This morning we celebrate Epiphany. People can have an epiphany about many things. To have an epiphany means that the person received a sudden understanding or a clearer perception about something. People studying math are often hoping for an epiphany. Another way to talk about an epiphany is to say the light has dawned, or they have seen the light. Something becomes clear that was not previously clear. The epiphany we celebrate today is the epiphany of the person of Jesus. The light dawns revealing his glory and how we are to approach him. For us the story that we read from Matthew’s gospel is so intertwined with legend that the light that is dawning can become a bit overcast. We can get sidetracked by the details which is the opposite of what Matthew is trying to do.
We get the numbers all wrong in this passage. Part of the problem is that we sing songs that have statements in them that are not in the text. Songs like “We three Kings” belong to the same folklore as lines like “but the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” Babies cry, it’s their language. Baby Jesus cried, in fact adult Jesus cried. And there are not three kings in the story Matthew tells us there are two kings and some astrologers or magi but we have no idea how many. The eastern traditions say there were 12 magi and the western tradition, the one we are most familiar with, says there were three. In reality we are never told how many. We are given no detailed description of the star, the sign that they saw. We are not told how the magi connect the star to the birth of Jesus, the King of the Jews. We do know though that there are two kings – King Herod and Jesus – King of heaven and Earth. One whose authority is supported by human structures and one whose authority is of heavenly origin. We are not told how the magi dressed, what their nationality was, how they died or where they were buried. Many of the details that people have added into the story over the years through songs and pageants are not there. We are only told that magi came, likely from a great distance, to worship Jesus. This means that they came with the intention to fall down before the Messianic King in humble adoration. That is the light, the epiphany, that Matthew wants us to see. He is telling all those who read this story or who hear it read that they must do the same. That we must do all that we can to get to Jesus and that Jesus is worthy of our worship simply because of who he is.
We know that the magi were people who tried to make sense out of life and out of history by looking at the big picture. Magi were skilled in philosophy, medicine, and natural science. They were good Holy men who sought truth. They knew about Israel and its history and the hope of the Messiah to come and restore them. That should not be a surprise. Throughout history either through travel or exile the people of Israel had shared the stories and the hopes in the Old Testament far and wide. The magi were also people who studied the stars and observed the changes and the signs in the night sky above us all. They knew that the movement of the stars and planets has an effect on life on earth in ways that can be observed but not necessarily understood. They studied various medicines and how they could make life better. These magi or wise men had all made the same observation. There was a sign in the stars that indicated that the king of the Jews had been born but we have no idea what that sign was. But it was a sign or a signal that once again a light for the world was rising in Israel. A light from God to be a blessing and a light to all. So they head to Jerusalem, the logical place to go, the historical capital and worship centre of Israel. The home of the great kings of Israel’s history. The home of the temple and presence of God.
Matthew wants us to see that the magi are right. Jesus who has been born in Bethlehem is the fulfillment of all the prophecies about the coming of the Messiah. Jesus has come, to establish his kingdom which will be greater than any previous kingdom. Bethlehem is the place where King David was born and raised. The prophet Micah promised that the Messiah would come from this village. However when Matthew quotes from the prophet Micah he actually changes the quote. Micah says “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Matthew changes it to say – “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” Instead of Bethlehem being referred to as small and insignificant Matthew exalts Bethlehem to a place of prominence. Matthew is telling us that Jesus’ presence in our lives transforms our life from being small and insignificant to a life of great significance and meaning.
Matthew includes details about the birth of Jesus that none of the other writers include. Why does he go into so much detail? He is writing to a Jewish audience and he is saying to them and us that their preconceived ideas, our preconceived ideas about what God will do in our lives and in the world, misses reality. Jesus not only fulfills their preconceived ideas but reveals a greatness and a relationship with God that is more than we can ask or imagine. It is not what we know or what we have come to know but are we open to God doing far greater in our lives than we could possible conceive. The scribes and the priests knew what the scriptures said about the Messiah and where the Messiah would be born but they did not act when the magi showed up. They were not open to God acting in ways that they could not perceive. They spent their lives focusing on hearing scripture as advice for them to structure their lives around. But the message that Matthew is proclaiming is that we are not called to follow advice, we are called to follow a king. We are called to follow our Lord.
When people think of the birth of Jesus, the most common image we see or that comes to mind, is that of a stable and a manger. But we also know that is not likely an accurate image. Justin Martyr who lived and wrote around the year 150 and who came from the district near Bethlehem tells us that Jesus was born in a cave near the village of Bethlehem. There is a church called the Church of the nativity in the Bethlehem area that has been built around and over a cave. The cave has a door so low that all must stoop to enter. It is an image that proclaims reality. It is an image that proclaims what Matthew is trying to convey. That all should approach Jesus upon their knees worshipping and acknowledging that we surrender to him not knowing what that will mean to our lives.
If there is no wonder or awe at what God has done in Christ, no experience of mystery of the word made flesh, our efforts to worship will be futile. There will be no worship without our spirit submitting to the Spirit of the living God. There will be no worship without our spirit submitting to the glory of God in Christ our Lord. If God can be understood and comprehended and contained by any of our human means, then we cannot worship such a God. One thing is sure we will never bend our knees and say Holy, Holy, Holy to that which we have been able to decipher and figure out in our own minds. That which we can explain will never bring us to a place of awe. It can never fill us with astonishment or wonder or admiration. The magi were filled with astonishment and wonder and admiration. So much so that they put everything else in their lives aside to come and worship the new born king. When we believe we should be satisfied rather than God glorified in our worship then we put God below ourselves as though God has been made for us rather than we have been created for God.
Epiphany calls us to open our minds and our hearts to be astounded by the grace and the mercy of what God has done in Christ for us. Epiphany calls us to humbly bend low in coming to worship the word made flesh. Epiphany calls us to see Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Epiphany invites us to embrace the dawning of the light of our gracious and loving King of Heaven and earth, the word made flesh, and when we do to be filled with joyous and generous worship.