Epiphany means a couple of things in English. It is most commonly known as a realization, often sudden, of some magnificent truth. It is a moment when things suddenly make sense and you can see life more clearly. Like when you finally see the old man and young woman in the same picture. Or when you can see the jazz musician and young lady in the same silhouette. That moment is a small epiphany. But there is another, more ancient, meaning of epiphany. Throughout literature it is known as the manifestation of a divine being. The moment when one of the gods appears, speaks, or somehow intervenes in regular life.
The season of Epiphany embodies both of these definitions. It is both the manifesting and revealing of God in Jesus and the realization of just who Jesus is and what God is really up to by the disciples. Life with God is a mixture of revelation and realization. That is what this season is about. It is his epiphany to us and our epiphany of him. So these are the questions, I want to be asking over the next couple of months: Just who is Jesus? and What is God really up to?
Sometimes epiphanies are not sudden. Sometimes realization is a slow moving thing. Sometimes it is years of thought, contemplation, studying, and prayer. Sometimes it wears you down to the final thread of hope. That’s how it was for the disciples. That’s certainly how it was for Israel. That’s how it plays out in some of the readings for this week:
When John first introduces Jesus to his disciples he says, “Look, it’s the Lamb of God!” The lamb, considered the purest of all the animals of Israel. “Look, this man is innocent and holy—without a blemish,” is what they would have heard. So they take off after him. “Rabbi” they say to him, “where are you staying?” “You are righteous and full of knowledge. We want to see how you live. Teach us what you know.” The realization of who Jesus is is slow. After they spend some time with him, they have finally realized, “We have found the Messiah!” But what does that really mean?
The passage from Isaiah begins in a similar way. “I am the Lord’s servant,” he says, “so that Jacob’s children will return to him. So that Israel would be gathered to him.” What is God up to? He’s saving his people. His chosen nation, the people of Israel. And who is Jesus? He’s a righteous man. He’s a good teacher. He’s even the Messiah, meant to become king of the Jewish people!
This is the slow realization at play. Yes, that is some of the truth, but not all of it. The epiphany is in progress. But what more is true?
We back up to see what John really said about Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” This man is not just any lamb. He is the passover lamb. He is not here to live in holiness. He is here to die and make us holy. Like the slaughtered lamb, the crucified Messiah will take away our sins. He is not merely a teacher or a man to be made king. “I bear witness that this is the Son of God.“
And what of God’s purposes in the world? He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world! This is no rescue mission for the Jews alone. He has come to save the whole world! So just who is Jesus and what is God up to? Maybe the Isaiah passage says it the best:
It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.