Homily for Epiphany
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Dear
brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, I love this feast day. I love
Epiphany. Now to be sure, I’ve got a lot of favorites when it comes to feast days. I’m a
liturgical guy, if you haven’t already noticed. So to be honest with you, I am a sucker
for the entire church calendar. But this one day certainly tops the list. And I suppose the
less-liturgically-minded out there might find that kind of unusual. Why not Christmas,
you know? Or why doesn’t Easter top the list, the more well-known of feast days? Or
even Pentecost or Reformation Sunday? To quote our President: “C’mon, man!” Aren’t
those days just as good? And I mean, obviously I love all those feasts too – and I would
probably be lying if I said I loved Epiphany more than Easter or Christmas. But I do
really cherish this feast. And moreover, I feel like it’s the most underrated of holy days.
It just doesn’t get enough appreciation. But maybe you’re wondering why though?
Why Epiphany? What’s your obsession with it, pastor? And what’s your great defense
of this supposedly underappreciated church festival?
Well, dear faithful, I think I love Epiphany so much, and think it as so
undervalued, for two primary reasons. The first of which is actually simple enough: if
you didn’t already know this, Epiphany has another popular name: it has traditionally
been called the Gentile Christmas. And that’s because Epiphany is all about the
manifestation of God in man to the Gentile world in particular. It’s about the revelation
of the good news of salvation for all mankind to all mankind. Which is to say, it’s about
God’s revealing Himself to the Gentiles as well.
And you know, I’m about as Gentile as it gets. My blood is half Anglo-Saxon, a
little bit of Dutch, and the rest is mostly Mestizo-Mayan-Iberian-Conquistador. I’m
exceptionally Gentile, you might say. And so, this feast day above all others is for
people just like me! And looking around here, you can all probably relate, as most of
us—and most Lutherans for that matter—are of Gentile stock, usually of European
ancestry, historically of German or Scandinavian extraction – although of late and
globally, more of African descent. And thus, if it weren’t for the good news of
Epiphany, we might all still be hopelessly lost heathens and pagans like most of our
forefathers. But thanks be to God, Christ also came for us! He came for both Jew and
Gentile. And I feel like Epiphany doesn’t get enough credit among us for being the
primary joyous liturgical celebration of the all-encompassing—even Gentile-
encompassing—nature of our salvation. But it really should. So that’s reason number
The second reason though, it is a little more complicated. But in short, it’s that
Epiphany, when you really get to the heart of the matter, it is all about humility. And by
that, I mean, it’s all about the humility of faith. And that is a topic very near and dear to
my own heart, and my own theological interests and concentrations. It is personal for
me. This is a subject I care an awful lot about – the humility of faith.
You know, we live in a world that prides itself on allegiance to science, to the
experts, to the intellectual authorities, to Enlightenment ideals and the supposed “surety
of human reason.” And yet, this same world fails to realize how all that stuff, every last
thing taken for granted as true and certain in this earthly life, is all based on faith. At
the end of the day, everything is faith. All knowledge is a matter of faith. It really is.
And all reason is grounded in a very primitive faith.
Whatever you believe about the world around you, it is all ultimately taken on faith. It’s
a leap of faith. If nothing else, it is dependent on the faith that you place in your own
five senses, in your mind, in your sanity. To even believe that the sun will rise again
tomorrow, that’s a matter of faith. Maybe faith with apparently good reason behind it –
but still faith nonetheless – faith that your senses and your reason and memory are
reliable, trustworthy. Everything is faith. And yes, even all science. It boils down to a
hypothesis and a theory – that is to say, to faith – to belief.
But so often in our society we completely fail to recognize that unpopular
reality. And so, we instead tend to pit reason and faith against one another, as if reason
has some sort of power or authority apart from belief – apart from being the handmaid
to faith, which is what it used to be in former times. We have forgotten just how
corrupted our reason has become – how reason, too, once fell into sin with Adam and
remains impure and depraved this side of heaven. That being the case, what the world
definitely needs now is a little bit of humility. That is true across the board, but I think
it is foremost true when it comes to the prideful fixation we have with our own human
reason. We treat it like an idol. We absolutely, positively treat our so-called
autonomous, independent human reason like a gross idol.
But as St. Paul assures us in his first letter to the Corinthian church, idols do not
actually exist. They are figments. However, the devil sure does exist, and untruth very
much exists. Remember, the serpent provided Eve with seemingly sound reasons in the
garden, now didn’t he? His words sounded sensible enough to the human ear. And yet,
idols don’t have any real existence of their own. Reason has no existence apart from
serving God or serving Satan. Reason does not exist on its own, apart from aiding
either faith or untruth and lies.
So what we desperately need as a society is the humility to acknowledge the crucial
place of simple faith in every single aspect of life, even when it comes to our
rationality. And most importantly, we need the wisdom of faith. But what exactly does
that mean? What is the “wisdom of faith” and what use does our overly reasonable,
scientific—increasingly secular—society have for it? Well, that’s exactly what I’d like
to touch on in our sermon this morning. And toward that end, let’s take another brief
look at our reading, so that we might get a better idea of what this feast of Epiphany is
all about and how it ties into everything I’ve just said.
So, in our lesson, we hear that sometime after Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem, a
handful of “magi” come from the east to Jerusalem in search of the newborn King of
the Jews. However, the always-malevolent King Herod, of course, he catches word of
this entourage of curious “magi” and, being deeply concerned about the matter, he calls
together a summit of his very best men in order to interpret the many biblical
prophesies and to determine the correct location of the new King’s birth. When the
scribes inform him that the location is indeed Bethlehem, just as Micah had prophesied
long ago, he then schedules a meeting with these curious magi, and playing
nice—which should have been suspicious enough for a crooked figure like Herod—he
inquires about the star that they magi had seen which initially piqued their curiosity in
this new King’s nativity.
He then sends the magi off to Bethlehem with the command that they are to
return to him afterwards with the Child’s exact location so that he, too, might have the
opportunity to visit the newborn ruler and pay Him due homage. That’s what he tells
them, anyhow. So, the magi head off, following the star, and eventually make it to
where Christ and the Holy Family are dwelling.
And upon reaching the home, St. Matthew tells us that the magi are overjoyed at seeing
the regal Child. The text says that they bow down and worship Jesus and offer Him
their three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And finally, having been warned in a
dream not to return to the deceptive King Herod, as he’s really just intent upon killing
Jesus, the true King of the Jews, the magi return to their own land by an altogether
different route, thereby disobeying Herod’s command. So that’s our story in a nutshell.
Now the first thing to address here, friends, is the identity of these “magi.” The
word “magi,” or the singular “magus” from the ancient Greek, it basically means
magician. And you can clearly see the etymological connection between those words,
right? Yet many translations render this word as “wise men,” I think with the
understanding that at that time in history, magicians, or those well-versed in things like
astrology, and dream interpretation, and even ceremonial magic, men trained in these
kinds of skills were very much considered wise men in antiquity—that was more or
less the science back then—and so these wise magicians were those upon whom the
masses depended for their own understanding of the world around them. Put simply,
magicians were the experts in a much earlier age. For instance, think of the use of
Daniel’s skill at interpreting dreams for the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in the
Old Testament—and there are plenty of other similar examples in Scripture as well.
Not that Daniel was a magician – but certainly he was a dream interpretor!
So, suffice to say, these guys were trusted wise magicians. But they were
furthermore, and most importantly for us today, they were Gentile magicians. They did
not hail from the land of the Israelites but from the east. Now we don’t know exactly
where in the east they came from, but we do know they would have been Gentile, likely
pagans from somewhere near modern-day Iran perhaps.
To recap, then, these three wise men—well, here’s the thing: we assume there were
three of them because of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, right? But
really though, the text doesn’t outright say how many there were, it’s just traditionally,
we’ve assumed there were three—so these three wise men, they were foreign pagan
And think about that for just a second, beloved. We also hear that Herod’s
brightest most learned religious scholars, those faithful Hebrew scribes who knew the
Torah so well, we are told that they comprehended the scriptural prophesies and that
they likewise fully realized that the Messiah was going to be born in Bethlehem. They
knew it perfectly well. Yet we don’t hear anything about them attempting to make a
pilgrimage to see the Child. And Herod, for that matter, the accepted, earthly king of
the Jews, not only did he not really intend on paying homage to Jesus, he in fact just
wanted Him dead, as he saw Him as a threat to his worldly power. That’s why he
sought the location of Jesus’ birth. In other words, the main representatives of the
Jewish people in the area, the temporal ruler and the scholars, they didn’t seem to have
much love for the newborn King of the Jews. Our text even suggests that all of
Jerusalem was “troubled” at the prospect, presumably at the idea of the new King’s
arrival. Instead, it was a handful of Gentile pagan magicians from the east who were
eager to worship the neonatal Jewish Messiah. And how all this so obviously
foreshadowed our Lord’s eventual rejection by His own people.
But brothers and sisters, here’s the question worth answering at this point: what
precisely made these pagans wise? I mean, to be fair, they were deemed
knowledgeable, reliable in their age on account of their astrological proficiency and
their mastery of magic. However, why do we still consider them wise today?
What is the wisdom these pagan magicians still represent for the church in the twenty-
first century? What do these ancient Gentiles have to teach us modern Gentiles? What
is the point of their purported wisdom? Well, as I see it, their true wisdom lies plainly
in their faith – in their willingness to humble their own human reason and trust in faith
But what do I mean? Well think about this: as first century astrologers, the magi
had every reason to trust in the stars above. That was kind of their whole thing, their
business. Astrologers believe in the lights of heaven and take their cues from
astronomical occurrences up there. So all that makes sense – it fits their M.O., so to
speak. But why would these pagan magicians and astrologers, why would they be
putting their faith in Jewish prophesies as well? They were led not by the star alone but
also by Jewish prophesy. Yet they themselves were not Jewish. And still they knew the
prophesies though, they knew the scriptures, however foreign they were. And not only
did they know the prophesies, but they also believed them, for whatever untold reason.
And it seems they had more faith in them than the Jewish hierarchy at the time, maybe
even more than the whole of Jerusalem.
But common sense tells us that all their pagan reasoning should have led them to
disregard this seemingly insignificant prophesy about a newborn Jewish king,
especially since, at that time, the Jewish kingdom was not that big of a deal on the
world stage, from the global perspective. And the Jewish people did not dominate the
culture of the empire either, the Romans did. Therefore, pagans were still in power, not
the other way around. So the magi had no clear logical reason to care about these
obscure prophesies concerning a Jewish king. But… these wise men, they did not listen
to their reason, to their own pagan science, now did they?
They ignored all sound reason and all the valid arguments to care less about a faraway
infant Israelite monarch. They did not heed their worldly reason but instead they
blindly followed some exotic prophesy and, of course, that unusual star in the sky.
They followed the star to a little home where they found a peasant Jewish
family, a virgin, her husband, and a newborn, Who was understood by them to be God
in the flesh. We know this for sure because they bowed down and worshiped Him. And
they even offered Him gold, a gift for a king, frankincense—incense—a present for a
priest, and myrrh, an offering for a condemned man or terminal case, that is to say, for
a sacrifice. And it’s this final gift of myrrh, this perfumed oil that was used
ceremonially to anoint dead or dying bodies, it is this gift in particular which suggests
that the magi somehow knew that not only was this Child going to be the King of the
Jews, but that He was moreover going to die a sacrificial death for them.
So again, to recap once more, these pagan magicians from the east followed a
strange star to reach and worship the Jewish baby of an ordinary undistinguished
family, understanding Him to be God made flesh and the King of the Jews, and they
brought Him a present that prefigured and predicted His sacrificial death. Were these
wise men so wise and so prescient that they further foresaw that Christ would later die
on a cross at Calvary? And if so, then how much more remarkable was their faith and
their readiness to humble their reason. These Gentile men accepted not only that God
had become a man, but that He would go on to die for mankind. But why on earth
would a god do that?
Especially for learned magi coming from a pagan world, in their thinking: what
sort of divine being does that? What kind of god takes on human form all in order to
die a gruesome death in a shameful way?
In their heathen society, such a thing was entirely absurd – it was the epitome of
foolishness! That’s not what Mithra, Zeus, Jupiter, or whomever else would do. Not at
all! And certainly, all this contradiction and paradox, unexplainable mystery and
apparent impossibility must have crossed the minds of the wise men at some point
along the way – they were wise, after all. Not terribly unlike the supposed wise men of
our day. And yet, they followed that star anyways, they bowed down and worshipped
anyways, and nevertheless they offered their gifts to that foreign sacrifice of a King.
And then, they listened to the wisdom of a dream, of all things, and ignored Herod’s
explicit command. They refused to let any harm come to the Child. And that is faith,
friends. That’s what faith looks like. Faith clings to a heavenly promise against all
worldly reason, against all odds, against all earthly authority even.
And that’s why those ancient pagan magicians were so wise. It was not so much
a result of their worldly knowledge, but it was because of their faith. They were wise
not on account of their minds, but their hearts. You know, St. Paul tells us in his epistle
to the Hebrews that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things
not yet seen.” These Gentile men, they wanted a real savior, a redeemer, someone to
come and rescue them from sin, death, and meaninglessness. They hoped for salvation,
even among the offspring of a poor family belonging to a people not their own in a
faraway distant land, only identified for them by an evidently random star in the sky.
They hoped for it, and that hope formed their faith. They followed that random
star out of a conviction of something not yet seen but hoped for – hoped for in earnest,
hoped for by eager men, by men who, like all men, suffered under the weight of sin and
the threat of death – men who shared a longing, shared among the chosen Israelites as
well as every pagan society throughout world history, a longing for a true flesh and
blood savior. And because of that hope, because of their faith, we now celebrate
Epiphany, the Gentile Christmas, that feast day when we appreciate with exceedingly
great joy the manifestation of God through the virgin womb not just to the Jew, but to
the Gentile too, for all mankind. And yes, that is true wisdom. The wisdom of faith.
And that, friends, is why I cannot help but love this holy day of Epiphany.
And you know what else, the word epiphany, it just means “manifestation” or
“theophany.” It’s when God reveals Himself to man in some way, shape, or form; for
us Gentiles, in the very flesh of a man named Jesus of Nazareth. And the thing is, this
feast of Epiphany is not solely a celebration during which we look way back in time to
when God once revealed Himself to mankind in Christ Jesus in the first century. It is
also a day when we concentrate on the epiphany still presently before us, right here. For
Christ, He is still being manifested, revealed among us Gentiles today, all these
centuries later. He is still coming to us, disclosed in the Word of God, and enfleshed,
incarnated in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
This morning is the first day of the Epiphany season, but really every Sunday
and every celebration of the Divine Service is an epiphany of sorts, a Little Epiphany,
much like this particular feast day is the Gentile Christmas, or the so-called “Little
Christmas.” Every celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a Little Epiphany for us as
And so, dear flock, in this meal God is still being revealed to you, manifested before
your eyes, epiphanized just for you, each and every time you eat and drink of His true
Body and Blood. You Germans, Swedes, Finns, Danes, Dutch, Scots, French,
Cubans—or Anglo-Saxon/Mestizo-Mayans like myself—of whatever stock you may
be, the King of the Jews, the King of All, of every ethnicity on earth, is manifested
before you in Word and Sacrament, revealed here and now.
And so, in closing and taking our cue from those wise men of old, those foreign
pagan middle-eastern magicians who led the way by following a star and heeding the
wisdom of a dream, of all things; taking our cue from them, let us, too, bow down and
worship our Lord. Let us worship our King… the King of the Jews and the King of the
Gentiles… the King of all creation. Let us bow down and worship, receiving His grace.
And let us prostrate ourselves and offer to Him our gifts and presents of prayer, praise,
and thanksgiving. Let us bow down and worship before this weekly epiphany of our
very own Messiah. And yes, let us be as wise as those men of the past, rather than the
presumed wise men of the present; let us be as wise as those faithful magicians from
the east, those Gentiles of yesteryear. And may we be as wise as all who have preceded
us in the faith, all the saints and martyrs of every generation who once hoped in Christ,
despite and yet in boastful glorification and pride in the sheer shame and foolishness of
His cross – all who’ve paid homage to the true King, born in a manger, enthroned on
the cross at Calvary, and now seated triumphantly at the right hand of the Father in
heaven. In short, let us be wise in our Christian faith.
All that to say, I really do love Epiphany. I love this feast day and this season,
the entire short season of Epiphanytide, and not just because it’s a nice liturgical excuse
to keep my Christmas decorations up for another month until the feast of Candlemas.
No, I love Epiphany for these more profound reasons. And I hope and pray that you do
too. And so, dear friends, my fellow redeemed sinners, of either Jew or Gentile stock,
of any race, whatever you may be, from wherever you may come, with these words,
words of joyful recognition, given this day from the holy evangelist, St. Matthew,
through the inspired Word of God, to us, the church, the Body of Christ, with these
words, shared this cheerful Epiphany, between but a lowly saved sinner and other saved
sinners, toward greater appreciation for the all-encompassing nature of our salvation
and toward a humble and more grateful heart for the Epiphany of our God in man as a
newborn King and the manifestation of His redemption through the cross upon which
that King suffered and died out of immeasurable love for His creation, with these
words, may you now, by the grace of God our Father, by the presence of our Savior and
King in both Word and Sacrament, and by the power of His Holy Spirit, may you be
forever kept in the eternal security of our Lord’s heavenly bosom. In the most holy
name of Jesus. Amen.