THE LIGHT OF EPIPHANY
The church calendar tells us that this is the second Sunday after Christmas, when I bet most of our Christmas decorations have already been packed up and stored away for next year. Tomorrow is Epiphany, the official end of the Christmas season. And the Epiphany story is much to compelling to let escape our attention and so I have chosen them for this morning. The Scripture reading from the Gospels on Epiphany is always the story of the Magi from the Gospel of Matthew. Epiphany is one of the lesser known days on the church calendar for most Presbyterians. It doesn’t quite rank up there with Christmas, Easter or even Pentecost. But it is an important day and keeps before us something that is very basic – and yet profoundly important. Worship is at the heart of the story of the Magi. And the word Epiphany means revelation of God. The name points to Christ himself, as the revelation of the one God, made known in the flesh to all who would worship him.
Matthew’s Gospel tells us that the Magi came from the east. The Magi were wise men, astrologers, men who followed the counsel of the stars for wisdom and guidance. The number of the wise men is not given in the story. We usually think of there being three – because of the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh that were offered in homage to Jesus. That the wise men came from the east must have meant something to the early listeners of Matthew’s Gospel that they were from the “old country.” The “old country” of the east was thought to be a mysterious, even dangerous place – full of superstition. Astrology for the ancient Hebrews was viewed as superstitious and even dangerous, maybe idolatrous. That is what makes the story so surprising. Who would have thought that these Gentile, star watching, outsiders who were not a part of the covenant people of Israel would have recognized the Messiah? And who would have thought that the King of the covenant people of Israel would have sought to have destroyed the Messiah’s life?
King Herod should have been the first one to have worshipped the child. But he has only thoughts of power and wealth and securing his throne. Tragically, he can only see the Savior as a threat to his plans and his status. But it is these unexpected ones, these outsider Magi who correctly see God’s work. In fact it is God who leads them to the child by the star. The Holy Spirit was moving bringing these men in a place the covenant people would not have expected. Because God is always up to something. When Herod would not embrace the child, God moved somewhere else and did something new. The Magi make their long journey to do what is most basic, most fundamental, most profound – they worship. They offer up their hearts, their spirits, their gifts and give themselves to Jesus, the humble child born in a stable in the little town of Bethlehem.
One of the long beloved paintings of the story of the Magi is Rembrandt’s piece with the title, Adoration of the Wise Men. Rembrandt painted it with wonderfully large, dark, mysterious corners and hidden spaces that are illuminated by a circle of golden light. In the painting all the characters are adoring, worshipping the child. That is all of them except the second wise man. He is looking back toward the viewer of the painting. His hand is stretched out and the light catches the top of his hand and arm. He is inviting the one who is looking at the painting to come and to worship the child as well.
That is what the Magi remind Christians of each year as we hear their story. What do they do in the story? Not much really. I mean not much if you think about it according to how we usually measure such things. They don’t start a church. They don’t build a monument. They don’t write a book. They don’t start a new business in Bethlehem – Star Gazers Incorporated. They come and they worship Jesus – and their gifts symbolize what they are giving him – their hearts – their very selves.
And of course their story is quite a contrast to the story of King Herod. King Herod the Great, the most prolific builder in Israel’s history. He built the great addition to the Jerusalem temple. Constructed fortresses in Jericho, Bethlehem, Masada and Jerusalem. He was a busy man with great plans to prosper his kingdom. He was also, as historians tell us, absolutely unscrupulous. Last Sunday we heard the difficult and uncomfortable story about Herod’s response to the promised Messiah; it was the slaughter of the innocents. Herod had already had two of his sons and one of his wives killed because he thought that they were a threat to his power.
So here we have this amazing contrast between the Magi and King Herod. And the crux of the difference is worship. The Magi come to worship Jesus. King Herod is quite obviously worshipping his power or wealth or himself. The heart of the story is Jesus. Very simply – the story that we have been following all through Advent and Christmas is the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, God in the flesh. We see the Magi embrace this divine mystery of the promised child. They are in awe of this God-given miracle. They are overpowered. They adore the child. They worship him. And in worshipping him they give themselves to him as they symbolize this giving through the gifts they bring to him. King Herod can only understand Jesus through the perspective of what the child means for him. Finally, he decides that the promised, holy child is a threat. And so he does not worship him.
That ongoing work of living by the light of the Magi’s worship and the confession of the times that we have wandered into Herod’s darkness is the ongoing work of the Christian life. It is the working out of our salvation with fear and trembling (in the Apostle Paul’s words). Living worshipful lives is never a one-time task. This path is the pilgrimage of a life-time. It is the long journey of following yonder star – the light of Christ – and learning and relearning that this worship is really not ultimately about us but about Jesus. Not about what it is in it for us, but about the great God of Jesus Christ. And the great irony is that we learn and relearn again and again that in worshipping him and giving ourselves away instead of gripping tightly to ourselves and the pursuits of the world – we find everything we had longed for. This is what worship teaches us. Worship directs us to God. We turn from ourselves toward God. And as we do we learn who we really are.
A cherished and valued friend of mine named Tony Pappas lives on a remote fishing island, named Block Island, a float plane trip from the coast of Rhode Island. He and his wife went back to this community in retirement where he had pastored the first twenty years of his career. He wrote several wonderful books. I remember him telling the story of leaving Block Island after his long ministry there. This was almost three decades ago. He was leaving to become the area minister for Massachusetts for the American Baptist Church. After 20 years he and his wife were on the float plane, taking off, and then looking back at their little island and the church they had served – in the rear view mirror – so to speak. All of a sudden they were overwhelmed, simply with gratitude and a kind of awe at what a gift this little church was. I tell this story because Tony has written about the simplicity of worship being where church begins and lives. The community of people gather to present themselves to God with praise and thanksgiving. From this springs forth other good things such as friendship, fellowship, witness, mission and learning. Tony likes to use this floatplane experience as a metaphor for thinking about worship. Our faith in worship is nurtured as we look back – in the rear view mirror – so to speak. We attend to the sacred story of the Scriptures and as the Spirit leads us we are met at times with gratitude and a kind of awe for what God has done in the past. So worship helps us by looking back in order to know God present with us in the here and now. And ultimately worship orients us to look forward to find not just to find the future but to know that it is God who is already there ahead of his people preparing the way.
Friends, 2020 is upon us, the opening of the third decade in what is still a new millennia. It’s not hard to see and feel how much has changed and continues to change in our fast-paced world. But the future for the church will be nurtured as it always has been in the sacred space of worship. Christian faith will be encouraged, learned and inspired as God’s people continue to gather and orient themselves by the word to the God of heaven and earth. ……… Your officers have been installed once again on this first Sunday of the year. They are your leaders, but in a very unique way. They are leaders as they are followers of Jesus Christ. And as one of your deacons, Lisa, was ordained today, we are reminded that all of us have been called to ministry as Christians. Not just the clergy. May this New Year bring new insight and new opportunities for living as disciples of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. And may his light fill our hearts and minds, while it guides us into God’s future.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.