Summary: Considering the appearance of the Greeks who ask Philip to "see Jesus," the sermon reflects on this as an Epiphany story, and upon Jesus as the light of the world.
Words are interesting things. Sometimes all you have to do is look at a word and you can figure out within a few seconds what the word means, even if you’ve never seen the word before. “Christmas” is one of those words. Yes, I know we’ve all heard the word, but take a close look at it written out sometime and it’s very easy to see where the word comes from. “Christmas” is the “Christ Mass” - the day of liturgical celebrations in honour of Christ. That’s easy. “Epiphany” - which on the Western Christian calendar was yesterday - is a little more difficult, because you have to know Greek to see the two connected words, but the meaning is just as clear. “Epiphany” comes from two Greek words, epi and phanos. Literally, epiphany means “at the time of the manifestation.” More colloquially, one might say that epiphany means “the start of the show.” Maybe it’s an appropriate theme for the first service of the new year of 2001. The preliminaries of Christmas are over, we’ve celebrated Christ’s birth and a new year has begun; it’s time for the show to start!
We usually connect Epiphany with Matthew’s account of the visit of the magi to see the Christ child. Now, a lot of legends with no biblical basis at all have grown up around those twelve verses of Matthew that relate this incident to us. Let’s shatter a few myths first. The magi weren’t kings, they were astrologers. The Bible never says there were three of them - it never says how many there were. Nativity scenes aside, the Bible doesn’t say that they visited the Christ child at the manger - Matthew very clearly says they visited a house, and since Matthew also clearly describes Jesus as a child, he probably wasn’t a newborn baby when the visit happened. So we can throw tradition and sentiment out the window as we think of Epiphany. This is serious business here. The story of the magi in Matthew’s Gospel around which the Epiphany usually revolves has a simple and clear point. Christ entered the world not just for the Jewish nation, but for all the world. The magi were Gentiles who recognized that Christ had come for them as well.
I, of course, didn’t share Matthew’s story of the visit of the magi with you this morning. We all know that story. It didn’t need to be read again. I offered you a reading from a very serious moment in the adult life of Jesus. This incident took place after Jesus had entered Jerusalem for the last time; it was, in other words, just before the crucifixion. What does any of that have to do with Epiphany? What is the connection between Matthew’s story about the magi and what we read this morning? Well, in fact, this is John’s epiphany story, if we interpret the epiphany to have been the revelation of Christ to the Gentile world. There are clear differences, of course. Matthew’s epiphany takes place shortly after Jesus’ birth, John’s epiphany takes place shortly before Jesus’ death, but the point is really the same. The context of John’s epiphany account is important. As I said, John’s epiphany takes place just after Jesus had made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hailed by the crowds who lined the streets to see him. “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they had shouted. “The King of the Jews,” Matthew’s magi had called Jesus. And the very last words in the story of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, in the verse just before where I began our reading from John this morning, were from the lips of the Pharisees: “look, the world has gone after him!” And then, to put the fears of the Pharisees into concrete form, appear these Greeks, much like the magi of Matthew’s Gospel, with their plea to Philip: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Whatever their troubles, these Greeks - perhaps proselytes to the Jewish religion, but still Gentiles - had come to see Jesus as their source of hope; as their light shining in the darkness. Indeed, the world had gone after Jesus.