Today is the Sunday in the church calendar that we celebrate the Feast or Festival of Epiphany. The feast started in the Eastern church in honour of the baptism of Jesus and was introduced in the western church in the fourth century. It then came to be associated with the visit of the Magi, the wise men who came to worship the infant Jesus.
The word ‘Epiphany’ means revelation, enlightenment or awakening. Sometimes we talk about an ‘epiphany moment’, when suddenly a mystery or puzzle that was hidden from us is made plain and clear to see. Let me try to explain; in these pictures, what do you see? (Only two are represented here)
There are two possibilities in each one. The moment you see the ‘other’ possibility is an ‘oh yes’ moment because what was hidden becomes clear. There is a picture hidden in these pictures and yet they are both in plain sight.
There is something hidden and yet in plain sight in the gospel reading this morning. This story is so familiar to us and yet we can struggle to focus on the most important thing – the mystery revealed to us in the story. So, what’s the mystery?
Let’s start with the Magi. Maybe the mystery is the Magi. We think they were astrologers or magicians because they were used to reading the stars and to interpreting dreams. They were probably from Persia, but no one really knows. We’re not even sure how many there were or whether they travelled alone and whether they really did ride on camels. We call them wise men, but there might have been women among them too. Sometimes we describe them as kings and we even give them names - Melchior, Balthasar and Caspar. The fact is, Matthew doesn’t tell us any of these details. We assume there are three of them because they bring 3 gifts with them, gold, frankincense and myrrh. We do know they were foreigners, gentiles travelling from the east to find the king of the Jews. They are very mysterious, but they are not the mystery.
Maybe the mystery in the story is something to do with the behaviour of the teachers of the law and chief priests of Jerusalem. Now these really were wise men. Matthew tells us that Herod called them together. If anyone knew where the king of the Jews was, it would be them. They knew the Scriptures like the backs of their hands and used them to tell Herod where the Messiah would be – in Bethlehem in Judea. No mystery here then, except, it’s strange … why didn’t they go to Bethlehem? Why wasn’t His birth already on their radar? Why weren’t they following the star? Why didn’t they seek out the Messiah? But maybe Herod didn’t tell them the whole story, after all, he secretly met with the Magi to find out the details about the star. Mysterious yes, but they are not the mystery.
So that brings us to the star, maybe the star is the mystery. The star must be important – it’s mentioned 4 times in Matthew’s account! There has been so much speculation about this star. Could it have been Halley’s comet? A supernova? Or the result of some planetary conjunction? We will be singing about it later - it was the guiding star, the ‘star of wonder, star of night … westward leading …’. The Magi saw it and followed it. Herod quizzed them and wanted to know the exact time it appeared to them and then the star guided them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Mysterious happenings in the night sky, but not the mystery.
So, the Magi, the chief priests, the star are not the mystery, but they do tell us something about it. They do reveal the mystery to us - point to it – show us what’s hidden and yet in plain sight. Such mysterious happenings, so much tooing and froing, so many people and places in this story, and in the midst of this busy-ness, in the midst of these mysterious and wondrous events, the star reveals something of cosmic importance. As it stops over a house the Magi are overjoyed. Inside the house is a mother, Mary, and the child. A vulnerable infant. Not in a palace. Not with a kingly entourage, but just there, in that house with His mother. Everything happening around this child points to who he is. The Epiphany moment; the mystery is revealed – the mystery is this child, Jesus. The Epiphany, the revelation, is God on earth. The child is both human and divine, God’s glory is revealed on earth in his Son.
The Magi know it; they understand. They journey from afar and God reveals to these foreigners who this child is and the first thing they do is bow down and worship him. This child is the long awaited Messiah promised in Hebrew Scripture, but he is sent for Gentiles too. In this child, God’s glory is revealed to everyone.
No one, whether they be Magi from the east, tax collectors or fisherman disciples, us in church this morning, those fighting in Southern Sudan, those in Camberley who know nothing about Jesus, no one is outside the reach of Christ’s saving embrace. In that house, on that night, the Christ child is revealed as being for all people. And this message, this vision, goes back with the Magi to their own country. They return home by a different route; such an experience must have transformed them. I wonder what happened when they got home? What did they say to their loved ones? Who did they tell – their friends, family, people in the street, merchants, other star gazers? I wonder if their faces lit up with excitement and joy as they remembered the joy they felt when the star stopped and they saw the child? I wonder how they revealed to others the mystery of the Christ child?
Jesus is saviour for all humankind. We need to catch that vision too. Our own ‘Epiphany moment’, when we became aware of Christ’s saving embrace, of God’s love for us, may have been a dramatic experience, a sudden revelation or awakening. Or, it may have been more gradual as the hidden slowly came into plain sight over a period of time. Maybe you can’t remember when that was – sometime in your childhood, you became aware of God’s mercy, or the love of Jesus. Either way, it doesn’t stop there. We are called to share that moment, to ‘return home with the good news’; what began with the Magi, continues with us.
So, when we ‘go home’ – return to our everyday activities in the coming week – who will we tell about our Epiphany moments? Our friends? Family? School mates? Neighbours? How will we describe our Epiphany experience? And will our faces light up with joy and excitement as we tell them? This week, let’s catch the vision, let’s go out into the world and be ready to share the mystery, to reveal what’s hidden in plain sight, to share His story by telling our story.
1. What surprises you about Matthew’s account of the visit from the Magi?
2. How can we as a church ‘catch the vision’? See also Ephesians 3:6.
3. Consider the questions in the last paragraph.
4. How does Paul use his ‘Epiphany moment’ to share the Good News? See Eph 3:1-12
The pictures: – the first is a native indian and an eskimo looking in a cave; the second is a woman and also a man playing a saxophone standing sideways on; the third is a young woman and an old woman.