The Epiphany of our Lord
January 4th/5th, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
What are your expectations for the coming year? Have you made New Year’s Resolutions? Do you plan to eat healthier? Exercise more? Go to bed earlier? Maybe you’ve resolved to read more, or to get through a specific book or two by the time 2016 gets here. Maybe there are projects around your house that you’ve been putting off that you finally intend to cross off your list. Maybe you want to get your finances back under control. Have you tried to gaze into the crystal ball in order to figure out what this year holds? What are your expectations for the coming year?
Expectations are funny things. On the one hand, they are an absolutely necessary part of a healthy life. If you don’t learn from past experience you will never mature as a person. If experience has taught you that getting 5 hours of sleep just isn’t enough for you, then you can expect to function at a lower level if you don’t get to bed early enough. If experience has taught you that it takes you 20 minutes to get to work, then you can expect to be late if you leave 10 minutes before you’re supposed to be there. If experience has taught you that a certain person is not trustworthy, then your expectations will shape your behavior toward that person. Expectations factor into our lives every day. Sometimes our expectations are flexible, especially if we haven’t had enough experience to come to a firm conclusion about what we think will happen. Other times our expectations are immovable, especially if we feel like we have been through that situation so many times that we know exactly what will happen. On the one hand, expectations are good and necessary, but there are other times where our expectations blind us to different possible outcomes. There are times when our expectations are flat out wrong, and could in fact prevent us from something good. Just think of a child who has never tasted a specific food and expects to hate it. There’s a chance that the child will end up loving the food, but that child will never know if he or she allows expectation alone to determine whether or not they will even try it.
Expectations. Sometimes they are an asset; other times they are a crutch. I wonder what the wise men were expecting when they set out to follow that star. We sing of them as the three kings of orient, but the Scriptures don’t call them kings. They’re called “magi,” a word which has the same root as our English word “magician.” They were likely astronomers or scholastics of some sort, not kings. If they were kings, Herod would almost certainly have greeted them with a more kingly reception and probably would even have accompanied them to Bethlehem, for Herod was nothing if not politically astute. He would not have insulted visiting royalty by sending them off on an errand for him. Neither does the Bible say that there were actually three of them, only that they brought three gifts. There could have been only two, or there could have been a dozen. We don’t actually know. What we do know is that according to Matthew, magi from the east set out to follow the star. I wonder what they expected to find.
It seems likely that they expected to find something noteworthy; otherwise they would not have made such a great journey. It seem likely that the expected something more impressive than the tiny village of Bethlehem. After all, when they left to follow the star they went first to Jerusalem, the city of the palace, the city of the King. They went to Jerusalem, the city of the Temple and of the High Priest. They went to the capital city, the place where all foreign dignitaries would have gone, the place that was the economic center of the region, the place that had been the center of the Jewish universe for a thousand years. It seems a fair expectation to find the Messiah in such a place. Jerusalem is the city of God, the place of Mount Zion. And yet the Messiah was not there. In fact, the Scriptures seem to indicate that no one there was even aware of the star or the possibility that the Messiah had been born. The city of God was completely oblivious to what God was doing. When the men asked about the one who was born king of the Jews, they were sent to Bethlehem. That would be like someone from a distant land coming to the United States and going to New York or Los Angeles or Washington D.C. to look for the promised child, and being told to seek him in Romeo or Marlette. It defies expectation. Why would one so important as the Christ not be found in a place as significant as Jerusalem? Why would the Messiah be in such a small village as Bethlehem?
But unlike the stubborn child who refuses to try a new food, the Magi were not slaves to their expectation. They heard the Word of God and believed it. The Prophet Micah spoke of Bethlehem in the land of Judah, so the Magi went to Bethlehem, even though it seemed to all appearances to be the least among the rulers of Judah. But that’s what faith does: it hears the Word of God, it trusts the Word of God, and it follows the Word of God, even if that Word leads it places it never expected. That’s what the faith of the Magi did. That’s what your faith does too – it clings to God’s Word and is thereby led to the place where the Christ is for you.
Our world has many expectations about how God should act, about what God should be like, about where God should be found. So often we unwittingly allow these expectations to shape our own. Our world expects God to be fair and just, and so our world cries foul whenever it sees something it considers unjust. But our world’s definition of justice is not the same as our Lord’s. Accepting our world’s idea of justice, we too cry foul and claim to be victims whenever something difficult enters our lives, never allowing for the possibility that there is no such thing as an innocent person before God, for there is no one who is righteous, not even one. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We have sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone, and we deserve the punishment of God both temporally, right here and right now as we walk this earth, and also eternally in the fires of hell. Our world expects God to love according to its definition of love, which basically amounts to nothing more than expecting God to ignore us and allow us to follow our hearts’ desires even as they lead us away from him. We too find it difficult to speak out against sin, and instead opt for silence in the name of tolerance, pretending that the loving action is to coexist as we silently watch loved ones follow paths that lead off the edge of a cliff rather than speaking out for fear that we might hurt their feelings, or worse, that they might point out our own sin. How quickly and easily the world’s expectations of God become our expectations of God.
But the faith of the Magi trusted God’s Word above the expectations of men, and they shortly found themselves in the presence of the Christ. Our Lord’s Word speaks to our faith today, shattering our worldly expectations and giving us Jesus instead. As we celebrate Epiphany today, let us take time to remember what we are celebrating. The word Epiphany has to do with perception or insight, with that moment when the proverbial light bulb turns on over your head and you finally get it. The season of Epiphany in the Christian Church deals with God helping us understand the Christ as he truly is, not simply the Christ of our expectations. If Christmas is the season when God gave the greatest gift ever to the world, Epiphany is the season when he unwraps it for us so that we can see what it is. Our expectations fall away like bows and ribbons and wrapping paper under the Christmas tree, and we see Jesus, the real Jesus. This week we see the child visited by Magi from the east and worshiped as King of the Jews. Next week we see the Lamb of God step into the waters of the Jordan River to fulfill all righteousness, baptized into our sin that we might be baptized into his righteousness, he into our death that we might join him in life. The following week we will see the King of Creation turn water into wine, the first of his signs that will point people to the truth about his identity as the Son of God. Then we will see him transfigured on the top of the mountain, shining with a glory that dims the sun, before finally seeing his fullest revelation of the Father’s love as he climbs back down that mountain and on to the cross to die the death we deserve in order that we might live the life we don’t. That’s Jesus as God’s Word reveals him to us. That’s the Jesus revealed throughout Epiphany.
That’s the real Jesus, the Jesus who continues to come to us today in ways that defy our expectations. He comes to us through his Word, and not just through sitting down and reading the words off the pages of your Bible. When you read his Word in other devotional materials that proclaim the condemnation of God’s Law and the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, those words serve as a vehicle for our Lord to come into your life today. When you sit here and listen to the proclamation of what God has done, when your children or other Christians tell you what God has done, when music or any other means proclaims to you the saving work of God, the Word they proclaim is Jesus coming to you to give you faith and strengthen your faith. He comes to you in his body and blood in the sacrament of this altar to strengthen you in faith toward him and in love for others. It may not meet our expectations of greatness, this simple taste of bread and wine, but it is our Lord for us.
He comes to us in worship as we gather together as the body of Christ. As we kneel together and confess our sin, we hear the voice of other sinners confessing their sin – and we are reminded that we are not alone. As we receive the gift of forgiveness spoken in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are reminded that the sinners around us are forgiven just as we are forgiven, and we set about to live in that forgiveness. Gathered in the name of Jesus, he is here among us in the people around us. He is here in us for the people around us. When the world looks in from the outside it sees merely a gathering of like-minded people. But reality exceeds expectation, for this is the dwelling place of our Lord. He is here through the words we sing as we praise him, encourage each other, and teach each other of his wondrous deeds. This is where and how our Lord comes to us.
Satan would have us doubt. He would have us worship our expectations instead of worshiping our Lord. He would have us stubbornly dig our heels in on the steps of the palaces of the world and demand that the King of the Universe come to us there in ways the world will respect and admire. But that is not the Lord we have. Satan would have us act like a mule and refuse to be brought to Bethlehem, instead remaining defiantly in the Temple courts of Jerusalem demanding that our Lord show himself in the biggest and most recognizable religious buildings and institutions of our time, things that an unbelieving world would acknowledge. But that’s not the Lord we have. We have the one born in the manger of Bethlehem, not the Palace or Temple of Jerusalem. Follow the example of the Magi. Don’t let the deceiver fool you into believing that God only comes to you through grand displays of health or wealth or prosperity. Rather, rejoice in the Lord who is here for you now in his Word, in his Supper, and in his Church, for this is the Jesus that is revealed to us. This is the Jesus who defies the world’s expectations in order that he might give us more than we ever dreamed. This is the Jesus who saves us. This is the real Jesus for you.