The Festival of Epiphany marks the 12th day of Christmas to help us see all of the happenings marking the incarnation of the Son of God in the baby Jesus as one single revelatory event. An epiphany, generically considered, is when something becomes manifest and thus known where otherwise it would not be. While we often assume the Magi arrived in Jerusalem seeking the just-born special King of the Jews guided by a strange star, this event took place later, perhaps a year or more after his birth (Matt. 2:1-3).
Nevertheless, their arrival is firmly fixed in the history of the church as an event to be considered part and parcel of the miracle of Christmas. Through the ages, when creche scenes have depicted God became man in the baby Jesus - in icons, paintings, figurines, Christmas cards, and outdoor depictions of all sorts - the wise men are always there in the barn with the shepherds, animals, and holy family. In medieval times, artists exaggerated historical accuracy even more. Many paintings depicted Jesus’ birthplace in a contemporary court, with contemporary rulers and dignitaries joining the shepherds and Magi in the worship of the baby Jesus.
We all are familiar with the sense of destiny that often surrounds the stories of kings. Many have been the tale about the lad of low estate born to be king. At a point in time when the people need a courageous and charismatic leader to face difficult and perilous times, his ascension arises from obscurity. However, a much more startling royal event attended the mission of the magi guided by a star. They were determined to see in the epoch event of Christmas an even stranger set of royal circumstances that did not involve a man born to be king. Indeed, the Christmas event was not a royal ascension but a divine condescension. The eternal sovereign ruler of the universe, the King of Kings, stooped down to become a man.
From Heaven above to earth I come. God has come and invaded our space, packaged as a baby king. With mere kings, it is a fitting honor to bring your loyalty, your willingness to serve, and perhaps some tribute. But these things are not sufficient for the King born to be man. The magi bowing down in traditional creche scenes is not a sign of loyalty but an act of worship. On their knees, they came face-to-face with Deity in human flesh. They bowed to worship him and present gifts of thanksgiving. They found God in all of his glory, and so have we.
Forget the historical anomalies in the depictions of this event; there is great theology here. John expressed the significance of Epiphany by announcing that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have beheld his glory, as of the Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Not just the shepherds, nor the magi and medieval dignitaries have been privy to this appearance. Epiphany celebrates that we have not been left in our hearts’ cold darkness and this spoiled creation. The morning star of Bethlehem was not the amazing guide for the wise men, but the Christ made manifest first in Bethlehem, in our hearts, and at the close of the age (2 Pet 1:19, Rev 22:16).
The Christmas season celebrates an epiphany. It is about God making a personal appearance with us. He has entered his spoiled creation to fix things and to make possible that Gentiles as well as Jews might become loyal subjects of the Lord God without becoming enslaved by a rule of law that no one can fulfill.
From the days of Samuel, Kings ruled over the people of God by law. The children of Israel thought they could be loyal, obedient subjects if God would relent and allow a king to rule over them. A thousand years of rule through countless monarchs and pretenders to the throne, however, proved them wrong. Back in those days, when God looked down to find subjects who were good and godly according to the dictates of the law, he could not even find one (Ps 53:3). If we were there during his search, would the results have been any different?
When it comes to the reign of Christ and your life in his kingdom, tis’ more blessed to receive than to give.
We, too, have all fallen short of the glory of God. Our need is the same as theirs: We need a king who will deliver us from the slavery of the law, not one who would inspire and motivate us to try harder or cut us some slack so we can do better. The manifestation of the Word becoming flesh signals a dethronement of the reign of law. He comes with grace and truth in his person and in his reign. Loyalty to this King of Kings is to embrace his gift of righteousness in your heart and in your confession. This King comes to you, bearing the gifts of life, forgiveness, and salvation. He comes to reign over a kingdom with righteousness to cover all of your sinful frailty, poverty, and lawlessness.
Sometimes parents have promoted the wrong message from children’s Christmas programs, complete with the wise men bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. For countless generations, our children have been told that it is more blessed to give than to receive. This is the wrong message of the Christmas season: When it comes to the reign of Christ and your life in his kingdom, tis’ more blessed to receive than to give. The proper tribute to this King for all children, young and old, is to receive his gifts of grace and truth. Loyalty to his reign is the obedience of faith that lives by grace, not our works, not even our gifts. His administration in the kingdom as Lord overall and Lord of your life is as the Savior from sin. He rules in your life by faith as the one who has come to save you from your sins, to deliver you from the slavery of the law, and to anoint you as a royal child of his everlasting kingdom. All our gifts are but thank-you responses to these supreme gifts that give life and give it forever.
Today we do not have to gaze into the stars to find the Morning Star. He comes to us with his light and life-bearing tokens and gifts for our well-being. If the feed trough was a rather humble wrapping for the incarnate Son of God, today he has chosen even more mundane ways to visit us and grace us with his royal presence. Using simple elements of water, bread, wine, and common human language, our gracious Lord now grants us an epiphany. The King born to be man has wrapped himself in these tokens to make his royal appearance to us. He bids us come - not primarily to worship by giving him gifts - but rather to come with empty hands and hearts to receive his heavenly treasures of forgiveness, life, and salvation. He is the Morning Star that radiates the warmth of God that has relieved Israel and all of us from the cold winter’s chill of our sinful wretchedness. Oh, come let us adore him!