The Epiphany: Universality and opposition


The Epiphany: Universality and opposition

Published: 13th January, 2024

The Epiphany
7th January 2023
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:10-15
Matthew 2:1-12

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

In the Book of Common Prayer, the feast of the Epiphany is subtitled “The manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles”.  This reflects one of the traditional emphases of the Epiphany, namely the universality of Jesus as Saviour.  Jesus has been born King of the Jews, as the Wise Men recognize.  But His kingship has a universal jurisdiction: the homage of the Wise Men tells us that the salvation and the rule of Christ the King is no local matter.  The involvement of the star gives even a cosmic dimension to Christ’s kingship.  The light of Christ shines on Jew and Gentile alike.

Another aspect of the story of the visit of the Wise Men is that of opposition.  This is also an important element of Luke’s infancy narrative – remember the words of Simeon to Jesus’ parents about how He will be a sign that will be opposed.  But in Matthew’s account, the opposition comes very specifically from King Herod.  When he hears from the Wise Men of the birth of the King of the Jews, we are told that he is frightened, or troubled or disturbed, depending on which translation you’re reading.  Already, this newborn baby is having an impact; already, Jesus has become a divisive figure: attractive to the Wise Men, frightening to Herod and the religious establishment in Jerusalem.

Why is Herod so disturbed?  What does he fear?  Surely it is loss of control, loss of power.  He is the Romans’ puppet king; his authority is not recognized by many of his people, the obedience he commands is often grudging.  He is not a king in the line of David.  His legitimacy is questioned.  He knows of the Messianic expectations of his people; we can imagine that he is quite sceptical about the claims of the Wise Men, and yet this baby is a risk he is not willing to take, and so his brutality is unleashed on the families of Bethlehem.  He must cling on to power, he must hold on to the illusion of being in control, no matter the cost.

That Jesus is a universal Saviour is a great source of comfort and hope to us.  That universality extends to each one of us; just as the Wise Men were mysteriously drawn to the infant Christ, so Jesus mysteriously draws to Himself people around the world in each generation.  He is Saviour and He is Lord for you and for me just as for the Wise Men.

But the divisiveness of Jesus, and the opposition that He provokes: that too remains.  Christ is a sign that will be opposed: we see it in the persecution faced by Christians in many parts of the world; we see it in that mixture of indifference and hostility which is largely the default setting of our own secular culture to the Christian faith.

But perhaps too we see it even in our own hearts.  There may be a part of us that wants to follow Jesus; there may be moments when we recognize that we need a Saviour; there may be times when the illusion that we are in control is shattered, and we want to be able to trust in His rule and in His care.

But then there is also a part of us that is frightened in much the same way that Herod was frightened, a part of us that wants to maintain the illusion of control at all costs.  We are unwilling to be like the Wise Men, following the light to who knows where; we are unwilling to leave everything behind, to turn our lives upside down, to take risks and to make sacrifices for the sake of Jesus.  We don’t want a King; we don’t think we need a Saviour.  It’s our life, we are in control, we think we already have the answers.  We turn away from Jesus, or we follow Him only half-heartedly, because we fear the challenge and the loss of control.

So today we rejoice with the Wise Men in the presence of Jesus our Saviour and King.  We rejoice that His salvation and His rule is universal, that His loving redemption extends to you and to me.

We pray for the spread of the gospel in our own generation, for all who have been unable to accept the Lord’s call, for persecuted Christians around the world, and for those who persecute them.

And we repent of that fear that holds us back, that fear that prevents us from wholeheartedly seeking the light of Christ.  We seek to renew our commitment to Him, stepping out in faith like the Wise Men, not always understanding where we are going, but trusting in the Lord’s love and guidance nonetheless.

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.