Preaching the Epiphany: Macro Version

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Themes of Biblical, prophetic fulfillment, historical factuality, and personal experiential revelation coalesce in the texts and message of Epiphany and should, therefore, take pride of place in preaching.

The festival of Christmas extends from December 25th to January 5th — the much sung but little observed, “Twelve Days of Christmas.” With no break, Christmas transitions into the festival of Epiphany. “Epiphany” and its associated Bible texts present a central and unmistakable platform for preaching the Gospel in its macro form because it has been associated with three things since the second century, if not before:

(1) The glory of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of God.
(2) The revelation of Jesus as the Christ being made known to the gentiles.
(3) The enlightenment by the Holy Spirit in baptism that Jesus is the Christ of God.

Themes of Biblical, prophetic fulfillment, historical factuality, and personal experiential revelation coalesce in the texts and message of Epiphany and should, therefore, take pride of place in preaching.

What, then, is the macro message of Epiphany? Well, it begins with themes of light and darkness, creation and re-creation. It is just like Genesis’s, “In the beginning…,” announcement from the King upon His cosmic throne issuing forth His royal decree, “Let there be light,” to which there is only one response: “And it was so.” Here, with the Advent of the Christ, a new beginning dawns with, “light shining in the darkness,” that is, with the Word from the beginning becoming flesh (John 1:1-3, 14).

In the ancient world, with skies unpolluted by ambient city lights, the night sky itself was a message-board contrasting light and dark. Unlike today, the cosmos, already respected as the handiwork of the Lord, was understood as an essential part of an interconnected universe, visible and invisible. So, if something momentous was on the horizon, like in the book of Scripture, so too in “the book of nature,” one would expect to see it reflected in the heavens above. Alternatively, a remarkable event among the stars and planets must mean, they thought, a remarkable event taking place or about to take place on Earth. The stars were like a broadsheet front-page announcement and Matthew picks up this idea by setting the stage for Epiphany in the skies of the universe. The Star of Bethlehem would draw Jew and gentile attention to the newborn king, the king of Heaven and Earth. In fact, it would be the announcement of this King Himself: The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Repent, and believe the Gospel of God (Mark 1:15).

While scholars debate what the star of Bethlehem might have been, Matthew clearly believed the convergence in the heavens above were announcing to all a royal and divine appearance of enormous significance. A reputable astronomer from Rutgers University lends credence to Matthew’s intention. This scholar has argued that the planets Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn were in conjunction with each other three times in 7 BC, with the same phenomenon reoccurring in 6 BC; likely the year Jesus was born. Since Jupiter was the “royal” or kingly planet, and Mars the planet of War, and Saturn was sometimes thought to represent the Jews, the conclusion was obvious: a new king of the Jews was about to be born and he would bring with him an iron rod and scepter. Modern scholars caution we cannot be certain if this was why the, “wise and learned men,” came from the East. But, even if it was not, nothing seems more likely than learned stargazers noticing strange events in the heavens and searching out their earthly counterparts. The macro message of Epiphany announces the revelation of Christ Jesus in cosmic proportions, tantamount to the light separating the darkness by the Word of God and the advent of a new creation.

The macro message of Epiphany announces the revelation of Christ Jesus in cosmic proportions, tantamount to the light separating the darkness by the Word of God and the advent of a new creation.

What Matthew tells us is pure political dynamite; a powder keg on the socio-political landscape of the ancient world. Jesus, Matthew is saying, is the true king of the Jews. This is His star – the star of the new king. God begins His anointing of Messiah by anointing the night sky with the sign of His coming. The Magi came from the East to pay homage because they had seen His star, the one God orchestrated for Him. In fact, the world has seen it and because it is His world, He is the world’s rightful King.

This disclosure was explosive. Jesus is the true king of the Jews, God’s righteous Lord, and Herod the Great is not. God’s Kingdom will be gathered around Jesus and His presence, not around a geo-political state and its might-makes-right, half-Jew king who, by extension, represents the so-called “son of god” and “savior of the world” — Caesar. The house of Herod violently opposed anyone else claiming to be, “king of the Jews.” So, when a parade of foreign dignitaries enters the capital city asking the reigning “king” where the true king of the Jews was to be found, the implications are enormous. The picture Matthew paints has an illegitimate king with legitimate scholars knocking on his door looking for God’s Messiah and, thereby, denying the veracity of his throne and, by implication, announcing the ascendency of the world’s rightful King. Messiah had just come. This means neither the Herodians nor Caesars are rightful kings. The One who has arrived is the King of even these kings. That is political dynamite. That is the macro message: Jesus is God’s Messiah and, therefore, the rightful King of Heaven and Earth. The macro message to be preached is global but also personal: “You have a King. He has come for you. His name is Jesus, because He saves His people from their sins.”

To believe this requires the work, the illumination, of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Word of Christ preached in the light pierces the darkness, but also with baptism where the Word and promise is powerfully and personally present and applied. This washing is the enlightening event of God made objective and historic for you. The baptized, both Jews and gentiles upon whom the Holy Spirit has brought the illuminating Word of the Gospel, are enlightened and translated from a kingdom of darkness to a kingdom of light. In a word, they are a new creation, or born again, and have a new King, new Lord, new governance in life — Christ Jesus.

These Magi introduce us to something which Matthew wants to be clear about from the start. If Jesus is the king of the Jews, this does not mean His rule is at all limited to the Jewish people. Their very presence, as gentiles, as non-Jews, indicates a kingship which transcends mere Semitic regality. At the heart of many prophesies about the coming king, the Messiah, there were predictions how His rule would bring God’s justice and peace to the whole world. Psalm 72 says:

May the Messiah be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth! …May He have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River Euphrates to the ends of the earth! May desert tribes bow down before Him and His enemies like the dust! May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands render Him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before Him, all nations serve Him!

Or again, Isaiah 11:

"There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him… He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth… the earth shall be full of the knowledge of Yahweh as the waters cover the sea. In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of Him shall the nations inquire, and His resting place shall be glorious. In that day the Lord will extend His hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of His people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Cush, from Elam, from Shinar, and Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea."

This, therefore, is no sectarian king. Messiah is no tribal ruler. The very presence of the wise, the discerning among the gentiles anticipates the fulfillment that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the King of all the Earth, the Alpha and Omega, our promised Prince of Peace – for the Jew first, but also the gentile. In a word, the presence of these gentile Magi means the Gospel of God has come in the flesh for you too.

Bear in mind, Matthew will end his Gospel with Jesus commissioning His followers to go out and make disciples from every nation, every ethnē, as it is in the Greek, by baptizing into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Age, sex, ethnicity notwithstanding, all racial groups, even gentiles, were to be enlightened by the truth of Christ, the truth which is Christ. This, it seems, is the way the prophecies of the Messiah’s worldwide rule are going to come true; not at the tip of Herod’s or Caesar’s bloodied swords or, for that matter, anyone else’s. God would enlighten the world through the Word made flesh. Herod Antipas himself, by deferring to the judgment of Pontius Pilate, ends up confessing and witnessing to Jesus’ kingship when they scribe on the titulus, “This is Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” for all the world to see. But not only do the Jews through their illegitimate kingly-representative confess Christ’s kingship, the gentiles will do it too beginning with the Magi. When Jesus is an apparently unknown baby, there is a sign of what is to come, gentiles bowing down before the newborn King. The gifts the Magi brought were the sort of things people in the ancient world would think of as appropriate presents to bring to kings, or even gods. In Jesus’ case, their gifts were doubly appropriate, for the Christ child is King of Heaven and Earth. He is both God and man.

Furthermore, there is another way in which this story points ahead to the climax of the Gospel. Jesus will finally come face to face with the representative of the world’s greatest king, Pilate, Caesar’s subordinate. Pilate will have rather different gifts to give Him, though he is also warned by a dream not to do anything to Him (27:19). His soldiers are the first gentiles since the Magi to call Jesus, “King of the Jews” (27:29), but the crown they give Him is made of thorns, and His throne is a cross. At that moment, instead of a bright star, there will be an unearthly darkness (27:45), out of which we hear a single gentile voice: “Truly, He was the Son of God” (27:54). It is this sinner, this expert in crucifixion, who was responsible for the immediate death of Jesus. He stands as our representative—full of sin and treason and with bloodied hands—who first confesses the crucified Jesus Christ as the world’s rightful Lord and Savior. The macro message of Epiphany is how God is reconciling the world to Himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Son for the salvation and justification of sinners.

Preach the whole story, the whole macro narrative through the themes of Epiphany: light, illumination, baptism, enlightenment and divine glorification through Jesus Christ.

Preach the whole story, the whole macro narrative through the themes of Epiphany: light, illumination, baptism, enlightenment and divine glorification through Jesus Christ. While Epiphany occurs on January 6th every year, the season of Epiphany stretches from that day until the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday (which is celebrated as the Transfiguration of our Lord). This season concentrates the preacher’s thoughts on the different manifestations of Christ’s glory and divinity, entailing the Nativity, the revelation to the Magi, Jesus’s baptism, the miracle at Cana, the Transfiguration and more, with the baptism of our Lord being emphasized above all others. Saint Augustine said the Church “rightly” observes the Epiphany feasts, complaining that those who have refused to celebrate this season neither love unity nor the Church comprised of Jews and gentiles, for whom the Nativity Star appeared.