Epiphany—Observed (Mt 2, 1–12)

Photo by Robert Thiemann on Unsplash

Bethlehem Lutheran Church—Bremen, KS || AUDIO
Immanuel Lutheran Church—Bremen, KS || AUDIO

“And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least (ἐλαχίστη) among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Merry Christmas!

INI + AMEN.

5. Oops!: No one likes being confronted with the reality of their true position before God.

Sometimes reality is tough. Sometimes the reality of a situation is harmless. An example of that is the wisemen. Sorry, but the reality is the magi didn’t show up at the manger. They came to Bethlehem probably some two years later. The Shepherds, the stable, the manger were long gone. A memorable birthday story for toddler Jesus.

The wisemen are also an example of reality being tough, unhelpful, and even dangerous. The magi don’t just bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh with them. They brought a hard dose of reality to Herod. He wasn’t the true King of the Jews.

It didn’t matter how much power he had, how fierce he was, or how much he bank rolled the remodeling of temple in Jerusalem. He wasn’t the king of the Jews. He wasn’t the anointed, wasn’t the Christ. He’d been put in power by the Romans. You could ignore that, but when foreigners show up asking for the King of the Jews, and they don’t mean Herod, well, you can’t overlook that.

Before God Herod and his issue thought they were god! (See Acts 12 about that.) But you and I don’t like being confronted with our reality either. Sometimes it’s harmless, but other times it’s not. Old wounds. Inner darkness. Personal demons. How you’ve let others down. How you’ve failed them, even the people you love most, failing your God in the process.

The Lord is the Great Physician, and like any good doctor, He diagnoses our problem. He uses His Law to do it. The problem isn’t your behavior, your sins. How you treat God and how you treat others are symptoms. Truth is, reality is: it’s a deeper problem, terminal problem. You’re a sinner.

4. Ugh!: Reaction to this epiphany is swift and harsh.

Herod’s reaction to Jesus’ Epiphany, the epiphany, the revealed truth that he was not the Christ was, well, it was harsh and swift. They get their own Feast Day—December 28. The first martyrs for Jesus—Holy Innocents. “When he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.” No wonder that, when the magi showed up, Herod “was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”

Our reaction to the reality, the epiphany of who we are and how we act, well, we don’t like it either. When someone points out our faults, well, we don’t like it too much. We may not go on an actual murderous rampage like Herod, but we’ll certainly be on the war path with whomever points it out. And we really don’t like it when God does it. And He does in His Law. There He diagnoses our symptoms, our sins, how we’ve failed Him and others.

We don’t like that diagnosis. But John says, “If we say we don’t have sin, we make Him a liar.” But we’d almost want it to be simply a behavior problem. Then we can fix that, or we can demand others to fix theirs. It’s almost unbearable, when God’s diagnosis is in fact, “Your sins are symptoms of a deeper sin problem.” They are the sign of a sinful heart, soul, mind, and strength. The fact that you have sins are a sign that you’re a sinner, to your core. Terminal. Unfixable by any human work.

The reality is, before God, you’re a “poor, miserable sinner.” “Miserable”—old word, kept around because we still thought we knew what it means. “Miserable” doesn’t mean “very unhappy” about your sins. “Miserable” means that you confess your agreement with the Lord’s diagnosis, that you’re destitute, pitiable, a beggar before God. (Only the Spirit will draw that confession out of you.)

3. Aha!: YOU’RE NOT LEAST IF JESUS IS WITH YOU.

But what’s the big deal about confessing this? What’s wrong with believing this? What are you afraid of? What are you trying to hold on to? What throne? What are you trying to keep hidden from the people in your life? What are you trying to keep hidden from God? What are you trying to keep hidden from yourself?

Denying the reality of your situation is never safe, for others and for you. But this isn’t to knock you down a peg, to humiliate you. Though it will do that for the Herod types in the world. Those who seek to bolster their own position. The reality of God’s diagnosis about your true condition drives you to the comfort of what Jesus’ Epiphany is really all about.

The reality is this: YOU’RE NOT LEAST IF JESUS IS WITH YOU. That’s why back-water Bethlehem was great. Not because it’s great in itself. It wasn’t anything special, though Leah was buried there. So what that David was born there. That’s not what made it great. Jesus made Bethlehem great! “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah.” Why? “For from you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Not just Bethlehem. You, too. In God’s sight, YOU’RE NOT LEAST IF JESUS IS WITH YOU.

2. Whee!: Jesus was least in your place.

You’re not least if Jesus is with you because Jesus was least for you. Think about it. Creator of the Universe, Almighty power, at the same time, helpless Baby. Born in a stable. The almighty, eternal God—phenomenal cosmic power!—itty, bitty baby. God holdable, changeable, killable! Herod tried that. Too soon. 33 years later though. Jesus’ hour would come. “Darkness was over the land until the ninth hour. At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘It is finished,’ and bowing His head, gave up His Spirit.”

The magi were right to worship this toddler. To offer their measly gifts to Him. Their gifts confessed who this toddler Jesus was. Gold for their King. Frankincense for their Priest. Myrrh for Him who would die for them. To all appearances it was a simple house, but it was the royal thrown room for the Most High God—“they fell down and worshiped Him.”

Psalm 8 is fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God, and the Son of Man, born of the Virgin Mary. Psalm 8 says, “you have made [the Son of Man] a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.” Jesus in a manger, a cattle stall. Powerful gentiles at His feet. He calmed seas, too.

This is to show how much God desired to save the least! To make them not least, but the great. As the hymn puts it, “He is a servant, I a lord: How great a mystery! How strong the tender Christ Child’s love! No truer friend than He.” He Friend of Sinners. Only of Sinners. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9) “For our sake [God] made Christ to be sin who knew no sin, so that we would become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Cor 5:21) And so it is because of Jesus, YOU’RE NOT LEAST IF JESUS IS WITH YOU.

1. Yeah!: No matter your darkness, Jesus is there.

And Jesus is with you. It doesn’t matter your darkness, your gloom, your doom. It doesn’t matter what your sins are. Be they great or small, many or few. One is enough to damn you. Not to mention that just that one would be a symptom of what will really damn you—your sinfulness. That dwells deep within each of us.

Jesus is the Friend of Sinners. If you suddenly don’t have sins, well, then no “friend you have in Jesus.” “I came not to call the righteous but sinners.” “Those who are healthy don’t need a doctor, but those who are sick.” And it doesn’t matter your darkness, Jesus is there for you. He doesn’t just make Bethlehem not least. He shines in the darkness.

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness (הַחֹשֶׁךְ) shall cover the earth, and thick darkness (הַעֲרָפֶל) the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.”

If you’re in darkness, even thick darkness, even “darkness to be felt” (Ex 10:21). It doesn’t matter. Jesus is your Light. He is the Light no darkness can overcome. Not sin, not cross, not grave. Jesus wants to shine among the least (ἐλακίστη), the darkness (הַחֹשֶׁךְ), and the gloom (הַעֲרָפֶל). Jesus is Light in darkness. Life in death. Peace in gloom. Forgiveness in sin. Word in silence. Water in Christ. Food in hunger. Presence in loneliness.

So it is in many and various ways Jesus shines for you. Bethlehem wasn’t least because Jesus was there. So is the water and Word of Baptism, the Word of Absolution, Sermons, Devotions, Bible Readings, Bread and Wine (Body and Blood) of His Supper. Jesus shines His unending Light.

Your darkness may seem unconquerable. It is. For you. But not for Jesus. You aren’t in darkness when Jesus is there. You aren’t least. Not ever least in God’s sight. Unless you’d rather set off on your own. But that’s what you’ve been doing for as long as you can remember. But YOU’RE NOT LEAST IF JESUS IS WITH YOU. And He is! He most certainly is. “My body and blood for you the forgiveness of sins.” The Medicine of Eternal life. His. For you. “And they fell down and worshipped Him.”

Merry Christmas!

INI + AMEN.

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