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.

Any of them

Alfred the Great – October 26, 2017 – Wisdom 6:1-3, 9-12, 24-25; Luke 6:43-49

It’s hard to preach on our more legendary saints. It’s hard to know which parts of their stories are purely myth and which parts are not. Alfred is no exception.

It’s even harder to preach on a saint who is not named something like Luke, Andrew, or Thomas. It’s easier to explain apostles and evangelists. We know them through scripture that is sacred and inspired.

Alfred doesn’t have scripture. He has a Netflix series, but that doesn’t quite cut it.

Honestly, I get uncomfortable preparing to preach on saints like Alfred. I was once outside of this tradition. I thought, those people let their worship of saints get in the way of their worship of God. Nowadays, I know that’s not true. My faith has been enriched by a tradition filled with saints.

But somebody like Alfred? Really? He’s a king for crying out loud! How very Anglican it is to remember a monarch who revived the arts and promoted education.

But didn’t Jesus come for the poor? Wasn’t he born in a barn? Didn’t he ride on a donkey instead of a dazzling white horse? And wasn’t he constantly telling his disciples, “I’m not that kind of king, and this isn’t that type of kingdom.”

There is no hierarchy in heaven. So why celebrate a king?

The God that I worship casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. The God that I pray to fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. The God of my ancestors challenges my assumptions.

What was dead is alive. What was old is new. What had fallen away has been restored. So, why don’t we remember the innkeeper, or the drummer boy, or the third century goatherd whose life did not have any meaning until he heard the story of Jesus?

Those kinds of folks exist too, right? So, why do celebrate a king?

Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty to admire about Alfred. I have no doubt that if Jeremy Carlson met Alfred, he’d say, “Man, what a good dude.”

King Alfred kept his people safe. He promoted an educated clergy. He founded monastic communities and saw to it that classic theological works were translated into English.

The Book of Wisdom tells us that a king who listens to the Lord will profit and be the stability of the people. By all accounts, Alfred was a devoted, Jesus-loving churchman. Jesus tells us that only good trees bear good fruit. Alfred certainly fits the bill. That’s why we remember him.

But perhaps Alfred is just history’s low-hanging [good] fruit. There were others: soldiers, footmen, cooks, dish washers. Teachers, postal workers, custodians, and bus drivers.

It’s important to remember that we don’t come tonight to celebrate King Alfred. We come to celebrate God. We’re not glorifying Alfred. We’re commemorating what Alfred did to glorify God. And what we all can do to glorify God.

We hear about Alfred, not because he was a king, but because he’s a good example of life in Christ.

His good works were inspired by his faith in God. He bore good fruit because he treasured God in his heart. He built his house on a solid foundation of rock because he listened to Jesus.

So tonight, for good reason, we’ve got Alfred. But don’t look at Alfred to see God. Look at Alfred’s example to see yourself, not as a king, but as a person who seeks to do God’s will.

I saw a church sign the other day. It said, “There are no saints in church, only forgiven sinners.” I thought to myself—well, what do they think saints are?

Alfred was one of God’s own. A sinner like you. A sinner like me. And a sinner just like the goatherds, innkeepers, cooks, footmen, and dish washers. Just like the teachers, postal workers, custodians, and bus drivers.

Any of them can show you how to glorify God.

There is a former president who builds houses for the people who need them most. And there is also an old sunburnt mailman living pension check to pension check and still tithes ten percent to the church.

There is a university president who gives a third of her income to student scholarships. And there is a custodian who volunteers to sit up all night at the homeless shelter.

There is a billionaire CEO who leaves all of his money to charity and there is a destitute desk clerk who leaves all of his money to charity.

There is a movie star advocates against human trafficking, and there is a gardener who works overtime just to be able to feed the kids.

There is a professional athlete who coaches the special olympics, and there is a single mom who coaches inner-city youth.

There is a high-powered attorney who does pro-bono work for illegal immigrants, and there is a public defender who stands up for the most heinous offenders.

The same God who defies our expectations, who says that the last shall be first and the first shall be last…The same God who scatters the proud in their conceit…The same God who brought again Jesus Christ from the dead…That same God is telling us that we can learn from any of them.

Even a king.