The second Sunday of the Christmas season is called the Feast of the Epiphany. "Epiphany" means that God reveals—makes it very clear—just who Jesus is. God's presence is known among people. As we listen to the Gospel reading for this Sunday, we have to ask ourselves how God reveals who Jesus is.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “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.”
Who are these wise men from the East who arrive in Jerusalem? What do we know about them? This is the only time in all of the Gospels that they are mentioned. They are not from Israel but have traveled from a country far away to the East. From this we know that they are not Jewish. They have not studied the scriptures and do not know the One True God. We call them Gentiles. And yet, something has brought them to Jerusalem, the most holy city in Israel.
These men study the night sky. They say they have seen a star rise and they believe it means that a child has been born king of the Jews. Where did that star come from? Who put it in the night sky? And even more curious, why do they set out on a long journey to pay homage to—to worship-—this child? What does this tell us about these wise men? How much do they want to know the one True God? Is this Epiphany?
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
The chief priests and scribes have studied the scriptures. They know that the Messiah—the Christ, the Anointed one of God—will be a shepherd king. Not like King Herod! And they know that he will come from Bethlehem. They know this from studying the holy scriptures, so who can we say reveals this to them? Is this Epiphany?
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
Now the star moves. We hadn't heard this before. The star for this child leads them to the house where he is. How is this possible? Who can do this? The wise men are overwhelmed with joy. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. When we feel joy, it means that the Holy Spirit—God—is at work within us. The wise men feel so much joy that they cannot keep it in; it bubbles over. Is this Epiphany?
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.
When they see the child, they fall to their knees. These great big men, these Gentiles who do not know the One True God, kneel before a small child. What do they know? they know that he is so much greater than they are. This is a knowing that can only come from God. Is this Epiphany?
Have you noticed that the child is not named, not even once, in this Gospel passage? This is strange when it is the Epiphany reading. God reveals, but God does not name the child??
In ancient times, especially in holy scripture, names do three things. They say
who the person is,
who the person belongs to,
and what the person will do.
I believe that when the wise men give their gifts, they name the child.
Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Gold is a gift fit for kings. This child is King. That is who he is.
So the wise men kneel.
Frankincense is burned in worship of God. The smoke has a beautiful smell—a fragrance—that rises to God like prayer. This is a gift for God. That is who this child belongs to.
So the wise men pay homage (they worship).
Myrrh comes from the sap of a tree. It is rare and expensive. In the Bible it is added to oil used for anointing things that are holy. It is also used to anoint someone's body after they have died as a sign of love and respect. What a strange gift to present to a child. At the time of his birth, the wise men give him something for his death. He will die, he will give his whole life as gift for all—Jews and Gentiles. For us. This is what this child will do.
So the wise men bring gifts.
Is this Epiphany?
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The wise men listen to the warning. Where does that dream come from? Who gives them the warning?
They return to their own country—a country full of Gentiles—and what will they do there? Certainly they will tell everyone who they have seen. The One True God is known now by both Jews and Gentiles. In fact, we cannot call them Gentiles any longer. They know God.
This is Epiphany. God revealed in Jesus.
In fact, like the wise men, we kneel, we worship, we bring him gifts, too. We give him ourselves as best we can. We know God, revealed among us in Jesus, too.
Is this also Epiphany?