This is long over due. I spent sometime this morning organizing some files on my computer so I could actually find documents that I am working on. In the course of that I found my Epiphany sermon in a folder labeled, “Lent.” Anyway, here are some thoughts on Epiphany to break up your Holy Week activities.
Well friends it is finally over. For the past five weeks we have prepared for, welcomed, and celebrated the birth of the baby Jesus. We have journeyed through Advent and Christmastide, and today we arrive at the end of this incarnational season as we gather to celebrate the feast of the Epiphany: the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles – to all peoples of the earth. I don’t know about you, but these seasons of Advent and Christmas have not unfolded for me the way I thought they would.
For the first two, almost three, weeks of Advent things were going exactly as planned. I continued my daily prayer and reflection routine, and, to be honest, did not spend much time thinking about the reality of what I was preparing for. I just did the same things that I do every Advent. I was focused more on writing my Ember Day letter to Bishop Knisely, than thinking about how to prepare for Christmas. But, that all changed on December 14th. As the events of that tragic morning unfolded, I think we all stopped in our places and took stock of our lives and what we were doing. We could no longer continue our Advent preparations in the same ordinary ways, and it seems to me in those days and the days following the Church had its own Epiphany.
On the one week anniversary of the events in Newtown, CT, Churches, community centers, schools, and other organizations paused for a moment of silence and to ring bells in honor of those lives lost that day. For many organizations, certainly what the media called for, was the ringing of bells twenty-six times. But that is not what St. Peter’s did. This parish church, and churches around the diocese rang their bells twenty-eight times. In those moments the Church was reminded of what it is that we stand for: we were all reminded that every human being is a beloved child of God, no matter how heinous and evil the acts they commit are. Adam is as loved by God as anyone one of us. This is something that is not easy to say or to proclaim, but it is the truth of our Christian faith. By ringing our bell 28 times, we stood as a beacon for our community: not of fear, hatred, and retaliation; but as a beacon of light, love, and hope. We stood as a witness, as a manifestation of Christ’s love in this clearly hurting world.
As all of this was unfolding around us, I could not help but be reminded of one of my all time favorite characters from American political history. In 1977, Harvey Milk was elected as a member of the board of supervisors for San Francisco, CA. If you are unfamiliar with Harvey Milk, I recommend you watch the 2008 movie MILK staring Sean Penn. One of Milk’s most famous speeches is what has become known as the Hope Speech. In it he encourages those around him, to use their prophetic voice to stand up for those who are oppressed by hatred and violence: to be a beacon of light in an otherwise dark world. At the end of the speech Milk said, “The only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a better place to come to if the pressures at home are too great.” He goes on to conclude, “And you and you and you, you have to give people hope.”
It seems to me that that message is what this season of incarnation is all about. It is about hope coming into a fear filled world, it is about – as we heard proclaimed on Christmas Eve – the people who walked in darkness, have seen a great light. Something miraculous has happened, the wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, the prince of peace has come into the world. How awesome is that!
Throughout the Old Testament, we hear of stories like that of Moses having to turn his back because he cannot look directly on the image of God. Those gathered at the foot of the mountain were told not to touch it, because God was there, and they would surely perish if they did. This, previously untouchable, unseeable God has come into the world to be with us: to abide with us. We are now able to see God, to touch God, and through Jesus we are made worthy to stand before God.
In today’s Gospel reading we hear the story of the wise men. Those crazy astrologers from the East traveling to pay homage to the new-born king. And yes, I did say crazy. How often do we look up, leave our lives behind, and follow a star across the world? I am pretty sure that if I said to you, “hey guys let’s follow that star because I hear something wonderful has happened” you all would look at me as if I were out of my mind. If you don’t already think so, you would think I’ve gone absolutely bonkers. But, that is what these travelers did. They looked up, they saw a star shining in the night sky, they found a beacon of hope and knew they had to go see what had taken place.
So here we are at the end of this season of Incarnation, we have completed our yearly reminder that Christ has come among us to abide with us. But, where does that leave us? Can we simply go on as if nothing has happened? Can we return to business as usual? No, of course not. If the answer were “yes” to any of those questions, why would I bother preaching this sermon?
The miracle of the incarnation is heralded into the world by those least likely to do it. Elizabeth, old and barren, conceives a child; the forerunner; the one who will prepare the way for the messiah. Mary, a young, teenage, unwed woman was greeted by an Angel, “Hail Favored One” and by the power of the Holy Spirit He became incarnate form the Virgin Mary and was made man. The Shepherds – those living both literally and figuratively on the outskirts of society – were the first to hear the news of great joy. The wise men traveled from a foreign land to offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It wasn’t Emperor Augustus or Quirinius governor of Syria that first heard the message; but rather those who are least likely – women, shepherds, and foreigners.
This is something really important to pay attention to. Because when Elizabeth conceives; when the Shepherds are filled with joy; when the wise men bow down; when Mary says “yes”; we loose our ability to say “no.” Here is a woman who has every reason to say no. To say, “I’m not good enough”, “If God only knew”, “There has to be someone better.” But, she doesn’t: She answers God with a resounding yes. We can no longer live by the same excuses Mary could have used. We are called to – with joy and gladness – say “yes” to God. To go out and be God bearers in the world – to be beacons of light, love, and hope to those around us.
The emergence of God’s grace and glory comes with responsibilities for us who receive this great gift. “Arise, shine” as we heard the prophet Isaiah proclaim, is not a meek request is it a strong demand. The light – the Messiah – has come into the world not to rescue a few chosen people form the darkness, but so that all people of the earth will be drawn from places of pain and brokenness and brought to places of joy, hope, and light. It is time to “Get out of bed” as Eugene Peterson writes in The Message.
We have seen a great light, and now we have work to do. We must be signs of hope and light for the world: showing others what we have come to know and what they are still yet to see. The end of this season reminds us that we are called to arise!, to get out of bed, and carry out our own incarnational ministry in the world.
May we live into the incarnation as we continue to be manifestations of Christ light and life in the world. May we, like the wise men, be crazy enough to look up and follow a star to the unknown. May we, like Mary, be brave enough to say yes to God – to be beacons and examples of hope and light in this dark, broken, and hurting world. Because at the end of the day; the only thing they have to look forward to is hope. And you have to give them hope. Hope for a better world, hope for a better tomorrow. And you, and you, and me – we have to give this world hope.
And all God’s people said,