When I was in college I desperately wanted an Epiphany. That may sound odd. Most college kids want a car or a date with the person they have a crush on or to pass all their exams, and I liked all those things too, but at the top of the list was this very odd word: Epiphany. I wanted one more than anything.
This is what happens when you are studying theology. You assign big words to things that really don’t require big words. Really, I think a lot of college kids want an epiphany. They just call it by another name.
Epiphany roughly translates to “striking appearance”. And what it is is a moment when all of a sudden, things make sense in a new way. It’s sort of a spiritual breakthrough. You finally get to a place where you know something, and you know what direction to go. It’s like the proverbial lightbulb finally going off.
In college I was trying to figure out whether God wanted me to go to seminary, and into the ministry, and I desperately wanted some definitive guidance. And I wanted it to be dramatic enough that I would recognize it when I saw it. In my head I think I visualized something that would stop me in my tracks while music played all around me. And so I spent a couple of years searching for my epiphany.
Today’s story is about another Epiphany, in fact, THE Epiphany. You’ve all heard the story of the three wise men, or the three magi. You know the hymn “We three kings”. We three kings of orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar, field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star…
The kings went to Herod, the king, and asked where this new king they had heard about was located. Herod had no idea, and he was scared, so he tried to trick them by telling them to find out and then come tell him so he could eliminate the threat to his own kingship. The three magi took off and started to follow a star, the star of Bethlehem, until it stopped over the place where Jesus had been born.
When they finally found the new king, it must have been a surprise. They probably expected that they would find a wealthy family, and a child who had everything, and an adoring court of people. But instead they found a poor child, in a manger, and without much else. If I were in their position, I might be asking myself, “did I come to the right place? This doesn’t look like a king?”
But, somehow, that’s when the wise men had an epiphany. They found the king, they found Jesus, in the most unlikely place. Scripture tells us that when they did they were filled with joy and right there, they kneeled down and honored him, and gave their proverbial gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. And afterwards, now wise to why Herod wanted to know where the baby was, they left and went home by another way.
They also went home transformed. They went home having seen a new truth, and a new light. They went home as people who had had an epiphany.
Sometimes, contrary to what my college self thought, epiphanies don’t come easy. They don’t come in the expected places. And they don’t happen the way that you think that they will. When the wise men came to Herod, they went to the most logical place. Of course the king will know where the new king is, they thought. But when he didn’t, they had to strike out on their own, follow new signs, and look for something incredible in the most unlikely of places.
I don’t know what I was thinking in college, but I think I thought that one day I was just going to get a clear and indisputable sign. Maybe I’d be walking to English class and thunder would clap and God would speak to me and say, “okay…fill out those seminary applications.” But of course that never happened. Instead, gradually I felt led to just keep going, to keep investigating, to keep praying, and to keep trusting. I of course did go to seminary, and I look back now and see that God was leading me there the whole time, sometimes quietly, but always persistently. The epiphany I wanted to happen in one moment of glory happened gradually and all around me.
That’s the thing about epiphanies. Sometimes you have to work for them. I tend to see our faith journeys as a whole as gradual epiphanies that are unfolding all around us. We rarely get the big moments when everything makes sense, but if we look closely we do get signs along the way. Guiding stars in the sky. Companions on our journeys. Moments where we find joy and understanding in the most unlikely of places. And you are transformed by it.
I was thinking about those wise men this week as I was thinking about our upcoming visioning process. There were three of them. This isn’t in Scripture, but by tradition in the church we give them some interesting names: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. As the legend goes, Melchior was from Persia, Caspar from India, and Balthazar was Arabian. There have been other traditions too, some saying that one of the wise men came from as far as China.
But to me, it doesn’t matter where they came from. What matters is that they joined together on their journey, and they found something greater than themselves. They found God.
I think about us in this church. Some of you have been long term members of West Dover. Some have come from Wilmington after the merger. And others of you have found you way into this community in the last two or three years. Now, I don’t know which group is Melchior and which is Caspar and which is Bathazar, but it sounds to me like as a congregation we’ve come from three very different places.
And yet, we are here. On this journey together. Looking for the signs. Looking for Christ in all the unexpected places.
But do you think the journey was always easy for the three wise men? Do you think that Melchior ever got the map wrong? Do you think that Balthazar was always an easy travel companion at the end of a long day? Do you think that Caspar sometimes complained about how he had been journeying longer than all the others and he knew the right way to do it?
My guess is that because they were human, they didn’t always see eye to eye. And yet, they stuck in there together. And they found what matters. True, they could have said “I’ve had enough of this” and broken off and gone their own ways and found their own paths, and maybe they could have even figured out how to get there on their own. But if they had, they never would have had the night where someone said, “hey…do you see that star…the one that keeps moving like it’s trying to show us something…why don’t we try following it together”. And, most importantly, they never would have had companions for the journey, and for what came next.
As we start this visioning process together, there are going to be times when we are going to have to decide which star to follow. There are going to be times when we want to say to one another “what map are you reading”. There are going to be times when phrases like, “but we’ve always done it this way” or “you’re new here” may spring into your head. Resist the urge to say them. Instead ask yourself, what is this person bringing to the journey, and what can they bring to Christ’s church?
And it’s important for us to remember that this is Christ’s church. It’s not yours. And it’s not mine. We belong to it, and we belong to it equally, whether you are 9 or 90, whether you have been coming here for decades or just a few weeks, whether you you are Melchior, Balthazar or Caspar. This is a journey to Jesus we are making, and all of us are of equal worth and equal merit on this journey.
And that’s why it’s so important that you share your voice during this visioning process. In a few weeks we are going to announce the starting dates for visioning process discussions. Some will be on Sundays, others will be on weeknights, so that everyone can participate. I’m asking you to please take some time to come. Something has drawn you to these pews today. And that means that you have something to share with us. You have a piece of the greater epiphany that we are seeking. In fact, you are a part of the epiphany that is unfolding all around us.
I’ll close with this. I’ve told the story before that I once heard Bishop Gene Robinson tell. He talks about how when Moses and the Isrealites were fleeing the Pharoah, and the Red Sea parted, it didn’t do so all at once the way we think about it from the movies. Instead it happened like this. Someone put one foot in the water, and the water parted just enough for them to see the next place to step. And then they stepped there, and the water parted just enough for the next step. And so on, and so on, until they got to the other side.
I think the same is true for those of us who are seeking an epiphany. We are walking together on this journey, just like the wise men were, and we are traveling one step at a time, putting one foot in front of the other, waiting for the next sign of where to go. This visioning process is about seeking an epiphany, and it’s about traveling together on this road. Right now our job is to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and to keep asking the questions and sharing our experiences and talking together. We are headed to something incredible. We are headed to see Jesus. And the places we find him might be as unexpected as a manger behind an inn. But in those moments when we do find him, like the wise men, I suspect that we too will be overwhelmed by joy. And we won’t be alone.
In just a moment we will be joining together to sing the hymn “We Three Kings”. And as you sing it, I ask that you recommit yourself to being in community with the others travelers on this spiritual journey. Yes, you can go off and travel by yourself. Plenty of people do. But I’m reminded that the three who came the furthest to see Jesus did not make the journey alone, and that in a real way our best epiphanies are always better together. Amen.