Epiphany Isa 60:1-6; Ps 72:1-7, 10-14; Eph 3:1-12; Matt 2:1-12
Today is the Feast of The Epiphany, a story about the manifestation of Christ to the Gentile nations represented by the “wise men”. To properly appreciate this story we must strip away the layers of sentimentality which popular culture has wrapped around this episode in the life of Christ. This is a tale that should startle and deeply challenge us. Despite nativity scenes and fashionable carols the wise men are neither numbered nor named, they are certainly not kings, as I will explain below, and since they visited Jesus in his “house” followed by Herod’s slaughtering of all the boys in Bethlehem up to two, Jesus was definitely no longer a baby in a manger (Matt 2:6, 11). To get to the root of the confronting nature of Epiphany we must re-examine the identity of these travellers.
The Greek term commonly translated “wise men” is magi, from which we derive our English “magician” (Matt 2:1; Acts 13:6, 8). The magi came from the notoriously evil city of Babylon where the Jews had been taken into captivity (cf. Rev 17:5-6). They were a priestly class of astrologers, alchemists and occultists who in scripture appear as the pagan opponents of the prophet Daniel (Dan 2:2, 10 etc.). Today’s equivalent of the magi would be found amongst the tarot readers and clairvoyants at a “New Age” festival. Like many in the ancient world the magi they were on a life-long quest for spiritual illumination. Then the Lord sovereignly spoke to these practitioners of the secret arts in a language they understood, a brilliant message in the stars about a promised king. So much did he love them and desire their worship. Deeply moved with longing and gratefulness they came to Jerusalem seeking counsel from God’s chosen people; “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.” (Matt 2:2).
These seekers after God were likely familiar with one of the most extraordinary prophecies in the Old Testament concerning the coming of Messiah. Balaam was a pagan sorcerer hired to curse Israel; but he was so overcome by God’s favourable presence upon the nation that he foretold the coming of a great deliverer who would defeat all her enemies; ““a star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel”” (Num 24:17; Josh 13:22). Stories of intensely spiritual pagans possessed by a supernatural sense of the coming of the Final King may be to our Western ears both wonderful and strange; for we are the odd ones out in the world. Our spiritual abnormality is something we find very hard to accept.
I remember speaking to Cambodians with great freedom about Jesus, much the same as when I have been in the Middle East, Africa and South America. Over half of the Muslims coming to Jesus today do so through a dream or vision. Epiphanies of Christ can happen here too. Peter Lyndon James who runs a ministry to men in West Swan came to Jesus after spending time in all the prisons in Perth; Bronwyn Healy who spoke at the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast last year was a drug addict and prostitute but now runs a ministry to women coming off the streets. Whether global or local all such conversion stories share a common pattern, the richer the epiphany the greater the commitment to Christ. Your average Anglican struggles to speak of their personal epiphany because they likely cannot ever recall truly being in the darkness. Challenging for us the Bible however never speaks in shades of grey, only of the movement from deep darkness to brilliant light; this is the power of Epiphany.
Today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah emphatically makes this point. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Isa 60:1-3).Throughout scripture the nations are always in spiritual darkness needing a special action from God to save them. As such Jesus commanded Paul to go to the Gentiles “that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins” (Acts 26:18). The apostle unapologetically describes such a remarkable transformation when he reminds his Ephesian converts, “at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” (Eph 5:8). Whether we are comparing the gospel with the religion of the magi, other pagan religions or the great world faiths of today there is one aspect of the light of the gospel of Christ that is totally unique and carries within it an unmistakeable edge (2 Cor 4:4). This is forgiveness.
It was prophesied concerning John the Baptist, “you…will be…the prophet of the Most High; for you will …give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”” (Luke 1:76-79).
The light of the gospel of the full and free forgiveness in Christ indelibly enlightens the darkened conscience of sinners testifying that God is a God of boundless mercy and grace beyond our wildest imaginings (2 Cor 4:4; Eph 4:18). Balaam sensed this gracious light, the magi were led by it, John Newton, a slave trader turned Church of England minister wrote of it; “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind but now I see.” “Was blind but now I see” is not someone else’s journey, it is ours – if we indeed know Christ. Peter is very clear about God’s purpose in saving us, “you are…a people belonging to God in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” (1 Pet 2:9). When the wise men saw that the star had reached its destination “they were overwhelmed with great joy” (Matt 2:10); this is the same supernatural “great joy” the disciples experienced when Jesus was raised from the dead (Matt 28:8). To be in the presence of Jesus communicates joy. Such is the illumination of Epiphany. What has stripped such a power from the churches?
The Feast of the Epiphany speaks of the coming of the transforming power of divine light to the Gentile nations who for centuries had lived in utter moral and spiritual darkness in a world marked by demonization, idolatry and immorality (Eph 5:3-5). Today we are such a nation, today our nation once again needs an epiphany. In the last half century a spiritual curtain of darkness has descended upon our minds so that what was once scandalous has become normalised (Eph 6:12). Place a frog in a saucepan of water, and if you heat up that water slowly enough the frog will stay in place until it boils to death. Like the frog, degree by degree we have all become desensitised to the evil which surrounds us. Abortion is generally unquestioned, “living in sin” is normal and gay marriage is freely spoken of as a human right. Greedy consumption is the very basis of our culture. Few worry about budget cuts to foreign aid or the situation of refugees and indigenous people, we are little concerned that there are more enslaved people today than ever in history or that the persecution of the Church has never been more widespread. The light of God has been marginalised from the conscience of both nation and of Church.
With whom do we have more in common? The Jerusalem priests who couldn’t stir up the effort to travel the 8 kilometres down to Bethlehem to see their Messiah, or the God-seeking pagans who made a long, expensive and dangerous journey from Babylon to find Jesus. Our journeys may be long and expensive but they are likely overseas holidays for our personal pleasure.
Our easy liturgical assurances of forgiveness seem to have obscured the fact that only those who come out of darkness can see the light. Peter bluntly states that whoever lacks the power and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ “is short-sighted and blind, and has forgotten the cleansing of past sins.” (2 Pet 1:9). To remember the cleansing of past sins is to be grateful for their forgiveness and motivated to follow the light of Christ wherever it might lead. The story of Epiphany is however much more prophetic than we generally imagine.
The title “King of the Jews” appears in Matthew’s Gospel in only two places and always on the lips of Gentiles. The wise men came seeking “the King of the Jews” and the inscription above Christ’s cross describing his crime read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” (Matt 2:2; 27:11, 29. 37). Anyone who would have an epiphany of Christ today must recognise that the thick spiritual darkness over the world’s peoples came upon Jesus as he died in our place on the cross, a darkness that has been abolished only by the enlightenment of his resurrection (Mark 15: 33; 2 Tim 1:10). It is the gospel of forgiveness which brings the epiphany of our Lord. The hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” ends with words so familiar; “Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.” Peter instructs us, “So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Pet 1:19). Has the morning star risen for your heart, can you testify to others that you have had a personal epiphany? All true seekers after God will ask him for enlightenment. It is surely the time for each of us to seek a deeper personal epiphany – a more intense manifestation of the light of Christ taking us and others out of darkness and into his marvellous light. On this the first Sunday of a New Year this must be our sincere prayer.