Epiphany: When the Wise Ones Came

Wisemen and MangerOLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 60: 1-6

Read the Old Testament Passage

Having just previously declared that God is coming as Redeemer, the writer of this part of Isaiah calls Israel to “Arise, Shine”. Essentially, it is a proclamation that God, the eternal Light, has come. God’s Presence is already here and the transformation of the world has begun.

Now keep in mind that this was probably written at the end of the Babylonian exile. The once-thriving Jerusalem now sits empty, ravaged and desolate. The people lived in darkness and exile. The temple is gone, destroyed in the attack. And the dynasty of David, the veritable hope for the future, seemed to be at its floundering end. It would have been easy to miss seeing any good that might come of the situation, easy to miss any hint of things getting better. So this is the crescendo of the preparation for God’s arrival. Come on people, the prophet screams, Wake up! Don’t you see it? Things are happening! The days of waiting are over. Your children are being gathered even as we speak to return home. It is time now, time for Israel to become who God intended—a light to the nations.

Now, of course, it’s easy for us to sort of tack this passage on to our story of the Wise Men from the Gospel of Luke, but this really did have to do with the exile. The Presence of God was palpable, moving into the desolation and beginning to re-create Jerusalem. It was time now to shape their life together as a people and as a community.

But for us, there is also that undercurrent of eschatological reflection. Our hereafter, our “heaven” as we know it, is not something out there or up there or just up ahead. It is here. We just have to look around and see it. There are streams of souls in procession. We just have to find our place. And yet, even Israel didn’t understand the message any more than we do. God is not promising to make our lives easier, or to fill us with wealth and power, or to put us on top. God is promising to remake us, transform us into something completely different. God is promising not a return to normalcy but a new normal. In fact, if you read it, it’s a new normal for everyone—for all those camel drivers regardless of where they come from—Midian, Ephah, Sheba. In today’s terms, it’s all the camel drivers from somewhere in the Sudan, possibly modern-day Iraq, and probably Ethiopia, descending into the Holy Places not to go to war or to take people into exile but to come together, bringing their resources, and praising God as one.

This week we read three Scriptures that make up our Epiphany text. Perhaps we miss Epiphany. It sort of gets overshadowed by all the chaotic over-seasoning that came in the weeks before and the mad sprint toward Lent that is only weeks away. So we put on the green “ordinary” stoles and try to get our heads back above the ensuing waves. And yet, this is the place where it all comes together—the past promises that were made even as far back as the exile, that birth of the holy child that we just celebrated, and the rest—all of us that came after. The past now makes sense and the future becomes real. God’s Presence is always and forever in-breaking into this world. So, “Arise, Shine! For your light has come!” God is transforming all of us even as we speak.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. Why is it so hard for all of us to gain a sense of God’s Presence in the darkness?
  3. What signs of the sacred and transformation do you see now?
  4. What stands in the way of your seeing that transformation?
  5. Do we lose something of the story if we read this solely as a prophetic recount of Christ rather than in the context in which it was written?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Ephesians 3: 1-12

Read the Epistle passage

Paul and his disciples never used the word “Epiphany”. In fact, the day never really was mentioned until around the 4th century. And yet, whoever wrote this (probably not Paul), came really close to the whole notion that we celebrate: Something new has happened in Jesus. This was no ordinary baby. This was no ordinary mother. These were not ordinary shepherds and not your average run-of-the-mill Wise Men. They were all part of a new order, a new normal.

The writer acknowledges that this mystery of God’s Presence, the notion of the holy and the sacred actually being a part of us, was not made known to everyone. But now is the time. The Gentiles have been brought into the story, made characters in the ongoing story of God’s Incarnation. The point of the writing is to further explain what the readers of the letter have already gotten. They have already been gifted with this manifestation of Christ. They just had to open their eyes to know it. But this is not the “accepted” news and so the text implies that Paul’s relating of this mystery is the reason for his imprisonment (and, perhaps, you could surmise, the reason that one of Paul’s disciples may be writing this letter.)

But the writer does not seem to be discouraged. The Spirit has now made known what in former times was concealed, namely that the Gentiles are now fellow heirs, fellow members of the same body, and fellow participants in the promises. This idea of grace extended to all, even those seemingly unexpected recipients, is not really a new thing to Paul or to this writer. The assertion is that the mystery has been hidden with God, who is the creator of all things, suggesting that this mystery has always been God’s plan. This mystery in Christ — Lord over all peoples, both Jew and Gentiles — was the eternal plan of God, but only in the last days has God made it evident and begun its fulfillment.

The greatest celebration of the Incarnation is this celebration of the diversity and wisdom of the church brought together in unity, just as those Wise Men from the East (and Gentiles to boot), experienced the Presence of God. The greatest celebration of the Church is the coming together of all of this wisdom so that all in their own understanding might experience the Presence of God. The mystery is that this Holy Child, this Sacred Son of God, this Christ, this Messiah, is really intended to be Savior to us All.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How would this message be received by our society today?
  3. What does this new order mean for you?
  4. If diversity is the “new order” and the “mystery for the church, what does that mean in our modern culture?
  5. Do we really understand the concept of Jesus as “Savior to us All”?

 

 

GOSPEL: Matthew 2: 1-12

Read the Gospel passage

Our Gospel text this week begins by setting us “in the time of King Herod”. And in it, we find that the last question of Advent comes not at Christmas but afterward and is asked not by an individual but by a group. They believe that the star (or, for some, an unusual conjunction of heavenly bodies that produces an especially bright light) marks the birth of a special child destined to be a king. They ask, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?

And so Herod hears that a king had been born in Bethlehem. Well, the formula is simple—a king is born, but a king is already here; and in Herod’s mind and the minds of all those who follow him, there is room for only one king. The passage says that King Herod was frightened and all Jerusalem with him. They probably were pretty fearful. After all, there was a distinct possibility that their world was about to change. It seemed that the birth of this humble child might have the ability to shake the very foundations of the earth and announce the fall of the mighty. Things would never be the same again.

So Herod relies on these wisest ones in his court. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel says that they’re from the East. Some traditions hold that these wise men were Magi, a Priestly caste of Persian origin that followed Zoroastrianism and practiced the interpretation of dreams and portents and astrology. Other traditions depict them with different ethnicities as the birth of this Messiah begins to move into the whole world. But somewhere along the way, they had heard of the birth of this king and came to the obvious place where he might be—in the royal household. So, sensing a rival, Herod sends these “wise ones” to find the new king so that he could “pay homage” to him. We of course know that this was deceitful. His intent was not to pay homage at all, but to destroy Jesus and stop what was about to happen to his empire. It was the only way that he could preserve what he had.

According to the passage, the wise men know that Christ was born; they needed God’s guidance, though, to find where Christ was. When they get to the place where the star has stopped, the passage tells us that they were “overwhelmed with joy”. They knelt down and paid the new king homage and offered him gifts fit for a king. Even though later interpreters have often tried to place specific meanings on these gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, it is possible that the writer of the Gospel According to Matthew simply thought that these gifts, exotic and expensive as they were, were gifts that would be worthy of a great and mighty king. They were gifts of joy, gifts of gratitude, gifts of celebration.

And then the passage tells us that, heeding a warning in a dream, these wise and learned (and probably powerful) members of the court of Herod, left Bethlehem and returned to their own country, a long and difficult journey through the Middle Eastern desert. Rather than returning to their comfortable lives and their secure and powerful places in the court of Herod, they left and went a different way. They knew they had to go back to life. But it didn’t have to be the same.

So they slip away. Herod is furious. He has been duped. So he issues an order that all the children two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem should be killed. The truth is that Jesus comes into the world as it actually is, not as we wish it to be. Evil and greed are real and the ways of the world can and do crush life.

It is not really any different for us. After all, what has changed? Has Christmas produced for us some sort of “new normal”? There are too many places in the world where wars still rage. There are children that went to bed hungry last night and people in our own city that slept outside wrapped in anything that they could find hoping to stay warm. There are families in Connecticut still grieving over the loss of their children to a mad man. And, in the midst of it all, Congress is still arguing over something called a fiscal cliff. What has changed? Well, not much. Truth be told, everything seems to have pretty much returned to normal.

But, then, think about that first Christmas. This passage moves the story beyond the quiet safety of the manger. We realize that the manger is actually placed in the midst of real life, with sometimes dark and foreboding forces and those who sometimes get it wrong.   The primary characters are, of course, God and these visitors, these foreign Gentiles who did not even worship in the ways of the Jewish faith. They were powerful, intelligent, wealthy, and were accustomed to using their intellect and their logic to understand things. You know, they were a lot like us. But they found that the presence of the Divine in one’s life is not understood in the way that we understand a math equation. It is understood by becoming it.

Maybe that’s the point about Christmas that we’ve missed. Maybe it’s not just about the nativity scene. Maybe it’s more about what comes after. We often profess that Jesus came to change the world. But that really didn’t happen. Does that mean that this whole Holy Birth was a failure, just some sort of pretty, romantic story in the midst of our sometimes chaotic life? Maybe Jesus didn’t intend to change the world at all; maybe Jesus, Emmanuel, God with Us, came into this world to change us. Maybe, then, there IS a new normal. It has to do with what we do after. It has to do with how we choose to go back to our lives. Do we just pick up where we left off? Or do we, like those wise men choose to go home by another way?

Many of us bemoan what seems to be a take-over of our Christmas by the culture and the society. We hear time and time again a calling to “put Christ back in Christmas”. Well, I don’t think that’s the problem. God in Christ has never left. We are not called to put Christ back in Christmas; we are called to put ourselves there. The story tells us that. The young Mary didn’t just come on the scene for a starlit evening. She was there, there at the cross. Her whole life became immersed in this child that she brought into the world. The shepherds stopped what they were doing, leaving their sheep on a hillside outside of Bethlehem with no protection from bandits or wild animals and thereby risking everything they knew, everything that would preserve their life the way it was. And those Wisemen? They never went back. They chose to go home by another way.

And what about us? We are called to place ourselves in the story. We all have to go back. We all have to return to our lives. But that manger so long ago is not that far removed from us. In fact, it’s really sort of in the middle of our lives. God did not just visit our little earth so long ago and then return to wherever God lives. God came as Emmanuel, God with Us, and that has never changed. The birth of Jesus means that God was born in a specific person in a specific place. The Christmas story affirms to us that God is here, that the Messiah for whom we had waited has come, that we are in God’s hands. But the Epiphany story moves it beyond the manger. And all of a sudden we are part of the story. We are part of the Incarnation of God, the manifestation of God’s Presence here on our little earth. The God in whose hands we rest danced into our very lives and is now all over our hands. It is our move. God was not just born into the child Jesus; God is born into us, into humanity. And the world really hasn’t changed. But we have. And we are called to change the world.

 

  1. What meaning does this hold for you?
  2. What “other way” are we called to travel?
  3. What do you think of the notion that Jesus came to change not the world itself but us?
  4. What new light (pun intended) does Epiphany shed on the meaning of Christmas for you?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

The desire to find God and to see God and to love God is the one thing that matters. (Thomas Merton)

Get this first epiphany right–God perfectly hidden and perfectly revealed in the actual, and all the rest of the year will not surprise or disappoint you…If God can be manifest in a baby in a poor stable for the unwanted, then we better be ready for God just about anywhere and in anybody. The letting-go of any attempt to compartmentalize God will always feel dangerous and maybe even like dying…And it is both the ground and the goal of all mystical experience. Now God is in all things. We can no longer separate, exclude or avoid anybody or anything, especially under the guise of religion. We all, like the Magi, must now kneel and kiss the ground, throwing our own kingships to the wind…Afterwards, we are out of control, going back home by a different route, yet realigned correctly with what-is. Reality is still the best ally of God, and God always comes disguised as our life. (Excerpts from “Epiphany: You Can’t Go Home Again”, by Richard Rohr)

When the star in the sky is gone, When the Kings and Princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flocks, he Work of Christmas begins:

               To find the lost,

               To heal the broken,

               To feed the hungry,

               To release the prisoner,

               To teach the nations,

               To bring Christ to all,

                        To make music in the heart. (Dr. Howard Thurman, ‘The Work of Christmas”)

 

Closing

 

It is not over, this birthing. There are always newer skies into which God can throw stars. When we begin to think that we can predict the Advent of God, that we can box the Christ in a stable in Bethlehem, that’s just the time that God will be born in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe. Those who wait for God watch with their hearts and not their eyes, listening, always listening for angel words.

(Ann Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980), 85.)

Advent 1C: Surely the Days are Coming

OLD TESTAMENT: Jeremiah 33: 14-16

To read the passage from Jeremiah

In this season of Advent, we are reminded to wait and prepare for the coming of Christ. It is a time of new hope and new birth. But these words from the prophet Jeremiah are spoken into a world that is filled with uncertainty and despair. Situated somewhere around the middle of the sixth century before the common era, the powerful Assyrian nation is threatening to overrun the small community of Hebrew people. At this time Judah was literally squeezed between this powerful and foreboding Assyrian nation to the north and Egypt to the south and the west.

So, the rulers of Judah had to often deal with the prospect of making alliance with Egypt to avoid the destruction from the north. But this would of course shake the political, social, cultural, and even religious foundations of the fledgling nation. It often seemed as if there was nowhere to turn. And so, like all of us, they were looking for answers. But Jeremiah’s words do not speak of national survival but of a future of promise and hope.

The time is not now but they are surely coming. Jeremiah wasn’t promising that he would be with the people; he was promising that God would. He was not promising that everything would be “fixed”; he was promising new life. Jeremiah would speak these words under three different rulers. He told King Josiah not to side with Egypt. He preached warnings against false prophets promising false hopes under Johoiakin’s rule. He forewarned the destruction of the nation if this continued. And he urged King Zedekiah not to engage in a fight with the Babylonians. No one listened. The temple would fall. The people would be carried into exile in Egypt. The nation lay in ruins. But the promise remained.

This is no different a scenario than we often experience. We want God. We yearn for God. We want to be the people of God. But often that feeling of God’s presence eludes us. Has God deserted us? Or have we somehow deserted God? We want God but we want God on our own terms. We want to somehow control the Divine and fit God into our already-formed lives. We want to experience a Presence of God that is comfortable and familiar.

So the prophet Jeremiah reminds us that God’s work is nothing less than the inauguration of a new world. And as we look for the coming of Christ, we look for the one who will point us in the direction that we should be looking for that new world. It is not what we have planned. God comes in ways and places that we do not expect God. That’s what this season of Advent is about. We are not called to plan for God’s coming the way we plan for our Christmas festivities. We are, rather, called to open ourselves to the way that God will be revealed in our lives. We, like these anxiety-ridden people, yearn desperately for God. We beg for God to come into our lives. And, yet, we too, are out of step. God’s coming does not begin with light. God’s coming begins with darkness that the light enters. So, perhaps if we turn out all the bright lights that we insist we need, we will finally see that light that is just over the horizon.

God does not come because we are ready or because we are prepared or because we’ve gotten all our shopping done. This Lord of Righteousness, this Creator of Hope, this God of unfathomable love who desires nothing more than the best for all of Creation comes into our waiting, into our wilderness, into the darkest of days. So, wait with the anticipation not of how God will come but that God will.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What gets in the way of our anticipation of God’s Presence in our lives?
  3. What does this passage say to us about waiting for God?
  4. How can this passage speak to our world today?

  

NEW TESTAMENT: 1 Thessalonians 3: 9-13

To read the passage from 1 Thessalonians

Paul has founded the church at Thessalonica and before he was really able to solidify its existence, he was whisked away to prison. Paul was, of course, concerned about the fledgling community. He was probably worried that they would turn their backs on him and what he had taught them, that the surrounding culture and the surrounding environment would just be too much.

In order to find out how the Thessalonians were faring, and to determine whether they still looked upon him as their founder, the apostle sent Timothy to Thessalonica. Timothy returns with a very positive report (possibly even a letter from the congregation), and Paul writes this letter to the church.

Paul begins by thanking God for them, affirming who they are and the work they do. And then he holds his own love up for them to imitate. He reminds them who they are and who they should be. He reminds them of the practices that they should keep—thankfulness, prayer, and community. He reminds them that they grow together, that they support each other and encourage each other.

In a way, these few verses sound a little sappy. Are we ready for the big group hug? But, seriously, you have to think about this in light of the environment in which these believers lived. It was not easy. There were always other powers pulling them away, cultural norms that were easy to fall back into. Paul’s exhortation was not a sappy, feel-good letter. It was a reminder that there is something more, something better. It was a reminder to hold on, to persevere, and to open one’s eyes to the signs of God’s Presence that surround us even in the midst of all these things that get in the way.

It is a way of saying that this work of God, this Presence of God’s Spirit, has begun in us. Like God’s vision, they are not complete. They have to be developed. They have to be lived out in community. They have to be used to build up the Kingdom of God. We still have to wait for the full revelation. We still have to wait for the promised coming of God’s Kingdom in its fullness, but in the meantime, we have been strengthened and given the gifts that we need to live as the people of God.

Now keep in mind that these first-century people assumed that God was going to return any day or any minute. The possibility that our generation would still be waiting for the fullness of God’s Kingdom would have been positively anathema to them. And as time went on, they, like those Israelites centuries before them took matters into their own hands. Waiting is difficult for all of us though. Our world tends to operate on instant gratification. When we don’t get the “answer” from God that we think we need, we too tend to try to take care of things ourselves. In fact, we admire people that “get things done,” that take hold of the situation and make things happen. But that’s not what faith is about. Faith is about expectation. Faith is about anticipation. In fact, faith is about waiting. A life of faith is one of active waiting, believing that God will come when God will come and living a life with that vision in mind, a vision of peace, and justice, and unity within the Presence of God. But don’t wait to begin.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How does this passage speak to the concept of “waiting” that Advent holds?
  3. What does this notion of “active waiting” look like for us?
  4. What would Paul’s letter mean in our time?

 

 

GOSPEL: Luke 21: 25-36

To read the passage from The Gospel According to Luke

We begin this Year of our C Lectionary year with a reading from The Gospel According to Luke. It’s not what we were expecting. I mean, really, what are all these signs? But our redemption is drawing near. To put it another way, “Surely the day is coming…”

The “parable” is really more of an observation and a warning. It heralds the coming of the Son of Man, calling the listener to have eyes to see the signs, and the good sense to be ready. Jesus tells us that there are signs that indicate the arrival, the advent, the presence, and the power of the Kingdom of God. Like leaves on a fig tree, such signs can show us our redemption, and our Redeemer; this is an important part of what we need to be about as children of that Kingdom: looking for its signs. Patience, it seems, may be exactly what is at issue for the fledgling Christian community as it awaits the day of the Lord. The need for patience, endurance, and trust may well have been amplified when to all appearances the promise that “all things have [will have] taken place” (verse 32) during that first generation, has proved untrue.

But we have skewed our understanding of Advent a bit. I think all of us know that. But, really, can you blame us? The world is so bent on being prepared for what comes next that it tends to live one season ahead at all times–the Halloween decorations go up the end of August, the Thankgiving decorations go up the end of September, and the Christmas decorations go up the end of October. The twelve days of Christmas tide, will of course, be filled with merchandise sales, a couple of unreplaced burned out Christmas lights, and and a flowering of little red hearts filled with candy to make sure we’re ready for the next thing. Somewhere in there, Advent is lost. Oh, we Christians, do alright with it. We faithfully light one candle at a time while we begrudingingly ward off the singing of any Christmas carols. But Advent is not merely a season of preparation for Christmas. It is much, much more. It is from the Latin “Adventus“, which means arrival or coming. It is not really meant to be only a time of shopping and checking off our “to do” list for the December 25th festival. Rather, Advent is our awakening to the realization that the Divine is even now spilling into our lives, even now a new humanity is being birthed, and even now all of Creation is being reformed and recreated.

And here’s a thought…all of those questions that we each ask ourselves when we read this passage (you know, like “what’s going to happen to me?”)…well, it’s not about us. This passage is about seeing something beyond ourselves, about seeing something bigger than us or the little lives that we have so carefully carved out for ourselves. It’s about waking up to the realization that God is bigger than we imagine.

We cannot live one season ahead. God will come when God will come. The full revealing of what God has in store is yet to be. But this season of Advent, this season of waiting, awakens us that we might see that it has already started to be. The feast has yet to be set but the dancing has begun. All we have to do is learn to stay awake.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How does this passage speak to us in our world today?
  3. So what does this concept of “staying awake” mean to you?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

One needs to keep on thirsting because life grows and enlarges. It has no end; it goes on and on; it becomes more beautiful… [One] cannot be satisfied until [one] ever thirsts for God. (Alexander Baillie)

 

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn. (Henry David Thoreau)

 

First, we see God, the void, the incomprehensible one. Second, we draw closer: we tremble in the presence of God, the enemy. Our own unworthiness is revealed in the holiness of God. Third, there, in encounter, through repentance and forgiveness, we may behold God, the Friend. Then we come alive! (Alfred North Whitehead)

 

 

Closing

 

Our God is the One who comes to us in a burning bush, in an angel’s song, in a newborn child. Our God is the One who cannot be found locked in the church, not even in the sanctuary. Our God will be where God will be with no constraints, no predictability. Our God lives where our God lives, and destruction has no power and even death cannot stop the living. Our God will be born where God will be born, but there is no place to look for the One who comes to us. When God is ready God will come even to a godforsaken place like a stable in Bethlehem. Watch…for you know not when God comes. Watch, that you might be found whenever, wherever God comes. Amen.

 

(Ann Weems, “The Coming of God”, Kneeling in Bethlehem, p. 13.)