Have an Epiphany
Epiphany is one of the oldest church festivals being celebrated in Asia Minor and Egypt already in the 2nd century (Reed, 479). The Greek word epiphany' is a technical term in religion for the appearance of a god. In the last 30 years, it has been used more than ever in English but in the nonreligious sense of getting an idea, realizing or understanding something suddenly. On this celebration of the Epiphany may you have an epiphany.
Epiphany is for those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. Listen to Luke 1:78-79. The father of John the Baptist says, "The Sunrise from on high shall visit us, to epiphaina upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death"
Ever been without power? I was for over a week in New Orleans after a hurricane. It wasn't the loss of modern appliances that got to me. It was the darkness. Even the relative brevity of a solar eclipse sets wildlife on edge. The Plague of Darkness was the one right before the Slaying of the First Born; those 3 dark days brought Pharaoh to the point of saying all the people could go, though he later reneged.
But the darkness we're in is not caused by a loss of the sun, but by the shadow of death. You usually first feel this shadow when a grandparent is ill, but then you don't really know what it is. Death's dark shadow will continue to creep unrelentingly into your life through the deaths of uncles, aunts. Untimely deaths cast a long, long shadow. And just when you think you've gotten use to sitting in the darkness of the shadow of death, you realize, you have an epiphania. That cold shadow is your death!
We better come away from here with more of an epiphany than that! And we will. Titus 3:4 will help. "The kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind epiphana." The epiphany you really need to have today is of God's kindness and His love for mankind. Is that how God appears to you? Surely not in the world. In the world God appears to stand by weakly, uncaringly, powerlessly as men, women, and children die, get sick, have tragedy upon tragedy. Does God appear in your conscience kind and loving? No He appears loving and kind in your conscience only as long as you do the right thing and don't do the wrong. If not, God appears as coming to get you or as getting you right now for your past failures.
I probably should have quoted the verse before Titus 3:4. It describes how we were before the kindness and love of God epiphana. "For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another." Think the Magi were any different than you? Think they fought less with their wives and thought less wickedness than you? They didn't, but God's kindness and love still made its epiphana to them.
It's remarkable to say the almighty, holy God appeared in kindness to sinners. That word can be translated gentleness. It's the Greek word chrestotes. Tertullian, 2nd century church father, said that chrestotes was so characteristic of Christ that Christos became Chrestus (Trench, 235). I've gotten ahead of myself. First lets cover the "love for mankind" that also appeared. You'll recognize this Greek word; it's philanthropia. You know what that is in English. It is benevolence or generosity to your fellow man. In Greek it's literally people-liker. This is the Greek word for love that means affection, a feeling of love. You should be as the middle schooler home from his first week at class having discovered, "My teacher really likes me."
In the Greek classics I've read, I can recall no Greek God ever described as chrestotes or philanthropia. You do read of them appearing. They appear as a slave, a mortal, but they become enraged when they aren't recognized as a god, and their punishments are often exquisitely cruel. But the true God's kindness and affection for mankind appeared in an infant, a toddler. God was so kind toward fallen mankind and felt so sweetly toward us that He gave us His own Son.
You know those sticky sweet, saccharin senses that suffuse the world's Christmas? You feel it when little Johnny gets his parents back together. You feel it when little Susie helps the homeless man. You feel it when the displaced family finds a room at the inn. You know how you get so fed up with this emotional candy that that you're glad to get past the holidays? Well don't get past this. Have an epiphany of the kindness and fondness of the all powerful God for you. For you "just as you are without one plea." For you who have strayed, faltered, and fallen too many times to count.
But more than kindness and fondness epiphania at Epiphany. So did power, might, and deliverance. Baby Jesus did in fact what Hercules did in myth. Charles Wesley wrote a Christmas hymn about it. "Gaze on that helpless object, / Endless adoration! / Those infant hands shall burst our bands, / And work out our salvation. / Strangle the crooked serpent, / Burn his works forever, / And open set the heavenly gate." Don't believe me? Listen to 2 Timothy 1:10: "Now has been revealed by the epiphaneia of our Savior Christ Jesus, the one who abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel."
What do you think brought the Magi from years away? What brought them bearing fantastic gifts? What brought them to their knees before a Baby no more than 2 years old? Do you think it was the sticky sweet sentimentality of the world's Christmas? Do you think it was fear of being punished if they didn't? No, it was the epiphaneia of the heavenly King, the eternal God, and their Sacrifice for sins.
The epiphaneia of your Savior Christ Jesus brought life and immortality to light. How? By abolishing death. I don't want to take away from what a life-changing, worldview altering thing Paul says here, but the word translated abolished' is better translated nullified." If you abolish something, it no longer exists. If you nullify something, it's still there but has lost its power. This is why we can sing in a hymn, "It is not death to die." The world says that's crazy; God almighty says that's right.
In a production of Faust the trap door that is to lower him into hell gets stuck. It tries several times to go down but jerks to a stop. A drunken man in the audience bellows, "Thank God! Hell is full; I'm safe." It wasn't, and he wasn't, but you are. The nullifying of your death - You know the one that cast the long, cold shadow over everything you think, are, and do? has epiphaneia. Remember how Paul taunts death in I Cor. 15: "O Death where is your victory? O Death where is your sting?" He goes on to present the equation that proves death is nullified. "The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law."
How does that prove my death is nullified? What appears today? The One born under the Law to redeem those under the Law. The power of sin is the law and the sting of death is sin. Remove the law and you nullify the power of sin and therefore the sting of death. Where there is no law there is no sin, but you can't do away with God's Law by saying it doesn't exist, by pretending it doesn't exist; by believing it doesn't exist. The Law is nullified when it is kept perfectly for all humanity in the eyes of God and when the Law's punishments for those who break it are fully carried out in God's sight.
You can't fulfill the Law by doing your best. That's not good enough. You can't pay off your debt of sin by promising to do better. You'll be indebted for eternity. Thanks be to God that Jesus has appeared who has done both. There is not a particle of the Law that needs doing before you can count your death as nullified because Jesus did it all. There's not a judgment, a curse, a penalty, a debt you owe for breaking the Law that Jesus didn't pay in full already. You can take that to the Bank of Heaven. Death demands that you walk in its shadow all your days, but once the kindness and fondness of God epiphania in the Person and Work of Jesus light and immortality scattered the darkness.
Xenophon said this of the conquering King Cyrus in the 5th century B.C. "For, with you, every road is easy for us to traverse, every river is passable, supplies are not lacking; without you, all our road is through darkness." Cyrus died in this campaign, and out went their light through the darkness. Jesus died on a cross to be your permanent lamp and light through the darkness and the shadow of death. As the OT Church still had light in their homes even though there was darkness throughout Pharaoh's realm, so it is with those in Christ. No matter how deep the darkness, no matter how long the shadow, for Jesus' sake, the kindness and fondness of God appears scattering the night.
Think of McDonald's campaign: "I'm lovin' it." For over 12 years, that billion dollar corporation has linked our loving to fast food. Well for close to 2,000 years Scripture has linked it to the Epiphany of our Lord. In 2 Timothy 4:8 Paul says, " In the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His epiphaneia."
Are you lovin' it? No? Let His Epiphany shine upon you so that you might see they way out of the darkness and shadow of death. See that the kindness and fondness of God for you appeared at Epiphany when He gave you His own Son. Know for certain that the Epiphany of Christ signals that your death has been nullified and life and immortality are yours through His Gospel.
May that Gospel appear in water washing over not just your body but soul. May that Gospel appear in tangible words that can be rubbed not just into your ears but your conscience. May that Gospel appear in Food and Drink not just for today but for all your tomorrows giving you the strength to walk out of this land of the shadow of death into the kingdom of light, life, and immortality. Have an epiphany about Epiphany and you'll be lovin' it. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Epiphany of our Lord (20160103); Lk 1:78-79; Ti 3:4; 2 Tim 1:10; 4:8