Click here to listen to this 26-minute message:
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany (which actually takes place on 6 January tomorrow). ‘Epiphany’ means ‘manifestation’ or ‘revelation’. Something is revealed and made known to us. What is this thing? Let me answer in thee steps.
1. Jesus is the light
Our key reading for today, from Matthew 2:1-12, about the visit of the Magi to the young Jesus, refers repeatedly to the star that the Magi see, interpret and follow. It is a light that they see that reveals the coming of a King, a saviour, and the follow it:
1-2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.
9-10 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
John 1:1-9 tells a similar story about John’s cosmology of Christ as the incarnate light:
1-3 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
4-5 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
6-9 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.
The prophecies of old also speak to the coming of light into the world, as we see in Isaiah 9:2:
2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
Simeon, a righteous, devout and Spirit-filled man of God, prophesies similarly over the infant Jesus when he was brought to the temple for a blessing, in Luke 2:29-32:
30-32 “For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
While all of these references to the light refer to Jesus as the light, Jesus himself refers to us as the light, in Matthew 4:14-16:
14-16 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
So, the narrative of Jesus being the Light is compelling. But what does it mean? What is he the light of?
2. Jesus is the light of God
Central to our (Western Church, i.e., Protestant and Catholic) understanding of the Epiphany, is that Jesus is revealed as the Son of God, as the Anointed One, as the Messiah, as God in the flesh. This leads us to the concept of the incarnation, which is foundational to everything we understand of Christ and his work among us. (Click here to listen to a previous message I’ve preached on the incarnation or here and here to read reflections on the incarnation and the kenotic U.) The incarnation is the idea that God emptied God’s self, pouring himself out to become smaller and smaller, more and more finite and situated, into a single cell, into an embryo.
For our friends in the Eastern Orthodox churches, however, Epiphany focuses not on the Magi but on the Baptism of Christ, where the revelation is not just about Christ, but about the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, in essence, Epiphany lead us to a manifestation of the Triune God, made visible in the light that Jesus Christ brings into the darkest of places.
(If you are listening to this message, you might like to watch this video during this section of my sermon. It was playing on the screen while I presented it. Be patient – it takes several seconds before you’ll see anything. And be at peace – it was designed to be a subtle visual cue in the background, not a wildly exciting video.)
So, who is this light for?
3. Jesus is the light of the world
The importance of the Magi is that they were not Jews. They came from a long way away (for those days) – Persia (now Iran) or Yemen (where the ingredients for Frankincense and Myrrh are produced and a conduit of gold from Africa to the Middle East). Wherever they came from, their symbolic significance is that they were Gentiles, and thus represent everyone else who is not part of the ‘inner circle’.
In Jesus time, and even in the early church, this meant those who were not Jewish. The fact that Gentiles were among the first to worship Jesus (let’s not forget the shepherds, who represent rural, blue collar workers) indicates that the Gospel is for them also.
Today this means that the Gospel is for the LGBTQI+ community, for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and agnostics. For the smart and not so smart. For the morally good and for the morally bad. For young and old, black and white, rich and poor. For everyone. No person is excluded from the great project of God to redeem humanity, as we read in many passages of the Bible, e.g.,
God made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Ephesians 1:9-10)
In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:4)
For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations. (Luke 2:30-31)
In short, Epiphany reminds us that:
Jesus is the light of God for the whole world