Epiphany and the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ-
Sunday, January 8, 2023

Epiphany is all about God with us

The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy, Texas 77450
January 8, 2023

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Today we are sort of doing a mashup if you will of readings. Our two readings and psalm are from today’s readings which are for the baptism of Jesus. Our gospel however is from Epiphany in part because we do not have a separate Epiphany service. The story of Epiphany is only in Matthew. Since this is the year of reading Matthew I wanted to spend some time looking at how he tells the story of the birth of Christ.

Luke has a great reversal to start off the Christmas story. It is shepherds, the lowest on the social ladder, to whom the angels appear. They are the first to recognize and spread the word about the newborn king. Luke’s gospel is all about the last and least being the most important. Matthew’s story is all about kings, astrologers, priests, the powerful are the people around which Matthew’s story and his gospel is centered. Yet there is a reversal in Matthew’s gospel as well. It is outsiders from the east, astrologers, wise men, Magi who come in search of the baby born King of the Jews

The Wise men, more correctly called Magi, did not arrive at the stable. They come to the house as stated in the gospel this morning. We also have a hint that this happens some time later because the Song of Simeon in Luke speaks of Jesus being a light to the Gentiles and the Magi are Gentiles. So they are the fulfillment of Simeon’s prophesy, which he makes when Jesus is presented at the temple several days after the birth. Many speculate that it may have been as long as two years after Jesus’ birth before the Magi arrived. We think this because when the Magi leave by another way we hear that Herod kills all the children 2 years old and younger not just new born infants.

What do we know about them? Magi of this importance would not have traveled alone, We do not know that there were 3 of them, we only know there were 3 gifts. They would have had servants etc. accompanying them. Imagine you are Herod and anywhere from three to 12 Magi along with their servants arrive in your court seeking a child born to be King of the Jews. I doubt anybody in the court was aware of this birth because Herod calls ALL the chief priests and scribes to inquire where the child will be born. As often happens in Matthew they quote scripture. Scripture says the child will be born in Bethlehem. Now King of the Jews was Herod’s official title so you can imagine faced with this caravan of Gentiles looking for a new king how upsetting this question might have been to Herod. Yet Jesus is not that kind of king. This is another of the great reversals of the gospel.

The magi, come because they are wise, educated men, who read in the sky that something special has happened in the next country.  They travel to see what great act of God the star signals. They came without any preconceived notions about what they would find other than the star that was the sign of the birth of a leader, probably a king. Regardless of the song we do not know how many kings there were, nor did we know their names until 500 years later when the Venerable Bede the early church historian declares that there were three and their names were Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior. There are many legends regarding the Magi and the details are not really that important.

The three gifts are significant for what they symbolize not that there are three. Gold is offered to a king that is a political leader since it represents wealth and power. Frankincense is used for incense which signified a religious leader. Myrrh is used in ointment for healing which symbolizes a healer. Some legends say that the gifts were brought with the plan that the child would pick one and that would tell them what type of leader they would be. One legend says that Jesus chose all three.

While the Magi are somewhat afterthoughts for us, for Orthodox Christians in the Middle East, especially Iraq and Iran, they are very important. Many of the Eastern religions focus not on Christmas but on Epiphany as the major holiday. Gifts are exchanged on January 6 rather than December 25. However, we can get really hung up on the details and miss the bigger picture. All of the stories we hear speak of the in-breaking of God into our world. An Epiphany is a revelation or in breaking of a deity into the world or a sudden insight into the essential meaning of something often through something commonplace. The birth of Jesus fills that definition very nicely.

The story is not about the kings. We are not called to believe in the three kings or even to believe that they existed at all. The details are not that important! The mystery is what is the point. That God at that moment in time broke into our world with something unique and powerful to change humanity forever.

We are called to believe that God became man in a particular place and in a particular time. God did this incredible act because we could not see what was true about God.  Richard Rohr once wrote, “We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.” The awareness that God is always with us, in all places and in all ways.

The people of the first century thought that they had successfully put God in a box and called it Solomon’s temple. They thought like many people today think that they had this religion thing figured out. They knew what to do and when they did something they shouldn’t they knew how to make things right with God by offering the right ritual of sacrifice.

God always has been and always will be with us, it is our challenge to become aware. That is in part what the incarnation is all about. Emmanuel, God with us is the hymn we sang during Advent. This is what Jesus came to show us in the incarnation. To reconcile God and man, but not by blood sacrifice but by incarnation. However, we need to remember God is with us all the time even today and we just need to pay attention

The only thing that separates us from God, we who seek God, is our awareness in this moment of God’s presence.
All we need to do is open our eyes to see that wherever we are, we’re already standing in God’s presence.[1]
-Br. Nicholas Bartoli SSJE

We all find our own way to the manger, the house or wherever we encounter Jesus and God. The path is not as important as is the journey that gets us to Christ. We also often forget that the Magi left the house and went home by another way and I suspect just like the shepherds told many people about what they had seen. The question today is what will you do when you walk out of this door today as we end the Christmas season? Because if we encounter God in any form and there is not change no transformation, then we really have not been paying attention. So what do you take away from the manger this morning?

I found this poem several years ago and I often end the Christmas season with it.

The Mood of Christmas by Howard Thurman

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock

The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
The feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

Most important I believe that we are called to believe that we can make a difference; that we can do these things, bit by bit, little by little.


[1] From the word of the day from SSJE on January 3, 2018