Traditionally Epiphany celebrates the Wise Men visiting Jesus, and immediately that raises a whole bunch of questions. After all, they figure out what’s going on because they’re familiar with stars and prophecies, but all that knowledge is from outside a Jewish context. Effectively they’re astrologers, as far as we know, and Judaism wasn’t all that impressed with astrology. And yet, in this case at least, studying the stars leads them to Jesus. It’s almost like, for once, God is speaking a different language to bring those who are far away into his family.
And yet, despite this, the Magi don’t quite get it. They find themselves in a palace in Jerusalem, not a stable in Bethlehem; they’re working to a stereotype of what a king should be, not the reality of who Jesus was, and because of this they’re just one angelic dream away from screwing everything up.
So we’ve basically got a bunch of people half making it up as they go along, possessing some knowledge of the situation (the gifts they bring are prophetic, whether that’s intentional or not), but also blessed with a new vision – an epiphany of the Messiah. Of course their misunderstanding is imperfect – whose isn’t? Frankly, this blog is just my way of trying to figure this stuff out, same as everyone else who tries to get to grips with the Bible. It’s big and complicated and fascinating and worrying and sometimes it would be really, really nice to have an epiphany that straightens out all those tricky bits.
We start with Jesus though, not that he’s easy to figure out either. That’s my only real problem with the WWJD? bracelets that were popular a few years ago – Jesus didn’t always do what people thought he would. He did the unexpected and he’s not the sort of person you can tame by sticking him into a pigeon-hole somewhere. Jesus is bigger than that.
Heck, even his relatives didn’t have him figured out. Look at John the Baptist’s reaction to him in John chapter 1 – “I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
John was Jesus’s second cousin, or at least a member of the family. Look at the Nativity narratives, Mary and Elizabeth both know their children will grow up to be the key players in God’s plan of salvation. Thirty years later and Jesus comes to be baptised by John and John only then seems to recognise that he’s the Messiah. Wasn’t he expecting his cousin to show up as liberator one day? Didn’t the family talk about this stuff? Didn’t his mom or dad tip him off?!
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Epiphany also celebrates the baptism of Jesus, and so it’s worth thinking about John’s revelation that Jesus was the Messiah. Because for all we think we know Jesus, for all we believe we can put him in a box and use him to rubber stamp our politics and our prejudices, sometimes he’s a surprise, a shock, an unexpected arrival into a belief system we thought we’d all got figured. If John the Baptist needed the Holy Spirit to point him in the right direction, when he’d grown up in the same family as Jesus, the rest of us definitely need to put some work into finding out what Jesus expects of us.
So maybe this Epiphany, it’s worth asking God to give us a fresh vision of Jesus and to show us the truth of Christ, not the stereotypes that lead us astray. We need to find ourselves in Bethlehem’s stable, not Herod’s palace.