“What Epiphany Tells Us about Worship” (Matthew 2:1-12)
The Festival of the Epiphany of Our Lord always falls on January 6, regardless of the day of the week. In that respect, it’s like Christmas, which always falls on December 25. Both are what are called “fixed-date festivals.” And so right after the twelve days of Christmas comes Epiphany. This year Epiphany, January 6, falls on a Saturday, and that’s why we’re here today.
Epiphany has long been part of the church’s worship. In the early church, Epiphany was observed perhaps even more than Christmas. This was because, while at Christmas Christ was revealed to the Jews, at Epiphany Christ was revealed to the Gentiles, and the church rapidly included more Gentiles than Jews. At Christmas, remember, the angels said to the shepherds, who were Jews, “I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people,” meaning, the Jewish people. But at Epiphany, that good news of great joy was extended to the Gentiles, to non-Jews–in this case, to the wise men, the Magi. And so Epiphany is often referred to as the “Gentile Christmas,” when Christ was first made known to the nations outside of Israel.
How do we know that the wise men were Gentiles? There are several indications. For one thing, they’re called “wise men from the east.” “The east” probably means Persia or Babylon, where royal courts included such educated men who studied the stars and science and the lore of other cultures and other fields of learning.
For another thing, the Magi ask, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” By asking the question in this way, they indicate that they themselves are not Jews. So how would these Gentiles have known about a coming “king of the Jews”? Most likely from Jews who had been scattered throughout the Middle East. For example, centuries earlier Daniel had been taken into captivity in Babylon and had even served in the royal court there, working with the Babylonian wise men. Daniel and other dispersed Jews could have told those Gentiles about the coming Messiah who would bring salvation to all the nations.
Then also, the manifestation of the Christ to the Magi fits well with the prophecies of God’s salvation coming to the Gentiles. As we heard in Isaiah, the light that God gives to Israel would attract worshipers from other nations: “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light. . . . They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.”
So Epiphany means that Gentiles get to join in the worship of the true God. And we are Gentiles. Our ancestors were those peoples sitting in darkness, until the light of the gospel reached them. Our forefathers–in Germany or Sweden or Britain or Ireland–worshiped trees and stars and false gods. They had no knowledge that the God who created them also loved them and forgave their sins by sending a Savior. But through the spread of the gospel, through missions, our people received that faith. As St. Paul writes, “The Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
The first thing then that Epiphany tells us about worship is that the gospel of Christ turns Gentiles into worshipers of the one true God. In response to the gospel, we Gentile outsiders come into the household of God and know him and worship him–as insiders.
The second thing that Epiphany tells us about worship is that it is Christ-centered. The star that the Magi had seen “went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.” “They saw the child . . . and they fell down and worshiped him.” The star stopped where the Christ Child was. And where Christ is, worship happens. For us now, the church is the place where Christ is, where he has promised to be present. Here in his church, Christ is present in the midst of his people. In the Word and Sacraments, our Lord Jesus Christ is present with us and for us, gifting us with his forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Worship is Christ-centered. That’s why the church’s worship life is tied to the life of Christ. The structure of the church year reflects this fact. The year begins with Advent, a time of waiting in hope for the coming Messiah. At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Christ. In the Epiphany season, Christ manifests his glory to us, as today we follow the star to Bethlehem and in the weeks to come we will follow our Lord from his Baptism to his Transfiguration. During Lent, we go with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem. Holy Week: Christ’s Passion, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Christ’s suffering and death for our forgiveness. Then Easter, the Resurrection of Our Lord, which means life forever for the baptized. Forty days later, the Ascension of Our Lord to the right hand of God, where he now rules all things for the sake of his church. At Pentecost, the ascended Lord pours out the Spirit to work during the time of the church. And finally, the church year ends as we look forward to Christ’s return.
So the church year keeps us close to our Lord. For our life is now hidden with Christ in God. Indeed, Christ is our life. Therefore worship must be, and delights to be, Christ-centered. Like the wise men, “we have come to worship him”–namely, Christ Jesus our Lord.
The third thing Epiphany tells us about worship is that it is joyous. When the Magi saw the star, it says, “They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Matthew could have just written, “They rejoiced.” He could have emphasized it by saying, “They rejoiced with joy.” He could have added to that and said, “They rejoiced with great joy.” But Matthew pulls out all the stops and writes: “They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” He really piles up the words to describe their joy in seeing the Savior! Worship, Epiphany worship, is exceedingly joyous.
Do you enjoy worship? Sometimes we lose our joy because we see worship as something we have to do, as a burden, an imposition, something that interferes with what we would rather be doing. But if that’s your attitude, maybe a different way of thinking is in order. Instead of thinking, “Do I have to go to church?” a better way to look at it is this: “You mean I get to go to church? Wow, that’s great!” To be where Christ is, where he is giving out his gifts–what better place on earth could there be? To receive his forgiveness for my sins, to receive his life and Spirit for my life in the world, to be given a sure hope to hold on to, the hope of the resurrection and eternal life–you can’t get that anywhere else! To be built up in the faith, to be part of God’s family, his people–think about it, that’s wonderful! What a joy it is for us to come here and worship the Lord! We can say with the psalmist, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” “We have come to worship him”–joyously!
So far we have mentioned three things that Epiphany tells us about worship: One, Epiphany turns Gentile non-worshipers into worshipers. Two, Epiphany worship is Christ-centered. Three, Epiphany worship is joyous. Now the fourth thing Epiphany tells us about worship is that it is sacrificial. We express our joy by giving of ourselves. The wise men gave gifts to Christ in worship: “Opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” These were costly gifts, gifts appropriate for one who was the Savior-King. The Magi expressed their adoration, their worship, their thankfulness and joy, by giving sacrificially.
And so do we. Our worship is sacrificial. We give of ourselves–our time, our talents, and our treasures–in our total worship life as Christians. We set aside time to come to church and gather for worship. We give of our talents–whether by singing in the choir or just singing the hymns as part of the worshiping congregation, whether by serving as an usher or in the altar guild, whether by serving as a congregational officer or in your daily life in acts of love and service–these are all ways to use our talents in the worship of God. We give of our time, we give of our talents, and we give of our treasures. Our offerings are expressions of worship as much as are the singing of hymns. That check or dollar bill you put in the offering plate is a foldable expression of who you are. It represents the time and work that went into getting it. And in your giving, you’re supporting the ministry of the gospel in this place.
So our worship is sacrificial. Not of course that our sacrifice could merit or earn our acceptance before God. No, only Christ’s sacrifice does that. Our love for God is a response to his love for us, to his free gift of salvation. Even so, God does graciously receive our worship as an acceptable sacrifice for Christ’s sake. “We have come to worship him”–sacrificially.
Let me underscore that point about the only sacrifice that makes any of our worship possible. The only sacrifice that enables us to come before God is the sacrifice that Christ made for us on the cross. The one “born king of the Jews” grew up to have that title, “King of the Jews,” placed over him on a cross of shame. There Christ Jesus, the wholly innocent one, bore your sins and mine, so that we sinners, now forgiven, can come into God’s presence without being struck down. Christ is the great High Priest who offered the one all-availing sacrifice for sin, by his own most holy blood.
Without Christ there is no worship. Without Christ, without his death and resurrection, we would still be in the dark, not knowing God. But the good news is, Christ has done all this for us and made us righteous before God, and through him our worship is acceptable to God. This good news, this gospel, is the star that leads us to Christ. And when we see him, our Savior and King, we too fall down and worship him.
Today the Epiphany has told us several things about worship. First, Epiphany turns Gentile non-worshipers into worshipers. God shines his light on us, and we are no longer in the dark. Secondly, Epiphany worship is Christ-centered, marked by the presence of Christ and tied to the life of Christ, who is our life. Third, Epiphany worship is joyous–exceedingly joyous–a privilege and a pleasure. Fourth, Epiphany worship is sacrificial, a giving of ourselves. But our sacrificial worship is simply a response to the only real sacrifice that counts before God, and that is, Christ Jesus, the Son of God, giving himself for us.
This is the Epiphany of Our Lord, and it tells us so much! And so today, dear friends, like the wise men being led to Jesus, we too “have come to worship him.”