Sermon delivered on the Feast of the Epiphany (transferred), Sunday, January 3, 2016 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you would prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 60.1-6; Psalm 72.1-15; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Merry Christmas, St. Augustine’s! Today marks the 10th day of Christmastide (are you still celebrating or have you packed it all up?) and we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, which actually falls on 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 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 (probably around 336 AD), Jesus’ birth was also celebrated at Epiphany along with his baptism.
Enough for your history lesson this morning. I don’t want your eyes glazing over too early in the sermon. There will be plenty of time for that! You recall that on Christmas Eve we talked about the hope and promise of God entering his world and history as a human. We saw that God’s Incarnation means that we humans matter to God, along with the rest of his creation, and that God intends to put all the wrongs of this sad old world and us to rights. If there was nothing else besides this, we would have a real basis to rejoice and celebrate during this Christmastide and beyond. After all, who doesn’t want to see all the wrongs of this world put to rights and evil defeated? But of course there is an added dimension to the gospel that is related to God’s overcoming the evil that afflicts his world, a much more personal dimension to the gospel: our reconciliation with God and hence our rescue from sin and death. All our lessons attest to this fact, either explicitly as in our epistle lesson, or implicitly as in our gospel lesson. This is what I want us to look at this morning.
We start by looking at the familiar story of the Magi visiting the baby Jesus in fulfillment of the prophecy that we read in our OT and psalm lessons. Matthew is inviting us to see that the light about which Isaiah speaks, and which will result in the nations coming to recognize God, is in fact beginning to be fulfilled in the star that brought the Magi to worship Jesus. Here is God’s glory on display, but not as we expected it. Instead of a dazzling and terrifying theophany, or appearance, by God, we see a baby born of a virgin, later to become a bloodied and tortured man, pierced and hanging naked on a cross for our sake. This is God’s glory made manifest to the world. This is the glory of God that all will eventually acknowledge, either willingly or unwillingly. This is God become human, destined to die for the sins of the world, for your sins and mine, so that we might not remain alienated and hostile to God for all eternity. This is the baby who will one day defeat the dark powers and principalities that have usurped God’s righteous rule over his good creation.
So how does this story of the Magi’s visit attest to our personal healing and salvation? Good question! To answer, we must not let our sentimentalized version of the wise men prevent us from seeing what Matthew is actually telling us. We must remember that the Magi were magicians and astrologers. They were the Jean Dixons of their day and the OT roundly condemned the practice of divination and astrology (see e.g., Deuteronomy 4.19, 18.9-13; Isaiah 47.13). The medium of Endor, for example, was horrified when she learned it was King Saul who had asked her to arouse the spirit of the prophet Samuel and seek his advice because this kind of activity was strictly forbidden by the Lord, and she feared being put to death because she had practiced the forbidden (1 Samuel 28.3-14).
But now we see folks who were professional magicians and astrologers, exactly the kind of folks the OT condemned, seeking out the newborn king and being granted an audience. This wasn’t what good and proper religious types of Jesus’ day would have approved. In fact, they would have sneered at it. But Matthew reminds us that it was not the religious types who showed any interest in Jesus. We note that no one from Jerusalem, not the chief priests and scribes, the so-called “experts,” accompanied the Magi to Bethlehem. They simply didn’t care or couldn’t see the truth behind the cosmic event the star announced, and which the Magi reported to them. So in this story, one of the things Matthew is reminding us is that it is the most unlikely who are granted an audience with God, startling and unexpected as that might be.
Why is this important? Because as Paul tells us in our epistle lesson, it is through Jesus, and only through Jesus, that we can have access to God with boldness and confidence. We have this confidence and boldness to approach the Father’s throne, the Creator of this vast cosmos, not because we are deserving of being in God’s presence. To the contrary, Scripture paints a terrifying and awful picture for us. Our sins alienate us from God and prevent us from appearing before God! As such, without any outside intervention, when we do appear before God, we can expect nothing but God’s righteous condemnation of our sinful rebellion in all of its myriad ways. This is not a pretty picture, despite many a wrong-headed attempt to mitigate the awful and deadly consequences of our sin and rebellion against God. When we separate ourselves from our lifeline, we can and should expect nothing but death.
So why then would Paul tell us we can have access to God the Father with a bold confidence? Precisely because God became human and died for us to end our alienation from him once and for all. We are reconciled to God the Father through the blood of the Lamb shed for us on the cross so that now our relationship with God is restored in the way God always intended, and we can confidently approach God’s throne without fear of hearing the terrible words of God’s righteous and just condemnation of our sins, thanks be to God! Amen?
This is what makes our gospel lesson so poignant if we have ears to hear, eyes to see, and a mind opened to God’s truth in and through the power of the Spirit. Here we see gentile folks who are clearly outside the promises of salvation God made to Abraham and his family, precisely because they are not part of God’s people. Moreover, these men practiced things expressly forbidden and condemned by God’s law. But here they are, the first gentiles to pay homage to Jesus the king! If you want to know what God’s grace looks like, look no further than this story. God in his tender mercy and love for his fallen image-bearing creatures—even the most unworthy and undeserving of us—has invited these lowlifes to visit him and pay him the homage due to him, while the so-called righteous and proper folks, folks like you and me, those who should have known better, decline the invitation. Think on these things!
Let me put it another way. Think of someone you know (or know about) whom you consider to be entirely unworthy of approaching King Jesus (you had better not be thinking about me!). For whatever reason(s) in your mind, that person should in no way be granted an audience with the King because he or she is either too evil or too nasty or too undeserving: you know, a real lowlife, slime-doggy! Whoever that person is, if we dropped him or her into Matthew’s story today, he or she would have been invited to come before the King and be transformed forever by the King’s great love, mercy, and grace for that person. We aren’t told if the Magi experienced that transformation. What we are told is that they were offered an invitation and had the wisdom to accept it. Do you?
And so If you are someone who is struggling with your relationship with God, primarily because you are convinced you are unworthy of God’s love and attention, pay attention to the story of the Magi because it is your story, my story, our story. Come and accept God the Father’s gracious invitation to worship the newborn King and be healed and transformed through his Son in and through the power of the Spirit. Your healing and transformation likely won’t happen overnight and there will be bumps and detours along the way. But that’s not the point of the story. The point of the story is that you are worthy in God’s eyes because you are covered by Jesus’ blood shed for you, and when you believe this by faith, it must inevitably change you so that you begin to act in ways that are more fully human. In other words, you will begin to act like Jesus, not out of compulsion but out of a profound and heartfelt sense of thanksgiving and gratitude for the love of God that has rescued you from being a dead person walking and an eternity of death. The Magi would be the first to tell you that it’s all true, unbelievable as it may seem. This is one of the lessons the feast of the Epiphany can teach us!
But for what are we saved? Many who put their faith and trust in Jesus sadly act like they are saved so that they can act snotty and look down their noses at unbelievers or those who don’t believe exactly as they do, and that they no longer have to really take an interest in the things of this world because their destiny is heaven, not earth. If you’ve listened to me preach long enough, you know how I feel about that baloney. Nothing could be further from the truth. No, Paul tells us in our epistle lesson why God has rescued us from sin and death. We are rescued so that we as Christ’s body, the Church (and I am talking not about us as a parish but us as part of the Church catholic or universal) can make known the wisdom of God revealed in Jesus Christ in its rich variety to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places!
That’s ridiculous, you exclaim! I have a hard time keeping on top of my work and the family finances! Finding a pair of clean underwear in the morning is a challenge. How can I make known the riches of God’s wisdom to the powers and principalities? Is Paul nuts?? I’m not a big shot. I have no political power or authority. How can Paul make such a crazy statement? Well, Paul can make such a crazy statement because it’s true. He is not talking about exercising an individualistic faith, but a faith lived out together as fellow members of Christ’s body, the Church, strange as that sounds to our individualistic ears. As he tells us, this is the mystery of God that has been revealed, that both Jew and Gentile are woven into a new family of God under the authority and leadership of our crucified and risen Lord and King. We are to live out God’s love and mercy and grace in how we treat each other, according to the gifts God gives each of us. We are to embody God’s justice to the world and speak out against all forms of true injustice, not our own selfish, human-made versions. For you see, God has rescued us and his creation from the ravages of evil, sin, and death, and when Christ returns to consummate his victory over evil won on the cross, we will be rulers with him in God’s new world. So we’d better learn how to rule right now! That means we learn to live like Jesus, rejecting all the sin and darkness that afflicts our lives, and living as the truly human beings God created us to live. This will look somewhat different in each of our lives and across cultures. That’s where the rich variety of God’s grace comes into play. And as we do, this is how we help bring in the kingdom on earth as in heaven, unlikely as that seems to us.
This, then, is our challenge as part of the broader Church. How will we manifest and embody the riches of God’s grace and love and mercy to others here at St. Augustine’s? Whatever that looks like, God help us if we ever prevent anyone from coming to know and worship King Jesus by our hard-heartedness or being judgmental, because as we have seen, no one is excluded from the invitation to be a member of God’s Kingdom. No one. Surely one way to start showing the wisdom of God who calls the least and most unlikely to life is by loving each other and treating each other the way God has treated us in and through King Jesus and the power of the Spirit, something we as a parish have done very well to date. But we dare not get complacent or lax. We have been given an unexpected and awesome privilege of announcing the Good News of Jesus Christ, not only to the world but to the powers and principalities who are pathologically opposed to God’s rule in and through Jesus, and we can expect to get our noses bloodied in the process. But when we do, we are to take heart, because as Paul reminded the Ephesians, the very fact that he languished in prison as he wrote his letter to them is a tangible sign that the kingdom of God is coming and the dark powers’ day is done. We too are invited to be part of this wonderful project, astonishing and unlikely as that is, because like Paul, we are people who are filled with the power of the Spirit who makes Jesus known and present to us so that we can live and act as people who really know they have Good News, now and for all eternity. May our lives this year be an ongoing epiphany of the love and tender mercy God has for each and every one of us. Take it to heart so that you may be healed and changed by it, allowing the world to see and come to believe as well. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Merry Christmas, my beloved.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.