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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

The epiphany in Epiphany - 01/ 06/2019

This is an usual Sunday of the church calendar this year – The Feast of Epiphany hasn’t landed on a Sunday since 2013 and it won’t again until 2030.

I fudged a little on it last year. Since our worship here at Eden bridges Saturday and Sunday, I counted it as a quasi-Epiphany last year when Jan. 6 was a Saturday and used this text from Matthew.

But otherwise, unless you’ve been willing to attend a weekday service for this important Feast day, you don’t get to hear this text in worship very often.

So hear, O Israel – all who have ears to hear, as the prophets used to call out to the people – because it’s a good story.

So first of all, some of us may be thinking – or some of us need to be reminded -- what is the Epiphany of Our Lord, anyway?

So we begin with a definition.

Epiphany is a noun. As a proper noun, it is the name of a Christian festival observed on Jan. 6, commemorating the appearance of Christ to the gentiles in the persons of the Magi. It's also called Twelfth Day.

Christmas is over, according to the Church Calendar. This is the day that signaled to my family that it was time to take the tree down and put the nativity away. It’s the date I try to use as a deadline for getting my Christmas cards out – some of you know enough about me and deadlines to know what a challenge that can be.

If you asked my kids, they’d probably say there must be some kind of federal law on the books that stipulates, outside of choir practice, Christmas songs can only be played or sung from the day after Thanksgiving to Jan. 6.

The other way we use this word is as a common noun to express a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually brought about by some simple, or commonplace occurrence or experience.

This text itself is filled with moments and circumstance of epiphany.

First, we have the appearance of the Magi. Remember that based on Luke’s story of the birth of Christ, the first people to recognize the child in the manger for who he really is – Immanuel, “God with Us” – were the shepherds. They were highly unlikely people to be chosen for this honor. It would be like Prince Harry and Princess Megan having a baby and then instead of presenting the child first to its great-grandmother, the Queen of England, they sought out a group of ruff and ready preteens from the dodgy side of London for the honor instead

God choosing the shepherds in itself is an epiphany, revealing to us the upside down truth of God’s favor.

So now, we have the next group of people to seek out and recognize the Messiah – and it is three foreigners – magicians – star gazers. They are not Jewish, they are even more foreign than the Gentiles the Jewish people have met.

This is an epiphany regarding how God has called us through scripture to be remarkable interfaith neighbors. Our faith-based response to the diverse world around us is one of hospitality and engagement, first and foremost.

And then we have Herod’s response, which appears to ripple out into the people. When he finds out there are people asking about this newborn child who would be King of the Jews – a name Herod had bestowed on himself, btw – the story tells us “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” … The composure and well-being of the people mirrored that of Herod.

That is quite revealing. Think about it in terms of your household, our town or state or country.

It made me think of that old saying – a house is only as happy as the least happy person in the house.

Also revealing is how Herod secretly summons the Magi and tries to manipulate them. Once they find the child, he lies, he would love to join them in honoring and worshiping him.

This would not be his last attempt to find and destroy this child he so feared. After the visit of the Magi, God would again speak to Joseph in a dream and warn him that Herod was about to embark on what is recorded in history as the Slaughter of the Innocents – every boy under 2 years would be executed. God said Joseph, Mary and the baby needed to escape to safety in Egypt immediately.

There is epiphany in the actual encounter between the Magi and the Holy Family. These are not the gifts a poor family would expect upon the birth of their illegitimate child in cave used to shelter livestock in a foreign land.

It is a counter intuitive event that signals to us …. This is how our God rolls … sparing no expense and effort for the very least among us.

So that’s one thing this collision of refugees and wealthy foreign magicians reveals. And also, think about these gifts. Gold – maybe that’s what made it possible for them to move on to Egypt. Frankincense, which was typically an incense offered for a deity or a god. And myrrh – an embalming oil. The gift themselves reveal earthly riches for God Among Us, who came die for us.

The last revelation or epiphany I’ll point out is God’s response to all of this earthly jockeying. What does it reveal to us about our world that God thwarts Herod’s corrupt actions? How might we be challenged or emboldened when we realize that God speaks to and is heard by these outsiders? How are we changed to know that God protects that precious and vulnerable Holy Family?

Through this rather magical story we can see the everyday definition of the word epiphany at work in the proper noun celebration of a bold and creation-changing event in the simple and common place occurrence of a child born to poor and nearly invisible people. It is strange and wonderful news.

… it is the strange and wonderful news that God has come among us to experience the human walk with all its joys and troubles …

… it is the strange and wonderful news that this has taken place through the birth of a vulnerable baby born to people being terrorized and chased from their homes by a king who acts of out of fear and makes a way for evil to come into the world.

… it is the very strange and wonderful news that among the very first people to recognize this truth were shepherds and then foreigners, who, if they worship God, likely call God by another name, and who come to know this truth through methods we might scoff at or even call heretical or unholy.

There are a lot of back and forth discussions about whether this event really happened – whether three Magi from another land really visited Mary, Joseph and Jesus in that cave were they had found some much needed shelter; whether there is evidence of an astrological event that corresponds with the Star of Bethlehem. I don't know very much for sure, but I feel pretty comfortable in saying that I'm confident that back and forth will continue to take place for years and years to come.

But that doesn't really matter, because that's not the point of this story. As I've mentioned before, the Bible wasn't written to record history, although it does have a lot of history in it. The main purpose of the Bible is to help nurture and inform our relationship with God. And the main purpose of the New Testament isn't to be history textbook of names, places and dates, but rather stories and wisdom to help us understand just what God has done in the person of Jesus.

In that context, the story of the Magi visiting the newborn King of the Jews goes well beyond some historical data. It proclaims to us that God in Jesus has come among us, is with us and will come again.

It calls us to act differently than fearful and corrupt kings and leaders in the world by urging us to see that in coming among us as Jesus, God has redeemed all of creation, not just the Jewish people Jesus was born to then, and not just the Christian people who we identify with now. Even Herod himself is redeemed in Christ, as is his son Herod Antipas who will take part in the life of this baby Messiah some 30 years down the road.

The story of the Magi reminds us that God works in creation in mysterious ways. We are confident that God comes to us now when we gather around this table and share the bread and wine together. And this story wants to stretch our imaginations and increase our capacity to love one another and magnify our understanding of what it means to be blessed to be a blessing. Because this story also reminds us that God comes to us and others right where we are and in ways we cannot predict or fully understand. And sometimes in ways we would not like to imagine – like through astrological signs read by people who look, live and dream very differently from us.

 

I'd like to wrap up with a prayer/ poem by Walter Brueggemann called Epiphany.

On Epiphany day,

          we are still the people walking.

          We are still people in the dark,

                   and the darkness looms large around us,

                   beset as we are by fear,

                                                anxiety,

                                                brutality,

                                                violence,

                                                loss –

                   a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.

We are – we could be – people of your light.

          So we pray for the light of your glorious presence

                   as we wait for your appearing;

          we pray for the light of your wondrous grace

                   as we exhaust our coping capacity;

          we pray for your gift of newness that

                   will override our weariness;

          we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust

                   in your good rule.

 

That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact

          your rule through the demands of this day.

          We submit our day to you and to your rule, with deep joy and high hope.

Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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