“Why Have a Special Epiphany Service?” (Matthew 2:1-12)

The Epiphany of Our Lord
Wednesday, January 6, 2021

“Why Have a Special Epiphany Service?” (Matthew 2:1-12)

So here it is on a Wednesday. And we’re having the Divine Service. How come? It’s not Sunday. “Pastor, why are you dragging us out here in the middle of the week, in January, to have church? What’s the big deal about Epiphany that we should come out on a non-Sunday?” In other words, “Why Have a Special Epiphany Service?”

Well, that’s what I’m going to tell you now. There are a number of reasons, which I will explain. But first, what are not the reasons for having a special Epiphany service?

1) So that we can have a potluck meal together. Now don’t get me wrong, I love potluck meals, and I know you all love my world-famous chili, but that is not the reason for having an Epiphany service. True, it makes it nice for those who do come for the service, but even if there were no potluck, it would still be worth coming here today.

2) Along the same lines, the reason for having an Epiphany service is not so that we can have people here to take down the Christmas tree. Again, it’s a nice bonus to have folks here to do that, but that’s not the main reason.

3) It’s an excuse to have people put another offering in the plate. No, that’s not it either.

So if those are not the reasons for having a special Epiphany service, what are? I mean, couldn’t we just shift the Epiphany lessons to the Sunday before or the Sunday after and observe Epiphany then? And some churches have done that. I guess they just gave up on having Epiphany on Epiphany, because of poor attendance. But when you do that and move Epiphany to the preceding or following Sunday, what happens? You lose the readings for that Sunday. You would lose either the Second Sunday after Christmas, which we heard this past Sunday with twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple. Or you would lose the Baptism of Our Lord, which we will get this coming Sunday. And that would be a shame if we lost that. So here we are on Epiphany itself, January 6.

You see, the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord is what’s called a fixed-date festival. That means it always falls on a specific date, regardless of what day of the week it is. In that way, it’s like Christmas. Christmas Day is always December 25, so we always have service on that date, no matter what day of the week. Likewise, with Epiphany. It is a fixed-date festival. It always falls on January 6, the day right after the twelve days of Christmas.

And not only is Epiphany a fixed-date festival, it’s also a major festival. It’s one of the big ones. You don’t want to omit it. And this goes back many centuries in the history of the church, this observance of Epiphany. In the early church, Epiphany had as strong an importance as even Christmas. It was that big of a deal.

But why? That’s what we’ll get to now. Our text is the traditional Gospel reading for Epiphany, the visit of the wise men, as recorded in Matthew 2. This is the only place we find this account. And today I’m going to key in on two aspects of this Epiphany text that make it so valuable: that it is the Gentile Christmas, and that it’s an occasion of great joy.

First, it shows us that Jesus is the Savior not just of the Jews but also of the Gentiles. Often Epiphany has been called “the Gentile Christmas,” and rightly so. What do I mean by that? Well, if you were here for our Christmas Eve service, you heard me say, “Christmas is a Jewish holiday.” The point being, that when Christ was born at Bethlehem, the angel told the shepherds, “Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Now that is a very Jewish way to put things. Good news of great joy “for all the people.” And when it says, “the people,” that’s referring to the Jewish people. Jesus’ birth is the fulfillment of the promises made to Old Testament Israel. Likewise, to call Bethlehem “the city of David” and to call the child born there “the Christ”–again, very Jewish references. David, the great king of Israel. And the “Christ,” meaning the Messiah, the son of David who would usher in an everlasting kingdom. That’s why I can say that Christmas is, in the first place, a Jewish holiday.

But where does that leave us Gentiles, that is, non-Jews? Do we get left out? No, and that’s where Epiphany comes in. This is why Epiphany is called the Gentile Christmas. Because now the birth of the Christ is revealed, is manifested, as being for us Gentiles too, for our blessing and salvation.

Notice what our text says. It says that “wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.” And that gives us a clue. These men, the Magi or wise men, were court scholars from a land to the east, probably a place like Babylon. And the question they ask–this also indicates they were most likely Gentiles, not Jews. Because they ask, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” The way they put that–it sounds like they themselves are not Jews. But somehow, they’re interested in one born “king of the Jews,” the Jewish Messiah.

Well, if they themselves were not Jews, how would they know about or be interested in one born king of the Jews? How? Because they had heard of the promises made to Israel of a Savior, a Messiah–prophecies that had been shared over the centuries to other lands in the Middle East. Remember how people from all over had come to hear the wisdom of Solomon? They could have heard of it that way. Remember how the tribes of Israel had been dispersed centuries earlier? The people of Judah had been taken captive to Babylon, including Daniel, who became a court scholar himself, serving in the court of the Babylonian king. These are ways that wise men from the east could have heard about the promise to Israel of a great Messiah to come, “the king of the Jews.”

So Epiphany is the Gentile Christmas. The king of the Jews is also meant for us Gentiles. And that’s good news! We Gentiles, our ancestors, had been in the dark, not knowing the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Our ancestors worshiped sacred oak trees and stars in the heavens, not knowing who God was. They were groping around in the dark. Offering up sacrifices of their own, trying to appease the gods. Idolatry. Ignorance. Lostness. But now a great light has been manifested, in the birth of Christ. God wants all nations to know him. And God makes himself known in the person of Christ. So that’s the first point: Epiphany is the Gentile Christmas.

Second, Epiphany is an occasion of great joy. The wise men from the east come to Jerusalem looking for the one born king of the Jews. But he is not to be found there in Herod’s palace. Rather, the prophecy says that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. So that’s where they go. And when the star points them to the place where the child was, it says, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Not just “they rejoiced.” Not even, “they rejoiced exceedingly.” But “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” That’s a lot of joy! Joy piled up to the sky!

These wise men from the east made a long journey, hundreds of miles, to have the original Epiphany service. And they did not mind the extra effort. Indeed, they brought costly gifts to the infant king–gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And they counted it all joy!

How come? And why should this special Epiphany service be an occasion of great joy for us? Because it reveals to us our Savior, Jesus, the Savior of both Jews and Gentiles alike. How has he saved us? Well, look back at that title the wise men use. They say, “the one born king of the Jews.” And where do we find that title again? On the cross, hanging over Jesus’ head: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Jesus does the saving job in a most unique and unusual way–by dying on that cross, in our place, to take away our sins. The baby born in humble circumstances will die in humility and shame.

He will do this to accomplish exactly what we need: to make the one acceptable sacrifice for sin–your sin and mine. What the Gentiles were groping around in the darkness to find–how to get right with God–now has been revealed, it’s been made manifest. And it’s not in what we do to appease the gods. Rather, it is in what God has done to rescue us out of our ignorance and idolatry. He sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to be the Savior of the world.

The light is shining in the darkness, the darkness covering the earth, the thick darkness covering all the peoples of the earth, that is, the Gentiles. What is revealed at Epiphany is God’s plan to make us Gentiles: heirs of the inheritance waiting for us in heaven; members of Christ’s body the church; and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

This is the special emphasis of the Epiphany festival. And this is why wise men and women from the east and the west and the north and the south–this is why you, dear friends, have made the journey today, to find Christ your Savior here where he has promised to be found.

Published in: on January 6, 2021 at 4:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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