Epiphany – 2019 LSB #’s 803, 801, 352
Text – Psalm 19:1
The heavens declare the glory of God, & the sky above proclaims His handiwork.
THE HEAVENS DECLARE
In 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope took a famous series of pictures of the Eagle Nebula, a cluster of approximately 460 stars nearly 7,000 light years away. In the midst of the nebula, Hubble captured a section which has been dubbed the “Pillars of Creation.”
The three massive columns “composed of interstellar hydrogen gas & dust are said to act as incubators for new stars” – literally a place where stars are born. Inside these columns & “on their surface astronomers have found knots or globules of denser gas, ‘Evaporating Gaseous Globules.’” It is thought that within these globules are the stars that are being formed.
In the book by C. S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader (from the Chronicles of Narnia series), young Eustace, a boy from our world, encounters a mysterious old man named Ramandu. He soon discovers the surprising fact that Ramandu is actually a retired star, living on an island in the east of the Narnian world after a lifetime of shining in the night sky.
“In our world,” says Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” Ramandu replies, “[but] even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”
Lewis makes a profound & important distinction here often lost on our culture today. Our scientists have been very good at determining what a thing is made of – whether that be stars or snakes, Sally or Sam – but that is certainly different than answering the questions who we are, what we are for, why we are here.
On the other hand, Holy Scripture says very little about what we are made of, but quite a lot to say about the creation in terms of who, what & why. So the Bible may not tell us what a star is made of in the way the Hubble Space Telescope can, but it certainly begins to tell us what a star is. In the very beginning, in Genesis, we learn that the stars have a meaning & purpose beyond the stuff they are made of: they are to light up the sky, they are to mark the seasons, they are to serve as signs or signals of God’s purposes.
Likewise, Psalm 19 ascribes further meaning to the celestial canopy: they declare God’s glory. Without voice or sound, they proclaim a message universal, from one end of the earth to the other. In the stars’ silvery light the beauty of God’s handiwork glimmers. The sun spreads the warmth of its life-giving rays over all the earth.
The deeper we peer into the vastness & mystery of space, the greater our wonder & the more profound the heavenly message. Truly, whether in night or day, the firmament reveals the glory of our Creator. In the words of the poet, Joseph Addison, “[the heavens] all rejoice, & utter forth a glorious voice, forever singing, as they shine, ‘The Hand that made us is Divine.’”
The psalm then moves on to speak about another source of revelation, the Torah Adonai, the Word of God. In it our being & purpose are made known. We are made of cells & atoms, patterned on strands of DNA, but our identity is as creatures who live & move, by & for the Word of God. The only way we can change our identity is to reject God as our Father.
Through His word, God revives the soul, makes wise the simple, gives joy to the heart, & enlightens the eyes. His word is perfect & pure; right & true. Through it God made all things, & by it He guides our lives into that which is more beautiful than the finest gold – that which is sweeter than the sweetest honey: the great reward of life with God.
Reading on, suddenly the psalm changes themes. So disruptive are the next verses to the flow of the psalm that some scholars have thought it to be an entirely different psalm added on at a later date. But the disruption does not lie in the psalm itself nor in its author, it lies with us. The psalm has something more to say about who we are. It reveals what we cannot fully understand or grasp: “Who can discern his errors?” the psalmist cries. We are creatures that have been gifted with the Word of God – a word that warns us of error, yet the psalmist declares that we are so full of errors we can hardly perceive the extent or the breadth of it.
For the psalmist, the fullness of our faults lie hidden; we are unaware of the depth of our sin. Outwardly, we may appear rather decent, but who we are has been deeply marred by sin.
Sinners are people fundamentally estranged from the Creator & creation. We are a people presumptuous in our dealings with one another with a preference for self-made identities, rather than the beauty & sweetness of what God desires to make us by His Word.
Nevertheless, the psalmist is not without hope. Having the Torah Adonai, the instruction & the teaching, the precepts & the promises of Yahweh, the estranged are not cut off. As St. Paul explained in Romans 3, the advantage of Israel lay in this fact: they “were entrusted with the oracles of God.”
The psalmist, struck by the sweetness of God’s word, in contrast to his own errors & faults, prays for forgiveness, for a declaration of innocence. He prays that he would be as God created him to be – free from the dominion of sin. It is a prayer made in hope yet without a clear answer. But today is Epiphany, & Epiphany is about the answer.
Epiphany is when the heavens declare the glory of God anew, & it’s the glory of His new creation. Epiphany is when the word of God moves beyond just Israel & in to the rest of the world. Epiphany is when a new identity for humanity is ushered in: the estranged are brought near, the foreigner becomes friend, the sinner receives a declaration of innocence.
In the Gospel reading we encountered the journey of the magi, led by an incredible star to encounter a prophetic word that directs them to the Word incarnate. It is a remarkable unfolding of the theme of Psalm 19, but on a scale that could not have been imagined heretofore. The stars, created for signs & seasons, shine now as harbingers for a new & eternal spring. The beauty & sweetness of God’s word is now sought & recognized in a child, worthy of sweet smelling incense & precious gold.
In this baby these strangers to God’s word find a new identity: ‘…neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28).
A poem by T. S. Eliot called “Journey of the Magi,” was written as a recollection of one of these eastern travelers. It speaks of the hardness of the journey, the sharp cold, the winter weather, & their regret (at the time), for what they had left behind… all in order to find who-knows-what. But in the last stanza the magi concludes:
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence & no doubt. I had seen birth & death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard & bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
The magi of Epiphany were the beginning of what Paul would call the “mystery hidden
for ages” (Ephesians 3:9), but now brought to light; namely “that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6). This mystery of cosmic scope was the mystery of birth & death – the death of who we used to be as sinners – the birth of who we are now through the gospel of Yeshua. For the birth of Jesus was intended for His death, a death that would encompass the death of all sinners: “for one has died for all, therefore all have died” (1 Corinthians 5:12). And all this was so that in His resurrection we might be born again to life with God.
The good news of who we are in Christ does not stop there. Like the glory declared by the heavens, this news is to “go out through all the earth… [its] words to the end of the world.” Like the sun which shines from one end of the earth to the other, so shall nothing be hidden from the light of this gospel.
Like the psalmist, we pray that in the telling, our minds & our mouths would please God, filled with His word so that we may declare the Lord as foundation & savior of all creation: our Strength & our Redeemer. So let it be for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the works Thy hand hath made, I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed. But when I think that God, His Son not sparing, sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in – that on the cross my burden gladly bearing He bled & died to take away my sin. When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation & take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Then I shall bow in humble adoration & there proclaim: “My God, how great Thou art!” Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee, how great Thou art! How great Thou art! LSB 801:1, 3-4.
 Ode, by Joseph Addison, 1672‒1719.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet