A New Epiphany
Good morning! Today we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord in the story of the three wisemen. But at our entrance into the story of the three wisemen, I want to talk first about the story of the three blind men, and one elephant. You see, sermons submitting to the liturgical calendar always have the potential to play out like that great humanistic parable about truth where an elephant stands in a room. I’m reminded of Tim Keller’s take. The story goes that three blind men are asked to give a description of an elephant. The one who gets to the trunk says it’s like a snake. The one who get to the leg says it’s like a tree. The one who gets to the tail says it’s like a broom. And the terrible moral of the story we’re supposed to walk away with is that everyone has their own perspective of the truth. No one has the corner on the market of truth. We are told this by the only person who can really see, the one telling the story. We’re never asked to consider whether his perspective is limited. But if the parable’s main point is correct, it must be. So this parable is terrible in this way. It proves nothing about truth being subjective, and rather shows that the idea that truth is subjective is self-defeating, being promulgated by just another person who thinks he understands, but doesn’t see the whole picture. So why do I bring this parable up? Because there’s a redeeming aspect to this terrible parable. If we focus not on the blindness of the blind men, but on the elephant and its multiple parts, we can see the benefit of approaching the same truth from multiple angles. We just have to be careful not to undercut the objective nature of reality. A better version would have three seeing men approaching the elephant, coming to it from multiple angles and comparing observations. This is more like what we get when approaching Scripture with the understanding that all of the Bible is true and cannot be pitted against itself. And so when we come to the Feast of the Epiphany, we’re left with multiple valid approaches for exploring that one truth. Approaches that acknowledge one another because they acknowledge one Author. I rarely think we can do any of them justice by examining all of them in one short homily, so we must make a choice. And here are our choices: the first, from the prophet Isaiah, we can look at how the New Testament reality is a fulfillment or a grafting into the Old Testament prophecy. This shows that God and his Word are dependable, that he stands over history as it’s Lord, and accomplishes his purposes as he sees fit. We can look at the Gospel reading and explore all of the mysteries of moving stars and astrologer Gentile wisemen. We can enter into the hope and praise that rises out of the psalm and examine the principles and pictures of justice and the goodness of a good king in the psalm. These are all valid points of entry into the significance of the Epiphany event in Matthew. But the one we’ll look at this morning gets straight to the heart of that moment. It interprets the meaning of the Epiphany, the appearance of Christ, for us, and so this morning we’re looking at Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians to hone in on the significance of the revelation of God in his Son Jesus Christ, both for our lives and the world.
In Ephesians, Paul is interested in talking about bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles. Now this is interesting. It’s one of the major cases of “On the one hand / On the other hand” in Christian theology. On the one hand, the Gospel of Jesus’ birth is given first to the Jews, like the Shepherds in Luke 2. And now, this morning, on the other hand, the Gospel is revealed to the Gentiles, such as foreign astrologer wisemen. King Herod had a Gentile heritage. This could have perhaps made him more receptive to a group of gentile star experts coming to visit. It also could have made him more indignant about them coming to visit, not him, but the Jewish messiah. Nonetheless, the wisemen beheld God’s revelation of his Son and this created a picture of the Gentiles bowing down before God’s Jewish messiah. Here Jesus looks like Solomon whose wisdom attracted foreign rulers, the queen from Sheba, one of the places mentioned in the psalm, for example. But as we looked at the undeniable importance of the Jewishness of Jesus last week, Paul and Matthew show that part of the greatness of the Jewish messiah is that he came for the benefit of not only his own people, but for everyone. In Jesus, there is room for fulfilling every facet of the extensive hope of the Jews, but also for the Gentiles. And that’s profound and unique and staggering to comprehend. But Paul tries to help us.
He points first to his own epiphany, the appearance of the light of Christ to him, which ends with a commission in Acts 22:21 “21 And he said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ”” The great appearance of the Jewish Messiah was so great that it was meant not only to be received by the Jews, not only be seen by the Gentiles, but its effect of gracious eternal consequence would be extended to both Jews and Gentiles, reverberating outward and able to eternally change lives everywhere. And Paul was sent to be the vessel of that gracious change, to make an irrigation network of God’s grace in a dry land, not only in Jerusalem, but to the ends of the earth. And what is the content of Paul’s message by the Holy Spirit? Look at Eph 3:6
6 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.
For the three wisemen, the proto-gospel came through examining the stars. For others, the proto-gospel comes through visions and dreams. But the normative and fullest way the grace of God in Jesus is brought to the world is not by simply being nice and unoffensive, but by relaying content. It’s that good news that changes lives. It’s not simply powerful delivery that does it. Powerful and sincere delivery of empty content can’t change a single life. The unsearchable riches of Christ, as Paul says, knowledge of Christ and insight into how He affects everything, from molecules to mountains, to politics and family relationships, that’s how the world changes. Without this understanding, this epiphany of Christ, the strongest leadership skills, or the greatest delivery or tone of voice, or a winning smile can only win people to a human person or a human organization. Without the news, the content of the good news, strong delivery certainly will not win people to Jesus Christ or his Church. Those other things are nice add-ons, but too often the church trusts what Paul calls the super apostles. We buy a car with an amazing paint job and heated seats and a little hamster, in his wheel, for an engine. Paul brought the good news of Jesus Christ with skill and sincerity, with truth and love, to the nations, and so must we. That’s the task. That’s what everything we do here is supposed to be about. We hear every week that this saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance that Christ Jesus came into the world, to make a perfect church service? No. To win in politics? No, actually, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
And he does that through the riches of Jesus Christ brought to a devastated world by imperfect us.
We need to notice Paul’s attitude is one of humility. I refers to himself as a prisoner of Christ Jesus on their behalf. He refers to his message as the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to him. He calls himself a minister, a diakonos, which is usually translated as “servant,” and sometimes “deacon.” The great apostle emphasizes his servanthood and his role as deacon. He refers to himself as “the least of all saints.” But when he refers to the message he was given, when he refers to the gospel, he calls it the “riches of Christ.” He rightly sees it as the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God. Paul sees greatness not in his position or even his mission, but in the content that he is entrusted with to deliver. And he makes it plain so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might be made known.
Knowledge and wisdom is what is imparted by the church, the unpacking of mysteries. Paul hasn’t lost sight of this and neither should we. He delivers the gospel by speaking the truth in love of Jesus Christ not only in actions, but especially in the content of the good news. It is said, attributed without evidence to Francis of Assisi, to preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words. It’s necessary! Use thoughts! Use words! Retell the news we see at Epiphany, at the appearing of Christ to the gentiles: the news that God himself has come into the world. And with Paul, we take it further: Christ Jesus has not only come into the world to silently be near them, but also to save them. And he has made peace with God for them on their behalf, by dying for their sins and making a way for them to be raised to new life. It’s this news that changes our hearts and gives us boldness and access to God with confidence, and not our performance, not our sense of excellence, not the strength of our organization. Those things aren’t bad in and of themselves, but they are not the point of Christ’s appearing.
So let us pray that the Holy Spirit would draw us again and again to the good news of Jesus, in all its facets, from the prophecy of Isaiah, to the narrative of Matthew, to its outworking in Paul’s epistles, so we may be continually changed and renewed and full of the truth, giving it in love, and perhaps Bellingham will see a new epiphany of Jesus Christ, not only in our lives, but in our hearts, in our minds, and, as with Paul, in our words.