Disney’s animated movie The Lion King, portrays the struggle between good and evil through the adventures of a lion named Simba. Son of the lion king, Simba faces several challenges as he comes to terms with his royal heritage. In the opening scene, the long-awaited announcement of Simba’s birth is carried throughout the valleys and plateaus of Africa. Tribal drums and African chants herald the cub’s arrival. Elephants, gazelles, antelopes, vultures, zebras, giraffes, gulls, even tiny ants journey to receive the new royalty. They climb hills, descend sloping canyons, forge streams, and hike jungle paths. Once all the animals arrive in adoring reverence and praise, the infant cub is presented to the gathered subjects. Rafiki, the monkey elder, lifts the new born high above his head to symbolize Simba’s exalted calling. Symbolically, this is a grand picture of the Son of God, who came into the world as an infant and was exalted as king.
The Feast of Epiphany in the Christian Calendar (held on the 6 January in the Western Church) celebrates the self-revelation of God the Son as a human being in the Person of Jesus Christ. In Western Christianity, the feast commemorates principally (but not solely) the visit of the Magi or Wise Men to the Christ child, bearing symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Epiphany (which comes from the New Testament Greek word epiphaneia meaning ‘a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization’) however, is not just one day in the Church Year but a whole season (lasting several weeks) between Christmas and Lent. This Season of Epiphany provides us with an opportunity to explore two particular themes that are right at the heart of the Christian Gospel, namely that a) genuine Christian experience is born of a work of God deep within us whereby he breathes new spiritual life into people who previously were spiritually dead as a result of sin, and b) this ‘Good News’ (of what God has made possible for us in Christ) is for all people (not just for Jews).
Traditionally, the Season of Epiphany provides us with the opportunity to explore – to ‘underline’ or even ‘drive home’ – these two great themes in more detail by considering certain ‘happenings’ in the Gospel Story where God reveals himself in Christ to various people in particular situations. The stories themselves can vary, depending on how many weeks there are in the Season of Epiphany (there are many, many differing illustrations one could draw from in the Gospels), but normally there are three specific stories that we come back to year after year. These are the Visit of the Magi or Wise Men to the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12), the Baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:21,22), and the Wedding at Cana in Galilee (John 2:1-11). We could somewhat facetiously sum these up as being about ‘Wisdom, Water, and Wine … Lots and Lots of Wine!’ In reality each story has so much to teach us if we take time to listen and comprehend what is being taught here.
Obviously it is impractical to attempt to unpack each of these three stories in their entirety but perhaps a simple thought from each in turn may be help to reinforce the wonderful twin truths associated with Epiphany: that God reveals himself in a dynamic way to hearts and lives that are open to him, and that this wonderful ‘Good News’ is for every single one of us – not just for some special elite!
In the story of the Visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12) we see that the Magi were indeed ‘wise men’ (even though the story doesn’t use those actual words to describe them). It has been said that the difference between ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’ is that ‘knowledge’ is the accumulation of facts whereas ‘knowledge’ is the ability to make sense of those facts and use them in an intelligent and profitable way. We live in a world that is brimming over with ‘knowledge’ … but seemingly sadly lacking in ‘wisdom’ in so many ways. The world we live in today has never been more ‘knowledgeable’ but so much of our ‘knowledge’ is used negatively and selfishly, to further ‘man’s in humanity to man’ rather than for the alleviation of poverty, disease and violence and the ‘common good’ of all humankind. The ‘Magi’ were definitely men of great learning. The word ‘Magi’ was the title given to priests in a sect of the ancient Persian religions such as Zoroastrianism. Today we would called them ‘astrologers’. Back then astronomy and astrology were considered part of the same overall ‘science’ and went hand in hand with each other. The Magi would have followed the patterns of the stars religiously. They had seen an unusual new star in the sky, and knew (possibly from their study of the Old Testament Scriptures) that it told of the birth of a special king. They also knew something of who this special child was, and what the future held for him – hence their symbolic gifts of gold (a gift for a king), frankincense (a gift for a priest), and myrrh (a gift for someone about to die). Matthew tells us that, ‘On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him’ (Matthew 2:11)! These ‘Wise Men’ (for all their wealth and position) humbled themselves and ‘bowed the knee’ to Jesus Christ … and wise men and women today still do!
The story of the Baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:21,22) once again reveals a lot about who Jesus was. In just a couple of verses Luke tells us that at his baptism ‘the Holy Spirit descended on [Jesus] … and a voice came from Heaven [the voice of God the Father’]: You are my Son, whom I love – with you I am well pleased’ (Luke 3:22). What is particularly intriguing for us, however, is that Jesus was baptised even though he didn’t really need to be baptised? John the Baptist’s ‘baptism’ was ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Luke 3:3) and we know that Jesus lived a completely sinless life (Hebrews 4:15). So if Jesus had nothing to repent of, why was he baptised? Well, Jesus went though the waters of baptism partly in order to identify with us, with the rest of sinful humanity, with all the sinful people like us that he had come to save by (in some mystical way beyond explanation) taking our place and atoning for our sins. As the Apostle Peter tells us ‘[Jesus] himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness … by his wounds you have been healed’ (1 Peter 2:24). Full immersion in running water is associated with bodily cleansing from dirt … and in much the same way ‘baptism’ (as the ‘outward demonstration of an inward reality’) is associated with spiritual cleansing from sin and its effects. How many times have you heard someone say (or maybe even said it yourself): ‘If only I could wipe the slate clean? If only I could start all over again?’ This particular ‘Epiphany Story’ tells us that we can indeed do just that … with God’s help!
The story of the Wedding at Cana in Galilee (John 2:1-11) is one of my favourite New Testament stories (and not just because I am a member of the Wine Society). This story is unique to the Apostle John, and like the rest of John’s Gospel (written c.96 AD, some 30 or so years after the Synoptic Gospels, and the fruit of much reflection as to what was really important in the Christian message) is pregnant with hidden meaning. One could ‘wax eloquent’ on John’s use of the word ‘sign’ (rather than the normal word for ‘miracle’) to describe Jesus’ miracles (not least the miracle involved in turning water into wine) … suggesting that his ‘miracles’ were never meant to be ‘an end in themselves’ but rather pointers as to who Jesus really was! We could discuss whether or not there is a connection between this particular miracle occurring ‘on the third day’ (John 2:1) and the fact that Jesus himself rose again from the dead ‘on the third day’ (1 Corinthians 15:4); or whether this ‘Marriage Feast at Cana’ in Galilee foreshadows the ‘Marriage Supper of the Lamb’ (Revelation 19:6-9) at the end of all things? But what struck me most of all was the simple fact that in this story Jesus ‘turned water into wine’ … and gallons of it at that! According to John, when the wedding reception ran out of wine and Jesus was asked for help, he instructed the servants to ‘Fill [six stone jars] with water … right up to the brim’ (John 2:7). These jars were not your normal clay pots but huge stone jars used for ceremonial washing. Each jar held between 20-30 gallons … signifying that Jesus didn’t just turn water into wine here, not even just good quality wine, but he created gallons of the stuff … far more than it would have been possible for everyone to have drunk (without becoming totally incapable of finishing off the lot before passing out)! John is making a point here. ‘Wine’, in the Bible, is often symbolic of the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s heart and life. Thus we find Jesus talking about the importance of being filled with the Spirit in terms of ‘putting new wine in new wine skins (not in old wine skins which might break)’ (Matthew 9:17). So here, John is underlining the wonderful truth that when we open our hearts and lives to Jesus he not only turns drab, watered down lives into the rich wine of new life in Christ but that this new life in Christ is ‘abundant life’ or ‘life capable of being lived to the full’ (John 10:10)!
Here’s an epiphany to have and hold,
A truth that you can taste upon the tongue,
No distant shrines and canopies of gold
Or ladders to be clambered rung by rung,
But here and now, amidst your daily living,
Where you can taste and touch and feel and see,
The spring of love, the fount of all forgiving,
Flows when you need it, rich, abundant, free.
Better than waters of some outer weeping,
That leave you still with all your hidden sin,
Here is a vintage richer for the keeping
That works its transformation from within.
‘What price?’ you ask me, as we raise the glass,
‘It cost our Saviour everything he has.’
~ Malcolm Guite