“Epiphany”, the season after Christmas, gets its name from a Greek word that means “appearance” or “manifestation”. It has the sense of something suddenly becoming clear. If someone has an epiphany, they have one of those light-bulb moments of sudden recognition or insight. At one church I served, there was a pair of identical twins who were in their forties and still looked and sounded identical. They didn’t dress alike or go out of their way to match – it was just natural. Then one day I saw them standing beside each other and – just like that! – I could tell them apart. (One combed his hair in one direction and the other in the other direction. How could I not have seen that?)
Epiphany, as a season, concentrates on the ways that God shows himself to the nations of the world, having begun with Israel but going on to all the rest of us when he came among us in a person named Jesus. So Epiphany begins with the first Gentiles to recognize (or at least suspect) that Jesus was no ordinary infant.
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’” [Matthew 2:1]
These are not people familiar with Judaism or the scriptures. These people are not even coming from within the Roman Empire. They’re from away out there in the East, someplace in the Persian Empire, Rome’s only significant counterpart or rival at that time. We call them wise men but they seem politically naïve and unaware of the danger they bring upon the baby just by mentioning his existence and they are sort of bumbling in the way that they act in Herod’s jurisdiction. Yet these are the people, along with a bunch of shepherds working the night shift and two old folks in the Temple, to whom God decides to announce his Son’s presence in the world.
Now, it isn’t that the others did not let anyone know about the child Jesus. Luke says that after visiting the baby in the manger,
“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.” [Luke 2:20]
When Jesus was taken to the Temple for the first time, Simeon met Mary and Joseph carrying Jesus and took him into his own arms, declaring,
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.” [Luke 2:29-32]
So, too, his female counterpart Anna.
“At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” [Luke 2:38]
But when the wise men came along, they brought with them not only some awareness that this child was chosen above others, but also in what ways.
You know the story of their visit, and even people who don’t still know about the gifts that they took him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Traditionally, interpreters have looked at those gifts as emblematic of Jesus role in the salvation of the world. We’ve already sung about them this morning: gold, to surround a king; incense, to burn on an altar in the presence of God; myrrh, to anoint a prophet’s brow or to embalm the dead.
“Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice. …”
So at the same time that God’s Son is being shown to the world beyond Bethlehem and Nazareth and Jerusalem, people who are strangers to those places are showing God’s people something about him of which they themselves had been unaware.
We need to be shown things that are right under our own noses sometimes. We need epiphanies brought to us by those who see things we miss, perhaps out of sheer familiarity. An epiphany moment might be like me pointing out that this flag to my right – one that many of you have been looking at your entire lives – has 48 stars. Now try to un-see that. You can’t. Those Persians point out the complexity of Jesus’ work of salvation as king and God and sacrifice, and we look back at his life and see him acting, from childhood, in ways that overturn the kingdoms of this world and show God’s power among the people and reveal the costly and self-giving love that would find itself on a cross.
We cannot talk about Jesus without all of those purposes being there all at once and combined. We cannot only say that he was a good man, even the best person ever. He was and is more than that. We cannot only say that he was God, because his is also human and subject to our weaknesses, which is why it matters to see him tempted but not falling into sin. It’s why we can say he really and truly suffered and died. We cannot only say that he sacrificed his life for our sin, without recognizing that he was also God and his mere presence in this world involved infinite sacrifice from the very start, trading heaven for all that we face on earth, even death.
Throughout the coming weeks we will look at and give thanks for the many things we learn of God’s grace and Jesus’ love through people from cultures and societies that are not our own (always remembering that Jesus and the disciples were not twenty-first century Americans). We’ll consider what we can learn from believers in China and South Africa and Italy and even Canada. But first of all we stop and remember the profound revelation brought to God’s people by these strangers and their gifts, and then look at the long line of strangers and offerings that they hold in their hands to lay down also before the Christ Child. Perhaps they see gifts in our own hands that we don’t even realize yet that we are carrying.