Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝
You may have heard me say that the quintessential preacher for the season of Advent is none other than John the Baptist. His message of repentance and of warning for the coming of God’s righteous judgment fits very well with the preparation theme of the first season of the Church’s liturgical year. Now that the twelve days of Christmas are completed and Epiphany has begun, the emphasis of course turns to Jesus. His miracles, His preaching that announced the arrival of the Kingdom in His flesh, and His unwavering determination to head for the cross, these take center stage at this point in the calendar. The season of Epiphany, however, also has an adopted preacher, if you will. If the themes that are unique to Advent correspond to the message of John, then in whose proclamation do the emphases of Epiphany find a home?
It would seem to be automatic that when you think of Epiphany, that the story of the Magi would come up first in your mind, you know, the Wise Men from the East who came to visit the little Child Jesus. Everyone’s Christmas manger scenes (including the one that you see just as you come in the front door) always includes the Wise Men worshiping Jesus along with the shepherds. In a sense, if you were to think about it more theologically, that is absolutely accurate because the Magi did in fact worship our Lord with the same God-given faith that was found also in the hearts of the shepherds. It is, however, highly unlikely that these foreign travelers made it to Bethlehem to bow down at the manger at the same exact time as the shepherds, especially since the Gospel-writer Matthew makes it plain that Mary and Joseph were living in a house by the time the Wise Men arrived. Since this momentous visit sets off the Epiphany season, the Church at this time of year most decidedly shifts its focus out into the world, that is, proclaiming the coming of Israel’s Messiah for the salvation of the Gentiles.
Who better to extend that invitation to the Gentiles than the Apostle Paul? He definitely has the credentials. Four major trips to see Jews and Gentiles alike all over the known Roman world. Numerous churches founded and pastors trained so that the people who heard the Word in a certain place would be continually fed by that same Word. Paul endured attempted execution, torture, shipwreck, and an unknown affliction that he called a “Thorn in the Flesh” all so that the message of Christ could spread to the nations. This is the major emphasis of the Epiphany season, and that is why it seemed good for the church’s schedule of readings or lectionary to choose the words of St. Paul, writing to the Christians in the provincial capital city of Ephesus, as a fitting Epistle for this festival day.
Now, I must make clear that Paul wasn’t a better preacher of the Gospel than John the Baptist. For it simply is not true that the Apostle who went out bravely to bring God’s Word to all nations was following the Lord’s mandate any more faithfully than the Voice crying out from the wilderness, baptizing only Jews and urging repentance. For just as much as Advent, with its introspection and self-preparation and internal purification, is necessary for your life as a Christian, so also is Epiphany necessary. For it is Epiphany that turns your attention out into the world, so that through your holy calling and life’s vocation you play your particular role in bringing the Good News to all nations. If either one of these two things, internal purity and external outreach, were emphasized to be more important over the other, the result would certainly be disastrous to the Christian’s personal faith and to the existence of the Church. If you think about it, how could you spread the Word of Salvation if your own heart is closed due to lack of repentance? So, having built on the foundation of Advent’s message of repentance, thanks to John the Baptist, now we may follow the lead of St. Paul in His Epiphany sermon that reveals the inclusion of the Gentiles.
Just what is this inclusion of the Gentiles, though? Paul says that God had not made this mystery known to prophets and sons of men in previous ages. Actually, the people before the coming of Christ knew that the Gentiles will obtain a future blessing. What was new was something called the stewardship of that grace—meaning that now, through the Apostles and prophets, namely, through the pastors of the Church, God is handing out His grace earned for us by Jesus Christ.
You see, the Gentiles are now included not because the bar is suddenly lowered and the requirements for going to heaven have been relaxed. There are people who truly believe that’s all that happened. Rather, it was the Lord’s idea—in fact, His eternal purpose finally revealed—to bring in all nations once all of Salvation had become accomplished thanks to the death and resurrection of Jesus. If this was all about certain things you had to do, or about certain rules you had to follow to be a godly person, then the Gentiles wouldn’t have had to bother. Heaven would have stayed far off for everyone, never to be attained. You could fool yourself for a while that you could hold it all together and try real hard to remain a good Christian, following all the right principles, making all the right promises. But then the Epiphany message would be completely lost to you. You would find yourself instead following the devil’s lies of works-righteousness rather than giving up on your own spirituality and relying totally on the forgiveness that Jesus earned for your sake.
But thanks be to God, that the Holy Spirit does not allow you to remain in darkness, ignorant of the life-saving Gospel. For on you who lived in darkness, the Epiphany light has shined. Christ the Morning-Star has brightened your sin-sluggish flesh. You along with all Gentiles, now possess this threefold mystery: first, you are fellow-heirs of the kingdom. There’s no longer any difference between you and the faithful nation of Israel. Second, God has incorporated you together with all believers as one body—and not just any body, but Christ’s own Body. Thirdly, you, together with the whole Church, partake of the promise in Christ, a promise that you may access right now with great boldness and confidence.
Finally, the most comforting part of the Epiphany message from St. Paul has to do with the faith that holds on to these revealed mysteries and makes them your own. You get this faith not as a reward. This faith is not a skill that you need to hone first before you can reap any of its benefits. The good news of Epiphany is that the faith that Jesus had—His complete trust in the Father, His undying faithfulness as you will see in the next few weeks as we follow the Epiphany lectionary—this faith that Jesus had is now yours. God counts it as your faith—so that you can be totally assured of your salvation, it’s all up to Him.
Rejoice, O Gentiles who are now members of the new Israel, rejoice in and spread abroad St. Paul’s Epiphany Gospel, which is the stewardship, the handing out, of God’s gifts meant for everyone. And at the same time keep to John the Baptist’s Advent repentance, until one day, O glorious grace, He’ll transport us to that happy place, beyond all tears and sinning! Amen, amen! Come Lord Jesus, Crown of Gladness we are yearning for the day of Your returning!
In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.