Today is Epiphany Sunday. Epiphany is a special festival in the church year that is celebrated on January 6. The word "epiphany" is from the Greek language, and it means "manifestation" or "showing." In the first two centuries after the time of Jesus, many Christians spoke Greek. Because Epiphany was established as a church festival about two hundred years after the death of Jesus by these Greek speaking Christians, a Greek word was used to name the festival.
The Greek speaking Christians who established Epiphany were living in the area where today on the map we find the countries of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. In this area two hundred years after the time of Jesus, the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) occurred on January 6 in the Alexandrian calendar used by the Greek-speaking people. So Epiphany was celebrated on that day, the day that marks the end of darker days and the beginning of brighter days.
A hundred years later in Rome Christmas was first celebrated on December 25, because in the Julian calendar of the Romans that was the day of the winter solstice. When the church in Rome began to celebrate both Christmas and Epiphany, it kept Christmas on December 25 and Epiphany on January 6, the traditional night of New Year festivities for the pagans. Thus January 6 becomes the 12th night of the Christmas season, so we have songs like "The Twelve Days of Christmas."
The story of the three wise men was traditionally read on January 6. These men came from the East following a bright star to bring gifts to the child born to be king of the people of Judea. The story tells us that they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold is a gift fit for a king, and it signifies that Jesus is a king. Frankincense is a kind of incense that was burned in the temple in Jerusalem by the priests. It signifies that Jesus helps us relate to God, which is what the priests were charged with doing in the temple. And myrrh is a spice used in those days in preparing for burial the bodies of those who had died. The gift of myrrh signifies that Jesus will bring us closer to God through his death.
The story of the wise men reminds us that not only the people of Bethlehem or Nazareth or even Jerusalem will be affected by the life of the child born to Mary and Joseph, but people from far away, too. In fact, we are among those people, because we are far away from where Jesus was born. We don't speak the language he spoke, nor do we live in a world like his world. Perhaps that's why we enjoy the story of the wise men, because it reminds us that Jesus was born, lived and died for us, too, as well as for those who knew and followed him in his own time.
Paul described himself as an apostle to the Gentiles. As a Greek-speaking Jew, Paul carried the message of the gospel to urban communities around the Mediterranean Sea. He went first to Jewish synagogues, which in these cities used the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures called the Septuagint and often included sympathetic Gentiles as friends of the synagogue. Paul soon discovered that some of the Gentiles who were attracted to the synagogue were even more interested in his gospel message.
When Paul began to concentrate his ministry on these Gentile seekers, he ran into difficulties with the Jewish Christian leaders in Jerusalem who believed that all those who followed Jesus should be circumcised and keep Jewish dietary restrictions. Paul refused to accept these restrictions and finally negotiated a compromise with Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, which allowed him to baptize Gentiles as long as they didn't eat meat that had been sacrificed at pagan temples. In addition, Paul promised to collect funds for the church in Jerusalem.
In the passage read this morning (Ephesians 3:2-6) from the letter to the church at Ephesus (in modern Turkey), Paul affirms that his mission to the Gentiles reflects the secret plan of God from the beginning. "In former generations that secret was not disclosed to mankind; but now by inspiration it has been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets, that through the gospel the Gentiles are joint heirs with the Jews, part of the same body, sharers together in the promise made in Christ Jesus." (Ephesians 3:6) Paul believed that the covenant of God with the Israelites was intended to prepare the way for Jesus, whose death and resurrection would be good news to all peoples.
We need to keep Paul's understanding in mind as we read the gospels and the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, because Paul's letters were all written earlier than the gospel accounts. In many ways the gospels write back into the story of Jesus the struggles of the early churches and, in particular, the preaching of Paul and the other apostles to the Gentiles.
If we look first at the gospel of Mark, which was probably the earliest gospel to be written (about 70, or eight years after Paul's death in Rome), we find in Mark 13:9-10 that the following statement is attributed to Jesus as he teaches about the coming end of the age. "As for you, be on your guard. You will be handed over to the courts; you will be beaten in synagogues; you will be summoned to appear before governors and kings on my account to testify in their presence. Before the end the gospel must be proclaimed to all nations." The idea of proclaiming the gospel "to all nations" reminds us of what Paul and other apostles to the Gentiles have already been doing for a generation and of some of their difficulties, which are revealed in Paul's letters.
This reference in Mark's gospel may also refer to two famous passages from Isaiah, 42:6 and 49:6, for both of these passages speak of a servant of God who is to be a "light to the nations." Isaiah 42:6 reads: "I the Lord have called you with righteous purpose and taken you by the hand; I have formed you, and destined you to be a light for peoples, a lamp for nations . . . ." Isaiah 49:6 reads: "And now the Lord has said to me: 'It is too slight a task for you, as my servant, to restore the tribes of Jacob, to bring back the survivors of Israel: I shall appoint you a light to the nations so that my salvation may reach earth's farthest bounds.'"
Both of these passages from Isaiah are incorporated into the account written by Luke in two volumes, which we designate today as the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Acts 13:47 has Paul and Barnabas applying the passage of Isaiah 49:6 to their ministry, as they affirm they have "instructions from the Lord: 'I have appointed you to be a light for the Gentiles, and a means of salvation to earth's farthest bounds.'" Here we see that Paul's mission to the Gentiles is understood in terms of the reference in Isaiah to the servant's task to be a "light to the nations."
Luke also includes a similar passage in the beginning of his story. In Luke 2:29-32 we read of Simeon praising God because he has seen Jesus in his old age before dying: "Now, Lord, you are releasing your servant in peace, according to your promise. For I have seen with my own eyes the deliverance you have made ready in full view of all nations: a light that will bring revelation to the Gentiles and glory to your people Israel." Once again the image from Isaiah of a light to the nations is joined with the mission based on Paul's revelation to the Gentiles.
John's gospel is different, yet it contains the same emphasis. It begins: "In the beginning the Word already was. The Word was in God's presence, and what God was, the Word was. He was with God at the beginning, and through him all things came to be; without him no created thing came into being. In him was life, and that life was the light of mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never mastered it." (John 1:1-5) The Word is the light of God that has come into the world not only for the descendants of Jacob but for all peoples.
The author of John's gospel has Jesus clarify this in his own words in 12:44-46. "Jesus proclaimed: 'To believe in me, is not to believe in me but in him who sent me; to see me, is to see him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that no one who has faith in me should remain in darkness." The Revised English Bible uses the noun "faith" in its translation, even though in the Greek New Testament the verb for faith is used, because the Revised English Bible wants to be clear that believing in God means having faith and not just having certain beliefs about God. Jesus is the light of the world in so far as those who follow him put their trust in God, because that is what having faith in God means.
In Matthew's gospel the story of the wise men provides a vivid image of the light that has come into the world for all to see. (Later in the life of the church the wise men are called "kings" because of a verse in Psalm 72 that refers to kings bringing gifts to the king of the Israelites.) The wise men follow the light of a star to Jesus, who they proclaim to be king of the people of Judea. But the gospel of Matthew concludes by attributing to this new king the following words: "Full authority in heaven and on earth has been committed to me. Go therefore to all nations and make them my disciples . . . ." (Matthew 28:18b-19a)
When we celebrate Epiphany today, we need to remember that it all began with the ministry of Paul. Ephesians 3:7-12, which follows the passage read just before the sermon, summarizes Paul's understanding of his mission to the Gentiles. "Such is the gospel of which I was made a minister by God's unmerited gift, so powerfully at work in me. To me, who am less than the least of all God's people, he has granted the privilege of proclaiming to the Gentiles the good news of the unfathomable riches of Christ, and of bringing to light how this hidden purpose was to be put into effect. It lay concealed for long ages with God the Creator of the universe, in order that now, through the church, the wisdom of God in its infinite variety might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms. This accords with his age-long purpose, which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have freedom of access to God, with the confidence born of trust in him."
The good news of the gospel for Paul is that, in Christ, God is present to those who respond in trust. The Revised Standard Version of the Bible speaks of those who have "faith in God," but the Revised English Bible uses the word "trust" instead of "faith" to emphasize that this is what faith means. Everyone, Jew and Gentile, is called to trust in God. But the letter to the church at Ephesus reminds us that the wisdom of God allows this trust to be expressed in an "infinite variety" of ways. Certainly this is our experience in the history of the church, for our ways are not the ways of the second century Greek-speaking Christians or the ways of many other Christians in our own time.
We are called, therefore, to witness in faith to "the wisdom of God in its infinite variety" so that this wisdom might be known by all nations and become a source of trust and salvation for all peoples.
1 in Faith: A Christian Bible Study † Copyright © 2000 by Robert Traer