Solid food for Epiphany...
NOTE: Here are my worship notes for this coming Sunday - our celebration of the Feast of Epiphany - on January 4th. Most of the liturgy will be given to our children's pageant, but this is a bit of solid food for the adults. Blessings.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany: the meeting of East and West – the original celebration of the Christ Child long before Christmas became part of the Christian tradition. It is the day when Gentiles embraced the wisdom of Judaism while Israel’s King Herod turned his back on the light of the prophets.
It is the occasion when we honor the mystery of God’s love being revealed to Zoroastrian scientists from Persia through the stars, not worship, Bible study or meaningful ministries of compassion and peace. It is a time when children can be playful in the Sanctuary with a pageant while adults contemplate the mysterious and amazing depth and breadth of God’s grace.
It is a time of awe and wonder and light – the celebration of comfort and joy, to be sure – but also so much more, as well. One preacher described Epiphany like this. One this sacred day: God reaches beyond shepherds at the bottom of the barrel to Wise Ones at the top. God reaches beyond people scared witless by God’s glory to those who observe the glorious star at its rising, and methodically, persistently and sincerely follow it to a king. And all along the way, God directs them, first by a star, then via a verse from the prophet Micah, and finally through their dreams. (Working Preacher)
In just a moment our children will share with you this year’s Epiphany Pageant and Tableau – our way of marking the close of the Advent/Christmas arc – and what they have to offer is a vital part of the story. But I also want to give the adults the other part of the story – three key thoughts to ponder about the significance of Epiphany – because this feast day is not about simply for children. It is also about how adults can learn to be surprised by the mysterious presence of God’s grace in our everyday, ordinary, walking around lives. In Romans 12, St. Paul put it like this:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
The ancient church, you see, celebrated their awareness that God’s word – the essence of holy truth – had become flesh – incarnated in Jesus Christ on Epiphany. So, in that spirit, let’s consider these three insights as the Word speaks to our age. With a passing nod to O. Henry, I’m thinking of this message as the three gifts of the Magi.
+ First, let’s visit with the Wise Men – the three Kings – the Magi. As best anyone can tell they represent a paradox within the Christian story. In their own land, Persia – modern day Iran – they were both scientists and part of a priestly caste of astrologers. They were considered astute and reputable guides to the holy. But they were not revered in Israel, right? In the Holy Lands, the Magi were not only Gentiles – unbelievers – they were also star-gazers who were considered ignorant and superstitious. Yet they came to honor the Christ Child while the king of Israel plotted to have him murdered. Call it mystery – or paradox – or challenge, but this part of the ancient story is very contemporary. It tells us that so very often we who are supposed to get it, don’t! We’re too busy, too certain of our own wisdom, too worried, too puffed up, too something… who knows? So God doesn’t wait for us, God shares the blessings of grace with everyone and asks us to catch up. That’s the first insight for Epiphany.
+ Second, after the Magi bring their gifts – and discern through a dream that King Herod is going to punish or trick them if they go back to Jerusalem and report in – the scripture tells us that they “left by another way.” That is, they realized that they couldn’t go back home by the old route. The light had changed them, you see, they were no longer the same people, so they had to operate in a new and different manner. That, too, is something all too easily missed in this story: after Christmas, after we take down the tree and all the decorations, then we want things to get back to normal. We’ve got meetings and things to take care of; we’ve got work to do and people to see and bills to pay. But the Feast of Epiphany says: if we just do that – if we fail to make some changes and try to return to business as usual after the birth of Jesus – there will be trouble. In fact, let me suggest to you based upon this story that IF the Magi had gone back by their usual route, they would have become pawns of King Herod – servants of corruption, violence and greed – people who ignored the call of God’s grace on their lives. That’s the second challenge for us at Epiphany: how are we do advance the light of peace and justice in our lives after celebrating the birth of the Christ child? Business as usual is really not an option…
+ And the third gift of the Magi is equally challenging because what the Wise Men bring to the gospel of Matthew is Christ’s connection to Moses and the prophets. The narrative in Matthew is a Christian midrash on the story of the early life of Moses in Exodus. King Herod is the new Pharaoh – the oppressive king who held Israel in bondage – who plans to have Jesus – the new Moses – murdered. Because of the Magi’s visions and presence of God’s grace, however, that murder doesn’t happen. In the gospel, the holy family escapes to… where? Egypt (another descriptive detail to help us make the Moses connection) just as Israel’s Moses escaped slaughter by being hidden in the river until he could be rescued and cared for in secret. This foreshadowing using the images of Moses helped the early church see Jesus as the one who delivered his people from a cruel tyrant once – and continues to do so now. In fact, as the story matures, after the holy family returns from Egypt – and Jesus grows up to mature in wisdom and grace – what is the next major event in his story? His baptism in the river that sends him into the desert wilderness for… how long? 40 days – not 40 years – but still the connection is clear, yes?
Now let me push the edge of this just a bit: in the tradition, Moses is alwayslinked to the prophets. He was the law giver, yes – or more correctly, the one who articulated God’s law for the people – but the law and the prophets were always intended to be about social justice in the Promised Land. Israel was to be different from Egypt – free from the oppression of Pharaoh – a land NOT in bondage to idols but liberated to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, embrace the lonely and bind up the wounds of the broken. By linking Jesus to Moses, the gospel of Matthew is telling us we, too, have been called to live a different way because of the Christ Child. We have now been joined to both the light of the Lord’s grace AND the witness of Israel’s prophets of social justice.
The three gifts of the Magi – the invitation to follow the light even when it is surprising, the call to live a changed life because of the Christ Child, and the challenge of embracing the justice and compassion of Israel’s prophets – means that after Christmas we cannot go back to business as usual. We must return to our ordinary lives by a new way: arise, shine, beloved, for you light has come and the brightness of God’s love is shining through you upon the whole world. Let it be so, Lord, let it be so.