters are carried on the hip.
Then you will look and be radiant,
your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
to you the riches of the nations will come.
Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.
Isaiah was saying:
“There’s a day coming when those living in darkness will see the light of God.”
“A day coming when the darkness will melt, when the sun will rise, and when all the world—all the nations—will see the dawn.”
“A day coming when hearts will throb and swell with joy,
when the nations will come bearing gifts—gold and incense— proclaiming the praise of God.”
And as the New Testament opens— Matthew is saying that that day is right now.
The thick darkness is melting
and light is beginning to shine.
And the great revelation— the Grand Epiphany— the world’s “aha moment”— is this:
In his kindness, God has become one of us.
And God looks nothing like any of us expect.
God looks like a child.
This child is the antidote to all idolatry.
It’s hard to keep gazing at the stars
when stars have come to earth to meet you.
The heavens have chased us further than we could ever have imagined.
God has become a human being.
That’s what Christians believe and confess.
The implications of this are staggering:
God now has human DNA.
God the Son now and forever shares the DNA—and maybe even the nose—
of a first-century Jewish peasant named Mary.
“They saw the child” (v11) “…and they bowed down and worshipped him.”
There was a time when we could have assumed that God perhaps detached from the destiny of the human race.
But that day is gone.
Despite all our darkness,
all our powerlessness, all our idolatry,
the heavens are fully invested in the destiny of the human race.
Invested enough to forever become one of us.
God has become human.
This human. This tiny human.
And this epiphany makes it clear
God is not detached or disinterested in human existence.
God is not detached or disinterested in your life.
God knows what it’s like.
God has skin in the game.
God too a mother, God too has a body,
God too has friends, God too has suffered,
God too enjoys good food and good conversation,
God cares about the human experience.
God is with us and will never ever ever forsake us.
What does all of this mean for us, today, as we come to the table?
First, God meets us.
Wherever we are, God meets us there.
God is not far from you.
God is close.
You may not realize it yet,
but the heavens are chasing you.
The kindness of God chases us even in our darkness, even in our idolatry.
Even in that thing—in that situation—in that unthinkable place— the kindness of God is pursuing you.
Before you can give him anything—
your gold, your myrrh, your time, your energy, your attention—
God is already giving to you.
He’s already meeting you.
Already guiding you.
Already loving you.
This table reminds us that the kindness of God meets us
in the everyday, in the common, in the flesh and blood.
Second, the kindness of God is meant to bring us to repentance.
Or another way of saying that is this:
the kindness of God is meant to bring us into joy.
Repentance and joy are two sides of the same coin.
One side focuses on what we’re called to leave behind,
the other side focuses on what we’re invited to enter into.
We’re all eastern magicians.
We’re all Babylonian astrologers.
I don’t know what that looks like for you—
what kind of stars you gaze at, what kind of magic you dabble in,
what kind of darkness you find within yourself,
but the Child invites all of us to absolutely overwhelmed with joy.
The Child invites you to leave it behind
and enter into joy—
unspeakable, overwhelming, daily joy—in his presence.
All our stars and magic and darkness have already been dealt with.
This table reminds us
that the only Child with the power to save himself
allowed the flames of darkness to consume him.
God has already born in his body and soul
every violence, every hurt, every despair—
And all the powers of darkness could not keep the Child dead.
This is what God is like. This is the grand epiphany of Epiphany.
And it’s really good news.