Epiphany Sunday — Preaching Notes

Year A (January 1, 2017) | REVEAL
by Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser

Order of Worship Preaching Hymns Music Notes Planning Prayers/Resources

I love home improvement shows. From the oldies but goodies like “This Old House” and “Trading Spaces” to current popular shows like “Rehab Addict,” “Love It or List It,” “Flip or Flop,” “Fixer Upper,” and “House Hunters Renovation.” You name it! I love them all.

I think I first heard the word “reveal” used as a noun years ago on the show, “Trading Spaces.” The climax of the show was the reveal, or the tour by the homeowners and the cameras of the finished space after the renovation was completed. Everything that had happened in the show before this moment helped the viewer to anticipate, but not quite envision, the full picture of the finished space.

Epiphany, Theophany, and Baptism of the Lord
by Taylor Burton-Edwards

We expect to hear about and see images of the wise men in association with Epiphany, as well, perhaps, as Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. You might expect to find many such images in paint, sculpture, or living pageants. Some churches may even have statuary depicting them. But there’s one other place the magi show up with significant frequency in churches, East and West, from about the fifth century on: baptismal fonts! [Read more]

So if we want to cop this idea of the “reveal” and apply it to the Christian faith in terms of the person of Jesus Christ, we might point to Epiphany Sunday as the climactic moment of the annual Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle. For even though the story of the magi following the star to pay homage to the child Jesus may not, at first glance, seem like the first moment in which we see the “reveal,” that’s exactly what it is. Why? Because the reveal in this high holy season is not the birth of Jesus. It is the confirmation of his true identity.

In the past, when I have read this Scripture, I have been, at various times, focused on the professions of the magi, or the science of the star, or the purpose of the dream, or Herod’s strange behavior, or the gifts. But this time around, I want to focus on the response of the magi.

From the text, we know that these men from the east observed a star rising in the sky. They knew this star signaled the birth of a king, and not just any king, but specifically the king of the Jews.

I don’t know how they knew this. We can read speculation from scholars and experts on the subject. We can mine the history of astrology. We can explain it as the work of hindsight on the part of the author of Matthew’s Gospel. We can attribute it to science, or prophecy, or eastern religion. But the fact is, we don’t know exactly how they knew. We know only what Matthew tells us: they saw a star rising and they hit the road for Jerusalem, bearing gifts, to pay homage to the newly-born king of the Jews.

The Star in the East
by Taylor Burton-Edwards

The way we understand and teach how the stars participate in the story of the coming of the magi can be either a stumbling block to a skeptical world or a point of revelation and wonder.
[Read more]

Likewise, we don’t know why they made a detour to inform Herod about their actions. All we know is that they did this, and the news frightened not only Herod, but “all of Jerusalem with him,” so that Herod called all of his experts together to gather information on exactly who this child was and what his birth might mean for his empire. And after he had consulted his own experts, he summoned the magi back for a second conversation, presumably so he could compare the information he had received from his own people to the information being provided by these outsiders.

He then told the magi an outright lie. He sent them forth to visit the child with instructions to let him know exactly where the baby was located so that he too could pay homage to the newborn king.

And so the men continued on their way to Bethlehem, following the star to the exact spot where the baby lay. Matthew tells us when they entered the house where Jesus and his family were staying, they were overwhelmed with joy. They knelt before him and presented him with gifts. After the visit, they left for their own country “by another road.” Again, we don’t know why. We can conclude from the story that they took a different route in order to protect the child from Herod, but Matthew doesn’t say that directly. All he says is that they were “warned in a dream” not to return to Herod, and just like Joseph in the story from an earlier chapter, they acted on that dream as if it were real.

So that is all we really know. These are the hints, the clues, the glimpses into the meaning of the visit of the magi from the East. The question is, what is the big reveal offered by way of this story? What picture of completion does it provide for the readers of Matthew’s Gospel? What does it tell us about who Jesus really is?

I think that in the same way the design details in a renovation project ultimately make or break the project, so the powerful verbs in this passage are what make the big reveal in this story: observed, came, pay homage, frighten, search, find, set out, stopped, knelt, offered, warned, left. These strong action words reveal a direct progression from belief and action to confirmation and response.

Although the magi follow a completely different belief system from that of the family of Jesus, or even the people of Herod’s empire, the signs they see through the window of their own religious worldview compel them to respond to the beliefs of this other faith tradition. Not only that, they see in this other religious tradition that in this child the divine is not just present, but powerful. Seeing Jesus for themselves not only confirms that he is indeed the one of whom the prophets spoke, but that the sign they read in the sky had led them to something very real and something very joyful. They experience the divine presence and power personally. And they respond by kneeling down before him; that is, essentially, worshiping him.

What has happened in your life that led to the “big reveal” that Jesus Christ was your Lord and Savior?

How can you help people from other belief systems, especially those who have rejected organized religion in general or the Christian faith in particular, experience a reveal that confirms for them Jesus Christ is Lord?

How can you reveal Jesus to these seekers in the style they prefer, the language they use, and with authentic respect for their present spiritual belief system, no matter what it is?

What signs from the world around you can you point to that reveal the presence and power of Christ at work, and that might lead others to act in response to the beliefs of the Christian faith?

Why is this moment the big “reveal?” What good news does it proclaim?

It is a public acknowledgement by those who are very much outsiders that Jesus is Lord. It is a confirmation that all the earth must bow down to him. It is confirmation that the heavens cooperate to identify him. It is confirmation that religious leaders from other lands not only recognize him as the king of the Jews, but respond to him as a divine presence in the world. It is confirmation that his power frightens those in worldly power. If Jesus can be revealed as Lord to leaders from another religious tradition, then the Lordship of Jesus can be revealed to anyone in the whole world!

What is our response to the good news that Jesus is King?

How have our lives been changed, and how are our lives still being transformed, by the big reveal that Jesus Christ is Lord?

As our series comes to a close, be sure to take a moment to give a preview of the next series, which kicks off a week from today and invite folks to come back. Having recognized in the big reveal that Jesus Christ is Lord, over the next eight weeks, we will begin living into the new reality of his Lordship as we invite others to “Come and See” this man we call our Savior.

This series will be focused on introducing Jesus to people who do not yet know him, or reintroducing him to people who have known him in the past but in recent years have fallen away from their relationship with him. We hope that you will use this series as an evangelistic effort to start the new year. We want you to strongly encourage the members of your congregation to invite someone they know who does not have a church home to “come and see” the Jesus that drew the first disciples to him and to “come and see” what his early ministry was all about! Remember, this is the time in Jesus’ life when all manner of people flocked to hear him teach and experience or witness his healing power.

Make sure that your congregation knows that it is their responsibility as well as yours to share the good news they have come to know in Jesus Christ. Tell them to bring a friend to church, and plan to get your “A-game” on as you prepare preach the amazing good news for the Season after Epiphany!

 

Epiphany, Theophany, and Baptism of the Lord

by Taylor Burton-Edwards

We expect to hear about and see images of the wise men in association with Epiphany, as well, perhaps, as Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. You might expect to find many such images in paint, sculpture, or living pageants. Some churches may even have statuary depicting them.

But there’s one other place the magi show up with significant frequency in churches, East and West, from about the fifth century on: baptismal fonts!

Why magi on baptismal fonts? Because the earliest celebrations of the Feast of Epiphany (or Theophany in the Orthodox churches) celebrated both the birth of Christ and the baptism of Christ. Indeed, part of the purpose of the day was to draw a straight line between Christ’s birth and his baptism, his incarnation and the declaration by the voice from heaven that he is the Son of God. The waters of his birth and the waters of his baptism are one.

In the Eastern Church (Orthodox), the Feast of Theophany also thus includes one other element: The Blessing of the Waters. This is an additional ritual that follows after the main celebration of the Feast of Epiphany at the principal morning service, and is often done outdoors at a nearby stream of water, particularly one that is a source of water for that area. The water is then liberally shared with all around, both by sprinkling the people and encouraging people to take the blessed waters to drink. The idea is the manifestation or appearing of God (Epiphany/Theophany) in Jesus Christ is the definitive sign that God indeed intends to redeem the whole of creation, not just sinful humankind, and pour out mercy and compassion on all. Learn more about the observance of Theophany in the Orthodox Church »

The Star in the East

by Taylor Burton-Edwards

The way we understand and teach how the stars participate in the story of the coming of the magi can be either a stumbling block to a skeptical world or a point of revelation and wonder.

The way this story is often popularly told, the magi see the star in the sky, and then use it to navigate first to Jerusalem and then to the home where Jesus was. The star is often pictured as moving about in the sky (a rather “un-star-like” behavior) like a GPS indicator, and the magi are pictured as following the star where it leads.

We know this isn’t how stars behave, at all. It’s not even how planets (the word planet literally means “wanderer”) behave.

So did the writers of the New Testament, and so did Zoroastrian astrologers at the time.

So rather than continuing to tell this story as if the star were like a GPS indicator, and so making the whole thing seem foolish to modern (or even ancient) ears, be sure to pay closer attention to what the Bible actually says and how that dovetails with ancient astrological understandings, and even with modern science.

What the Bible portrays is that a star signaling the birth of a king in Judea according to then-current astrological understandings had appeared in the night sky. The magi followed the star at this point only in the sense that the star indicated Judea as the location of the birth. They crossed the Arabian desert from somewhere in the East (Baghdad or Tehran?) and went to Jerusalem, the capital of Judea, considering it as the most likely place either to find him or to learn more. Indeed, when they report why and how they’ve come to Jerusalem, they say nothing of “following the star” at all. They tell Herod and others only that they had seen “his star at its rising” (Matthew 2:3) and therefore headed to Jerusalem. They did learn more in Jerusalem, not from the star, but from scribes who related the prophecy of the birth of a messiah (a new David) in Bethlehem (David’s hometown).

Herod, not the star, sent them to Bethlehem. The Greek in Matthew 2:9 could be translated either “the star went ahead of them” or “the star led them.” In the first case, the language is mostly likely astrological. The star was moving relative to the other constellations as they made their journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. In the second case, it means they were still tracking the same star as some sort of point of reference for meaning, if not precise location. 

When they arrived in Bethlehem, they started looking for the child. On one of those evenings, they observed the star “was stationed above where the child was” (2:9). The key phrase here is “where the child was.”

This curious phrase likely doesn’t mean the star was seen directly above any one particular house as opposed to any other house in the small town of Bethlehem. The distances are too great for that precise a reckoning of location from the constellations in the sky to a particular point on earth. And they would have known that.

The far more likely meaning, given that they were astrologers, would have to do with the relative position of the star they had been tracking with respect to the “houses” named in their astrology. So the star they were tracking was, at a particular point, positioned above “where the child was,” i.e. above the “house of the child,” or Scorpio, as we may call that constellation. (See a description of the division of houses in Zoroastrian astrology.) The second meaning points to them seeing the star in this position when they arrived where Jesus was. That they rejoiced greatly to see the star (verse 10) probably indicates the star did not simply “stop” (i.e., stop shining, though that is also a possible translation). The position of the star relative to the constellations when they arrived at the home of Jesus indicated to the magi that what the star and its location were pointing to (a newborn King of Judea) was now directly before them in the physical house they had come to. There, they offered their gifts and their homage to Jesus.
 

Categories: Epiphany, Epiphany, Lectionary, Year A (2016), REVEAL - January 1, 2017, Advent 2016

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