“What’s the Big Deal about Epiphany?” (Matthew 2:1-12)
“What’s the Big Deal about Epiphany?” I mean, what’s so special about this festival that we should have a special service for it, and on a day other than Sunday? In January, no less! In the cold! Really, so what’s the big deal? Why bother having a service on this date?
There are several reasons I could mention. First of all, there is the history of it. The Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord, celebrated on this date, January 6, immediately after the twelve days of Christmas–Epiphany has been a major festival in the church for a very long time. In fact, it’s one of the oldest and longest-standing festivals to be observed in the church. And you don’t just get rid of something like that without first investigating it thoroughly to know what you would be getting rid of and then having a very good reason for doing so. Otherwise, the default mode in the church is to keep the tradition. We should not presume to think that we know better than the centuries of Christians who have gone before us and have kept the Epiphany festival. So there’s that.
Besides, if you still want to kinda sorta keep Epiphany, but you decide to shove it off to a nearby Sunday, because you don’t want the bother of having to come out on a weekday–well, then you lose whatever would have been the readings and the theme for that particular Sunday. For instance, if you had moved Epiphany to this past Sunday, then you would have lost the account of twelve-year-old Jesus at the temple. Or if you move Epiphany to this coming Sunday, then you would lose the Baptism of Our Lord, and you don’t want to do that. So the distinctive observance of Epiphany on its fixed date, January 6, with its distinctive Gospel reading from Matthew 2–namely, the visit of the wise men to the Christ child, which we only get on this day–this is something worth keeping and doing on the day itself.
So the long history of the Epiphany celebration on this date is one reason to keep it. But now I want to focus on three other reasons for why Epiphany became a festival and a hallowed tradition in the first place. And they are these: 1) Epiphany leads us to the Messiah. 2) Epiphany is the Gentile Christmas. And 3) Epiphany is a cause for great joy. So here we go.
First, Epiphany leads us to the Messiah. Just as the prophecies and the star led the wise men to the Messiah, so the annual celebration of Epiphany does the same for us. It leads us to the Messiah, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And there’s nothing better than that.
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?’” “King of the Jews”: That’s a reference to the great king who had been promised to the Jews a thousand years earlier. It’s a reference to the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of David, who would usher in God’s great end-time kingdom of blessing. “Where is he?” the wise men are saying. “We have had a revelation from God, in the form of a star, telling us that he has been born, and now we have come to find him.”
Naturally, the wise men come to Jerusalem, the capital, to the king’s palace, to find out about this newborn king. But guess what? He’s not there. Instead, their search will take them to a small town outside of Jerusalem, to Bethlehem, the hometown of King David, the ancestor of the Messiah. Where was the Christ to be born? In Bethlehem of Judea, in accordance with the words of the prophet, “for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”
Well, there’s already a guy ruling over Israel, Herod, and he is none too pleased to hear about a new king being born who might threaten his power. Herod is greatly disturbed, and he would like to do away with any potential rival. And this is not the last time that people will be upset with this king, this Jesus. In fact, it’s just the start of a whole lot of opposition. One day this Jesus will be accused of posing a threat to Caesar, and under those pretenses he will be crucified. And at that time the Roman governor will place a plaque over his head, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
Yes, this Jesus is a strange king indeed. No glory king he. Indeed, his crown will be a crown of thorns; his throne, a bloody cross. But this is precisely how King Jesus will rule in grace for us. This is how he will do his Messiah job. In humility and in suffering. For you. The blood he sheds, that of the holy Son of God, will be for your redemption, to free you from your bondage to sin and death. To bring you into God’s kingdom of blessing and life, eternal life. This is the Messiah, the life-giving Savior, to whom we are led on this Epiphany Day.
And that leads us to our next reason for celebrating this festival, and that is, Epiphany is the Gentile Christmas. What do I mean by that? Christmas itself, in its origin, was more of a Jewish holiday. Epiphany is more for the Gentiles. Let me explain. Remember when the angel appeared to the shepherds, on the night when Christ was born? The angel announced: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Note: “for all the people.” When the Bible says, in this sort of context, “the people,” singular, it is referring to the people of Israel. In other words, the Jews. The people descended from the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So Christmas was about the birth of the Jewish Messiah, the fulfillment of the promise to “the people,” Israel. Christmas was for the Jews.
But Epiphany is the Gentile Christmas. This is the day the Gentiles get included on the blessing. These wise men from the east were almost surely Gentiles. They were court scholars from off in Babylon or Persia or someplace like that. Pagans, heathen, Gentiles. People who did not know the one true God, the God of Israel. They worshiped false gods, made-up gods, named Marduk or Nabu and the like. But because the people of Israel had been dispersed or taken captive centuries earlier, and landed in places like Babylon and Persia, some of the Babylonians or the Persians, especially the court scholars, would have heard of the prophecies of the Jewish Messiah to come and how he would bring blessing to all the families of the earth. That is likely how the wise men from the east came looking for the one born King of the Jews.
So Epiphany is Christmas for the Gentiles. And that would be us. I don’t think any of us here are of Jewish ancestry, at least not that I’m aware of. No, we are Gentiles, non-Jews. Our ancestors were idol worshipers, off in northern Europe, worshiping stones and trees and stars. But then the light of the gospel reached those lands, and our ancestors were converted, and we today are beneficiaries of that Christian heritage. Another reason to celebrate! Epiphany means that Christ is not only for the Jews, but that, as St. Paul says in Ephesians, “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Yes, Epiphany is about the gospel reaching out to all the nations of the earth, God’s kingdom of grace and blessing being extended! Thank God for this!
And that leads us to our last point: Epiphany is a cause of great joy. Again, for us just as it was for the wise men: “And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” “They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy”: It’s like Matthew is piling up the “joy” words for maximum effect! “They joyed a great joy a whole bunch!”
And so do we! God has not left us out in the dark. No, he has brought us into the light. He has led us to the Christ child. And so we too joy a great joy, a whole bunch. We too get to behold the Savior of the world, our Savior. “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” Dear friends, in our joy and our gratitude, we too bow down and worship Christ and offer him our gifts, however humble they may be.
What a joy it is to be here in God’s house and behold our Lord and Savior! What a joy it is to sing our hymns of worship! For Christ is here, today, offering us his most glorious and gracious of gifts, the gifts of forgiveness, life, and eternal salvation. Come to this altar today and bow down and receive his gifts to you this day, as he gives you his very body and blood for your salvation!
So what’s the big deal about Epiphany? I think we’ve answered that question, if only scratching the surface. First, Epiphany leads us to the Messiah. Second, Epiphany is the Gentile Christmas. And third, Epiphany is a cause for great joy. And those reasons are a pretty big deal. And those, after all, are the reasons that Epiphany became a major festival in the church in the first place.
You know, the worshipers who came to the very first Epiphany service, those wise men from the east–they traveled hundreds and hundreds of miles to go to church, church being wherever Christ Jesus is present for our salvation. Apparently, they thought it was a pretty big deal. And it was. For the King of the Jews, the Savior of the world, had come for them, for far-off Gentiles. God had revealed him to them. It was an Epiphany. And when the wise men saw Christ, they joyed a great joy, a whole bunch. And, if we are wise, so do we.