“Epiphany: From Bethlehem to Baptism and Beyond” (Matthew 2:1-12; Luke 3:21-22)

The Epiphany of Our Lord/The Baptism of Our Lord
First Sunday after the Epiphany
January 10, 2010

“Epiphany: From Bethlehem to Baptism and Beyond” (Matthew 2:1-12; Luke 3:21-22)

The Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord always falls on January 6, which this year was this past Wednesday. And the reading for Epiphany Day proper is always the visit of the wise men, to Bethlehem, when Jesus was a baby. Then for the First Sunday after the Epiphany, which is today, the reading is the account of the Baptism of Our Lord, in the Jordan, when Jesus was about age 30. Well, because of the weather, we had to cancel our Epiphany service on Wednesday, and so today, we’re combining the two services into one: Jesus in Bethlehem and Jesus being baptized. From a baby to age 30 in one service. They grow up so fast, don’t they?

Seriously, though, this gives us an opportunity to see what the connecting link is between these two events and why they set the tone for the whole season that follows. And that connecting link is the idea of “epiphany.” Thus our theme for today, “Epiphany: From Bethlehem to Baptism and Beyond.”

What is an “epiphany”? Have you had one? Sometimes we use the word “epiphany” in a non-religious sense. We talk about a person “having an epiphany,” a sudden realization, a breakthrough discovery. It’s the “light bulb coming on” experience, the “Aha!” moment. The classic case would be the ancient Greek scholar Archimedes, who sat down in his bathtub and suddenly discovered the principle of water displacement. Archimedes was so excited he leaped out of the bathtub and ran through the streets naked, yelling “Eureka!” “I have found it!” We would say Archimedes “had an epiphany” (and probably could have used a bathrobe).

But that secular use of the word “epiphany” is not quite what we’re talking about when we use the word in the Christian sense. The difference is this: Archimedes had an epiphany that really came from inside of him, a realization that came by means of his own reason. Now the religious use of the word “epiphany” does share the idea of a discovery, a realization, but it is a realization that comes by means of revelation, God’s revelation. God reveals himself to us, makes himself known to us, and that is an epiphany. We could not have arrived at it by our own reason or observation. We need God to shine the light for us. This is the “epiphany” we’re talking about today, and it is the connecting link running through this whole Epiphany season.

Let’s start with the wise men and their visit to Bethlehem. They had an epiphany, and God did it for them. The word “epiphany” literally means a “shining forth,” and when something has light shining on it, it appears. So “epiphany” can mean an “appearance,” when something appears on the scene. For the wise men, God really did shine forth the light to lead them to their discovery. The appearance of the star led them to the appearance of the Christ, the one born king of the Jews. They would not have found him on their own, but God did an epiphany for them.

These were wise men, these were scholars, learned men, but they did not find or discover Christ on the basis of their own reason. God led them to him. In the first place, these wise men from the east, who were pagans, Gentiles, must have heard about a coming king of the Jews from the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures. Remember, the Jews had been scattered from out of their land centuries earlier, and that’s how a Hebrew wise man like Daniel, for instance, came in contact with the wise men of Babylon. They would have found out about the Hebrew messianic prophecies through exchanges like that.

And even then, they look for Christ in the wrong place, in the king’s palace in Jerusalem, where human reason would tell you to expect the great king. Instead, they need more Scripture then to lead them to the right place, to Bethlehem, a humble little town, but that is where the Christ is. God uses the Scriptures, not just a star, to do an epiphany for these pagan wise men. Otherwise, they would have been in the dark.

So, essential to the idea of epiphany is that God is shining forth the light for us, through his word, when we would otherwise be sitting in the darkness. “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” That’s us. By reason and by nature we would be in the dark concerning God. We would not know God; we would not know where to find him. And even if we did realize that there is a God, we would not know who he really is or how we get right with him. Like the rest of the people of this world, we’d be groping around in the dark and still ending up in death.

But God has shone his light for us in his word, in his gospel. The good news of Christ breaks forth like the sun dawning at the end of a long dark night. “Aha!” we say, as the light comes on. “Now I know who God really is! Now I know a God who is for me, who loves me, who forgives my sins and rescues me from death and damnation!” What wonderful good news! And we rejoice. Like the wise men, who finally see the Christ child, we “rejoice exceedingly with great joy.” This is it! “Eureka! I have found it!” We have found him, for God has revealed himself to us in his Son, through his word.

And this is good news for all peoples, for all nations. The pagan wise men were led to Christ, and so will all sorts of other people who do not know God–wise men from the east, the learned and the simple, men, women, and children, from north, south, east, and west–all people whom the Lord will draw to himself. And so another theme that comes out this Epiphany season is God revealing himself to the nations, through the gospel outreach of his church. A strong mission emphasis fits the Epiphany season. As St. Paul says, “Of this gospel I was made a minister . . . to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known. . . .” We in the church who have received the light of the gospel ourselves now become the beacon God uses to draw others. “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light. . . .”

How will God use us to be his beacon? Are there people you know sitting in the dark, without a right knowledge of God in his Son Jesus Christ? If they’re not in church, then they don’t know God–or at least the light is growing dim. Can God use us to draw these people to the light? The gospel is being preached and taught here regularly–how can they hear it? Certainly our radio broadcast is one outreach, and you can help to support that. But how about personal invitations, to bring your friends and family members along with you to church, where they too will hear the life-giving gospel of Christ? These are a couple ways God can use us to “epiphany” others, just here locally, not to mention how the church is at work throughout the whole world to spread the light of Christ.

God is doing an epiphany, shining forth the light, to shine for people sitting in darkness, to draw them to the Christ. We see all that going on in the story of the wise men coming to Bethlehem. But how about the reading for today, the account of the Baptism of Our Lord? How is that an epiphany? It is an epiphany because it is a revealing of the identity of Jesus Christ. In the Epiphany season, the common thread is this unveiling, this making known, making manifest, who Jesus is, that he is the very Son of God come in the flesh. That happened when Jesus was baptized: “The heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’” “The heavens were opened,” open access between heaven and earth in this man Jesus, because he is the Son of God come from heaven, come to earth to do the will of his Father. “The Holy Spirit descended on him,” anointing him as the Christ, “the Anointed One,” the Messiah, empowering him for his ministry. “A voice came from heaven,” the Father’s voice, approving and attesting to this man Jesus as his Son. “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” That God would send his beloved Son to identify with sinful mankind and to be their Savior shows how much he loves us. God’s good will to men, his good pleasure, is seen in his giving his own Son for us. And God was well pleased to do it.

So an epiphany points to the identity of Christ, his person, and thus with that, his saving work. You can’t separate the two. The person and the work of Christ go together. And his work will be not quite what you would expect for the glorious Son of God. His work will be difficult and dangerous, lowly and humble. At Bethlehem, the Son of God, who created the stars and the heavens, is found by the leading of a star, found in humble circumstances and threatened by a hostile king. At Christ’s baptism, the sinless Son of God stands with all the sinful people being baptized. He identifies with us even though he has no sins of his own to confess. But he will bear our sins and take them to the cross, and so that is seen at the outset of his ministry. God’s good will is that his Son will be the Savior of the world, and that work, that dangerous, sin-bearing work, the Son willingly undertakes. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

Epiphany points us to Jesus, shines the light on him, shows us just who it is who will go to the cross for us. Think of it, it is God’s own Son who is doing this! The one whom wise men worship, the one whom the Spirit anoints and the Father approves, the one who turns water into wine, who proclaims good news to the poor, who casts out demons and rebukes fevers, who uses sinful fishermen to haul in a catch of people–yes, the one who at the end of the Epiphany season will be transfigured with dazzling light, when once again the voice will come from heaven, “This is my Son, my Chosen One”–this mysterious man, Jesus of Nazareth, will be attested to in multiple ways as to who he really is, namely, God’s own Son, come in humility and blessing, his glory hidden yet shining forth enough for us to see, his identity pointing to his mission: to be the Savior of the world, to be your Savior here today.

That is who Jesus is. This is his Epiphany, starting today. The light is shining forth, for you. “Aha! Eureka!” Light and joy and discovery abounding! Salvation abounding, God’s doing. It’s all about Jesus. In him is life–new life, eternal life–and this life is the light of men. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” It’s “Epiphany,” the “shining forth” time, “From Bethlehem to Baptism and Beyond.”

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Published in: on January 10, 2010 at 3:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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