By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton
January 3, 2010 – Epiphany
Read: Matthew 2:1-12
We are celebrating Epiphany today because it is a church holiday that is rich in meaning. Epiphany is actually January 6th – marking the 12th day after Christmas. In many parts of the world, Epiphany is a bigger holiday than Christmas, with rituals of gift giving tied to treasure-bearing wise men instead of a jolly fat man in a red suit. In some places, children leave shoes filled with hay outside their homes. The hay is for the camels of the wise men, who leave gifts for the children in the shoes as thanks before resuming their journey to Bethlehem.
As you know, Epiphany means “manifestation”, a “revelation”, a “showing forth”, a “display”. We often use the term “I experienced an epiphany” to refer to a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something. A sudden perception of reality that changes the way we see ourselves and the life around us.
The story of the magi is the story of how God was manifested in the form of a human being – a baby by the name of Jesus. God made man. The incarnation. And the glory of this story is that God is making Godself known to all of the world. If the Magi – those who engaged in occult arts and whose occupations covered a wide range of astrologers, fortune tellers, and magicians of various plausibility.” (Raymond Brown)
If God is willing to reveal Himself to the “other” and change their lives, then surely God is willing to reveal Himself to you and me. The beauty in this story is in the contrast. The wise men ponder the mysteries in the sky. They discern God is up to something, yet remain uncertain where it might be happening. They need the scriptures to clarify and confirm their search. The chief priests and scribes have the ancient scrolls at their disposal, but they are removed from the experience of awe that the Wise Men can claim.
The Wise Men, in their own way, share the awe of the shepherds in our Christmas Eve story. They have not been beckoned by an angelic voice. In no way do they represent the dispossessed or the poor of Israel. They are Gentiles, outsiders in every way. Yet they are strangely attracted to the Christ child, and they travel at great cost to find him. The magi’s search begins with a star that only God could have put into the sky. During the journey, the inference is that they are protected by divine providence. Even after they find the One for whom they were looking, God warns them in a dream to avoid Herod and go home by another road.
Even though they were outsiders to the promises and stories of Israel, God found a way to include them.
Some years ago, Wayne Robinson visited Israel in the company of the evangelist Oral Roberts. They were granted an audience with David Ben-Gurion, the Prime Minister of Israel.
As they gathered, Oral Roberts handed his Bible to Ben-Gurion and invited him to read his favorite scripture verse. Ben-Gurion smiled and began turning pages to find the verse he wanted. Then he read these words: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Wayne Robinson was just an observer — just watching and listening — but he thought that Ben-Gurion had picked a pretty dumb verse. Robinson could think of better verses from the Psalms and elsewhere. His disappointment was compounded when he saw that a cameraman was recording the scene. He wished that Ben-Gurion had quoted a more earthshaking quotation to be recorded on the film.
But then Ben-Gurion explained. He said: “Before we were Americans or Russians, Israelis or Egyptians, before we were Christians or Muslims, Hindus or Jews, before we were any of the things that divide us today, we were men and women created by God. And that is the message of the great religions.” To which Oral Roberts replied, “Amen!”
And that is the message of this story — the story of the Wise Men and Jesus. They came from afar — from some other country. They were Gentiles — outsiders — part of the great unwashed masses, according to the Jewish thought of the day. But God brought them into the very beginning of Jesus’ story to remind us that God’s love knows no bounds. He loves us, but he also loves those who might seem very unattractive to us. Accept that as Good News. If there are people on the other side of the fence whom you don’t find very attractive, you can be sure that there are people on the other side of the fence who don’t find you very attractive either. But God isn’t one of those. There is no “other side of the fence” with God. And that is Good News!
A famous poem by John Donne goes like this:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less….
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
In his book, The Hungering Dark, Frederick Buechner wrote of humanity as forming an “enormous spider web, so that if you touch it anywhere you set the whole thing trembling.”
Epiphany is a festival of dreamers—of wise men who dreamt that God could lead them by the brightness of a star, of Christians throughout the ages who trusted in God’s dream for creation, people like Martin Luther King, Jr. whose “I Have a Dream” speech continues to echo in our hearts and minds.
We, also, are called to ask what dream God beckons us to follow. Where is our bright star? Where do we look for God? Where do we find our road to follow? Where is our Epiphany? Where is it?
Where? Is a question of the ages. In Matthew, the magi come looking for the “child born king of the Jews” and the first word they speak is, “Where?” It is the first word of human characters in the book of Matthew. It is also King Herod’s first question. Where? Where is God showing up in that world and in this one?
We prefer to be in control and to keep our world just as it is, with us on top and everything the way we expect it to be, so it is still possible to miss God by nine miles or more. We still ask, where?
Christianity is a faith of many paradoxes. One of them is that the only way we can live freely is to turn control over to God—to let God be God. As the magi journeyed to worship the Christ child, we, also, begin every journey of faith in worship, finding the freedom to enter life so that we might fully participate in God’s dream to heal and restore the world.
Yes, the journey of the wise men is surprising. But even more surprising is the journey of God. God comes the distance—from heaven to earth—to bring salvation and new life.
We can go home by another road. So, where is the One who came to redeem the world, to save us from our sins? Where can we find that bright light today?
You could look where miracles happen. According to Mary Rose O’Reilley, it is “on the edges of time zones, on the border of the woods, in the void between perch and free fall.” They happen in small towns and small churches and even outside them. They happen when people who are apart, come together: clueless but obedient and hopeful magi, and even a scheming and violent king under a star. The beautiful, fancy word for this space is liminal, the Latin word for `threshold.’ (The Love of Impermanent Things, 154). The wise ones stepped across the threshold of a stable and came into the presence of God. Thank God. Amen.
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