Observing the Festival of The Epiphany

January 5, 2014


Knowing the end

[John writes] Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:12-18 ESV)

I had the unusual experience of hearing the truth about this year’s Christmas from two people who broke the usual reserved British etiquette when asked about their Christmas and who didn’t say ‘Fine – thanks’. For two women Christmas was distinctly not just a non-event but a poor and, I might even say, miserable event. Since we were bound by our commercial transactions for a few minutes you either stand there silent when told Christmas was lousy – shut down – or you talk – and I talked – not too prying but wanting to find and wanting them to have something positive. I didn’t ask the original question wanting them to be miserable! But in both cases I was a dismal failure in the ‘hope department’ and the ladies smiled politely as I departed saying that I hoped New Year’s Eve and 2014 would be better. For them Christmas was a day to be forgotten and they were glad it was over. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that there are 12 days of Christmas – the 12th day being Jesus’ epiphany – where we see what exactly is going on with this baby born somewhere squalid and lying in a manger.

Does knowing the end of the story help? Some people read the last page before beginning the novel. Some people read the spoilers before seeing the film. Some stories and films begin with the end and then proceed to tell you how it all happened to get to that end point. It is true that we live life once – this is the first Sunday in January 2014 and we haven’t been here before – but when it comes to living life with meaning and purpose then it can be very much a new moment lived from the perspective of the end.

I don’t think anyone starts a war knowing that they will lose – or engages in business knowing they will be bankrupt – or enters a relationship knowing with 100% certainty that it will break down. Our hoped-for ending provides meaning and purpose and hope to begin and to keep going when times are tough. As I mentioned at Christmas we might pretend to imagine what the first Christmas was like – but we’re doing so because we know how the story ends. We worship Jesus as Lord because he is truly human and truly divine and who has come into our world to rescue us from the powers of sin, death, and the devil by dying on a cross and rising from the dead – and he is alive now.

The Church observes The Epiphany – the revelation of Jesus’ identity because of the Wise Men for two reasons – both of which are seen more clearly at the end – and now. Firstly, that Jesus – the little toddler by that stage – notice that he is living in a house now in Bethlehem – receives strange visitors from the East who offer him gifts suitable for someone who is a prophet, a priest, and a king but who also bow down and worship him. It isn’t hard for us who know the end of this story to put it all together but then you probably have confused parents and troubled officials. This little fellow somehow is the fulfilment of all the Old Testament prophecies of messianic rescue but also more – God is in the midst of his people.

The second thing is that this revelation for us is given to Gentiles, not the people of Israel. Again as people who know history, we know that the issue of nationalities – Jews and Gentiles – was the ‘biggie’ that caused the most conflict in the early church – and here we see that God’s rescue is for all people – a truth we of the 21st century have no problem accepting. We ourselves, by and large, are the fulfilment of this part of God’s plan – that all the world be saved and blessed.

But back in the first century when the early Church was suffering waves of persecution, when there was real concern about Jesus’ apparent ‘lateness’ in returning, when the eyewitness apostles were being executed and time was moving on, then Jesus’ revelation to John – we think probably the last apostle living at the time of this event – as John was on the island of Patmos in worship – is given  to John to write down and encourage the church of every age – that Jesus is in the midst of the church! That’s the single visual message of the text in Revelation – the amazing figure of a man standing among the lampstands, holding seven stars. This visual theology is still a comfort for the Church today – now far more spread out than the region of Turkey to which it was initially addressed. Jesus is among his people – and we sense and see his power – brightness, strength, a message that no one on earth can utter – who has defeated death?! – and he is with his people. See, this Jesus is the end point of a Christian’s life – that’s to whom we’re heading – to God who graciously and wondrously serves and rescues his people.

That is part of the message of The Epiphany! That is who Jesus is! He is not to be feared in terms of terror and hiding – though respectful gulping and a rather shy bowing might ensue – but what is sensed and known and revealed in this Jesus is simply – love! “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 ESV) This is what God reveals to us through Jesus – and it is part of every story of Jesus – his birth, the Magi’s adoration of him, his baptism, his miracles, his teachings, his fights, his struggles, his suffering, his death, and his resurrection and ascension.

For today we ponder the Wise Men who somehow put astrology together to go to Jerusalem looking for a baby King. Herod added the ingredient of God’s Word – from the prophet Micah – and now we find these men worshipping a little boy. This is the Christian experience – we live by faith – trusting God’s Word.  It’s the same for us here at Ascension. Jesus is present among us at each worship service through words, water, bread and wine and because he isn’t seen in his glory we and the world can easily by-pass him – place him on our agendas where we think we want or need him – more some weeks less in other weeks – and forget that it is us who needs him!!! We need his love, his grace, his forgiveness, his guidance, his chastising, his encouragement, his blessing – as he calls us together to be his body and serve those around us in his name.

Christmas can be a tough enough time of it – as can life – if all that there is is all we see and experience. If your life is full of pain and hassle and the future is bleak, Christmas isn’t going to fix that – in fact it often might make things worse. Sin and selfishness trip us all up. Illness, fear, and death can suck the marrow from our bones and filling our bellies with turkey won’t help. Humanity needs an end point – a haven to sail to, a goal to strive for, meaning and purpose for our effort – and if this world provides it, then sadly people are short changed.

But when the focus is on the Baby in a manger or the toddler receiving gifts from Wise Men or stories of his adult life, we discover through his cross and empty grave, something from outside of ourselves – hope – love – not that we generate it by squeezing our eyes tight and concentrating hard but by the light of a star – and by words, water, bread and wine – it is revealed to us – given to us – we see Jesus and the most amazing wonder of all – God is with his people. God is here to serve us. And that is why we live as we do – coming together to worship and serving those around us.



Bible References

  • Revelation 1:12 - 18