Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Sermon: Epiphany of the Lord (6 Jan 2008)

Epiphany of the Lord
(Is 60:1-6/Ps 72/Eph 3:1-12/Mt 2:1-12)
Yes, You Too

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pious legend tells us that the Twelve Days of Christmas is an allegory, a song penned by persecuted Catholics in 16th century England to act as catechism, to summarize the faith. From the partridge in a pear tree – Jesus on the cross – to the twelve drummers drumming – the twelve articles of faith in the Apostles’ Creed – each gift from God, our true Love, emphasizes an important element of our faith. Well, I don’t know. The story sounds a bit contrived to me and the connection between maids a-milking and anything holy stretched a bit thin. But, if I have to choose between the religious version and the Muppets’ version, I’ll listen to the voice of the faithful every time, even if it is a bit strained. So, with apologies to the original, here’s my take on the twelfth verse on this the twelfth day of Christmas.

On the twelfth day of Christmas
my true Love gave to me
three wisemen bowing, John baptizing, water transforming,
and a feast called Epiphany.

The three events collectively celebrated as Epiphany – the arrival of the magi at Bethlehem, the baptism of Jesus at the Jordan, and the first public miracle of water turned to wine at Cana in Galilee – share no historical connection: neither place nor time links them. Thirty years and hundreds of miles separate the magi from the events at the Jordan and at Cana. John’s ministry would soon wind down – I must decrease and he must increase – as Jesus’ ministry began and grew. No, the connection isn’t historical; it’s thematic and theological. The theme is there in the name of the feast: Epiphany. It’s from the Greek – epi phainein – to shine upon or to show forth. An epiphany is an Aha! moment – you’ve all had those – when suddenly and unexpectedly the light breaks through to illuminate what had lain in deep darkness. There is revelation where there had been mystery. There is understanding where there had been confusion. It’s the moment at the end of Sixth Sense when “I see dead people,” takes on a whole new meaning and makes sense of the entire film.

Epiphany is a star that reveals to pagan astrologers the birth of a new king in Israel and puts them on a quest to worship the child. Epiphany is a dove lighting on the shoulder of a carpenter from Nazareth and a voice from heaven revealing this carpenter to be not just another of the rabble-come-for-dipping in the Jordan but the very Son of God. Epiphany is gallon upon gallon of wine – good wine, the best wine – in water jars of all places, revealing a new creation and a resurrection under way wherever this freshly baptized carpenter-turned-rabbi happens to show up. Epiphany leaves us scratching our heads and mumbling, “Hmm – go figure.”

So, how does the church celebrate Epiphany? Many simply don’t, and that’s a shame, a real loss, I think. Following liturgical custom, we began the morning with the rite of Blessing in Homes at Epiphany, with the greeting “Peace be to this house, and to all who dwell in it.” From house to house we remembered that Mary and Joseph made a home for Jesus and we blessed the homes of our members in his name: May God the Son, who sanctified a home at Nazareth, fill you with his love. Amen. And this, recalling the epiphany of the magi: May God Almighty, who led the Wise Men by the shining of a star to find the Christ, the Light from Light, lead you also in your pilgrimage, to find the Lord. Amen.

Another rite will follow the Prayers of the People this morning, the Consecration of Water, in which we ask God’s blessing upon the water we will use sacramentally throughout the new year. Among the prayers in this service are these, which tie us to Epiphany:

Most High God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ:
In the fullness of the times you called forth your servant John – The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight. – called him to stand in the waters of the Jordan and to baptize for repentance. Bless this water to us as a sign of repentance that it may lead us to amendment of life and to fruit worthy of repentance. Amen.

Most High God, Voice from Heaven:
In the baptism of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, you split the silence and spoke from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Bless this water to us as Jesus blessed the water of baptism by his righteous obedience, that it may assure us that we, too, are your beloved sons and daughters in whom you are well pleased. Amen.

And, each week as we celebrate the Eucharist we witness an Epiphany-like transformation as “ordinary” wine and water become for us the most precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, the cup of the New Covenant we share.

These are ways in which the Church celebrates Epiphany, and they are important – especially important for the creation of community through sign and symbol and story and sacrament. By them we are reminded that God dwells in our homes and that these homes should reflect that Presence, that each home is a domestic church. Through them we are reminded that God loves the stuff of creation – like water – and that he uses it to make himself known and to re-create a people and a world to be his own. Yes, these rites and rituals of the Church are vitally important. But, they are remembrances, celebrations of Epiphany only, and not epiphanies themselves. Epiphanies are not planned, not ritualized – they may occur through planning and ritual, but they cannot themselves be planned or ritualized. Epiphanies are unexpected, shocking manifestations of God’s presence and glory: a bush on flame but not consumed and a voice warning that the ground where you stand, the ground you always considered ordinary, is really holy; a cloud that suddenly erupts with the firey glory of God and stands sentinel while the great sea of troubles before you become a highway of deliverance; the death of everything you held dear – the end – which three days later is revealed as the precursor of a glorious resurrection you could never have imagined. These are epiphanies.

Epiphanies involve mystery and revelation – sudden, unexpected good news of God on the move. Paul writes to the Ephesians of such an epiphany.

This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles – for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph 3:1-6, NRSV).

Mystery and revelation – epiphany. And what is this epiphany that Paul has experienced and now shares with the Church? That Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise, and all this through Jesus Christ. This is the mystery that God has kept hidden for generations but which now, in these last days, he has revealed in Christ through the Spirit. And let’s not abstract this or make it a matter of Church history only: Aren’t those Gentiles blessed to be included? We are those Gentiles. What Paul reveals here is our inclusion in the family of God once apparently reserved for Jews only.

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called the “uncircumcision” by that which is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands – remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Eph 2:11-13, ESV).

For so long we’ve had a sense of inclusion, of privilege, that I fear we can’t grasp this as epiphany. We can celebrate it, we can remember it, we can ritualize it, but I suspect we cannot experience it as epiphany – as the sudden, unexpected good news of God on the move putting the world to rights through Christ Jesus and letting us in on that good news.

And that may be the ultimate essence of Epiphany – the mystery, now revealed through Christ, of the sudden, unexpected inclusion of outcasts – outcasts like you and me – in God’s promises and grace and kingdom. Psalm 72, a blessing on God’s righteous king, captures this inclusive nature of Epiphany. What will happen when God’s righteous is revealed in the person of the King? He will

defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor…For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight (Ps 72:4, 12-14, NRSV).

Jesus’ good news was Epiphany to those who heard him; it was an embodiment of this psalm. For Jesus came to the poor, the weak, the needy, the oppressed, the helpless and revealed the mystery that they, too, had a place in God’s kingdom, that they, too, were among the blessed.

5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
5:11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me. 5:12 Rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven, for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way (Mt 5:3-11, NET).

Jesus came to the tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes with the revelation of a mystery almost beyond belief – In fact it was beyond belief for the religious elite. – that yes, there is a place for you in God’s kingdom, a place among the blessed. Jesus touched the blind, the deaf, the lepers, the demon-possessed – all those excluded from the Temple by virtue of their infirmities – touched them with his hands, with his love, with his revelation that yes, they too had a place in God’s kingdom, that they, too, were among the blessed. And that, my brothers and sisters, the mystery, now revealed through Christ, of the sudden, unexpected inclusion of outcasts – outcasts like you and me – in God’s promises and grace and kingdom, that is Epiphany.

And Jesus is still revealing this great mystery, still bringing Epiphany, to a world in desperate need of it. Now the epiphanies come, when they do, through the Church, through the members of the body of Christ.

Alison Compton[1] works to create alphabets for a cluster of oral Bantu languages in Tanzania so that, for the first time in the history of a people, they might have the Word of God in written form in their own language. Her work might seem to be linguistics, but I think it is Epiphany – the mystery, now revealed through Christ in the person of this young woman, that yes, you too in Tanzania, have a place in God’s kingdom, a place among the blessed.

Dan Haseltine, lead singer of Jar of Clay, visited Africa in 2002 and was changed by the poverty and physical suffering he witnessed there. He returned from this epiphany of suffering with a new vision – a vision of an Africa where clean water, free from parasites and bacteria, and clean blood, free from HIV contamination are available to all. He founded the Blood:Water Mission “to build clean wells in Africa, to support medical facilities caring for the sick, to make a lasting impact in the fight against poverty, injustice and oppression in Africa through the linking of needs, talents and continents, of people and resources.” He is committed to building 1000 wells in 1000 African communities – with our help, of course – bringing living water to dying people in the name of Christ. His work might seem to be music, but I think it is Epiphany – the mystery, now revealed through Christ in the person of this young man, that yes, you too in Africa have a place in God’s kingdom, a place among the blessed.[2]

I know a group of men in south Georgia who meet regularly to play poker – not high stakes, just about $40 ante for the night – with all the money going to feed to hungry. God’s Grillers they call themselves because they haul a couple of industrial grills around town cooking hamburgers and hotdogs and turkeys and giving them away in the name of Christ. Their hobby might seem like poker, but I think it is Epiphany – the mystery, now revealed through Christ in the “sacraments” of hamburgers and hotdogs that yes, you struggling and hungry in southern Georgia have a place in God’s kingdom, a place among the blessed.

I know a small group of men and women and children in Knoxville, Tennessee who individually and collectively sponsor third world children and ministers, visit a shelter for abused women, play Bingo with nursing home residents, and deliver food for the organization FISH in some rough areas of their town, all in the name of Christ. That may seem ordinary to them, not much at all, but I think it is Epiphany – the mystery, now revealed through Christ in word and touch and time that yes, the abused and forgotten and hungry in Knoxville have a place in God’s kingdom, a place among the blessed.

As the Church it is our privilege to remember and celebrate Epiphany in our liturgies and rites: in the blessing of homes and in the consecration of water. As the Church it is our calling to bring Epiphany – the mystery, now revealed through Christ, of the sudden, unexpected inclusion of outcasts – outcasts like you and me – to the poor, the hungry, the forgotten, the rejected, the abused – to all those who need the good news of the love of God in Christ Jesus.


[1] Alison serves through Wycliffe Bible Translators. More information about her work is available at
[2] This information was taken directly from the Blood:Water Mission website, I first learned of the mission through the blog of Michael Spencer,

No comments: