Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our revealed Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today we observe the Epiphany of Our Lord, a feast which follows the 12 days of Christmas and begins the season between Christmas and Lent. Epiphany’s actual date is always January 6.
As most of you know, the word “epiphany” means a revelation of something previously unknown, a discovery of sorts. The word itself comes from two Greek words. The first is epi, which among other things can convey meanings of “upon” or “outward”—as in epidermis, your outermost layer of skin. The second word is phanein, meaning “to show”.
An epiphany, then, is that which becomes outwardly known: The once-hidden becoming visible; the previously-unknown becoming known.
In that regard, then, we could say that a large part of the Holy Scriptures brings us epiphanies of one sort or another. On many occasions, the prophets and apostles have made God’s previously-hidden will known to His people and to the world. Those whom the Lord chooses to receive an understanding of His will also receive the blessing of His truth. They are given the opportunity and the inspiration to repent of their sins. They are granted His gifts and His salvation.
The lessons we heard this morning from the prophet Isaiah, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and from Matthew’s gospel account all speak of epiphanies. They are the readings the Church has used for centuries at Epiphany. These readings tell of people being brought from darkness to light; from mystery to understanding; from ignorance to knowledge.
The reading of the account of the wise men’s visit conveys the truth that Jesus is a Savior for all nations, and that His coming was not only revealed to His own people through the Scriptures, but to those far and wide. Just how the wise men came to know of the connection between the appearance of the miraculous star and the birth of the King of the Jews is a matter of much debate.
Some speculate that these wise men had access to the Old Testament writings by way of Jews who had been exiled to Babylon many centuries before. Others suggest a special revelation was given to them, perhaps by an angelic visit such as Mary and Joseph experienced prior to Jesus’ birth. After all, they did receive a special message from God in a dream, telling them not to return to Herod.
Regardless of just how they came to know of the Christ’s incarnation and nativity, though, the wise men’s visit and their gifts provided fulfillment of God’s prophecies. It also gave further revelation of the Messiah’s coming to His people. Among the prophecies fulfilled by the visit was that which we heard from Isaiah: That gold and frankincense would be brought to God’s Chosen One. These, along with myrrh, are explicitly spoken of as being among the gifts brought by the wise men and offered to the Christ child.
Still, we must be careful not to extend or extrapolate this fulfillment beyond what Scripture tells us. For example, the popular Christmas carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are” presumes that because there were three gifts mentioned in Matthew 2, there must have been three visitors. Early tradition even assigned them names. It also assumes that these visitors were kings, perhaps because kings were mentioned in Isaiah 60 as being among those who would be drawn to the Savior.
Christmas cards often depict the wise men riding on camels, possibly because camels are mentioned in the Isaiah reading. Yet none of these widely-accepted details about the wise men are mentioned in Matthew’s gospel account.
Now, don’t get me wrong: It’s not harmful to sing “We Three Kings,” nor to send Christmas cards showing them riding camels. Far from it. Such things help to remind and connect us and others with the birth of God’s only-begotten Son, and that’s never a bad thing. But we do need to guard against letting such traditions or assumptions become matters of belief if the Bible is silent on them. What’s important is not the number, the possible royal status, or the transportation used by the wise men, but the fact that God used these men to reveal His coming salvation and His glory to the world.
In most cases, revelation of the truth is good. There are some instances, though, in which keeping certain things confidential, even if true, is appropriate and helpful. Matters of national defense, for example. Also, there are ages at which children are emotionally ill-equipped to know all the details about certain topics or certain aspects of family history. And reasonable privacy is an important component of the freedoms we enjoy as citizens, too.
Overall, though, we’re a curious people, and we seek to find and to know truths, and to have the truth revealed to us. The media and various inquiry boards or congressional committees often ask, “What did he know, and when did he know it?” Such revelations about people and events are the basis of accountability. We should be glad when abuses of privilege or the public trust come to light, and when those responsible have to face the consequences.
It’s another story, however, when it comes to revelations about ourselves, isn’t it? We’re all guilty of hypocrisy when too much is revealed and becomes known about us. The fact is, if we were all subject to the same level of scrutiny as those in certain professions or who have a certain degree of celebrity are, we wouldn’t really like some of the things that might be revealed, either.
Today you’ve already heard that we as a congregation are embarking on an effort to become more biblically-informed and spiritually-led stewards of the financial resources that God has given each of us. In part, this program is necessary on account of truths that have been revealed about us as a parish family. Over the past several years, we as a community in Christ have struggled financially. That’s no new revelation to most of you, but it’s still a potentially uncomfortable truth.
What’s also true is that the congregation’s leaders have repeatedly had to appeal to you, year after year, to dig deeper at crucial times to come up with money to try to close recurring budget deficits. That reveals a lot about us, too. It means that many of us within our parish family have a very wrong-headed understanding of Christian giving. It means we think that giving is something we have to do in order to catch up and meet a budget, not something we as good stewards are privileged to do out of the abundance of blessings the Lord has given us.
We also often don’t connect Christian giving with God’s blessings of being able to work in a profession, whether modest or lucrative. We don’t see it as an aspect of living pretty comfortably in a nation of opportunity, or of retiring with an income that far exceeds what most of the world receives for pay even while working full-time at dangerous, back-breaking tasks.
Another revelation about our congregation came to light last summer, as we were preparing for the cottage meetings that many of you attended. It became all too clear that—for the vast majority of the St. Paul congregation—proportional, consistent, first-fruits giving is not a priority. Ten percent of our St. Paul households make no contributions to the church at all. Another third of the households—110 families—give less than ten dollars a week. Half of the households, all lumped together, contribute less than 4% of our total offerings. I know with certainty that our congregational demographics and the spread from the highest earners in the congregation to the lowest earners are not as dramatic as that.
What it really means is two things: First, that we have a lot of people at St. Paul who have their financial priorities screwed up. Second, it also means that I, as your pastor, have been woefully inadequate and ineffective in teaching you and encouraging you to be cheerful, generous givers.
But I can only teach and encourage. I cannot force. I cannot threaten. I cannot demand. I cannot say, “If you, Mr. & Mrs. X, don’t give at least this much to the congregation each year, you’re out!” Nor can I say, “If your giving doesn’t increase, you won’t have salvation!”
Some churches essentially do that, you know. They’ll make you show them your pay stub or tax return, and tell you what you must give. They demand tithing as a condition of membership. They tell you that if you aren’t giving in a certain way, it shows you’re not a genuine believer.
And you know what? Some of those are the churches with pastors wearing $5000 suits and $10,000 watches. Those are the congregations with the 20,000 seat arenas. They have their own TV networks and a helicopter to take the pastor to work from his 22-room mansion. And they’re the churches sending thousands of people down the path toward hell.
But still I have to wonder: How many people here at St. Paul, even though they hear the purely-proclaimed Word and receive the properly-administered Sacraments, to the best of my and Pastor Nuckols’ abilities, are actually harming themselves spiritually because they are unrepentant about being meager, selfish, reluctant givers?
I’m sure that such words about giving are likely to cause a variety of reactions among you. I know this because for a whole lot of years, I was on the out there in pews much like these, listening on the other side of the pulpit. I know what it means to get laid off—not just once, but multiple times. I know what it means to juggle bills and to carefully time mailing the payments because they add up to more than the checking account balance. I know what it means to have five-figure credit card debt.
On the other hand, I also know what it means to work hard to get to the top of an organization, to have a very comfortable six-figure income, and to have Satan whisper in my ear and lie to me, saying, “All this is yours; you earned it; you deserve it; enjoy it all; live it up; spend it or hoard it for yourself; let somebody else take care of the needs at the church.”
Yes, I can anticipate some of the reactions, because I’ve had some of the same ones when I heard and read what Scripture reveals about God, and what it reveals about us, as it relates to giving. Some of you will rightly think, “Pastor, I’m already tithing. I’m already setting aside my church offering before everything else; before mortgage or rent, before utilities, before food and clothing and car and vacation, before other charitable giving, even before income taxes and Social Security.” That’s wonderful, particularly if you’re doing it because you’ve been led to do it out of a grateful, Spirit-filled heart and not out of guilt or brow-beating.
Others are thinking, “How can he expect me to give more to the church, or to give anything to the church? We’re barely making ends meet as it is.” Quite possibly true, and if so, I hope and pray that your financial struggles will not put you in despair, nor give you unnecessary guilt about your lack of giving. But on the other hand, it’s also quite possible that maybe you’ve put your ends too far apart. Maybe you’ve bought into a false dream and false expectations, and are more concerned with what your friends and neighbors think of you than what God gives you and teaches you. If over half of our households give less than $10 a week, what percentage of their incomes is that?
Still others are thinking, “All the pastor and the church want from me is my money.” Really? Are you that cynical? That poorly informed? Don’t you realize that every person on this church’s and school’s staff is both fully capable and motivated enough to hold a far better paying job in the public or private sector, if money was his or her primary concern?
Get over yourself. Your pastors don’t want you to give because we need or worry about money more than you do. I think the fact that our giving to St. Paul is more than 142 other families combined proves we worry about it less.
What we want—not from you, but for you—is your faithfulness. Not faithfulness to us, because we are every bit as sinful and undeserving of God’s gifts as you are. We want your faithfulness to God, and your trust in the many revelations of His gifts and promises He has put in His Word—those many epiphanies, great and small. And we want God’s kingdom to be proclaimed now and for years to come, until Christ returns again, both here at St. Paul and throughout the world.
Giving isn’t about what it does for the pastors or staff, because Lutheran pastors and teachers aren’t in it for the money. Giving isn’t about what it does for Christ’s Church, either, for it will prevail against both the gates of hell and against you being a cheapskate.
And giving most certainly isn’t about what it does for God; He already is the Creator and Master of all things, including your job, your bills, and your bank account. He can snap it all away from you in an instant, if He wished.
No, giving is about what it does for you, and what it reveals about you. Godly giving isn’t about moving money; it’s about moving hearts. Maybe those ideas will be epiphanies for some.
[This Sunday and] For the next three Sundays, there are special Bible studies planned during the Sunday School hour on being Consecrated Stewards. I hope that you will choose participate in these, and in the other Consecrated Stewards events and activities. And I pray that these will lead all of us to a better understanding of what it means to be God’s holy, consecrated people, and therefore how to be Consecrated Stewards of all He has given us—physical and spiritual, earthly and heavenly, temporal and eternal.
Our financial resources are really only one small portion of His gifts, and—in the scheme of His kingdom—a rather insignificant one. Far more important are the lasting gifts that are ours on account of Him who was revealed to the wise men, and whose coming troubled Herod and all Jerusalem—Jesus, the Christ, the child born in Bethlehem.
Contrast, if you dare, the responses of the wise men and Herod to the birth of Him would atone for their sins: The wise men fell at His feet, worshipped Him, and offered Him precious gifts out of what God had provided them. Herod, on the other hand, thought that Jesus was a threat to his enjoyment of earthly things, so he rejected the Messiah and sought to take His life. The lesson is clear: Those who are grateful for God’s blessings are led to praise and thank Him; those for whom His gifts mean little or nothing, or would upset their priorities, simply take, and take, and take some more.
In the end, in the final Epiphany, all will be revealed to us about God. And everything about us will be revealed as well—both good and bad. Indeed, nothing is unknown to God, even now. He sees into our hearts and knows our fears, our joys, our hopes. He knows when we trust Him, and when we don’t.
But most importantly, He knows our frailty and He knows all our temptations, including our reluctance to generously part with the earthly blessings He has so lavishly bestowed upon us. He loves His whole creation, but He loves nothing else as much as He loves us. And so, we receive the greatest heavenly gift: The Son was given for us out of that love, so that by His righteous death our sins of selfishness, our sins of greed, our sins of fear, might all be overcome.
On His account we live free of the fear of death. We live free of the fear of the condemnation of the law. We live free to receive His forgiveness, His promises, His peace. We are granted priceless gifts: His adoption at the font, His reconciliation by His Word, His forgiveness and nourishment and strength at His altar.
May His gift of the Spirit likewise always give you the comfort and assurance that leads to a life of joyful service and sharing. In His holy, precious name, Amen.