The Epiphany of Faith
Text: Matt. 2:1-12
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord, when He was made known to the Gentile magi. These magi were something of a cross between palm readers, astrologers, holistic healers, and magicians. As such, they had access to rare, mysterious, and arcane books. So that means they had studied countless ancient texts, including copies of copies of copies of those foreign Hebrew writings, which we call the Old Testament, that had made its into their neck of the woods centuries before, back when Israel had been conquered and brought their Scriptures with them into exile. But there was something about those writings of theirs—words so strong, so bright, so strange and different from anything else they had read. So they were copied, stored, read, studied. They told of a star rising out of Jacob, out of Israel, that would signal the rise of a great king. And because the magi were basically astrologers they watched the skies. When they finally saw a star so bright that it stood out, so unforeseen that it had to be something strange and wonderful, something out of the usual rotation of the stars, they knew. It was time. They had to make their way to the land of the Hebrews, to Judea, and meet this king that had been foretold.
It’s probably because of the nativity scenes we’ve seen most of our lives that we usually picture the magi bringing their gifts to the infant Christ in the manger. But if the star appeared at His birth, and they had to make preparations for a long overland journey, and they had to travel all the way from their crumbled empire in the east, it would take a long time. As we read in Scripture it was probably about two years between the time that the star arose and the wise men arrived.
And when they arrived in Israel, where was the first place they went? The palace of the king in the capital city, of course. Where else would a future king be born? Who else could it be but the heir of a powerful and noble house? So they went to King Herod’s palace and innocently enough asked to see the one they presumed would be his heir: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” But alas, no heir was there. No one in Herod’s household, not even Herod himself, fit the description of being one who was born King of the Jews. Herod has only been made king as a puppet ruler on behalf of the Roman Empire.
So they consulted the Hebrew writings, the Scriptures, again. The Promised One was to be born in Bethlehem, a small town in Judah. Herod sent them on their way, with plans of murder in his heart to get rid of this rival who had a legitimate claim to the throne, telling them to find the Child for him and then report back. So the magi went on their way, directed by the prophecies of Scripture, when suddenly the star appeared again, leading them directly to the house where they would find the future King.
And when they went in, what did they find? When magi from wealthy lines of mystical overlords are looking for a ruler, they expect to see pomp and splendor. Accounts from the ancient world are full of descriptions of the gold and jewels being heaped upon those who were destined for greatness. Surely one who was born King of the Jews would be found in a similar state. Perhaps He would even be like the gods or half-gods from their own religion. Would this star-pronounced Child glow with otherworldly light? Would he have some glorious form, beautiful to see and easy to worship? As they opened the door of the house, they had all these ideas running through their heads.
Then they saw Him—a simple two-year old child, a toddler, sitting with His mother Mary. He wasn’t glowing. He didn’t have anything unusual about His appearance. He didn’t look like a god or a king or anything that a star would lead them over moor and mountain to see. He just looked like a child.
Yet, they fell down and worshiped Him. They gave Him gifts fit for what they knew Him to be: gold for a king, incense to worship a deity, myrrh to anoint one who would die and rise again. Even though all they could see was a Child with His mother, they knew from the ancient Hebrew Scriptures that this was the One that had been foretold. This was the King of the Jews. This was the God who had come to this mortal plane. They couldn’t see it with their eyes. They could know this only through faith—faith in what had been written, faith in what had been promised.
Jesus makes Himself known through faith. That’s what we celebrate during this new season of Epiphany. He reveals Himself—who He is, what He’s come to do—and He does it with both word and deed. But He doesn’t do it in the way that we would expect. He doesn’t come to check off our lists of what we think God on earth should look or behave like. He’s made known to us, but it’s through faith, the same way He was made known to the Gentile magi, the same way He would be made known to His disciples, the same way He has been known since the beginning.
When God enters your life, when He breaks into your world, what do you expect to see? Splendor and majesty? The defeat of all that bothers you? The path forward paved easy and smooth? Do you expect Him to look and act like other kings, with glittering pomp and show? Do you expect Him to be the God you had pictured in your mind—a kindly old man in heaven who’s just too sweet to ever say no? Or a vengeful judge who’s just waiting for a reason to smite and destroy? Or maybe a divine clockmaker who stays out of the everyday happenings of His own creation? When you stand alongside the magi and push open to the door of the house to see Him, what are you expecting will be there for you to worship?
I suspect that, like the magi, you’ll expect your God to be something that fits with your own imagination, your own likings, your own expectations, and your own preferences and desires. But because you are mortal, it won’t be perfectly accurate, no matter what you picture Him to be. Even if you’ve read and studied, like the magi, you’ll still go straight to the king’s palace, you’ll still expect things to line up with how you think it should be.
But here, this Epiphany, I invite you to see Jesus make Himself known. And He does that only through faith. When your God enters your world, your life, it won’t always be in the ways you expect or in the ways you think He should. He’ll enter lowly and hidden—hidden in water, hidden in bread and wine, hidden in the ancient writings of Scripture, hidden in words of promise. He won’t be like other kings, slaying His enemies, making everything easy and smooth for His favorites, showing nothing but victory and power and might. He’ll do His greatest work by dying—dying for His enemies, for those who have run away from Him, who run away from Him constantly still. He’ll work by forgiving—not measuring out an eye for an eye or a pound of flesh for sins. He won’t give you the silent treatment for any slights against Him. That’s not His delight. That’s not why He came.
He came to be known by faith—not by sight, not by expectation, not by the demands of our petty natures and fallen flesh. So look for Him meek and humble, as the toddler who sits on His mother Mary’s lap. Look for Him in the places He’s promised to be—in forgiveness, in grace, in mercy. And if you’re still having trouble finding Him, if you get sidetracked and end up returning to the places you thought He should be, then go back with the magi to those ancient writings, and have the Scriptures make Him known to you again. See Him as the One who is born King of the Jews, who won’t be crowned until thorns are pressed into His head as He dies humble on the throne of the cross. See Him as the God who walks among us, worshiped and mocked, believed and doubted, by those He came to save. See Him as the One anointed to die and rise again, to put an end to sin and death, and to bring new life and crystal-clear light to those who once sat in darkness.
The star of our Lord Jesus is shining upon you. It’s given you the light of faith to follow and see your Savior, your King, your God. See Him now—not as you would have Him, not as you would expect Him—but only as He is: God and man; the Lord of heaven who needs His mother to feed Him lunch; the Word made flesh who created all things, who sleeps under the watchful eye of Joseph. See Him for who He is—the One who is born King to save His people by humbling Himself and dying for them. In the name of Jesus, who makes Himself known to us in faith, Amen.