Beloved saints in Christ:
Today we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord. Epiphany always falls on January 6, and it officially begins the season of Epiphany, which lasts until Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent. It is a major Festival of our Lord, and commemorates the visit of the Magi who came from the East to worship the One who had been born King of the Jews. In some ways it is an extension of the Christmas Season. The miracle of the Word made flesh is still fresh in our minds. In the manger at Bethlehem, Christ our Lord is born to Mary and is adored by angels and shepherds as Immanuel, God with us.
On Epiphany, the adoration of the Son of God continues as foreigners from the East worship Jesus as God. Bearing gifts fit for a king, the Magi teach us an important lesson: that God’s gift of salvation in Jesus Christ is for all people. He has come to be the savior not just of the Jews, but also of the Gentiles, indeed, of all nations!
St. Paul alludes to this in his Epistle to the Church in Ephesus when he writes: “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:4-6).
One of the first major controversies and struggles in the early Church was that Jewish converts to Christianity tended to treat Gentiles as “second class citizens.” Many of the Jesus’ parables directly address this situation. The Jews had Moses, the Law, the Promises, and all of the privileges of being God’s chosen people. The Gentiles had none of this. They were “far off,” from God, but now, through Christ they had been “brought near” to Him through the Gospel.
Not all Jews readily accepted this. Even Peter, chief of all the apostles, had to be corrected by Paul when he refused to eat with the Gentiles in mixed company. Like it or not, the fact is that now, through Christ, Gentiles are fellow heirs, not “second class citizens.” This is main point of Paul’s words. And this truth which was hidden has now been made known, “Epiphanied” you might say, to the holy apostles by the Spirit of Christ.
Although Matthew’s Gospel was probably written for Jewish Christians, it is evident that Matthew wanted this point to come in loud and clear. In his list of the generations of Jesus Christ, Matthew quite intentionally includes Rahab, the Prostitute who helped the spies in Jericho, and Ruth, who was not Jewish by birth, but married Boaz. Even Abraham himself was no natural-born Israelite, but was from Ur of the Chaldeans. The nasty little secret that many Jews either chose to ignore or wanted to keep secret was that the door of salvation had always been open to the Gentiles through the Promise. By including the story of the Magi in his Gospel, Matthew leaves no doubt in the minds of his readers that Christ’s humble birth was for the benefit of all.
But what does all this have to do with you? What significance does the Visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, or the fact that the Gentiles are now fellow heirs through Christ have for a father trying to make a living for his family, or a stay-at-home mom struggling to find even an ounce of time for herself, or a senior citizen who deals day in and day out with health issues? What significance does Epiphany hold for a married couple who is struggling to keep their marriage together?
For starters, it means that through Christ Jesus you have full and free access to God and all the privileges that come along with that. Paul says so himself: “In Christ, we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.” Though your sins made you strangers to God, and enemies of His, now through Jesus the way of access has been opened up to you again. Like the Magi who came from far away to see the Christ, so now through faith in the Child born to Mary you have been brought near to God. No longer strangers, no longer foreigners, you are his friends. “God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself.”
This is no small thing. Such knowledge brought comfort to St. Paul who was in chains for the sake of Christ. Such knowledge surely brought peace and comfort to John the Baptist as he sat staring at the four walls of a prison cell.
Such knowledge brought peace and joy to the apostles as they faced imprisonment, stoning, death, mockery and mistreatment, for they knew that there was nothing that could separate them from the love of God that was in Christ Jesus their Lord. Is it any different for you? Have you not also been brought near to Him? Indeed, you have. For you are baptized. Your old self with all of its sinful desires has been crucified with Christ, and you are children of the same heavenly Father.
No matter what your station in life is, you are certainly not second-class citizens in the Kingdom of Heaven, but royal sons and daughters of the King. In this world you may be flipping burgers, or cleaning snot off the walls of your house, or some other glamorous occupation. You may be a doormat for your spouse to walk on. You may be mistreated and mocked and despised. But in the eyes of God you are precious. You are as precious to Him as His only-begotten Son. With all of your warts, your failures, your inadequacies, your shattered hopes and your unrealized dreams, God is with you in His Son.
That is not all. The Magi found Christ by following a bright shining star. This star led them first to Jerusalem where they heard from the teachers of the Law and then to Bethlehem, where they found the infant Jesus. And what joy they must have felt when they saw him! The star did not lead them on a wild goose chase. The Scriptures did not lie.
Such is our joy as well, when we find Christ not in Bethlehem, but in the holy Sacrament of the Altar. Oh what joy there is to draw near to Christ in His Holy Supper, and to receive the forgiveness of our sins! What a joy it is to receive into our mouths the flesh and blood of God’s Incarnate Son! Here the weary and burdened, the troubled and afflicted come and find rest for their souls. Many people travel to the Holy Land every year to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to see where Jesus was born, and most of them come back saying that they feel closer to Jesus because of it.
The only pilgrimage that will bring you to Jesus today is the one that you take every time you approach this holy altar. In the Sacrament we take our own pilgrimage to Bethlehem, to the manger, indeed, to the cross and the empty tomb for that is where Jesus is for us. To paraphrase Luther, if now I seek the forgiveness of your sins, and a clear conscience, I do not run to Bethlehem, for I will not find it there. But I will find in the sacrament or gospel the word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives to me that forgiveness which was won on the cross.
The Sacrament is for us what the Star was for the wise men. It says: “Look here, in this bread and this wine, for Christ said: this is my body, given for you; this cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” No need to spend thousands of dollars on traveling to Bethlehem to get closer to Christ. No need to risk life and limb; we need look only as far as this Church, which is truly Bethlehem: the “House of Bread.” Here it is always Christmas, for the Word who was made flesh for our salvation continues to dwell in the manger of our souls.
So be of good cheer, you mothers of children, you fathers and husbands, you widows and widowers, you who labor and are heavy-laden, you who are worn out from the daily grind: draw near to Christ, and so find rest. Amen.