The Epiphany of Our Lord
“The Light of the World Arises out of Darkness”
January 1, 2017
The word “Epiphany” is important for us to define. In a wide sense, the way it might be used outside the church out in the world, an epiphany is a discovery or disclosure of previously unknown or unrevealed information that changes the way we look at the whole world around us. When, for example, Copernicus demonstrated that the earth was not the center of everything in the universe, but rather that everything in our solar system actually revolves around the sun, that was an epiphany. It rewrote all the astronomy books in a single moment and we would never look at the universe in the same way again.
When we speak of Epiphany in the church, we mean the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the light of the world, with a special emphasis on the revelation of Jesus Christ to those who are not historically the people of God. Hence this festival within the church focuses specifically on the revelation of Christ to the Magi, the wise men of the east, who by national identity were outside the people of God but who were to be joyfully included in Christ’s great mercy and compassion.
But there are other overtones to the Epiphany of our Lord which we have to consider. First is the fact that the Lord’s revelation tends to come a little at a time. Our Old Testament lesson is a prophecy from Isaiah, and Isaiah paints this picture of the revelation of the Lord as being this gradually unfolding process. Sinful mankind, which has been cut off from the glory of God, cannot suddenly receive this glory all at once. We must be prepared; we must be made ready by the work of the Lord in the same way that you would have to very slowly open your eyes in a very dark room if someone were to shine a very bright flashlight on you. One is reminded here of the words of Jesus in the Gospels, towards the end of His life, when He tells His disciples, “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it yet. But when the Holy Spirit comes, He will lead you into all the truth.”
Consider also the book that is very much a companion book to the prophet Isaiah, the book of Exodus, which sounds many of the same themes as Isaiah. When I took Exodus as a class in seminary, the professor walked into class the first day and gave us an assignment: we were to read the whole book, and come up with a very short theme that summed up the message of the entire book. Some of us thought that it was about the rescue of the Hebrews from Egypt, or the victory of the God of Israel over the gods of Egypt, or the giving of the Law, or the prescription for the worship life of Israel, or the close husband-wife relationship between the Lord and His people. The professor listened to all our ideas, and then offered up this: there is one theme that sums up all those different thoughts: the gradual revelation of the Name of the Lord. And he was right. Everything in Exodus can be summed up under that theme. The Lord’s rescue of His people, the offering of the Passover sacrifice, the invitation to Egyptians and people of all other nationalities to join Israel in worship of the One True God, the giving of the Ten Commandments, the giving of the ceremonial system of worship, the care and provision for all of Israel’s needs in the wilderness, all reveal in greater and greater depth Who the Lord is and what He is all about. His love and mercy and compassion and faithfulness and truth and justice and care have been made known.
There is more to Epiphany for us to consider. There are common themes that are present whenever there is an Epiphany, a revealing of the Lord: it comes from a place of darkness and despair; it comes first to the people of God; it comes gradually; and it always ends by being revealed to all the nations.
Consider again the Israelites: they were in a place of deep darkness and hopelessness and despair in their slavery in Egypt; the Word of the Lord came first to them, through Moses; His power and mercy were gradually made known through the ever-increasing plagues, His final rescue of the Israelites, His provision for all of their needs in the wilderness, and His giving of the law and ceremonies of worship; and His revelation was to finally be made known to all the nations around Israel. Forget all that nonsense that Richard Dawkins and his ilk like to peddle about how the God of the Old Testament was a vengeful, genocidal God Who wanted to murder everyone of every other nation besides Israel. The truth is that any person of any nation who wanted to lay down his sword and his false god and join with the people of God in the mercy of God was more than welcome to do so. Consider Rahab the Canaanite harlot who turned in hope to the One True God and was not only counted among the people of God but actually became an ancestor of the Messiah Jesus. That opportunity was available for all the foreigners. That’s where the revelation of the One True God was always to lead – from a place of darkness and despair, to salvation bestowed upon the people of God, to a gradual unfolding of the glory of God, to the offer of salvation to the gentiles. Every single time, that is what Epiphany means.
That’s why Isaiah is such a close companion book with Exodus. Isaiah starts in a very dark place where Israel has abandoned her God and is bearing the consequences under the heavy hand of the Assyrians and the coming destruction of the Babylonians. There is no hope, except for the Epiphany of our Lord, Who speaks His word to Isaiah promising the final rescue of His people from darkness, the gradual unfolding prophecies of the Lord’s goodness and final work of salvation in Jesus Christ, and finally towards the end of Isaiah the spreading of the Lord’s salvation out into all the world. The last 27 chapters of Isaiah hold the sweetest gospel you will find anywhere in the Scriptures, the Gospels included.
And that’s why Isaiah 60 is such a fitting OT passage for Epiphany. It speaks of the glory of the Lord arising out of the deep darkness to shine so bright that not only will Jews come to worship, but gentiles from far away will also come to worship bearing great gifts. The gradual unveiling of the glory of God, found first in an innocent and common-looking baby in a simple manger, then found beneath a great announcement star of glory, then found in the miraculous works performed by the adult Jesus, then found at the end of the season of Epiphany in all His glory at the mount of Transfiguration, and then finally revealing all His mercy and all His salvation upon the cross and out of the empty tomb, this Epiphany would be good news to all men for all will see that unto us a Savior has been born, Who is Christ the Lord.
I cannot over-emphasize or state too often all the aspects of Epiphany that go along with it. It arises out of darkness, it comes first to the people of God, it gradually and slowly reveals itself according to the Lord’s timetable, and it is intended to shine out to people of the world who may not be right now the people of God but who are intended to receive all the mercy of God just the same as you and me.
What kinds of New Year resolutions do we have? Let us resolve first among all other things to be better at shining forth the glory of God to people who have not received and witnessed that glory. And let Epiphany be our guide in how we can do that.
Let us remember that Epiphany starts with darkness. The Lord’s great light shines out of darkness. It does not shine out of our competing light. It shows out of our darkness. There are a multitude of congregations out there who seem to only want to talk about Jesus in terms of how full of light He has made them. You can have your better life now, blah, blah, blah. Jesus has made me good and He can make you good, too. Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men, like this poor sinner over here, but that I do all kinds of wonderful things, blah, blah, blah. NO!
St. Paul said a few things that summed up his whole ministry. He said, “I am the chief of sinners. I boast only in what Jesus has done for me. I preach only Christ, and Him crucified.”
What we say about ourselves should only reflect our own sin and our own darkness, for then the light of Christ can shine brightest when we can say. “Jesus is so full of love and mercy that He even has compassion on ME!” “Do you believe it?” “Christ even loves ME!”
That is Epiphany. When we are honest about just how dark and sinful we are, then Christ can shine bright.
It has been rightly said that the church could learn a thing or two from Alcoholics Anonymous. A.A. is an organization of people who freely associate with each other, but they do so on a different level than most organizations. If you are in a chess club, or a bowling league, or musician’s union, you are part of a group of people who have freely associated with one another based upon a common strength or love. A.A. isn’t like that. A.A. is a group of people who freely associate with one another based entirely upon a common weakness. Alcohol is their kryptonite. That’s why they get together. Smart people, dumb people, rich people, poor people, old people, young people, men and women, honestly good people and bad people all come together because their very lives depend upon their helping each other with their alcoholism. Their common weakness, their common terminal illness, is the only thing they have in common and is just about the only thing they ever talk about.
Is the church that way? Now, to be sure, we are together because we have been called together by the Holy Spirit into the one true church that is founded only upon Jesus Christ. But, on a human level, are we bound together by how good and proper we are? We all need late-model cars and the proper clothes and there are certain sins none of us would ever do and we are all so good? Is that why we freely associate with one another? Do we even freely associate with each other just because we hold a common confession of faith? No, not really, not on a gut level, although that is important and I’m not trying to minimize that. We have been called into the church and we freely associate with each other because of our kryptonite, our darkness, our terminal disease of sin and our yearning for absolution.
We all need to be more honest about that. If we are serious about bearing witness to the world of the mercy of the Lord, we can’t be about telling people about their better life now and how Jesus is the band aid that I stick on everything that makes everything better right now right away and everything is wonderful. They didn’t clean up the Holy Land and Bethlehem before the Magi came to visit. The Magi saw things in all their darkness and messiness and sin and then they worshipped the Light of the World Who is the ONLY Light of World.
We need to hold our boundaries and use decorum and keep our discussions appropriate, but, at some level, when we are talking about our faith with someone, we need to get gut-level honest and say, “There is no good in me. Look at some of the things I’ve done. Look at some of the things I still do. My thoughts and my motives scare me sometimes, because I don’t understand where that garbage comes from. I don’t necessarily feel like I have a better life now. Some days my life seems like it consists of hanging on by my fingernails from the time I get up to the time when I go back to bed. But Christ is my life, Christ is my light, Christ is my Savior, Christ is my hope, Christ is everything in all the world to me and I know that He will never give up on me and He will never, ever let me go. I love Jesus and that’s all I know.”
That is Epiphany. That is the revelation of the mercy of God in the darkness, in the real darkness the way the world knows that there is darkness. We need to be honest like that with each other. Fellowship shouldn’t just be about how bad the Bears are and how cute your grand-kids are. Fellowship should also be about how bad YOU are, how much YOU seem to be struggling, and how much we all need another Christian to put his or her arm around us and tell us that we’re all here together and that Christ will be faithful and gradually reveal Himself to each of us in our darkness.
And we need to be honest like that with the world. Somewhere in the midst of being faithful and decrying same-sex marriage and abortion and trans-gender bathrooms for what they really are, we also need to be honest about our own darkness and make it be known that none of us is any better than anyone else out there no matter what they might be doing or not doing. The only goodness and light in us comes from Jesus, and Epiphany in us is God’s glory being shown in His mercy to us in His only Son Jesus Christ, a Savior given to us sinners who admit who and what we really are to all the world with all honesty and humility. Let that be our New Year resolution.