January 4, 2015

A Spiffy Epiphany

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Passage: Matthew 2, 1-12
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Please note: Due to technical difficulties, no audio is available for this sermon.

One of my professors gives respect to this often overlooked celebration during the holidays by wishing his students a “Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year… and a Spiffy Epiphany.” Christmas is over; New Year’s Day has come and gone. Yesterday at Target they already had the Valentine’s cards on display! Maybe you have taken down your tree and packed away your decorations. Maybe you’re a few days settled in to your New Year’s Resolution!! Maybe you’re getting ready to head back to work tomorrow.

It feels like the Christmas holidays have come and gone in a sugar-filled blur. But like the song says, there really are 12 days in the Christmas season of the Church calendar, the last one being January 5th. January 6th begins a new season of the Christian calendar, the season called “Epiphany,” which lasts until Lent begins; so today – the Sunday closest to January 6 - we have one more chance to visit the manger. The holidays aren’t quite over... today we can wish each other a “Spiffy Epiphany.”

The celebration of Epiphany recognizes and commemorates God’s formal revelation of His Son in the person of Jesus. Epiphany commemorates the visitation of the wise men, considered to be the revelation of the Messiah to the Gentiles – not just Israel - and therefore to the whole world.
So, I did some investigation into the origins of Epiphany, and found that it’s hard to say when the exact beginning was. Like so many things in the church, it seems “we’ve just always done it that way!”

There are a number of possibilities regarding the origin of the date and celebration of Epiphany. The first actual written references to it date back to the 4th century, so it must have already been part of the common practices of the church. In the time of the early church, when record-keeping wasn’t quite as precise as it is now, it was common to believe that people died on their birthdays, making the circle of life somehow complete. Nowadays we know that’s not true. But some early Christians believed that Jesus was actually conceived, on the date of his death, which was thought to be April 6th, placing his birth exactly 9 months later, on January 6th (some Eastern Orthodox Churches still celebrate the birth of Jesus on January 6th).

Throughout Christian history, however, Epiphany has signified several things, including the celebration of the birth of Jesus; the appearance of the star that brought the magi to Jesus, the baptism of Jesus, and the miracles of Jesus (particularly the first miracle, where Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana). What these all have in common is that they have to do with the beginning of Jesus’ work of manifesting God to humans. So, although it is often forgotten in the midst of Christmas and New Year activities, Epiphany as a church celebration is older than Christmas and has a deeper meaning. Instead of being an anniversary of the birth of Jesus, it testifies to the whole purpose of the incarnation, which is the manifestation of God Almighty in the humble person of Jesus Christ.

That sense of God’s sudden revelation comes through in our popular understanding of the word “epiphany” which is a revelation, or an “a-ha” moment, such as when we say “I’ve had an epiphany!” We associate it with “seeing the light” – like a light bulb moment – like the Magi receiving God’s revelation through the starlight.

What we also see in this passage from Matthew, where we hear of the wise men following the star – and what is maybe more important to our lives as Christians now - is the kind of people whose hearts and minds were open to receive this revelation from God. In this passage, we can see how the revelation of this glorious birth was received by King Herod, compared with how it was received by the wise men - who were not Jewish; they would have been considered outsiders, foreigners who had come from the East.

Herod the Great, on the other hand, was the King of the Jews. He was a man of wealth and power and prestige, with authority and influence in his land, and strong connections to the leaders of the Roman Empire. He had access to the most learned men in the land who could advise him, and interpret the Scriptures for him anytime he wanted. He had all of the advantages in life.

He had every reason to be grateful to God, and to give God praise and glory and reverence. Unfortunately, because he “had it all,” so to speak, he lived as though he had no need of God. In fact, he lived as though God was even an inconvenience; especially if it seemed that God’s plans were to give someone else the things that he considered to be rightfully his.

What Matthew tells us in this story is political dynamite. If Jesus is the true “King of the Jews,” that means Herod is a usurper, an imposter, a false king. And Herod was not about to relinquish his position and all of the benefits that came with it. So his reaction to the revelation of God’s own Son coming in to the world was to find him – not to worship him, but to kill him.

Although Herod’s loyalty to the Jewish people and commitment to the Jewish faith is dubious, he was certainly willing to claim it as his own, and call in the Scribes to see what the scriptures had to say, when his own interests were at stake. Sure, Herod had a little religion; just enough to suit his own needs; but not enough to transform his life.

The word “religion” is no longer in vogue. It’s now more trendy now to say that you’re “spiritual” than to say you’re religious. Personally, I have no problem with the word “religious” because to me it speaks of discipline; of a commitment to something concrete, to something bigger than myself, and to a tradition and a community.

But having a “little” religion usually means that all we likely have is superstition, like Herod did; because true religion is going to shape your whole life, while “a little religion,” like Herod, is only going to be brought out for emergencies, when it’s useful, when it will serve our own purposes and interests, or when it will make us feel better. This kind of religious life sees faith as something useful to take out when things aren’t going well, but stored away out of sight when we think we have everything under control and God might upset that control.

With “a little religion” we only worry about how things are going to affect us personally. We know and love the Jesus who is our comforter, who forgives and accepts and loves; but we ignore the Jesus who calls us or confronts our sin. A little religion is something we like to have close at hand, “just in case;” just in case we need help; just in case we want something, just in case things aren’t going the way we like. But that’s really just superstition. Superstition, as we see by Herod’s example, is self-centred, not God-centred.

The Wise Men, on the other hand - or Magi or Kings as they were often called - were probably not Kings at all – Kings wouldn’t have been wandering the countryside staring at the sky. They were most likely wandering philosophers or wisdom-seekers; and these ones had money, apparently, because they were able to make such a lengthy journey, and they were able to bring expensive gifts.
But that’s not why God led them, because Herod also had money. God led them to the manger because their hearts and minds were open to seek and follow Him. That is the most significant difference between Herod and the Magi. God was willing to reveal the truth to Herod as well – Herod knew the Messiah was expected, and He knew now that the Messiah had been born – but that wasn’t convenient for Herod; because it put his own prestige and comfort in jeopardy; and he preferred his own prestige and comfort to God’s truth.

The Magi were more concerned with the truth than with their personal prestige and comfort. They had their eyes open to see what was going on in the universe beyond their own private little world. They were watching for God to reveal truth and wisdom, and they trusted that He would do so. They did not feel threatened by what God was doing, unlike Herod. Rather, they trusted that what God was doing was wise and good.

And that’s why they found Jesus and worshipped Him. Not because God only reveals Himself to privileged people, but because they were watching for what God was going to reveal to the world.
When we are open to God’s leading and guidance, God will reveal Himself to us, show us His divine truth, and give us direction for our lives. In fact, God is revealing Himself to the world constantly, for those who desire to know Him and to fulfill His purpose.

We all have to make important decisions in life and most of us want to make good decisions; right? We all must take various courses of action, and as people of faith we can count on God to direct our paths as He did with the Magi.

This passage is one of many throughout the Bible that points to God’s commitment to reveal Himself to those who seek Him with open minds; to reveal His will and His plans to those who seek Him with a trusting heart. There are some solid biblical principles that we can count on when we desire to know what God is doing in the world and in our lives.

One principle for receiving God’s revelation and guidance is knowing God’s Word. The Bible is God’s self-revelation in Israel and especially in the life and person of Jesus Christ. What is true of Jesus, is true of God. Now, does God ever reveal His nature and will outside of scripture? Certainly; but anything we believe is coming from God needs to be held up to the light of Scripture, to know if it is consistent with what God has already revealed about Himself.

A second principle for receiving God’s guidance is commitment to God’s will. Sometimes we know what’s right, but – like Herod - what’s right, and what’s true doesn’t always mesh with what we want. That’s when we need to conform our will to God’s, trusting that God’s will is wise and good, all the time. God will guide us, but like the Magi we have to be willing to follow even when we’re not sure at the outset where exactly He’s leading us.

Another principle for receiving God’s guidance is trusting in God’s Ways. We’ll be willing to commit ourselves to God’s will only if we really trust with all of our hearts that God’s ways are always loving and good and wise, even when we don’t understand or like them. We will be committed to God’s ways only if we believe that God is trustworthy. Do we really trust that God desires to do us good and not harm? Do we trust that God is wise and powerful?

One last principle for receiving God’s guidance is that we need to pray for God’s Wisdom. The scripture passage doesn’t specifically say that the Magi were praying, but they were seeking, and that is what we are doing when we pray for God’s wisdom: we are seeking to know the will of God; to know what is God’s desire and plan. You may remember that in the Old Testament, God approved of King Solomon’s prayer for divine wisdom; God wants to give us His wisdom to face all the circumstances of life. All we need to do is ask Him, seek Him, and watch for Him to reveal His nature and will to us.

So this morning we celebrate a “Spiffy Epiphany,” trusting that we have a God who longs to reveal His goodness and His truth to those who seek Him; a God who is wise and powerful to direct our paths; and we celebrate, grateful we have a God who loves us and cares enough to direct us along the very best, life-giving paths at all times. Thanks be to God. Amen.