Pondering Epiphany With Luther

Dear Disciples of Jesus,

We begin our Epiphany season with the journey of the Wise Men seeking Jesus, consulting the Scripture and thwarting Herod’s plan to destroy Jesus. Each year I read one of Martin Luther’s best sermons for Epiphany. Here is an excerpt from his sermon: 

Let us then observe how these Wise Men took no offense at the mean estate of the Babe and his parents, that we may also not be offended in the mean estate of our neighbor, but rather see Christ in him, since the Kingdom of Christ is to be found among the lowly and the despised in persecution, misery, and the holy cross. Those who seek Christ anywhere else find him not. The Wise Men discovered him not at Herod’s court, not with the high priests, not in the great city of Jerusalem, but in Bethlehem, in the stable, with lowly folk, with Mary and Joseph. In a word, they found him where one would have least expected. They presented him with gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. Incense is a live confession, full of faith, by which we offer all that we have and are to God. … The gift of our gold is that we should confess Christ asking, laying aside our own esteem and the dictates of our reason and good intentions, that we should present ourselves as foolish, naked and ready to be ruled. Obedient children gladly accept their King and bring all into submission to Christ. … Thus, we see that incense is faith and gold is hope, because faith believes that all things are and ought to be of God, and hope accepts and sustains what faith believes. The myrrh is love. Faith takes us from ourselves, that we should refer everything to God with praise and gratitude. Hope fills us with the concerns of others, that we may endure all in patience without resentment. Love reduces us to that nothing which we were in the beginning, so that we desire neither goods nor anything outside of God, but simply that we should commit ourselves truly to His good pleasure. This is the way of the cross by which we come most speedily into life. We can present our gifts in the same way as the Lord says: “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it to me.” Those who give of their goods to help the poor, to send children to school, to educate them in God’s Word and other arts that we may have good ministers — they are giving to the baby Jesus.

It is easy to focus on the diligent seeking of the Wise Men and forget that they were being led by the star. It wasn’t their individual wisdom or collective wisdom that turned them to Bethlehem, but the Word of God. Even the gifts they brought were not their own but the possession of Christ from the beginning of creation.

Moreover, I was reminded that we do not have to go looking for Christ — Christ has entered our world looking for us! He has entered our world and our lives with His amazing grace to pursue us, forgive us, redeem us and give us eternal life. The three Wise Men may well represent the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. No matter our status, position or wealth, we are nothing more than a baby “of mean estate.” Christ enters our lives to give us the most precious gifts — as Luther identifies them: faith (incense), hope (gold) and love (myrrh).

What Luther describes in the use of those gifts is nothing more than the life of discipleship, following Jesus. Incense is the confession of the faith, offering all we have and are to Christ and His mission. Gold is also confession in the form of turning from our selfish desires and placing ourselves under His Lordship, obedient to His commands. Myrrh is His overwhelming love for us that reduces us to nothing so that we might be filled with everything that comes from Him.

All of those gifts are to be turned outward in the direction of our neighbor to offer them what we ourselves have received: faith, hope and love — faith in Jesus, hope in all His promises and His boundless love for us in His crucifixion and resurrection. Following Jesus means passing on to others, in full measure, all that we have received.

The season of Epiphany is about the Light that banishes the darkness. Yet we live in a world that loves the darkness more than the Light. King Herod was only the first to find the Incarnation offensive. His sense of fear and self-preservation at all cost — including the death of his own sons and the countless infants from Bethlehem — epitomizes the darkness of our world and the depravity of evil.

Our own lust for power and our feeble attempts to undermine God’s sovereignty, coupled with the inhumanity of countless abortions, should cause us to see the darkness in our own lives and in this world. Our world is not much different than the one the Wise Men encountered, nor the one Jesus experienced, nor the one His disciples faced.

People who love the darkness are not offended by the Incarnation because of the day off, family gatherings, a big feast, the exchange of gifts, but the message of Christmas. The angel’s words to Joseph are extremely troubling: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21 NIV).

It’s the talk of a Savior that people find offensive. It’s the talk of sin and the need for forgiveness. It’s the proclamation of the Savior and the insistence of
Christ Himself that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life — the only way by which people may come to the Father.

Many seem to be not only opposed to the meaning of Christmas but offended by the truth proclaimed in the Christmas Gospel: that Jesus is the King of kings, the Lord of lords and He will reign forever and ever. It is the profound truth that we need a Savior that the self-sufficient, who believe that there is no sin or evil and that we can save ourselves, find so revolting.

While we consider these texts of the Epiphany season, it is important to remember that the light does not come from a secondary source that exposes the truth about Jesus. Rather, Jesus is the Light! He is the Light of the World!

Jesus is revealing Himself. He wants us to know who He is! He comes to us as a baby, not to withdraw into obscurity and leave us with deficient information and confusion concerning His identity, nature and mission. He comes that we might know Him! Faith is a relationship with Christ such that our entire identity is in Him.

All too often we accept the cheap substitutes for this life-giving relationship of faith. We believe in some information about Jesus. We know theologically sound doctrines about Jesus. We may even practice spiritual disciplines. All of that can reflect a religious life, without necessarily knowing the person Jesus Christ. Information, theology, doctrine and disciplines are all good but never a substitute for a relationship with the one Lord, Jesus Christ. He is the  totality of the call to discipleship. Jesus says, “Follow me!”

This season of Epiphany is so important as the Church identifies clearly who Jesus is. We are all taught not to follow a stranger, but this One who entered our world and our lives in Holy Baptism, who comes to us every time we open His Word and who enters our lives again and again with His real presence at the celebration of Holy Communion, wants us to know Him, to be formed by Him, to follow Him, not as a stranger but as the Good Shepherd who has laid down His life for His sheep.

As we learn all that the Scripture reveals about Jesus, the Light of the World, who He is and all that He has done for you and me, the darkness of uncertainty gives way to confident obedience. The response of becoming an obedient disciple of Jesus is not some strange quest, but the only joyful response possible.

I would be remiss to end this letter regarding the season of Epiphany and Luther’s exposition regarding the faithfulness of the Wise Men without reminding you that God’s Word was the most important contributing factor to the successful completion of their journey.

The true nature of faith is that they held fast to the Word. Faith pays no regard to what it sees and feels, but clings only to the Word. The Wise Men were cast down and offended … they passed through a difficult struggle and because they believed the Word, God sent the star even closer to be their guide. … After a spiritual struggle, God is so heartfelt, so near and clear, that not only does a person forget the anguish and the struggle, but they are even more endeared to Him.

So, let us not only cling to the Word but love our neighbor enough to boldly share the truth of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, letting His own light reveal Himself to them. Let us recommit ourselves to faithfully responding to His mission of being His disciples and making disciples of all nations.

May the One who banishes the darkness fill you with His light!


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