A Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2019
St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church, Largo, FL
The Very Reverend J. Michael Strachan
The word Epiphany comes from the Greek word ἐπιφάνεια, a noun which refers to the act of appearing, so it is usually translated as ‘appearance’ or ‘manifestation.’ Today what we celebrate in the Feast of the Epiphany is the appearance of manifestation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ to the Gentile. Today the far-travelled magi who have followed the yonder story come to find the child born in Bethlehem, and in this moment, we are reminded that the birth we celebrate at Christmas was good news not only for the biological descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob but for the whole world. Now this should come as no surprise. When God called Abram to be the one through whose family God would fix the world, he said to him, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2-3). So, what we celebrate this morning, that the work of God through the offspring of Abraham came as a blessing to the whole world, was always part of God’s redemptive plan.
But even that doesn’t fully explain the presence of this passage in the Gospel of Matthew, nor does it make sense of our reading as a whole. These opening verses of Matthew chapter 2 are less concerned about the revelation of God to the Gentile and far more concerned with the political intrigue that surrounds this child. So, let’s focus on the details first. Matthew doesn’t say that these visitors from afar were royal. He says that they were magi, which could mean that they were magicians, astrologers/astronomers (the two word went hand in hand in ancient times), or experts in interpreting dreams. We don’t know how many magi there were, but tradition assumes there were three since the come bearing three gifts. The gifts they bring are gifts fitting for royalty and even deity.
This is the ideal picture of what it means to means to be Gentiles who worship the King of the Jews. We come with the best of who we are, with gifts appropriate for a king, with gifts appropriate for God himself, and we lay them at his feet. But right along side this ideal picture of Gentile worship of Jesus, Matthew is painting another picture. I said last week that Luke wants us to read the story of the twelve-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem alongside the conversation of Jesus and his disciples on the road to Emmaus, and so too this week Matthew is doing something similar. We must hear this story of magi in the light of the end of Matthew’s Gospel as Jesus goes to be crucified.
In our reading this morning the magi refer to Jesus as ‘the king of the Jews.’ No one in Matthew’s Gospel will call Jesus ‘king of the Jews’ again until Jesus stands before Pilate, who asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (Matt 27:11). Then, Jesus will be given not gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but a crown of thorns, a reed for his right hand, and the mocking salutation, “Hail, King of the Jews” (Matt 27:29) And then at last, the charge laid against him will be nailed above his head, and it too will announce the reason for which both church and state sought his life: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matt 27:37). The Magi state it as fact. Pilate asks it as a question. The soldiers use it mockingly. And it hangs above his head as he died. This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.
There are other similarities too. The Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod in order to spare Jesus’ life. Pilate’s wife also receives a dream Both Herod and Pilate in different ways serve as Caesar’s representative in the area. A light of a star leads the Magi to the child. When the child grows and becomes a man and dies, there will be darkness over the face of the earth. And so, this scene in our reading this morning is a foreshadowing of what’s to come in the life of Jesus. He doesn’t come face to face with Caesar’s representative as a child, but one day he will, and instead of royal or even divine gifts, Pilate will give him a cross. The reaction of Herod who sees his power threatened by the birth of this child foreshadows the reaction of Pilate and the religious leaders of Jerusalem whose power is likewise threatened. But this isn’t the only foreshadowing in this passage.
As I said, this was always part of the story. Every family of the earth would be blessed by what God accomplished through the offspring of Abraham, but of course the question is how. The magi follow a star, but we no longer do that today. We don’t make long treks to Jerusalem, and we don’t bring gifts to lay at the infant’s feet. If the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ has been revealed to the Gentiles, but the star is gone, what are we to do? Matthew has an answer for this too, and it too comes at the end of this Gospel. Since there is no more star that shines in the sky to lead the world to Jesus, then we must go out into the world.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:19–20).
You see, the task now left to Jesus’ disciples, Jews and Gentiles alike, is not to be the magi, but to be the star. In one sense, of course, we are to be the magi, bringing the best of what we have and laying it at the feet of Jesus. But in terms of Epiphany, in terms of manifesting the glory and blessing of God to every family of the earth, we aren’t called to be the magi. We’re called to be the star. We’re called to be the light of the world, the star shining in the sky that helps bring the world to Jesus. So, my message to you this Epiphany is simple. It is God’s plan to bless every family on earth, and since the start that shined for the magi no longer shines the same way today, when you go from this place, be the star. Be the blessing that God had promised to the world. Be the ones who help lead others to Jesus so that they too may bring the best of who they are and what they do and lay it as his feet. For he is the King of the Jews, and through him and through us God plans to bless every family of the earth.