*I’ve chosen this week to post in its entirety the Epiphany homily written by Rev. Alan R. Crippen II, rector of Holy Trinity Parish, Diocese of the Living Word, Anglican Church in North America, in Hillsdale Michigan, delivered on Sunday 9 January 2022.
Let the words of my mouth and the mediation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Today is the Feast of Epiphany. It’s one of my favorite feast days in the Christian year. I think that this particular feast day is especially appropriate to mark and celebrate at Holy Trinity Parish, for the meaning of Epiphany is central to the pulse, vision, and mission of this congregation. The word “epiphany” means manifestation or striking appearance. If, for example, you were to say to me, “I’ve had an epiphany.” I would understand you to be telling me that you have experienced a sudden and striking realization about something of significance. Something, probably important, has been made manifest or evident to you in a way that you did not previously understand or comprehend. This is an epiphany.
Today and for the next seven days the Church marks its epiphany, its experience of manifestation, its striking realization of something important. What is our epiphany? It is that Jesus the Christ has been strikingly realized. He has been made real to us. The Immanuel —God in man— has been made manifest.
This realization, this manifestation was foretold of old as our lesson from Isaiah reminds us. Please take another look at that passage as printed in your service bulletin or in the pew Bibles on pg. 619. In this text the Prophet speaks in the voice of God about a new and glorious day that is coming. As you recall, Isaiah predicted the Babylonian captivity of his people as a consequence of their unfaithfulness and rebellion. In this passage, he speaks not only of their restoration to the homeland, but of their glorification in that Promised Land to be the radiant light to this world. At verse one, from their posture of prostrate penitence he commands them to get up. “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” After the defeat, discouragement, depression, despair, and desolation of the captivity, God’s glory, his light, is manifested to his people. A new day is dawning. A new reality has appeared. A new future is in view – a future illuminated by the glory of God.
Verse 2 provides us with an image of how striking the manifestation of God’s glory is to his people. “For behold darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples….” Darkness, of course, is a poetic and prophetic metaphor for evil. Since the fall of humankind, this world has been shrouded with darkness, with sin and death. The people of Israel had a profound and experiential encounter with darkness in captivity, first in Egypt, then again in Babylon. Now the Prophet announces their deliverance at verse 2b: “…but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.”
This darkness, the darkness of sin and evil, recedes with the dawning of God’s glory and the light of his presence. The week before last, Leonor and I saw one of the most beautiful scenes that Hillsdale presents. It was sunrise, and we were driving from the McClay’s house toward the city. Somewhere after the intersection of Moore Road and Carlton road we saw a gorgeous sunrise beaming its yellow-orange spectrum on the College’s Central Hall bell tower. It was magnificent. Picture this image for a moment. Remember perhaps, the last vigil you made in the darkness of the middle of the night to the hospital. Then the sun rises. It lifts your spirits and fills you with hope as its rays gleam on the landscape and surrounding buildings. On this particular morning Central Hall was radiating with a shinning light. Focus on this beautiful local image for a moment. It is a similar image that the Prophet conveys in picturing the Sun rising over ancient Jerusalem filling its streets with morning light and making its clay buildings seem aglow with a brilliant orange hue. It is a beautiful picture of early morning dawn. It is an attractive image that all want to see.
The Prophet writes at verse 3: “And nations come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” In verse 6 we read that these nations and kings bring to Jerusalem —the shining city on the hill— an abundance of wealth and specifically gifts of “gold and frankincense” as tokens of their homage. The glory of God, his light radiated upon his people, dispels the cover of darkness and beams aglow with a beauty that attracts the world to come to Jerusalem to worship God. This is the image of a magnetic missionary people who are so transformed by the presence of God, that the beauty of the light of their own lives as well as of their common life in the holy City attract and compel the nations of the world to come to them. The radiant light of God’s people draws the world to God. This is what the Prophet Isaiah foretold.
Three quarters of a millennia after Isaiah’s prophecy of a new dawning of glorious light in Israel, Matthew the Gospeller tells us the story about “wise men from the east” who, drawn by a starlight shinning in darkness, arrive in Jerusalem on a quest in search of an infant “king of the Jews.”
Who are these wise men? We really don’t know much about them. The Greek word from which the English translators coin “wise men” is magi. In the ancient world magi were astrologers, dream interpreters, futurists, and even magicians. (Magi is the root word for magician.) Tradition dating as far back as Tertullian in the early 3rd Century understands that there were three wise men. He calls them kings. Their number is inferred from the three gifts that they bore of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. If not actual kings, it’s not unreasonable to conjecture that the magi were part of a royal court in Babylon or Persia. In Persia magi were part of a priestly cast of astrologers who would regularly advise rulers by divination as part of their courtly function. Although astrology is condemned in Scripture, in both ancient and modern times it’s not unusual for rulers and their family members to seek the divination and counsel of astrologers. Julius Caesar’s soothsayer and Nancy Reagan’s personal astrologer may come to mind. The idea that the constellation of stars has predictive national and/or international import still has a grip on the human imagination even in our so-called scientific age.
The wise men of Matthew’s Gospel are pagans. Yet even as pagans, they are the heroes of our Scripture lesson. And their star trek continues to capture the imagination of our hearts and minds. This story centers on a star. As star watchers, the wise men are captivated by a celestial phenomenon — the rising of a new star (v.2). The wise men believed that the new star portended the arrival of a new King of the Jews. So they followed his star to the capital city, the City of David, the city of Jewish kings. In Jerusalem they received full attention and welcome as befitting a foreign diplomatic entourage. Just imagine what an onlooker might have seen as a caravan of dignitaries on dromedaries (one-humped camels) arrived in the city. Upon arrival, they requested and received an audience with the King of Judea. This was certainly no ordinary group of eastern traders or tourists.
The text tells us that Herod was king and that he received the wise men. Who was Herod? We know him as Herod the Great, a despotic ruler, appointed by the Senate of Rome to reign as the Empire’s client-king of Judea from 40-4 B.C. He was wealthy, politically astute, loyal to Rome, and a capable state administrator. He rebuilt Jerusalem’s Temple in magnificence and splendor, sparing no public expense; although, he did so at the cost of perpetually high taxes. He was personally ruthless, cruel, and paranoid. He murdered his favorite wife and two of his sons to protect his power. Herod was a tyrant, a usurper who by his character and life mocked the biblical criteria for just government. He made a mockery of kingship, of justice, of mercy, and of peace. Indeed Herod and by extension his regime was part of the darkness that covered the land of Promise.
Yet, piercing this darkness was the brightness of a morning star that heralded a new dawning day — the very star predicted by another pagan from the east more than a thousand years before. The oracle of the mercenary Prophet Balaam records: “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” (Numbers 24:17) Traditionally, this oracle of Balaam had been understood to be messianic, a prediction of the coming Christ, the future king of Israel.
With this background, you can begin to understand the reaction of Herod to the wise men’s question: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (v.2) Herod, the text says, “was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” (v.3) Herod, like all despots and totalitarian governments (then and now) could not tolerate the idea of a rival king. Messianic prophecies or not, Herod, like so many rulers since his time, had his own messianic complex that could not accept the idea of an actual Messiah with superior claims and all the implications for limiting power and ordering justice and peace aright.
Furthermore, the text says that “all Jerusalem” was troubled along with Herod. Herod isn’t the only villain in this story. He has accomplices. They are: “all Jerusalem.” Why would all Jerusalem be troubled? The text doesn’t say, so we are left to surmise. Knowing of Herod’s despotic temperament and paranoia perhaps they lived in fear of any event that would have upset the status quo and the perceived safety and security of their own lives. They may have preferred order (however oppressive) to real peace. They may have been content to appease rather than to be peacemakers. Peacemakers, after all, must engage evil; whereas appeasers only seek to avoid it. Although it’s not “all Jerusalem” that slaughters Bethlehem’s innocent children later in this chapter, it’s their NIMBY (not in my back yard) quietism and pacifism that may have made them complicit in the Herod’s terror and atrocity of infanticide.
Additionally, the religious establishment including “all the chief priests and scribes of the people” (v.4) participated in Herod’s evil. It is they, the Sadducees and Pharisees, the priestly class of the Temple and the legal scholars of the Torah respectively, who were consulted on where the Christ was to be born. And amazingly, they knew the answer. They knew the Scriptures. They knew what the Prophet Micah had foretold, that from Bethlehem “a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” will arise (Micah 5:2). Yet, none of these religious rulers were interested to join the pagan wise men’s quest for the Christ. Indeed, Isaiah was right, darkness covered the earth, and thick darkness the peoples – even God’s people.
Again, we are soberly reminded of St. John’s words, “[Jesus] came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:11)
Yet, in the story the light breaks through the darkness. It was the pagan wise men who followed the natural light of the star and the special revelation of Holy Scripture with eagerness to worship the infant King of the Jews. The star and Micah’s prophecy pointed them to Bethlehem just six miles south of Jerusalem. Rejoicing “exceedingly with great joy” (v.10) they followed the star. In Bethlehem they found an infant, the son of Mary, Jesus, King of the Jews. These men of a foreign royal court knew exactly what to do. They fell down in a posture of homage before the young king. They worshipped the king. “Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The wise men from the east prefigure the pilgrimage and homage of the nations at the end of history as foretold by the prophet Isaiah: “And nations shall come to your light, and Kings to the brightness of your rising… They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord.” (60:3,6b)
It is no accident that the U.S. flag stands behind me, and that the flag of the United Kingdom is posted on the opposite wall. What pray tell do these national symbols mean in our worship space? They represent the reality that we are English speaking Americans who have been drawn to King Jesus to pay homage. They remind us that among the Gentile nations, of which the Prophet Isaiah speaks, are Americans, English, Scots, and Irish who come to the light of Jesus — to the brightness of his rising star. Christ is made manifest to the nations, including our own nation. We worship God as Americans.
The heroes of our Gospel story are the seekers— wise men from the nations. Just as in ancient days there are seekers today. Men and women drawn by the attractiveness of God’s light that pierces the spiritual darkness of our own time. They look for the Christ child, like the wise men of old did, not really fully understanding the significance of who he is or what he has done for them, but yet sensing the beauty and flourishing to what God is calling them. They intuitively know of their duty to render worship, to honor, to give of themselves and of their treasures.
Who are these modern wise men? They are pagans. They are those who are honestly and consciously looking for the glimmers of God’s radiating light in the midst of the darkness that covers this present world. Our world still has its power hungry paranoids like Herod. It still has its apathetic appeasers like all of Jerusalem. It also still has its religious establishment leaders who know better than they do. Yet even so, there is in this world the star of Bethlehem pulsating in the life of Jesus Christ as reflected in those that follow him. Holy Trinity Parish is called to be an epiphany for the modern wise men. It is called to be a beacon of the Christ child. It is called to be a magnetic mission that attracts the seekers of our time. We are called to be the light of the world. So, let your light shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father who is in heaven.
In the name of God Almighty, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.