“The Gentile Christmas” (Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-6)
It is often called “the Gentile Christmas.” I’m talking about Epiphany, of course, the festival we are celebrating today. The Epiphany of Our Lord is one of the major festivals in the church year, one of the biggies. It’s a fixed-date festival, meaning it always falls on a certain date, regardless of the day of the week–like Christmas is always on December 25. Epiphany is always January 6, right after the twelve days of Christmas. So if January 6 happened to be on a Friday or a Tuesday, for example, we’d be having service. But this year, as happens every once in a while, January 6 happens to fall on a Sunday. So we’re here anyway. So today is both a Sunday and a major festival. A double reason to celebrate!
The Epiphany of Our Lord. This festival celebrates that time when the star of Bethlehem led the wise men to the Christ child. This was a significant, breakthrough event. It indicated early on, even in Christ’s infancy, that his coming was not just for the people of Israel, but also for the Gentiles. That is why, as I said earlier, Epiphany is often called “The Gentile Christmas.” I want to explain that now, and show how this is good news for us and for the people around us, who need the light of Christ, the light of the gospel, as much as we do.
First, let me explain what I mean by “the Gentile Christmas.” If Epiphany is “the Gentile Christmas,” then what is Christmas itself? Would that be “the Jewish Christmas”? Well, yes, in a sense. Remember what the angel told the shepherds on Christmas night, the night when Christ was born? He said: “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.” Now that’s all Jewish talk. “For all the people”: Generally when the Bible uses the phrase “the people,” singular, with the definite article–“the people” means the people of Israel, the Jewish people. The birth of Christ is good news of great joy for the Jewish people. “For unto you,” that is, unto you Israelites, “unto you is born this day in the city of David”–notice that the angel says “in the city of David.” He could have just said “in Bethlehem,” but instead he refers to Bethlehem as “the city of David.” That would mean a lot to the Jews, as those shepherds were. For from the hometown of old King David was to come one day the promised Messiah, the great end-time ruler who would bring deliverance and salvation to the people of Israel. And that’s why the Christmas angel says “the Christ,” which means “the Messiah,” “the Anointed One,” the promised, prophesied Savior. So this whole announcement to the shepherds at Christmas is saturated in Jewish thought and expressions. This is why we can say that Christmas is, first of all, a Jewish holiday.
But it doesn’t stop there, that’s the point. The coming of the Jewish Messiah means good news also for us Gentiles, us non-Jews. Remember how last week we heard the song of Simeon in the temple, when he held the 40-day old infant Jesus in his arms and praised God, saying: “For my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” “In the presence of all peoples”–“peoples,” plural, with an “s” on the end. That’s saying that God’s salvation has come now for all the nations, not just Israel. Christ comes as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles,” as well as “for glory to your people Israel.”
You see, that was God’s plan all along. He was going to redeem the whole world, all nations, but he was going to do that through one particular people–the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that is, the people of Israel. The Lord told the patriarch Abraham way back that he was going to bless him and make of him a great nation, and make him a blessing, so that in him, that is, in his seed, all the nations, all the families of the earth, would be blessed. God was planning to do the universal through the specific, through the particular. And so the Messiah of Israel would bring salvation not just to the Jews, but to the Gentiles too.
And that’s why the Epiphany to the wise men is so significant, because those wise men are Gentiles, and they now are coming to the Christ. How do we know that the wise men are Gentiles, that is, non-Jews? Well, the clues are there in our text. First of all, they’re called wise men “from the east,” meaning from the nations to the east of Israel. And when they come to Jerusalem, they ask, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” If they themselves were Jews, they would not have asked the question that way.
What’s more, the star that leads the wise men to the Christ child, and the gifts they bring with which to worship him–gold and frankincense and myrrh–these fulfill prophecy about the Gentiles coming to Israel’s light and bringing with them their treasures. You heard it in the reading today from Isaiah: “And nations shall come to your light,” the prophet tells Israel. “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord.” This Isaiah 60 prophecy is fulfilled right here in the coming of the Gentile wise men, led by the light of the star, and bringing those very gifts.
Now what does all of this mean for us? Well, in the first place, it means good news for us! For we were those Gentiles, those pagan nations, sitting in darkness, as the Isaiah prophecy says. Our ancestors were. They were up in Europe worshiping sacred oak trees and such, raw pagans and barbarians, Visigoths and Vikings and the like, until the light of the gospel came to their lands and our ancestors were converted. Indeed, all people by nature are stuck in the darkness of sin, not knowing the one true God, making up gods of their own creation, going about life groping in the dark, until the light of the truth breaks through.
“For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,” Isaiah says, “and thick darkness the peoples.” That was our situation, according to our fallen sinful nature, before we were baptized and enlightened by the Holy Spirit. And that is the situation of so many in our community today. They are sitting in darkness, ignorant and oblivious to the truth, content to sit in the dark, and they don’t even know it. They don’t know how lost they are. Sometimes the darkness is obvious, at least to us. When people are doing meth, or sleeping with anything that moves, or getting drunk night after night. That is thick darkness. But even more respectable people are sitting in the dark and content to do so. They don’t see any need for repentance or church or that sort of thing. “Why do I need a Savior?” is their attitude. “I’m OK. I’m better than the bad people. If there is a God–oh, I suppose there is, and I believe he must exist. But I’m a pretty good person, so I’ll just go on with my life, and I’ll try not to think too much about death and the hereafter and those things that make my head hurt.”
That is the darkness that is blanketing our community, and it’s pretty thick. This is why Epiphany is such good news! There is light shining in the midst of the darkness! It’s right here, here in this little congregation that is shining like a beacon in the midst of a shrouded, gloomy land. This beacon of light has brought you here this morning, as surely as that star brought 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.” Yes, this is where Christ is, this is where he may be found, this is where he is present to forgive sin and give life. “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” And so do we. We rejoice exceedingly with great joy. What a joy it is to know that here is the one who is our Savior and the Savior of the whole world! “And they fell down and worshiped him.” Likewise, you and I are here to worship the Christ child. For we know that he is the one who has the light of life that disperses the darkness.
Christ scatters the darkness of sin and death. Your sins plunged you into the darkness, and you could find no way out. But Christ came and took all of your sins, your ignorance of God, your rebellion against God, your lostness and your death–and Christ Jesus bore all that burden on his shoulders as he made his way to the cross. The one whom the wise men came seeking–“the one born king of the Jews”–would bear that title again when a placard saying “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” was mockingly placed over his head on the cross. The Messiah of Israel wins the salvation of the world by suffering and dying for all of the world’s sins, including yours. And then on the third day, this same Jesus rises from the dead, bringing life and immorality to light through the gospel, the good news that has been preached now around the world to all the nations. Jesus Christ truly is the light of the world.
But what about the people in our community who are still content to live life in the dark? The people who are not here this morning, who don’t go to church, who are not coming to the light? Is there light still for them? Yes. How will the light reach them? Perhaps through us. Of course, as long as people think the darkness that they’re sitting in is light enough, they are going to feel no need to come into the light. If they want to hide their deeds in the darkness, and fool themselves into thinking God doesn’t know, and there are no consequences to sin, and death is not a problem–well, they will keep on deceiving themselves, I suppose. But at some point, when people bottom out, and they realize their lostness and their guilt, and that they are in need of a light they don’t have, that is when we can bring the light to them–or bring them to the light, either way works. For we–yes, our congregation and our members–we have the one light that will bring life to sinners sitting in the dark. For we have and know and preach and share the life-giving gospel of Christ.
What are some ways this light can reach our friends and relatives and co-workers and neighbors? It can happen through the relationships that you have with the people you know. You can tell them about the hope and the joy you have as a Christian. You can tell them about Christ your Savior. You can invite your friends and family members to join you for church or Bible class. You can introduce people to your pastor, or refer them to him, if they would be willing to talk to a pastor. You can find out if they’d be interested in taking an instruction class in the Christian faith–I’d love to get one started up again. And I want to get to the homes of our members who aren’t here in church, too, who have fallen by the wayside. They need to get back in the light. So in the days ahead let’s think about, and talk about, all the ways we can be light in the midst of the darkness, reflecting the light of Christ in our community and especially to the people we know.
Dear friends, Epiphany is the Gentile Christmas. And the Christmas presents we have to give out are even more precious than gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The gifts God has for those sitting in darkness are light and life, forgiveness and eternal salvation. And they’re all wrapped up in the person of Christ Jesus our Savior. He is the light of the world.