Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
January 5, 2019 –Epiphany Sunday
I was in Edinburgh in 1984 for the ABA Convention and Sunday night there was a program of traditional highland dancing in Princes Park, next to the Caledonian Hotel, at the foot of the cliff Edinburgh Castle stands atop.
I found myself sitting next to a couple from North Carolina. As we watched the highland dancers, the guy’s head popped up in a quick nod and he said, “My goodness! That’s square dancing!”
It was and I agreed with him, surprised to suddenly come to the same conclusion he had, once he pointed it out to me. As I sat there absorbing what he had just said, it sank in and I felt like I was home again, in a very special way.
I had never been there before, but I had landed in the same culture I lived in…or a culture that had much in common with the one I was in. It was like being in two places at the same time.
An epiphany is a sudden understanding of a larger than normal meaning in a particular ordinary moment. It’s like when two events occur at the same time, in the same place. A piece of the puzzle finds its place.
I wouldn’t have thought of square dancing as highland dancing, but they were the same thing, a two-in-one. They were separated in time and space, but they were one with each other.
Herod must have had a similar experience on hearing from the Wise Men that day they were in Jerusalem. They had come to find the king of the Jews that was about to be born.
Herod was the King of the Jews, and he wasn’t even sick, let alone at death’s door. This was a surprise, and one that threatened him, in his position…and personally.
He calls his counselors who confirm that the child is to be born in Bethlehem. He will be a leader, it is written, a shepherd for God’s people.
Herod’s world has just changed. He has a rival and he devises a scheme to eliminate his competition. Worldly powers are mortal and they contend with immortality all the days of our lives. Herod plays the proxy for us in this chapter of Jesus’ life on earth.
He thinks he can eliminate all the threats to his hold on power with physical force. He thinks that death of God’s anointed will defeat God’s purposes.
He is the first to be wrong about this, but he won’t be the last. There is an epiphany they haven’t seen yet, or understood yet, about the nature of life and death.
The Good Shepherd will be remembered and emulated, while the bad shepherd will be sent away and never mentioned again, except as a bad example:This is how not to live your life. Herod should want to be a good king as much as he wants to continue to be king.
Instead, he asks the Wise Men to go and search diligently for the child and come tell him where he is on their return. He says he wants to go and worship the child, but he wants to do something far different…and far less noble.
Let us not overlook the epiphany that gets the whole scene moving here. The Wise Men see what is happening in Judea…a land they have never been to…far more clearly than the people who live there.
They can stand back and look at the situation without all the cultural biases that burden the inhabitants. After we have been in a place for a while, we quit seeing what is there, and begin to see only what is not there. We become our own victims.
It’s like the three boys who are preparing to celebrate their mother’s 80th birthday. The oldest one picks the other two up in a chauffeured limousine.
He tells the other two that the limo is what he got their mother for her birthday, complete with chauffeur. They pull up to their mother’s new house and the second son tells his brothers that the beautiful house is what he got their mother…state of the art everything.
So what did you get her, they ask their youngest brother. He tells them he sent her a bird that can quote scripture in seven different languages. It was trained by a seven rabbis for three years. It cost as much as the house and the car combined.
Their mother meets them at the door and thanks them all for the lavish presents, but, she says, you know the limousine is so hard to find a place to park and it uses so much gas and she doesn’t get out that much anyway…but she appreciates the love with which it was given.
And the house is nice, but it is a lot to take care of, especially for someone her age, and it is so big, and she lives there alone and it only makes her feel more alone…but she appreciates the love with which it was given.
And then she turns to her youngest and thanks him for the bird. You know what truly pleases your mother: a simple, useful gift. Ah!” she “says, “that chicken was delicious!”
We need to look at things and ponder them before we can appreciate them fully…and even then we might miss a layer of meaning or two. Do we put our faith in glitter and fail to see the tree?
Quick judgments are something we should indulge in only when we don’t have time to think things through. If it’s not an emergency, let us process it…let us pray about it… let us find peace in it.
That is what the Wise Men do… think things through…this morning. They go and worship the child and bring gifts that make it more likely that the child will grow strong and flourish.
They humble themselves before an infant born in very modest circumstances, and treat the child with more reverence than they showed Herod…perhaps more than they think themselves worthy of…because they know the importance of this one life in the world as it had been foretold in the prophecies of Herod’s own scriptures, not theirs.
Paul will take the message of the Christ to the Gentiles many years later…because the Jews had rejected Jesus when he walked the earth, and they rejected Paul because he had betrayed his own heritage to serve this Jesus.
So it is Gentiles, the Wise Men …not his own kinsmen…who see the world-shaking and world-saving significance of the appearance of the King of the Jews at the time he is born. And it is Gentiles…strangers to Herod’s and Jesus’ culture and his customs… who will praise God for the life of Christ after he has arisen from the tomb and ascended into heaven.
Those who should know, don’t. They have there own expectations about what he will look like and their own plans for what he will do for them. The religious leaders of Jesus’ time and place have not had an epiphany yet that allows them to simply bow down and give thanks.
They should not be condemned or even criticized for this. It took Paul a long time to have his epiphany about who Jesus was and all that he meant to the world.
I have to admit that every time I open my Bible and read a passage I thought I knew…and knew what it meant…there are new meanings as I confront the scriptures…and they confront me.
The scriptures have not changed, of course. I have changed…or I have been changed by life and experience. I have had more time to contemplate new possibilities and to reconsider long-held beliefs.
People I have shared Bible study time with all express the same thing. We learn more as we go through life. We bring all that we are and all we hope to be to each new reading of our old, old story.
The words are the same and Jesus is the same yesterday and today and for all time, but the world changes …society changes…and we change. But no matter what we do or what we say, the truth is always the truth and love is still the most precious gift God laid on our hearts.
I read an article this week about the Saudis deciding to open up their country for tourism recently. They want to be friends with the world in a way that is new…for them. They see it as the best way to be…and let us give thanks for that.
Here is their slogan, which you might find vaguely familiar.
I didn’t realize how close we were as United Methodists to our Saudi brothers and sisters. If they will now strive to have Open Minds as well as Open Hearts and Open Doors, we might find a whole new world of opportunity for peace and community to take root and grow…around the world.
That would be quite an epiphany, but it is not beyond the realm of what might be possible if we could find a way to surrender to the wonder and truth of Jesus Christ… if we could claim his love and share it with everyone we meet…and if we could quit asking what our will for Christ is…what we want him to do…and sit quietly to ask what Jesus wants us to do.
He didn’t come into the world so that I could be right, or my friends could be right, or so that everyone who doesn’t agree with us on everything will be branded as evil and damned to eternal hell.
He came that we might have the greatest epiphany in the history of the world…of the universe. He came to share wonderful and fearful words with us…to show us the power God wanted us all to have the day Christ was born.
Think of the trials Galileo had to endure because he had an epiphany one day that it is the earth that is circling the Sun and not the Sun that is going around the earth. He had to recant and live under house arrest for what the leaders of his day saw as blasphemy.
Now think of what kind of world we would be living in today if we had not all come to accept the truth as God gives it to us. No smart phones. No television. No electricity. No running water.
We look back on those times and those people with smirking disdain. But one day I think the world will look back at us and see ways that we believed foolish things held us back…and our children…and our neighbors…too. There are ways we still think the world is flat when it just isn’t…and fear of the Lord, we read, is the beginning of wisdom.
So let us take our lives into this first full week in 2020 with the humility that Paul came to embrace. He was so very sure of himself when he set out for Damascus, before Christ confronted him with the ultimate epiphany of his life.
But by the time he writes to the Ephesians and us this morning, he knows that he is the least important of all God’s people. At best, he is a faithful instrument of God and faith and hope and love.
He knows that he is a witness to all Christ has done and he finds himself to be a continuing witness to all the wonderful things God is still doing in the world around him.
May we greet each new day and each new friend with that sense of wonder, knowing that while we are weak and mortal creatures, we are so loved by God that we were given this day…and this hour…and this place…and these words to share with these friends…and with the friends that wait to walk with us in the world.
Ann Weems puts it nicely in her poem. “Into This Silent Night.”
Into this silent night
as we make our weary way
we know not where,
just when the night becomes its darkest
and we cannot see our path,
is when the angels rush in,
their hands full of stars.
God bless us all, on this Epiphany Sunday.
O Lord, what is it you want to accomplish in the world through us …through me…this day? Amen.