The Epiphany of Our Lord
January 6, 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Joyous light of glory:
of the immortal Father;
heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ.
We have come to the setting of the sun,
and we look to the evening light.
We sing to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
You are worthy of being praised with pure voices forever.
O Son of God, O Giver of life:
the universe proclaims Your glory.
This is an ancient hymn called the Phos Hilarion, which means Joyous Light. The Phos Hilarion is one of the oldest Christian hymns, dating back to the time that the Nicene Creed was written. It’s an ancient evening hymn, sung at the candle lighting at vespers; a hymn paraphrase can be found in hymn #101. The hymn extols the Light of Christ, who endures even when earthly lights fade.
The prophet Isaiah writes, Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the LORD’s glory is shining on you (v1 AAT). This Light is not the stream of those mysterious quantum packets of energy emitted by atomic particles, but the glory of the Lord. Glory is a word that means revelation, or to make known. This Light is how God makes Himself known, like a light illuminating what’s hidden in the corner shadows. This joyous Light of glory, of the eternal Father is the heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ.
In Him was life, and that life was the light of men, writes St. John (Jn 1:4). Light does a dead man no good. So Isaiah prophesies this this light is the light of the living. Arise! Shine! For your Light has come.
Darkness still covers the earth and thick darkness covers the peoples, but the LORD will rise over you, and His glory will appear over you (v 2). Darkness is wherever the Light is not. The Light is not welcome in every corner of the world. People shrink back from its brilliance, they hide themselves from overexposure. Light has come into the world, St. John writes, but men loved the darkness instead of the Light, for their works were evil. All who work evil hate the Light and do not come toward the Light, so that their works would not be exposed (Jn 3:19-20).
Now that Christ has come into the world, He has revealed the absolute powerlessness of man to stand before God. Darkness doesn’t just cover the immoral, the wicked, the corrupt, and the depraved. It covers all people. Hidden deep within the dark recesses of our hearts are the seeds of all manner of shame and vice—carousing and drunkenness, sexual immorality and licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy and rivalry. These are the works of darkness, St. Paul writes (Rom 13:12, 13).
We don’t often experience true darkness. Even in the middle of the night, when you wake up and stumble to the restroom with sleep still in your eyes, there’s still light peeking through a crack in the window shades, or the soft glow of an LED reminding you that your device is charging. The only place I’ve ever experienced total, complete darkness, the kind of darkness that hides your hand when it’s only an inch from your face, is underground on a cave tour, when everyone put out their lights.
And that’s precisely where the works of darkness put you. Underground. In a box. Covered with six feet of earth. Even if you are yet walking upright, you are walking through a valley in the shadow of death.
But the Light of Christ pierces the darkness of death.
The Light shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not overcome it (Jn 1:5). Darkness never beats light. Even in the thickest darkness, one small light always shines out. The Light of Christ is not overcome by darkness; rather, this Light overcomes all darkness. It’s a terrifying, glorious revelation of who God is: the One who becomes flesh, the One descends into the darkness of death, and the One who rises again as the sun rises to break the darkness.
Do not participate in the works, the non-fruits of darkness, St. Paul writes to the Ephesians, but instead expose them. For that which is hidden by them is shameful even to speak of. But all that is exposed by the Light is made visible, for all that is made visible is light. Therefore it says, “Awake, O Sleeper, and rise from the dead and Christ will shine upon you.”
Gentiles will come to your light, and as you shine, kings will come near. Lift your eyes and look around. All of them gather and come to you. Your sons come from a distance, your daughters carried on the arm (vv 3-4 AAT).
Some weeks after the birth of Jesus, Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled with the first of the Gentile visitors. Though in carols they’re called kings, the Scriptures simply call them magi, learned men, perhaps priests from the east. Scripture doesn’t tell us of these men, other than the gifts they bring and that they come to worship the king of the Jews.
It is likely that these magi were not completely unfamiliar with the God who would become flesh. When the Jewish nation was deported to Babylon, they brought with them the Torah. The books of Moses were put into the hands of the Babylonian wise men when King Nebuchadnezzar placed Daniel over them. Even when the Jews returned from captivity, the Word of God remained. And where the Word of God is, there can always be found a congregation. And in this congregation was the preaching of the Law and Prophets, in particular this prophecy: I behold Him Who will come later. A Star will come from Jacob, a Scepter will rise from Israel (Num 24:17). When these magi saw the star, they knew that the King was also here.
You may have heard the story of the poor girl who survived a plane crash in Illinois. Stuck in the woods in the middle of the night, she was drawn to a light in the distance. If there were no light, she surely would have survived the plan crash only to perish in the dark. But she was drawn by the light.
In the same way, the Light of Christ draws all people from death to life. Gentiles, kings, sons and daughters from afar. The magi are the first, but they are certainly not the last. After the resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit, this Light goes out from Jerusalem in the preaching of the Gospel. From Jerusalem, to Judea, and to the ends of the earth, the Light shines whenever the Law and the Prophets and now the Gospel are proclaimed.
When you see it, you will be radiant, your heart trembling with pride and glad to know the abundance of the sea is turning to you and the wealth of the nations is coming to you. Many camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. All of those from Sheba will come, bringing gold and incense. They will tell of the LORD’s wonderful deeds (vv 5-7 AAT).
The gifts of the magi are often the focus of Epiphany meditations, but the greater gift is often overlooked. While the wealth of the nations—gold and incense and myrrh—are laid at the feet of the newborn King, the greater gift is the gift this King has to give.
The gift of this King is His wonderful deeds. The gift is His birth, His life, His obedience to His Father—both active and passive, His suffering, His dying, His rising again, His ascension to His Father’s right hand. But His gifts aren’t only stories of history.
His gifts are for you, right now. His baptism is the gift whereby the Holy Spirit enlightens you with the Light of Christ. The Light not only shines on you from afar, but also in you. Where the Light of Christ is, there the works of darkness are banished. He rules over you with grace and forgiveness. Your shame and vice are removed with a Word. And though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, do not fear any evil. For He spreads a feast before you in the presence of your enemies—His own body and blood, given over into death and shed for the forgiveness of your sins.
Arise, shine, for your Light has come.
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard