By Paul Koch –
The theme of Epiphany is quite clear; it is about God’s revelation of something that was hidden. It is about a light that shines in the darkness. In many ways it is no different than any other celebration in the church. For our whole center and reason for gathering is found in the revelation of God. We gather around the work and Word of God that breaks into our midst every Sunday. So perhaps the Festival of the Epiphany of our Lord is simply an opportunity to highlight the manifestation of our Lord’s gifts. What better way to do that than with the story of the arrival of the Magi from the East.
Over the years we have all read the Christmas cards with a picture of the Magi following a star embossed with the saying, “Wise men still seek him.” I think that saying summarizes the way this text is usually received by us. It is a moment to speak about true wisdom, not wisdom perhaps as the world would describe wisdom, but a wisdom that comes from faith and trust in the Word and promises of God. We hear that ancient story of these wise men from the east who risked it all to make a treacherous journey against all odds to find the one who is born king of the Jews. They journey to Jerusalem and ask Herod for the location of this wondrous child that has been born. From Jerusalem they head off to Bethlehem where these wise men find what their hearts had longed to see. They find the child with Mary, his mother, and they fall down and worship. They give incredible treasures; gold and frankincense and myrrh. Then, being warned in a dream, they did not go back to see Herod as he had asked. Instead they went home by a different route.
As we think of this quest of the wise men we think of our own quest, our own journey, to discover the Lord born of Mary. We certainly have many stories about how we came to this place and how we arrived here to worship, to fall down, and give our thanks. Some of you have dramatic stories of overcoming great odds to be here. Some of you have stories of incredible suffering and loss, stories of being emptied out of your own pride and strength, and then at the very end discovering the great epiphany of God. And some others have the boring old story of being raised in the church: baptized as a baby, confirmed, and coming to the Lord’s Table again and again.
So, we share our stories whether they are dramatic or boring. We tell them to one another because we want to be the wise men who still seek our Lord. We wonder what it is we need to do. Is our quest over? Are we still seeking? If we are still seeking, what is the best course for the future? Is coming to church enough to be wise and seek the Lord? Perhaps we need to do a little bit more. Do you give to support the work of the church? Do you volunteer and help out when you can? Do you give of the first fruits of your labors or just the leftovers at the end of the week? Are you acting like the wise men? Are you doing everything you can to find and worship and give to the Son of God, born of Mary?
For those of us who are asking these types of questions, the good news is that there is a world out there ready to give you answers and help you along on your quest. Some will say, if you only follow the teaching and decrees of this church you will be made wise. If you recognize its authority and ability to dispense grace then you will be able to be made wise. Others say, what you really need to do is pray this particular prayer and have a certain spiritual feeling deep within your heart and then you will be made wise. Still others will talk about a change in your life, a radical giving up of earthly pleasures or a more holy type of living that will inspire others to follow your example. All of these and more are offered up along with devotional materials and reading plans and inspiring music to make sure that your quest is successful. Something here will help you find what wise men seek.
However, I wonder if this is what was meant by epiphany in the first place. After all, the epiphany isn’t the quest. The epiphany isn’t the wisdom or effort of the wise men. The epiphany was a gift of God. I spent my vicarage year in Bremerton, Washington. It was a great year and if you’ve never been there, let me tell you that the stories of days without sunshine are completely true. But it was there, in that damp and constant overcast of the Northwest, that I think I experienced one of the best lessons of an epiphany. I remember, one day, driving home from the church. I was heading up this little hill where the road cut a path through the tall trees. Just as I had started to accelerate, the clouds parted for a moment allowing the rays of the sun to shine unabated for the first time in weeks. However, it was shining directly into my eyes. The light hit me so quickly and fiercely that I actually slowed to a crawl because I couldn’t see.
That is an epiphany moment: something beyond my searching or my quest. It was an act of God that brought me to a halt. The epiphany of our Lord is not something we control or something we navigate. It is something we receive. God’s epiphany is His revelation of Himself. It is His revelation of His work and will. And this particular epiphany, the epiphany of the child born of Mary, is a revelation of our hope, our freedom, and our salvation. It is not about how wise we are or how clever we were in discovering this. It is about His coming to us, His opening our eyes, and His filling our empty hands with good gifts.
Perhaps the story might be better told this way. Some pagan Magi, who prided themselves on their wisdom, observed a new star in the heavens. Now, they had heard tales of a prophecy of one born king of the Jews. So they head off. Since Magi were usually employed by kings, what better way to secure their future than being the first ones to the spot? They arrive at the palace, where a king rightly should be, and inquire about the child. Just as they were directed by a star to Jerusalem, so they are directed by the Scriptures of God’s people to the city of Bethlehem. There, the star shows them the way to the house where the child is to be found. It was not their wisdom that got them this far, nor their cleverness, but the constant interceding of God. In fact, God is the one who tells them to go home by some other route to avoid Herod’s wrath.
We are reminded, then, on this festival of the Epiphany that our Lord reveals Himself to us. It is not our cleverness or wisdom that has secured our salvation. He gives Himself to us, as it has always has been. He opened your heart in the blinding light of His love as the waters of baptism washed you and called you by name. He shines bright as He gives you his own body and blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of all your sin. He disperses the darkness of sin and doubt as He declares again and again that you are forgiven, loved, and promised life eternal.
Wise men may seek Him; but long before you were considered wise, He sought and found you. Now that’s an epiphany!