Wednesday, January 23, 2019

"Prepare the Way: Arrive" - Epiphany Sermon, January 6, 2019

Although the church began a new year last month with the season of Advent, the new calendar year is here as we said farewell to 2018 and welcome to 2019 while celebrations took place all over the world on Monday night into Tuesday morning. I think I celebrated in bed, as I was in bed by 8:00pm and ended up sleeping through all the celebrations. As I get older, it’s my kind of way of celebrating the new year, especially since I want to be up in time to watch the Rose Parade on New Year’s Day.  
As we have celebrated the new year and now that stores are switching over to Valentine’s Day stuff, here we are at the end of the Christmas cycle in the church year on this day of Epiphany.  Today is one of those times where once every several years when Epiphany happens to fall on a Sunday.  While we may have heard the word epiphany at one time or another or might be hearing it for the first time, what exactly is Epiphany and why does it matter?  In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of epiphany that stands out most is 
(1) : a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something (2) :  an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking (3) :  an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure[i]

The magi finding the toddler Jesus is at the heart of the Epiphany story in our Gospel lesson this morning, as we deviate a little from Luke because Matthew’s gospel is the only story of the magi finding the toddler Jesus.  Epiphany is when the Magi followed the light of a particular star that shone in the East.  The star represents the light of God manifest through Jesus’ birth in which it was the time when it was realized that perhaps Jesus really IS the messiah as promised through the prophecies of Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets. Even in an otherwise ordinary world, there was nothing ordinary in that star or in the baby Jesus. 
The Magi confirm what had been foretold by the prophets and by the star when they find the toddler Jesus; even the magi had a sense that there was nothing ordinary here when they saw the star and went to Herod.  However, the distinct link between Isaiah and Matthew is quite telling because of how much the Magi already knew.  Old Testament teacher, Dr. Walter Brueggemann writes that the Magi
know about Isaiah 60. They know they are to go to Jerusalem and to take rare spices, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Most important, they know that they will find the new king of all peace and prosperity. But when Herod (the current king in Jerusalem) hears of these plans, he is frightened. A new king is a threat to the old king and the old order.[ii]

Could Jesus be the new ruler as foretold by Isaiah, considering that Jesus’s birth put Herod and all of Jerusalem on edge?  The prophecy by Isaiah foreshadows a new leader during a dark time in Israel’s history, particularly the Babylonian captivity, and at the same time the time the Magi find the toddler Jesus foreshadows that nothing will ever again be ordinary in the world.  It’s like the REM song, “it’s the end of the world as we know it.” Why else would the toddler Jesus receive such extravagant gifts from the Magi and would put Herod and most of Jerusalem on edge?  Dr. Brueggemann calls this discovery by the Magi and tension with Herod 
the voice of a peasant hope for the future, a voice that is not impressed with high towers and great arenas, banks and urban achievements. It anticipates a different future, as yet unaccomplished that will organize the peasant land in resistance to imperial threat.[iii]

There was quite a bit of darkness in the world at that time, as Jesus was born into poverty to a teenage mother and working-class earthly father under the kingship of Herod, only to escape to Egypt to get away from Herod’s wrath, as Herod ordered the killing of all firstborn males because of his insecurity and threat to his power in the passages that follow this morning’s lesson in Matthew’s gospel.  Even 2019 years later, we still have our share darkness in the world, people trying to escape wrath and hardship in other countries, people duking it out over differences they have with each other, name calling and general mean-spiritedness, and even the churning waves that are currently happening in our greater connection of the UMC right now.  It feels dark at times in our world, but we don’t have to let it be that way as followers of Christ.  This is where we need the work of Christmas to happen, where we need this revelation, and this is exactly where we need the birth of the one who will reorder the present order.  
When we look a little more closely at what Jesus’ birth is all about, “the birth of Jesus itself represents a decisive criticism of the dominant consciousness” and that “it is characteristic of Kings [such as Herod] to deny the end of the old order and, in their blindness, to take any steps to perpetuate what has in fact already ended.”[iv]Being the astrologers that they were, perhaps this is why the magi had a sense that something they would find an extraordinary happening in Bethlehem by the light of that star, especially when they are warned by God through a dream about the wrath of Herod to come through a revelation in a dream.  Likewise, “the traditional use of this text as a reading for the Epiphany of the Lord underscores the truth that Jesus is God’s revelation to the whole world.”[v]Jesus will be the light to come to the darkness, not just for Israel, but for us today too.  Not only is this baby and this revelation of light going to change the world, it’s going to create some danger along the way too.  For example, the Magi risked their lives when they chose to “disobey Herod’s hypocritical command to report to him and return to their Gentile land by a different route.”[vi]
At the same time, God reveals that following Jesus will have its own rough roads ahead because it often takes leaving our comfort zones when we bring light to a world of darkness.  Sometimes we need to go into a place we don’t want to go.   This last month, I’ve been going into places I’m not always comfortable with in dealing with, particularly counseling situations or crisis response.  For many, this time of year is difficult because of the longer nights and shorter days, along with the romanticized notions we get about how the holidays are supposed to look.  And that it’s cold outside.  
Nevertheless, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, especially since I admit I’m not the most self-confident person when it comes to such situations and will tend to lead with my fear or find a way to steer away, although I am aware of this and am finding ways I can shore this up through conversations with colleagues about best practices and seeking additional training.  At the same time, helping people through times of crisis is one of those places in ministry where being the light for someone who is trapped in the darkness is highly crucial.  Even as the church and a collective body, we can be the light of Christ for everyone we encounter, especially those who seek us out or walk through our doors because their lives are in crisis and they have nowhere else to turn.  Yet it does mean going out of our comfort zones here and there and being a welcoming place where everyone can belong.  
As we begin a new calendar year and as the days gradually get longer by the minute by filling the earth with light once again, where are some places where darkness has covered the earth that are waiting for God’s glory to rise up we can be in prayer for or extend our hands and feet out to help?  As we follow the light like the Magi, what are we to find along the way when we seek Christ and even when we find Christ?  As I shared in the meditation during the Christmas Eve service and as we follow that star to find Christ once again or for the first time, I want to share with you with one of my favorite poems by the late Dr. Howard Thurman called “The Mood of Christmas:”
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.[vii]

            While the Christmas season will be over for another year after today and while we’ll be putting the Christmas stuff away for another year if we haven’t done so already, let’s go into this new year by coming to the table of the Lord shortly, as we receive this nourishment and means of grace to begin this journey once again, as these means of grace will strengthen us and empower us to do the work of Christmas here in this community and in our world.  
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the church say, Amen!!

[i]Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online, s.v. “epiphany,”
[ii]Walter Brueggemann, Off By Nine Miles,
[iii]Walter Bruggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001), 82
[v]Matthew 2: 1-12 Reflections, The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 145.  
[vi]Ibid., 143
[vii]Howard Thurman, “The Mood of Christmas,”, Accessed 24 December 2018.  

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