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. 

Second Sunday after Christmas

Mary (1).jpegSecond Sunday after Christmas – January 5, 2020 – Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 – Trinity, Winchester

Paraphrasing Charles Dickens’s famous first line, it is fitting to say, “The wise men had left, to begin with.” Today’s Gospel tells us of the events following the departure of the Magi.

This might seem odd seeing as how tomorrow is the Feast of the Epiphany. That’s when we celebrate the coming of the Magi, “the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles,” as it were. But today, on the Second Sunday after Christmas, we have chosen—one of three options—to read Matthew’s account of what happens after they depart.

Sometimes we get a bit out of order; that’s fine. The underlying—and everlasting—truth remains the same. And so Matthew tells it: an angel appears to Joseph saying, “Get up, take the child and Mary, and flee to Egypt. Remain there until further notice. King Herod is searching for the child so that he can kill him.”

So Joseph takes his family to Egypt by night, and there they wait until the angel again appears to Joseph saying, “Get up and take the child and his mother to the land of Israel. Those who were seeking to kill the child are dead.”

So Joseph takes Jesus and Mary toward Israel, but he is frightened to learn that Herod’s son is ruling there, so they go instead, at the Lord’s instruction, to Nazareth in Galilee.

By his own admission, Matthew includes this information in his Gospel account to validate the biblical prophecy that calls both for the Messiah to come “out of Egypt” and to be “a Nazorean.”

It does far more than that for us today. This morning we are arrested by the story’s striking violence. (Violence which the lectionary people have edited out.) A king is killing children in order to find the one child about whom it has been said, “He has been born King of the Jews.” This tale of violent human desperation seems to undermine the divine message of Christmas.

Today’s collect tells us that God became human in order to wonderfully restore the dignity of the human race he created. By virtue of the miraculous incarnation we share in the divine life. As we said on Christmas Eve, such a heavenly gift can seem to be at odds with the human wickedness apparent in Herod’s response.

On the one hand, we are emboldened by God’s grace. We share in his divine life by virtue of the fact that he sent his only Son to become one of us. On the other, we are saddened by depraved human response. A black-hearted despot seeks to take the life of the One who gives us that promise.

There is indeed a tension, a peculiarity, a confusion about all of this. However, it’s not that surprising that we should end up feeling some uncertainty about the events surrounding God’s drawing near.

How else are we to experience it? With perfect clarity? I dare say it would make even less sense if it all made perfect sense! We do not—we cannot—all of the sudden understand the miraculous ways of God.

Matthew’s account of these events reveals this good news: even in the dark, violent reality of the human story—a reality in which rulers do all that they can to cling to power—God chooses to become one of us, to give us all a glimpse of true salvation.

What’s more, God will never let us go. In the miracle of the incarnation God became human so that even in our humanity we may be made like God, at least, insofar as we can be in this life.

The Apostle Paul says it this way in his letter to the Ephesians: “[God] destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”

God has adopted us all by grace in Jesus Christ. That has been made clear in the incarnation. Good Christian friends, rejoice! There is no greater gift. You didn’t have to do anything to earn it. In fact, there is nothing that you could do to earn it, but God gives you this gift anyway.

Alas, even in our joy we must admit that there is perhaps one problem with the gift. Not God’s problem, but ours. This adoption that God has designed for us through Jesus is not ours alone, but everyone’s. That, too, can be hard to reconcile.

That means Jews, but it also means Gentiles. Those who keep the law, and those who don’t. That means the free, but it also means the slaves. Those who can do what they want, and those who can only do what they have to do. And that means you, but it also means Herod. Those who gather in the promise of grace and love, and those who summon violence and brutality out of fear.

How do we deal with the fact that the gift of grace is available to all? I think the answer to that has a lot to do with understanding the true nature of being human, which God understood completely through the incarnation.

Imagine that you have been as evil as Herod. You’ve not killed innocent children, but perhaps you’ve misbehaved in other ways, even metaphorically, in your heart or mind.

The scandalous message of the incarnation is that God loves all of us, even the worst of us. Could there be anyone worse than Herod? It’s hard to imagine that. Could there be any just as bad? Yes. Indeed, human history is littered with them.

Even though we may want revenge on such dastardly people, God does not. Instead of revenge, God desires redemption, the redemption of everyone. No matter what, God will always love you.

The Herods of this world continue to break God’s heart just as they have for millennia, but each time they infect this earth with their evil, God finds a new antidote for redemption. Even in the worst of times, God still triumphs.

Up until this point I’ve been making my case using Matthew’s gospel account, but to sum it up I want to turn to Luke. In chapter six verse 35 Jesus tells us something especially fitting in light of today’s lesson. “[God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Even though such a divine trait may be beyond our human understanding, it makes perfect sense to the God that feels nothing but love for those created in the divine image.

All you need to know is this: No matter how awful, hateful, or terrible his children turn out to be, God is the kind of parent who loves them, seeks them out, bids them return to the fold, and throws a big ol’ party to celebrate when they finally come home.

For that we can only say, “Thanks be to God” . . . and perhaps, “Merry Christmas!”

 

Photo: Nativity Window, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City, Missouri.