For Epiphany, 2021

The Epiphany – January 6, 2021 – Matthew 2:1-12

On the Feast of the Epiphany, we celebrate God’s manifestation among us in the flesh of Jesus Christ, which sounds a lot like what we celebrate on Christmas. Interestingly though, the celebration of Epiphany is older than the celebration of Christmas. The first mention of Epiphany comes from around the turn of the third century, and from those early days, the feast emphasized God’s physical manifestation among us by focusing on three specific biblical accounts from the life of Jesus—his baptism, his first miracle at Cana, and the rising of the star that led the Magi to him. [1]

To say the least, Christmas and Epiphany are linked. By the late fourth century, aspects of Jesus’ nativity began to be incorporated in Epiphany observances, but they were far from its main focus. Eventually, Christmas became the widely observed feast celebrating Jesus’ birth that we know it to be today.  

Because we hear each year on this night Matthew’s story of the Magi, it’s easy to think of Epiphany as the end of the Christmas season, especially when we make a big deal about reminding each other that Christmas isn’t just one day, but twelve. For this reason, we may be tempted to approach Epiphany looking back toward Christmas. This is the night on which our wise men figurines finally arrive at the crèche. Of Epiphany (and I might be the only millennial who can quote him) Paul Harvey might say, “Now you know the rest of the story.” On Epiphany, tie the Christmas season up with a bow like those packages torn apart under the tree. And tomorrow, take the decorations down!

Epiphany is far more than any of these. It is a hinge on which swings our incarnational focus from Jesus’ nativity to Jesus’ ministry. It’s not about looking back at Christmas. It’s about looking forward to a season in which we, like those early Christians, will experience God’s incarnation through accounts of Jesus’ baptism, his miracles, his calling of the disciples, and yes, with Magi who follow the star.

It is very important to remember, especially on a day like today, which has become one of turmoil in the life of our nation, that Epiphany is about looking forward. This is not to say we should ignore present events. What happened today in Washington D.C. happened for a reason. If we refuse to look for those reasons, or deny that they exist at all, we will surely become part of the problem. So yes, we must take stock of the gruesome reality of present events. No doubt about it! But we must also look forward in anticipation of our response to them. 

What better example could we have for this than the Magi? Tonight, we celebrate not only that God is revealed to the Magi in the flesh, but that they recognize it when it happens! The Magi recognize Jesus for who he is. And when the power-obsessed, status-obsessed, legacy-obsessed King Herod tries to use them as a part of his violent plan for self-preservation, they don’t take the bait. Instead, they follow the Prince of Peace on a path of peace. They refuse to engage in violent subversion of a divine plan. They choose to open their hearts and their minds to God. They have met the source of all life’s love, and their lives are forever changed as a result. 

Isn’t that our story, too? We have met Jesus, and because of it we are called to preach his Gospel of peace. So this night we pray for the Spirit to bestow upon us the wisdom of those “wise men” of old. God’s wisdom. Wisdom that will recognize the division in our nation. Wisdom that will acknowledge the anger of others even as we feel our own. Wisdom that will prohibit violence and rage. Wisdom that will keep us looking forward. Wisdom that will walk the way of peace. 

It is tempting to go down a path of selfish bitterness, to thwart plans that are not ours. But the violent road of self-interest is all too well trod. We best not venture too far down it, lest we meet despair. Better to follow the Magi’s example, to live into God’s wisdom, and to return to our country—and God’s heavenly one—by another road.

[1] Alexander, J. Neil, Celebrating Liturgical Time: Days, Weeks, and Seasons (New York: Church Publishing, 2014), 36.

Epiphany 2020

Feast of the Epiphany – January 6, 2020 – Matthew 2:1-12 – St. Mary’s, Sewanee

This is a revised excerpt from something that I’ve done before. Nevertheless, I had fun, and I hope you do, too.

You’ve no doubt heard it before, so I apologize, but Christians do often characterize Epiphany as an “Aha!” moment.

I think we do this because we tend to focus on the magis’ discovery of Jesus instead of their search for him. Their discovery is—quite literally—an epiphany, a sudden revelation. Beholding the incarnate God in a manager, these wise folks behold love, salvation, grace, and peace. Jesus Christ. The Messiah. The answer. Right there in front of them. 

As true as that may be—as a mentor of mine likes to say, “You know, I actually believe this stuff!”—it’s just not always the way it works.

I’m guessing that most of you have come again to this feast without a sudden realization of some great truth. I’m guessing that you didn’t wake up this morning with a game-changing Christian insight. If you’re like me, you can go for months at a time without feeling spiritually satisfied. 

When it comes to faith, answers don’t always fall into our laps. Big truths are rarely all-of-the-sudden made clear. Don’t fret. God can do much more with a curious mind than with a satisfied one.

Epiphany is more than a sudden revelation, an “Aha!” moment that reveals all of the answers necessary for a vibrant life of faith. Epiphany is also about a constant search for God. That’s a good thing. We are, after all, much more familiar with searching than we are with discovering, right?

Let Epiphany be your renewed opportunity to embolden your curiosity and steadfastly search for God’s truth by asking questions, studying scripture, taking your joys and concerns to God in prayer, and seeking and serving Christ in all persons.

To put it differently, Epiphany is not just about what we find in the manger; it’s also about looking up at a star and asking, “Where do I go from here?”

Like many captivating stories, today’s gospel has a good cliff-hanger. Having lived into their curiosity, the magi searched for and discovered Jesus, but that can’t be the end of their story. No one would travel all that way only to say, “Been there, done that.” Meeting Jesus is more than a trip to Hoover Dam. This is God-made-man! Something had to be stirred up inside of them.

Meeting Jesus is only the beginning of our journey with God. The question is, what happens next?

I know a woman, perhaps you know her, too. She wandered into worship one Sunday morning just because she’d driven by the place so many times and read the pithy little sayings on the sign out front. She met some people, sang some songs, passed the peace, and listened to the sermon.

She was so moved by what she experienced that during coffee hour she signed up to come back and distribute food to the homeless that week. And she was so touched by that experience that she joined the regular volunteer rotation. Before long she was singing in the choir and driving the church van. Within the year she even invited a few friends to come along with her.

It’s amazing what happens when you meet Jesus. It transforms your life. It gives you a new perspective. It changes your priorities.

Today you have come once again to meet Jesus; in the breaking of the bread, in the hearing of the Word, in the prayers. I wonder how it will change you. I wonder how your journey with God will begin anew.

Really. I’m curious. I hope you are, too. 

A mother knows

Second Sunday after the Epiphany – January 20, 2019 – John 2:1-11 – Trinity, Winchester

Have you ever been to a wedding? This is one of the very few times in my career that I expect to incorporate audience participation into a sermon. Really, feel free to answer. Have you ever been to a wedding? 

I thought so. (That concludes the audience participation portion of the sermon. The following questions are rhetorical.)

At that wedding did the host run out of something crucial? Did the buffet or bar run low? Can you imagine the embarrassment? 

At my sister Erika’s wedding the prime rib (or whatever it was we had) ran out. Instead of replacing it with what she had ordered, the reception hall manager replaced it with beef and broccoli. My mother, keeping track of all such things, was not happy. 

She felt embarrassed. Were people eating more than we expected? Did the venue not prepare enough food? Or was it simply a case of miscommunication? Regardless of the reason, it was frustrating. It’s not that any of our guests were pretentious enough to care. It’s just not the way that my mom—not to mention my sister—had envisioned the evening going. It’s not what they had planned. 

Today, we hear that Jesus is with his mother at a wedding in Cana. Keeping track of such things, as mothers do, Mary says to Jesus, “They’ve run out of wine.” 

I imagine Jesus’ good mother brought this up because she knew the implications. This could potentially be embarrassing. Someone would need to intervene to help the hosts avoid humiliation.

“What business is it of mine, woman?” replies Jesus. This response seems a bit harsh. Some translations render it, “Woman, what have you to do with me?” or “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” I wouldn’t want to be caught talking to my mother that way. I wonder if I could even get away with it. Then again, I’m not the Son of God. 

“Oh woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” Jesus’ response to his mother indicates that he doesn’t think he’s ready for public ministry, but Mary is about to push him into it anyway.

God has plans for Jesus that few can fathom, but I think Mary must have an idea. Call it women’s intuition. I’ve heard it said, especially when it comes to the secrets of a son, “A mother knows.” 

Mary knows something about her son, his purpose for the world, and his power. She’s asking him to do something about the lack of wine because she knows and trusts that he can. 

“Not yet,” says Jesus. “My hour has not yet come.” But Mary doesn’t give into that. She shows us that she believes in her son from the very beginning.

The servants follow her example. They do what he tells them to. “Standing there were six stone water jars…each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’” They filled them up to the brim, and again at Jesus’ command they drew some out and took it to the chief steward who tasted that it was wine. 

This miracle story at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry is an Epiphany story. It is a story of God made manifest by the working of a miracle in Galilee. This miracle revealed God’s glory in Jesus Christ. The text tells us that, because of this sign, Jesus’ disciples believed in him. 

But the disciples weren’t the first ones to believe him. For his disciples it may have taken the impossible act of turning water into wine to spark their belief, but Jesus’ mother trusted in her son even before the miracle occurred. Even before she saw the sign, she trusted that Jesus’ path was a greater path, and in turn she instructed the servants to obey him as well.  

Mary knows a little something about the life-giving power of Jesus, so she urges him to go public with it. Mary has been with him from the very beginning of his earthly life, and I’ll bet she’d seen signs of it before. Her unconditional faith in her son initiated a series of events that led many others to witness the revelation of the glory of God.

Just as the glory of God was present at the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God’s glory is present in this story. Today in its hearing, you and I are able to catch a glimpse of all that is possible with Jesus, the incarnate God. 

Just like Mary, we know the life-giving power of Jesus. And just like her, it is our job to spread it around by pointing to Jesus and trusting that he can handle the rest. 

Catching a glimpse of a miracle may provide the proof necessary to believe in Jesus, but I wonder if we, like Jesus’ dear mother, are willing to believe even when we haven’t seen it yet, even when it seems impossible.

Help My Unbelief!

February 20, 2017 – Mark 9:14-29 

You can watch and listen to this sermon by clicking here.

Take a trip with me back to Mark chapter six. Jesus called the disciples, “and began to send them out two by two and he give them authority over unclean spirits.”

Their confusion is understandable, then, when in chapter nine they ask, “Why could we not cast it out?” It says right there that he gave the Twelve authority over demons.

So why didn’t it work with this boy?

Jesus’s answer is revealing: “This kind can only come out through prayer.”

“Teacher,” the boy’s father calls, “I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.”

Again, Jesus’ response is revealing. “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.”

“You faithless generation!”

We don’t know how exactly he said it. We don’t have any “non-verbal” clues. It can be tempting to manufacture our own, but forget any imagined tone of voice—just look at the words.

“How much longer much I put up with you?”

“This kind can only come out through prayer.”

The disciples and the scribes had been arguing, but their arguments only point toward themselves, a natural response when we feel like we’ve got something to prove.

While attempting to defend their own efforts, they forgot that it’s really about prayer.

“If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us,” the father cries.

He’s in an impossible situation. He’s come to a group of supposedly-certified healers and they’ve not been able to do anything for his son.

His faith it’s at the breaking point. “If you can do anything, Jesus, please just do it!”

That “if” language doesn’t exactly exemplify the unblemished faith that we all strive for, but nevertheless it is the reality of our own days and nights.

Every day we stare into the faces of faithless people, and we too lose faith. In an effort to reclaim that faith we often look to ourselves. Sometimes we are as sure as we can be that we will be saved by our own efforts, that we have all the prayers, all the faith—ALL it takes.

It’s not about winning an argument in order to *prove* that we have the ability. It’s not about us.

It’s about prayer, and faith, and God.

Jesus tells each of us: you have the power to be self-aware enough to recognize that it’s not about you.

He reminds us that we still need God.

He reminds us not of the basic truth that God can do anything through us, but rather he calls to mind the complex realization that we cannot do anything without God.

We depend on a God who wants what is best for us.

Do you hear it?

Our participation in God’s glory is not limited to our inwardly-focused testimony, “I believe.”

Rather it is more fully realized in the courage of our humble refrain: O God, “Help my unbelief!”