January 11, 2015 First Sunday Epiphany
God's Kingdom and the King
By the Rev. Dr. Randolph Constantine
This morning I want to look at some connections to the Feast of the Epiphany that we may not have thought about before.
Consider this for a moment: Celebrations for the Feast of the Epiphany nowadays vary greatly from one denomination to another, but we need to note that the idea to celebrate the Epiphany as a Great Feast originated in the Eastern Orthodox Churches sometime in the mid-to-late fourth century; 361 AD is the date that comes to mind. In the early church, it is obvious that Easter would be chosen as the first and most important Feast. Pentecost was soon recognized as the second Great Feast, and then, as the Church moved out from its early center at Jerusalem and gained more and more Gentile converts, the importance of the Epiphany to the Magi was recognized and came to be celebrated. The celebration of Jesus’ birth as a separate feast had to wait until the 6th century!
Last Tuesday, most of the Christian world celebrated the Great Feast of the Epiphany, to which our Prayer Book gives the alternate title, The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Other Protestant denominations vary in what they do on this Feast, from ignoring it to doing about the same as we do. The Roman Catholic Church no longer celebrates the Epiphany as a fixed Feast on the 6th of January. and it is no longer celebrated for an octave. We, the Reformed Episcopal Church, still hold to the old way that the Feast of the Epiphany is on the 6th of January, that it is celebrated for an octave of 8 days, and that it begins a season of variable length that ends at Septuagesima.
The Eastern Orthodox churches do things a lot differently because many of them also celebrate the Baptism of Jesus on the same day as the Epiphany, but that is often not on the 6th of January because many of them still use the Julian calendar which now differs from the Gregorian calendar we use by 19 days. Times and traditions are different, but we all celebrate one thing: that the Gentiles came to visit the Christ Child and were welcomed. Also, from our perspective on the Bible we can see many prophecies of God’s acceptance of the Gentiles and the working out of those prophecies.
Let me now wander off on a tangent that I hope to connect to the Feast of the Epiphany. In my continuing studies of the Christian religion and how worship is carried out here in these United States, I browse a large number of websites. About a week before Christmas, one of them contained a link to an article by Rick Warren titled, “Four Reasons People Are Reluctant to Visit Your Church and What to Do About It.” I read it, downloaded it, and filed it under Evangelism.
Now, I don’t always agree with everything Pastor Warren says, but I also think he often has something to say that is worth hearing. However, I found his first reason of the four to be pointed somewhat in the wrong direction. As far as I know, Warren does not preach the “Prosperity Gospel,” but sometimes he does come close to preaching what might be called the “Self-Improvement Gospel.” Now we don’t have time to consider all four of his reasons why people might not want to come to our church, so we shall look only at his first reason and relate it to the Epiphany. Warren speaks as if he is an unchurched person talking about church services.
Here is Warren’s first reason: “Church services are boring, especially the sermons. The messages don’t relate to my life. Why should I go? I don’t understand it and it doesn’t really help me.” After some comments about the need to communicate God’s Word in a practical way, he ends his discussion of this first reason people don’t want to come to our church with this: “The unchurched aren’t asking for watered-down messages … just practical ones! They want to hear something on Sunday that they can apply to their lives on Monday.”
Something practical?! I just have to ask: Is there anything more practical than the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Faith in Jesus Christ and trying to live according to His commandments is the only thing that can keep a man or woman from being cast into the outer darkness. What’s more, living according to His commandments will keep you out of trouble with the secular law as well. Is the Gospel practical? You bet it is, and it is what we are called to preach.
Let me talk about something else that is practical in that knowing about it and thinking about it may give you a better appreciation of the language we have been hearing in our readings and lessons for the past month or so. Did you notice a common theme in our first two hymns this morning – “O worship the King” and “As with gladness men of old”? You will see that theme in the Recessional as well.
For us, in the Reformed Episcopal Church, the Feast of the Epiphany is really, the Celebration of the Manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles. Yes, the Magi came to worship Jesus, guided by a light which they called a star because they had no other word for it, a light that Chrysostom said did not behave like a star and perhaps was not even seen by Herod. They came bearing gifts befitting of royalty because, as the Gospel lesson says, the Magi asked in Matthew 2:2 “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” King! Did you get that? King! That is royalty language, something we are not much used to using here in the United States where almost everyone is a small-D democrat. We have very few royalists here. We have no truck with royalty except when we have to deal with some foreign countries, or when we talk about the homecoming king and queen at a high school football game.
However, when talking about Jesus, we are talking about a King who was not just a king, but a person Who is God; not just a god, but GOD – the only God. He is the One to whom we just ascribed in the Creed as being, “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God”. He is the One Whom Isaiah described in, Isaiah 6:5 “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” Whenever Isaiah used the word Lord, he is referring to Yahweh, the God of Israel; and he used that word 411 times in that one book of the Bible, much more often than he used the word, King, which he used only 60 times.
Have you ever wondered what is a Lord? Or what the word Lord means? The usual dictionary definition is something along the lines of "someone who has dominion over others, a master, chief, or ruler." This is the definition given in Liddell and Scott’s “Dictionary of Classical Greek” for the Greek word that is translated as Lord.
Here in the U.S. we don’t take to lords any more than we do to kings; we have no House of Lords in our Congress. Lord as a verb, as in “He lorded it over his employees,” carries with it a very negative connotation to us. There are two words in Hebrew that get translated as Lord. They are Adonoy and, guess what, Yahweh. Adonoy carries with it the connotation of “lord of all” and is used in Deuteronomy 10:17 where the phrase “God of Gods and Lord of Lords” first occurs. Yahweh is God’s own chosen name and is translated either as “God” or as “the Lord God”. There is only one word in Greek that is translated as Lord, and that is Κὐριος, with the definition just given a minute ago. The same is true about the words for king: In Hebrew the word for king is melek, while in Greek it is Βασιλεύς. This is just to tell you that those who translated the Bible from the original languages into English have been consistent for over 600 years and that consistency holds for translations into other languages as well for over 1600 years if we go back to the first translation into Latin.
But here is where it gets interesting. How did we get the word lord in English to mean what it means today. The history of the word in surviving writings goes back to before the story of Beowulf and the writings of King Alfred the Great. The earliest form of it in Old English seems to have been Hlafweord, but by the time of Beowulf and Alfred's writings it had become hlaford. Over time, as often happened in the days before literacy when there was not much of the language preserved in print or writing, the words changed by syllables being dropped and parts of words were run together. First the wuh was dropped out of the middle of the word, leaving Hlaford, and then the h was dropped from the front because la is easier to say than hla; next the f went away, leaving laord, which stayed around for a while before becoming lord. Languages evolve toward laziness and ease of speech.
That weord part of the original word meant a warden, a guard, a keeper or someone in charge of or responsible for something, as in a hay-ward or a wood-ward who took care of the pile of firewood. The question is what was it that the Hlafweord was in charge of? What, in the English of about 600 AD, was a Hlaf? It was a loaf,............ of bread!
The Lord of the manor was the keeper of the bread, the one who meted out the bread, the staff of life. In medieval times, the lord was the keeper and the giver of bread, and thus, at least in secular terms, the lord of ilfe itself. To say that Jesus is Lord is to say that Jesus is the keeper and the giver of bread. But in the Gospel of St. John at John 6:35 we read: “And Jesus said unto them, ‘I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. ‘” Jesus is not just the keeper and giver of the bread; He is the Bread, the bread of life of which we shall partake soon. He gave Himself on the Cross and took on Himself the punishment for our sins. Jesus is Lord, and Jesus is King, not just of the Jews, as the Magi thought; for He is the King and Lord of all.
For more than half of His ministry, Jesus let his disciples think that as the Messiah, the Son of David, He had come only for the Jews. Both they and the Pharisees completely ignored all of the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and especially the one from Malachi 1:11, where Malachi records God’s saying. “For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the LORD of hosts.”
One wonders if any of the disciples or Pharisees knew of what the old man Simeon said on the day Jesus’ Mother Mary took Him to the temple as a babe on the day of her purification. As we read in Luke 2:25-32: “And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ. And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.’”
Jesus even implied that He had come only for the Jews at the beginning of His meeting with the Syro-phoenician woman in Mark 7, but in the end He healed her daughter. Later he healed other Gentiles such as the centurion’s servant. The disciples did not know what to think until the day of Pentecost. But the truth is that he did in fact come to offer salvation to all people.
The Magi were led by the Holy Spirit to come and give Him homage as the King of the Jews, just as Simeon was led by the Spirit to say what he said so that Gentile Christians such as we, hundreds of years later, might know that we too can be saved to eternal life with Him.
Where will that life be? We are told in the Book of Revelation it will be in God’s kingdom, here on this earth; but this earth will not be at all like it is now, for it will have been cleansed and renewed. And in Revelation we are told that God will not be in some far off Heaven, for Revelation 21:3 tells us: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.’”
We know that we are using the right words when we speak of Jesus as Lord and King when we have read this passage in Revelation 19:11-16: “Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. …He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.” Three verses later it says: “On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.”
Why this language? What is the practicality of it? Because God, and Jesus is God, is the only true royalty. What can be more practical than knowing the proper language to speak when we worship God in His kingdom and in His throne room? The earth that is described in Revelation 21 and 22 will be the only true theocracy because it will be ruled by God Himself, and there will be peace there forevermore. Would you not want to be there with the psalmist who sang to God in Psalm 84, “For a day in Thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.”
Our Lord Jesus came for all men, that we too might be His people and live with Him. This is the meaning of the Epiphany. Let us worship our God, our Lord and our King!