Epiphanies About the Epiphany

Sermon preached on the feast of the Epiphany (transferred), Sunday, January 5, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you would like to hear the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72.1-14; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Merry Christmas, St. Augustine’s! Today marks the twelfth and final day of Christmastide and we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, which actually falls on tomorrow, January 6. We do this because otherwise we would only get to celebrate the Epiphany about every 5 years when it falls on a Sunday since we do not hold weekday services. Epiphany comes from the Greek word that means manifestation or appearance. This, of course, refers specifically to the manifestation of Christ to the Gentile (non-Jewish) world as illustrated in our gospel lesson this morning when the Gentile Magi came to visit the Christ child. More about that in a moment. The Church traditionally used the feast of the Epiphany to commemorate the baptism of Jesus and his changing of water into wine at Cana. Only later was the visitation by the Magi added and in the centuries before December 25 was recognized as Christmas by the Church (about the 4th century AD), Jesus’ birth was also celebrated at Epiphany along with his baptism.

At a more general level, the term epiphany has come to mean a moment of climactic insight or realization about the nature of people or reality or as is most often the case in Scripture, the nature of God. Biblical examples of this process of realization or insight include Jacob’s realization that he had been wrestling with God all night (Genesis 32.26-30), Job’s realization of the utter superiority of God’s knowledge over human knowledge and the resulting utter futility in trying to know God’s inscrutable ways without the grace of God’s revealing himself to us, especially as it applies to why there is suffering and evil in the world (Job 38.1-41.34), a lesson many of us still need to learn, and the psalmist’s realization of what God’s omniscience and omnipresence really means for his life (Psalm 139.1-18). Epiphanies can also result from the realization of a person’s sinfulness as when Peter started to become aware of who Jesus might really be (Luke 5.8) or when Judas realized what he had done in betraying Jesus (Matthew 27.3-5). In one sense the entire purpose of the Bible is to move its readers to epiphanies about our own condition, the nature of reality, and especially into the possibility of God’s redemption through Jesus. It is this sense of epiphany that I want us to focus on this morning to see what epiphanies the Lord might bless us with regarding our own discipleship.

In this morning’s OT lesson, the prophet Isaiah commands God’s people Israel to be alert for the coming light of God’s glory. He tells them (and us) to arise and shine for the glory of the Lord has come upon us. The shining of God’s light on his people won’t be all peaches and cream, however, because as the prophet proceeds to remind us, God’s light shines on the darkness of the peoples of the earth to judge them as well as show them God’s mercy. We don’t much like talking about God’s judgment on our sin and the evil it produces, but it is part and parcel of God’s promise to put all things to rights and if we really want to love all people, we dare not be silenced in speaking this truth in love to those who will listen. Perhaps this is an epiphany some of us need to have, especially in an age of political correctness where tolerance of all things has become the new god. This will likely never happen until we have a corresponding epiphany about the utter darkness we all walk in without a relationship with God and how utterly futile it is for us to come out of the darkness on our own power.

But the prophet also promises that when God’s people see God’s light shining on them, they will see the effect this has on other people. Unbelievers who have eyes to see will come to God’s light that shines through his people and this in turn will help increase the faith of God’s people, perhaps another epiphany some of us need to have. This is a clear allusion to God’s call to his people Israel to be his light to the world to bring his healing love to a world and its people created good but corrupted by human sin and the evil it produced. But as we have seen before, God’s people Israel failed to be God’s light to the rest of the world and it had cost them dearly. Now here we see Isaiah prophesying that God’s light would surely come. But how? It seems that many of us are still looking for God’s light to shine upon us even when it already is.

This business of being able to recognize light and darkness makes us think immediately about John’s great prologue to his gospel that we read on Christmas Eve and last Sunday (John 1.1-14). John tells us that God’s light, Jesus, the word made flesh, came to live among his own people and his people did not recognize him as God’s light. So apparently recognizing light and darkness as God defines each is not always as straightforward as we might think, perhaps another epiphany some of us need to have. We see this dynamic of recognizing God’s light (or not) illustrated powerfully in today’s gospel lesson. The Magi, themselves Gentiles whom any self-respecting Jew of Isaiah’s and Jesus’ day would have considered to be part of the darkness, were in fact the ones who recognized God’s true light in Jesus. We don’t know why they followed the star or why they knew it was linked directly to God’s promise to his people Israel to give them a Messiah through David’s lineage. We just know that they showed up at King Herod’s door one day asking about the real king of Israel. Herod, who was part Jewish and as wicked and ruthless as they come (he had several of his wives and sons murdered, among other things), as well as all the learned men of Jerusalem, the big-shots of the religious establishment of that day, were blind to the light. Notice that no one from Jerusalem accompanied the Magi to Bethlehem. Think about it! Those who should have been best able to see God’s light manifested in the birth of the Christ child remained blind to it while those Gentiles who represented the world’s darkness to God’s people saw the light of the star and followed it to Bethlehem to worship God’s true light that shined in the darkness. Are we having any epiphanies, St. Augustine’s?

And if we consider how most Jews would have viewed the Magi, the radical and scandalous grace of God becomes even more apparent. The Magi, while probably coming from royal stock in what is now modern-day Iraq (although we really know precious little about them), would have been the Jean Dixons of their day, engaging in fortune telling, horoscopes, and astrology, activities that were strongly condemned as idolatry in the OT (cf. 1 Samuel 28.3-13). Consequently, they would have been quite unwelcome to most Jews at that time. But here Matthew is telling us they were welcomed into the Messiah’s presence rather than condemned! It seems that even those among us we consider to be most scandalous are welcomed into God’s new family of healed and redeemed people in Jesus the Messiah if they have eyes to see and ears to hear. In fact, Matthew’s whole gospel is full of these kinds of scandalous stories, ending with one of Jesus’ own executioners declaring him to be God’s son and Jesus himself commanding his disciples to make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 27.54; 28.18-20). Perhaps it is here that we especially need to have an epiphany about the nature of God!

Jesus’ appearance is the very mystery that Paul talks about in our epistle lesson this morning. Mystery as Paul defines it is not something we cannot know but rather something that was hidden from us until God chose to reveal it. In this case it refers to the fact that in Jesus, God became human so that he could do and be for Israel what Israel could not do and be for herself—God’s healing light to the world offered to one and all. And in one of the most astonishing passages in all of Scripture, Paul tells us that from all eternity God has entrusted his Church to make known God’s glory as manifested in Jesus to both earthly rulers and their shadowy counterparts, warning them that their time is up and inviting them to share in the rich inheritance of being God’s children in and through the Lord Jesus. To be sure, none of us knows how this will get played out, only that it will get played out and we are called to do our part by proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to one and all, even to those who make us uncomfortable and upset like the Jews of Jesus’ day would have been with the Magi.

There are two distinct lessons for us to ponder and learn here. First, at the individual level, since the Epiphany reminds and invites us to think about and reflect on our human nature, the nature of the reality of living in God’s good but broken world, and the nature of God himself, especially as he has revealed himself to us in Jesus of Nazareth, a good place to start would be to ask what darkness are we still living in? What delusions about ourselves and God are we still clinging to that need to be exposed to God’s light in Christ so that we can be healed? This needs to be done on an ongoing basis and if we are not experiencing new epiphanies regularly, it is a clear red flag that we are stagnating in our faith and discipleship. We cannot live in God’s light if we refuse to see it as lived out in Jesus and patterning our own lives after him, and our understanding of what this looks like should always be maturing.

The second lesson, and related closely to the first one, pertains to us as Jesus’ body, the Church. Are we engaged in the task to which we are called, to proclaim the Good News of God’s mercy and judgment to those who still live in the darkness of their own sin? In other words, are we manifesting the light of God’s healing love that was revealed in Jesus to his broken and hurting world by our deeds and words or are we content to sit on our hands and turn inward on ourselves, both individually and collectively as a parish?

As we begin this new year, these questions are vitally important to our mission statement. For example, we are going to make a concerted effort to find a dedicated worship space where we can set up shop on a more permanent basis. But why would we want to do that? So that we can say we have our own building that is more convenient for us or to give us a real base of operations in which to make the love of Christ known to this community?

And what about inviting new folks to become part of our community? Why would we do this? To ensure our stability and future? To bring in additional revenues? To show what good Christians we are? The minute we start thinking and talking like this, we are acknowledging that we are still walking in the darkness because we are not reaching out to others so that the glory of God can shine through us to shed the light of Christ on them in the power of the Spirit. Perhaps we need the epiphany of realizing that our own faith is strengthened when we see others come (or come back to) the faith. Who among us does not need that kind of grace?

Or what about our call to proclaim the gospel to the powers and principalities? Many of us have a hard time balancing our own checkbook let alone engaging in this work of God’s eternal plan to heal and redeem the world and we are understandably hesitant or afraid. Perhaps we need the epiphany of realizing the unbelievable power and grace that God gives us as his Church in the power of the Spirit to proclaim the gospel to the world in word and deed. We might come to this epiphany by listening to Paul in today’s epistle lesson. Paul practiced what he preached and it landed him in jail. The powers listened to him and didn’t like what they heard one bit. But being in jail didn’t matter to Paul because it was an indication that he was being faithful to his call and he believed that God was in charge of all things. That’s why he could rejoice in his sufferings and that’s why he could tell others to rejoice in his sufferings and take heart from them. Are we doing and saying things that stir up the false powers of the world?

This is what the Epiphany is about and these are some of the challenges and questions we must answer on an ongoing basis. Is this your vision for your own discipleship and evangelization, and for our parish? If it isn’t our collective vision, we are still walking in the darkness of our own delusions. But if it is, not only will we experience the joy (and suffering) of living in God’s light in and through the Lord Jesus, we will experience the joy of seeing others come into his great light. That, folks, is Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be praise, honor, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

N.T. Wright: What Is This Word?

Christmas sermon preached by then Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright in 2005. I strongly commend it to you for your serious reflection.

That is the puzzle of Christmas.  And, to get to its heart, see how it works out in the rest of John’s gospel.  John’s Prologue is designed to stay in the mind and heart throughout the subsequent story.  Never again is Jesus himself referred to as the Word; but we are meant to look at each scene, from the call of the first disciples and the changing of water into wine right through to the confrontation with Pilate and the crucifixion and resurrection, and think to ourselves, this is what it looks like when the Word becomes flesh.  Or, if you like, look at this man of flesh and learn to see the living God.  But watch what happens as it all plays out.  He comes to his own and his own don’t receive him.  The light shines in the darkness, and though the darkness can’t overcome it it has a jolly good try.  He speaks the truth, the plain and simple words, like the little boy saying what he had for breakfast, and Caiaphas and Pilate, incomprehending, can’t decide whether he’s mad or wicked or both, and send him off to his fate.

But, though Jesus is never again referred to as the Word of God, we find the theme transposed, with endless variations.  The Living Word speaks living words, and the reaction is the same.  ‘This is a hard word,’ say his followers when he tells them that he is the bread come down from heaven (6.60).  ‘What is this word?’, asks the puzzled crowd in Jerusalem (7.36). ‘My word finds no place in you,’ says Jesus, ‘because you can’t hear it’ (8.37, 43).  ‘The word I spoke will be their judge on the last day’, he insists (12.48) as the crowds reject him and he knows his hour has come.  When Pilate hears the word, says John, he is the more afraid, since the word in question is Jesus’ reported claim to be the Son of God (19.8).  Unless we recognise this strange, dark strand running through the gospel we will domesticate John’s masterpiece (just as we’re always in danger of domesticating Christmas), and think it’s only about comfort and joy, not also about incomprehension and rejection and darkness and denial and stopping the ears and judgment.  Christmas is not about the living God coming to tell us everything’s all right.  John’s gospel isn’t about Jesus speaking the truth and everyone saying ‘Of course! Why didn’t we realise it before?’  It is about God shining his clear, bright torch into the darkness of our world, our lives, our hearts, our imaginations, and the darkness not comprehending it.  It’s about God, God-as-a-little-child, speaking the word of truth, and nobody knowing what he’s talking about.

Read it all.