January 5, 2020
Matthew 2:1-12, Mark 1:9-11, John 2:1-11
Today is Epiphany Sunday. I did some research to understand what Epiphany celebrated, and I learned many things. Throughout Church history, the feast of Epiphany was originally one of the three high holy days of the Christian year, right next to Christmas and Easter. Christmas day is only the beginning of the Christmas season; the 12 days of Christmas follow and conclude with the celebration of Epiphany.
But what does Epiphany mean? The word “Epiphany” has a number of different meanings. In the Christian year we usually celebrate Epiphany by remembering the story of the Three Magi following a star until they find the Christ child and worship him. An epiphany can also be a sudden revelation, an “a-ha” moment; the moment when the light bulb appears above your head. Another use for the word is to describe a “manifestation of a divine or supernatural being,” which really is what the celebration of Epiphany is all about: the manifestation of Christ: the sudden revelation of who Jesus is, the “a-ha” moment where he is truly understood as the Word of God incarnate, God in human form.
Throughout Christian history, there are three stories that have been traditionally celebrated on Epiphany, and each one tells a story of the manifestation of Christ. They are the stories that Ken just read to us: the first that we would most likely associate is of course the story of the Three Magi. Another is the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. The third is the story of Jesus, his mother, and his first disciples at a wedding in Cana. At first the three stories may not seem linked, but they each tell the story of Christ manifesting himself, of Jesus revealing his divinity to us.
Specifically in the Western Church, the feast of Epiphany centers on the visit of the Magi. Wise men from the east observe an astrological sign: a star rising, and they follow it to Jerusalem. They find King Herod and ask him for directions to the “child who has been born king of the Jews.” The king gathers the Jewish leaders and asks where their Messiah is to be born. Quoting the prophet Micah, they tell him the Messiah is to come out of Bethlehem, “A ruler who is to shepherd [God’s] people Israel.” Herod gives this information to the wise men, hoping they will find the child and tell Herod where to find him.
Some interesting points in this story. The Magi expect Herod to know where the child is. They don’t ask if Herod knows about the child; they just ask where he is. And while the chief priests and scribes can tell Herod where their scripture says the Messiah is to be born, they don’t seem particularly excited that the Magi come looking for the “king of the Jews.” The Magi just announced that they believe the Messiah has been born, and they seem to dismiss the idea. At the very least they don’t seem keen to join the Magi in their search.
Jesus is manifested, is revealed to the Wise Men because they are searching for him. Herod and the Jewish leaders do not receive this revelation, maybe because they just aren’t looking for it. The wise men continue on their search with this information and, continuing to follow the star, they find Jesus with Mary, and they worship him. When the star stops over the place where Jesus is to be found, they are “overwhelmed with joy.” They understand the truth of who Jesus is, even as a child, and this truth of his divinity is revealed to them.
This passage is often told as the story of the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Jesus is revealed in all of his glory to Wise Men from the East. Many scholars believe the Magi to have come from the lands of Persia; there are officials from Persia who are called by the same name: Magi. Even at his birth, Christ reveals himself to be the Messiah, not just for the Jewish people, but for the world. The star rises and draws the Magi from the East, who are not of the Jewish people, and they come to find him and worship him. Christ is the Messiah for all who seek him.
The second story that is traditionally associated with Epiphany is the story of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus. The story is very succinctly recorded in Mark’s gospel: “9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”” This one is a bit more obvious: God the father himself reveals the divinity of Jesus. The heavens open up, the Holy Spirit descends, God’s voice speaks.
This story is special as it mentions all three persons of the Trinity as part of the revelation. The Son is baptized with the Spirit as the Father voices his approval. Jesus’s divinity is revealed to John, and to John’s followers. According to the gospel of John (the disciple, not the baptizer), the very next day, Jesus begins to assemble his disciples; Andrew and John the disciple, followers of John the Baptist, begin to follow Jesus; Andrew shares the revelation with his brother, Peter. As followers of John the Baptist, it is possible that Andrew and John were there the day Jesus was baptized, and were present at that manifestation of his divinity. Perhaps that revelation inspired them to become Jesus’s disciples.
The third story is more often celebrated in the Eastern church as a part of the feast of Epiphany. It is the familiar story of Jesus at the wedding of Cana. At this point, Jesus has accumulated some followers, but has still not made his ministry public. When the wedding runs out of wine, a serious social faux pas, Jesus commands the servants to draw water from jugs used for ceremonial purification. Instead of water, the servants draw wine, and the servants and Jesus’s disciples witness Jesus’s first miracle.
This revelation is not known to all who attend the wedding; in fact it seems like only Jesus’s close disciples, his mother, and the servants are the only witnesses to the miracle. But for those who were watching, they saw the first display of Jesus’s divine power.
There was an excellent resource on the Presbyterian website about these three readings, and I’d like to read what it said about understanding the three passages together as a celebration of Epiphany, because they worded it so well: “In reading these passages together, we get three accounts of people seeing Jesus for the first time. Whether a multitude gathered in worship, a gathering at a wedding, or a small group of pilgrims representing people of all nations, the celebration of Epiphany tells stories of people seeing Jesus for the first time. It reminds us that Jesus came to people like us, and people different from us.”
The celebration of Epiphany is the celebration that Jesus came to earth to reveal himself to us. He is revealed to the Magi, to the non-Jewish wise men, and through their quest to find him they find God in the little child. He is revealed to John the Baptist and his disciples, and some in the crowd follow him and become his disciples. He is revealed at the wedding in Cana, and those closest to him witness his first public miracle and the start of his ministry.
The story of Epiphany is of Jesus revealing his divinity, his majesty, his glory, to those around him. In each of these stories, the lives of those who witness these revelations are changed forever. In the first chapter of John, which we have been studying in Sunday School, John tells us that Jesus, the Word of God, who is God and has been with God from the very beginning, became flesh, and dwelt among us. At Epiphany, we celebrate these three particular incidents where Jesus, the Word become flesh, was shown to be God incarnate to those around him. His incarnation was a revelation for the whole world, for any who would seek him.
It is a lesson for us that Jesus makes himself known to those looking for him. When God is revealed it is not to the leaders of Jerusalem, to King Herod, or to anyone that might be considered of high importance, but to those who are seeking him. May we be among those who seek after him, that we may receive the revelation of the majesty and divinity of Christ Jesus.