Epiphany is for Children
Elderly people sometimes say, "Christmas is for children." That's wrong. Santa, presents, trees, and stockings may be for children, but the Christ of Christmas is for all. Christmas isn't for children but Epiphany sure is. I'm convinced only kids can get this, so I'm not talking to adults today.
Epiphany is for children because kids know that there are monsters they can't defeat. Scripture says the Devil is out there prowling around seeking someone to devour and ever ready to swoop down and snatch the seed of God's Word out of hearts so people don't believe. There's a monster out there that St. Paul says is able, as every kid knows monsters can, to appear as an angel of light. Kids know the Devil is out there, and they know, as Luther sung, "On earth is not his equal." What chance does a kid, or an adult for that matter, have against a supernatural being thousands of years older than they are?
Epiphany is for children because kids know the world around them is a fallen and dangerous one that they can't overcome on their own. Kids are always on a Hercules-like quest. Everything in just the physical world is bigger than they are. A Bug's Life is not just the title of a movie but reality for kids. A 6 foot adult is 2 or 3 times as big as a child. Imagine if your world were populated by 12 to 18 feet tall people? A child knows in this fallen world he's in a land of giants where dangers can be anywhere. Here trees can be insulting and violent like in the Wizard of Oz. Water sprinklers can be hazards like in A Bug's Life. Dogs can be as threatening to them as they are to toys in Toy Story.
Epiphany is for children because kids know monsters are real, the dangers of the fallen world are real, and they themselves are fallen and powerless to help themselves. You think a kid doesn't have the self-awareness that he is a sinner, in rebellion against God and authority? From the first time the child burps or passes gas and didn't mean for it to happen, he knows his own flesh and blood are not under his control. They certainly can't be depended on in his fight against the monsters while on his quest for Heaven.
Epiphany is for children because it celebrates the arrival of their Hero. Jack the Giant killer has arrived! The Prince who will slay the dragon is here! Wreck-it-Ralph has come to put things right! Like in most movies things start out poorly. No sooner does our Hero arrive than the evil King Herod wants him dead, but kids know the old evil foe, the Devil, is really behind the plot. They know that 4000 years earlier the Devil was told the Child who had just been born was going to crush his head. So the Devil tries right away to kill our Hero but angels warn His stepfather and Baby Jesus is whisked away to Egypt and safety.
Our kids understand what's going on better than we do. They understand why Charles Wesley wrote, "Those infant hands shall burst our bands/ And work out our salvation;/ Strangle the crooked serpent,/ Destroy his works for ever,/ And open set the heavenly gate" (Join All Ye Joyful Nations). Kids know why Milton hymns the infant Jesus for making the oracles of Apollo dumb, for causing the Roman gods of home to "moan with midnight plaint," for causing the marble gods to sweat "while each peculiar power forgoes his wonted [usual] seat." Kids get why Milton celebrates how Jesus makes the Old Testament gods Peor and Baalim "forsake their temples dim," Moloch sullen, and banishes the Egyptian god of the dead Osiris.
Yes it takes a kid to celebrate, to adulate, to expatiate the way Milton does in "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity." Hear with him how the Devil "flees from Judah's land/ The dreaded hand;/ The rays of Bethlehem blind his dusky eye;/ Nor all the gods beside/ Longer dare abide." And though they aren't yet suppose to use this language kids can sure feel with the poet, "Our Babe, to show His Godhead true,/ Can in His swaddling bands control the damn'ed crew."
You don't have to tell a kid twice that something bigger than this world was plopped into it on Christmas. They see things the way Alexander the Great made things. In order to impress upon others that he was larger than life, he left behind him "deceptive memorials" such as larger than life mangers for horses (Lives of the Greeks, 302). A kid can see Jesus' manger as big as Paul Bunyan's crib. This Jesus is big enough to take on this world and win.
Kids can see the visit of the wise man the way some church fathers did. Ignatius, Justin, Tertullian, and Origen all saw their visit as indicating Jesus had broken the power of astrology (Davies, I, 228-9). Or they can see it how Chesterton did. How the star they followed in such a strange way swallowed up all that these worldly wise men thought they knew about stars (Works, XX, 347-8). Kids can appreciate the feature of the wise men visit that is part of every hero and villain story, movie, and show they know. The hero ends up with fantastic riches. Kids might not know what frankincense and myrrh are but they sure know what gold is, and Jesus ends up with it all. It's given to Him not Mary, not Joseph, but just Jesus.
Kids get this story, this Gospel, this fact of our faith. The Hero is able to do what they can't do. He can even triumph over them: their me, myself, and I. Kids with younger siblings first see that people are like the birds in Finding Nemo everything is "mine, mine, mine." Yet here is One who gives, gives, gives. At this point, our kids might need a little bit of help from us. This is still their kind of story. Their heroes are always unlikely ones. There's Deago, Shrek, Nemo, and Woody. But our hero is even more unlikely. He's like the woman in a TV show who gets thrown into the same prison as the woman she came to save. She says to her, "This won't make you feel any better, but I'm here to rescue you."
Jesus, who is a real flesh and blood Baby, born of Mary, is also True God. Because He is True God He can defeat the Devil with one little finger. He says that remember? "I by the finger of God cast out devils." But He comes as a helpless Baby fed by His mother just like their younger brothers and sisters are. He has His diapers changed just like they do. He has to be burped and cries when He has gas. This won't make you feel any better, but this little Baby is here to save you. And the way He does it is even more unlikely. Far from casting out the Devil and all the monsters under him, Jesus lets the Devil catch Him.
Now don't think what follows is inappropriate for kids. We put a crucified Jesus before their eyes in every Sunday School classroom and at the center of our altar. We mark ourselves with the very same cross He died painfully, tearfully, horribly on. And they see when we baptize babies that we put the sign of the cross on their tiny heads and hearts. We do this because our Hero gives Himself up to the Devil and the Devil hands Him over to the world for teasing, beating, whipping, nailing to a cross, and dying on it.
Again our kids need some help. In their hero stories, something like this always happens. Things go bad for the hero. He gets beaten. He appears to be loosing the battle. But in their stories the hero comes through by power, by might, by overcoming the villain somehow. This doesn't happen in the case of our Hero. Jesus goes all the way to death, all the way into hell itself, and says that finishes it. The battle is over with Jesus dead on the cross.
Our kids need help seeing that this is the only way for Him to save us. Jesus could have overcome the Devil and evil by brute force, and He could have done that easily, effortlessly for God, even God in flesh and blood. But He couldn't have saved us fallen people that way. No, the way of force would have meant our overthrow too, our being cast away forever with the Devil and the evil world.
To save us, Jesus had to win in our place. That meant He had to keep all the laws of God that we don't, can't keep. Jesus grew up just like they did. But Jesus always made His bed. Jesus never lied to His parents. Jesus never, ever fought with His brothers and sisters. Jesus always went to church and He paid attention. When He was 12 years old, the time when getting boys to sit still for Sunday School is like pulling teeth, Jesus willing went listened and learned.
Our Hero was the perfect Child. He deserved not one word of correction, not one spanking, not one look from His mom to behave or else. But being perfect was not enough to save us. In order to save us Jesus also had to suffer the punishment for what we do wrong. You see the spankings, the time outs, the groundings, the writing, the loss of TV we rightly get from our parents when we disobey doesn't pay for our sins. It takes suffering and dying to get that done. God said the punishment for sinning no matter how small the sin, was death and because it is God that all sins are really against God had to be satisfied with the suffering and dying. Only God can satisfy God. Only God can pay a debt owed to Him. So Jesus, God's only Son, suffered and died to pay not only your debt but the whole, entire world's.
On the cross Jesus was done paying, so He said, "It is finished." But the story didn't end there. God the Father was satisfied. Since the only reason Jesus died was to pay off our debt, when that debt was paid, God the Father raised Him from the dead. Our Hero came out of the grave. The Devil had no claim on Him or us any longer because Jesus had kept all God's Laws so there was none the Devil could insist we had to keep or else. Jesus had suffered all our punishments, so what punishment could he threaten you with? The same was true of the world and our own fallen nature. In Jesus they no longer have a claim to us, authority over us. They are defeated.
So you kids celebrate today. Because you're clothed with Jesus' holiness by Baptism, the Devil must flee from you. In your Baptism, you float safely above this evil world. In your Baptism, all the sins and sinfulness that separated you from God and heaven have been drowned. Epiphany celebrates the arrival of your Hero who defeats the Devil, the World, and your sins and then puts His victory in your Baptism. Go ahead and share this joy with your folks even if they are too old to get it the way you do. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Epiphany of Our Lord (20130106); Matthew 2: 1-16