Common Epiphanies: Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, 2018

In the whole story of Christmas, the wise men get a bum deal. There’s a tradition that if you have a Nativity set, you aren’t supposed to put your wise men out until today, which is when we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. But the other tradition is that on Epiphany, you’re supposed to put your Christmas decorations, including that Nativity set, away. And so, every year the Wise Men make a whirlwind appearance before we forget about them for an other year.
But today is there big day, and so let’s give them their due. Epiphany Sunday, is the day when we commemorate the three magi, or wise men, making their way to Bethlehem. It is essentially the end of our retelling of the Christmas story. After the twelve days of Christmas, the magi finally make it to the manger, and see Jesus for the first time.
Their journey started long before they finally reached their destination, though. And through the centuries the story has been somewhat embellished. For instance, the three wise men have been given names: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. Tradition also holds that they came from distant lands, but no one really knows which. Maybe one was from Persia, maybe one from somewhere on the Arabian peninsula. Maybe another from India, or even China.
But the reality is that the Biblical account doesn’t tell us any of this. It doesn’t even tell us there were three of them. It only tells us that wise men came from “the east”, and they started to ask about this new king who had been born, and they were telling everyone about this star that they had seen. And they followed it to the manger’s edge, and brought the gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Scripture also tells us that King Herod, the king over the region, heard that these guys were in town and they were looking for a newborn king. And this must have been very surprising to Herod because he was the king. And he didn’t know of any others. So he called the wise men to him and tried to find out what they knew. And he asked them to go find the newborn king and report back to him. But the wise men saw through it. They knew that Herod was up to no good. And so, as Scripture says, the magi went home by another road.
So, that’s the story of the Epiphany. And it might not sound all that momentous. We tell this story, and then we sing “We Three Kings”, and then, after one day out of the box, we pack up the wise men, and the rest of the nativity, for another year and we go back to what the church calls “ordinary time”.
I think that’s too bad. Because I think there’s more to the story of the magi than we give credit for. Because even though the wise men only pop up on one Sunday, their story is in so many ways our own story. And that’s because, we’re all looking for a sign. We’re all looking for a moment of revelation. We are all, in some way, waiting for that moment that will make everything crystal clear, and give us all the answers we need. That’s what an epiphany is after all, and my guess is we all want one.
The Wise Men were the first of a long line of people who would seek out God’s love and find it in Jesus Christ. They were the forerunners to you, me, and millions of other seekers. They got there first, but they didn’t get there last. We are on the same journey.
The trouble with that, though, is that we rarely get bright stars in the sky leading the way for us.
That’s something I say most Epiphanies: you don’t get a shining star or angels singing or a loud commotion that gets your attention. And then one year, on Epiphany Sunday, I was in the pulpit in Vermont talking about how I never got the bright lights or big signs. I had just said I have never had an epiphany like that.
And honest to goodness, right at that moment, all the snow that was on the top of the church’s roof thundered down off of it and landed right next to the church windows in a loud avalanche. And we were on top of a mountain. There was a lot of snow. It took a good while for it all to fall, and it was so loud I couldn’t even preach until it was all done.
So, you can view that two ways. One, it was just a coincidence. Or, two, it was a sign that God has an incredible sense of humor. I think both could be true. But regardless of what happened that morning, it made me think. And I began to wonder, what if maybe the signs are actually all around us, but we just keep missing them?
Or, more likely, what if we aren’t missing them, but we just aren’t taking them seriously. And maybe that’s because we aren’t willing to do what it takes to take them seriously?
I think about the wise men, and I think about what it must have taken to see that star, and decide to set out on that journey. Did they look up one day and just know what it meant? Or did they ponder it, and research it, and then decide “this makes no sense whatsoever, but that star means something and I’m going to follow it?” And once they started out on that journey, once they were on their way, sometimes lost, sometimes hungry, sometimes unsure, did they doubt? Did they ever want to just go back home?
And I think about King Herod too. What was it like when his peers, the other kings, came to him asking about the new king that had been born in his own kingdom? What was it like when he knew absolutely nothing about it? And how had he somehow lived under that very same star, and never realized what it meant?
I think that’s the question. Because, whether we realize it or not, I think we all get stars. Some are truly more subtle than others, but I believe God does give us signs. Sometimes they are as obvious as bright stars in the sky, but more likely they come in everyday clothing. The words of a friend. The nudge that comes to us in prayer. The urge we have to open our hearts in new ways. Maybe even the rock bottom we hit when we finally realize we can’t keep doing what we are doing and hope to truly live.
We have a choice when things like that happen. We can shrug them off, and ignore them. Or, we can take them as what they might well be: moments of revelation. Little epiphanies all around us.
But here’s the catch; once you get a little taste of the revelation, once you finally realize why that star looks so bright these days, that means that you are different. And it also means that you will continue to be asked to do something different. And that can be frightening.
When the magi realized that the star meant something big was happening, they couldn’t just sit around at home anymore. They knew they had to start the journey. And they knew they would never be the same.
But Herod, instead of joining the other kings, and making what would have been a very short journey for him? He just stayed home. He chose not to take the journey that could have changed everything, including him.
We get that same choice. When we finally sense what God is doing all around us, when we finally get a taste of revelation, we can set out on a journey that will change us. Or, we can just stand still, and refuse to be changed.
When the wise men finally saw Jesus, they set off on their way home. But, they would never be the same again. They had taken a journey that had changed everything, and had changed them. And when they left, instead of going back to tell King Herod about it, instead of aiding him in destroying the new king who frightened him so much, they instead went home by another road.
Epiphanies, revelations, new ways of understanding things, mean that we are going to out on see amazing things. But they also mean that we are going to have to learn new roads too. Not even the wise men could be guaranteed an easy journey, not even after seeing Christ himself in the flesh. So why should it be any different for us?
But here’s the good news. And that’s that the wise men found each other on the journey. When you think about that, how incredible if that? They didn’t have texts, or email, or phones back then. A letter wouldn’t have made it in time. Instead, they somehow found one another out on the road. And together they made the journey to Bethlehem.
I think that’s good news for those of us who gather back here each week together. Scripture does not speak of one wise person coming to the manger. It doesn’t even speak of people coming on their own, separately. It speaks of people finding one another, and then, quite literally, finding God.
That’s not to say the journey will always be easy. But that is to say that maybe it will be better together. Maybe there’s something about what we are doing here that’s more than just getting together one hour every Sunday morning. Maybe this is the start of an amazing journey, and maybe, just maybe, we are on our way to seeing God together. Amen?

Cardboard Epiphanies: Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, 2017

When I was in elementary school I collected baseball cards. I’d use a little of my allowance to buy a pack, and I’d throw away the horrible, hard gum and then I’d carefully organize the cards, first by team, and then alphabetically by player before taking any duplicates and trading them with some of the guys in my class. I ran a shrewd baseball card operation.

Later I outgrew them, and the cards ended up boxed in our garage. After college my parents sold the house I’d spent the most time in growing up, and moved to Virginia. And when they got to their new house I never saw the cards there, so I figured they had just been thrown out over the years and I didn’t give it much thought.

But last week, as you know, I went down to visit my parents in Virginia. They’re getting ready to sell the “new” house that they’ve lived in for over 15 years now, and move into a newer house my oldest sister is building. And my dad said “hey, we found these boxes…you need to look through them when you come down, because what you don’t want we’ll donate.”

And there, at the back of a closet, unopened for decades, was my box of baseball cards.

Growing up my dad had told me stories of the baseball card collection he had lost. When he had deployed overseas his family had unknowingly thrown away everything from Babe Ruths to Ted Williams. He’d always wondered what those would been worth. And so, pulling the big box of cards out of the closet, I figured I’d hit the jackpot.

So, you might be wondering what this has to do with the Gospel text for today. This is a familiar story. Three wise men, or kings, or magi, followed a star until it brought them to Jesus. The Bible really doesn’t tell us much about them other than that they were in some way wise and powerful, and that they came to Herod, the king of the region, to ask about the new king.

19499296-largeAs you can imagine, Herod was not excited to hear this. He was the king, after all. He didn’t want any kind of challenge to his authority. And so he came up with a plan to find out more, so that he could destroy this king. He told the magi, “Go find him, and then come back and tell me how to find him. That way I can go worship him myself.”

Sure, say the wise men. And they kept following the star until they found Jesus and Mary. And they knelt down and gave him the gifts they had brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We know this part of the story well. We sing the verses of “We Three Kings” and we remember those gifts.

But that’s not the best part of the story. To me the best part is this: remember how Herod wanted them to come back and tell him everything? An angel warns them what Herod is really up to, and so in order to protect Jesus, and themselves, they end up going home “by another way”.

I’ve always loved how Herod gets out-smarted. He thought destroying this new king would be pretty simple. Just send someone else out to do the hard work, have them report back to you, and then take advantage of their trust in order to destroy the threat.

But the wise men don’t play Herod’s game. Having met Jesus, having figured out that there was something special about this child, they listen to the angel, they see the signs, and they change their game plan.

I’ve often thought about the wise men’s journey to see Jesus. I’ve thought about how treacherous that must have been. First, the three had to find one another. Then, they had to follow this star to a place they knew nothing about, in order to meet this newborn king that looked nothing like a king. They surely got lost at times. Certainly they grew tired. They were far from home, and navigating by faith.

But as much as I’ve thought about the journey there, I’ve never thought much about the journey back.

I’ll bet that as the wise men were getting close to Jesus they felt a sense of relief. “Okay, we’ve made it…now we will go and pay homage, and then we’ll just go back to Herod’s place, hang a left, trek across the desert, retrace our steps and go home.”

But when the angel told them what was happening, all their plans had to change. They couldn’t go home the way they knew. They had to find a new way.

In the church year, Christmas lasts for 12 days. Twelfth Night is on January 5th. But on January 6th, or the Sunday closest to it, we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. This is our commemoration of the day that the Wise Men finally made it to Jesus.

The word Epiphany literally means “manifestation” or “appearance”, and in this context it means Jesus Christ, God in human form, appearing to humanity, as represented by the three wise men.

When you and I talk about “having an epiphany”, though, we might think of it more in terms of having a sudden and brilliant understanding of something. A breakthrough moment, so to speak. “I finally understood how to do calculus” or “now I know what I’m supposed to do with my life”.

Those two meanings of “epiphany” sound so different. But, when you think about it, they’re really not. Because whether you are seeing God’s love with us for the first time, or you are finally getting something, the reality is this: you understand something amazing in a new way, and you are changed by it.

You will never be the same again, and you will never again go home exactly the same way as you always have before. You have been changed, and your world has been changed. And suddenly going back to the things demanding your attention, the Herod’s of the world with their tricks and their traps, hold no power over you anymore, and you know that you can’t go back.

Down in Virginia my dad and I opened up that big box of baseball cards. We pulled out the cards that looked the most promising: the Mark McGwire rookie cards. The Cal Ripkens and Wade Boggs. The Nolan Ryan all star cards.

And then came the moment of truth. I typed the cards’ information into Google, and waited on the results, expecting to have struck gold. Or, at least a little extra cash.

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Not worth what you might think. 

But here’s what I found. I would say that late 1980’s baseball cards, even the most coveted ones, are a dime a dozen. But, honestly, that would be cheating the dime. In fact, you could buy an entire year’s mint-edition, complete set of hundreds of cards online for about $30.

And so Dad and I laughed about that box, stored untouched for about three decades. The one that had survived multiple moves, and taken up closet space. My nine year old self, who painstakingly organized team after team, would have been so disappointed. My investment had been worthless.

Except it wasn’t.

If I could go back in time and talk to myself on the day I boxed up those cards for the last time, I think I’d say this: “These cards…they’re not going to be worth much someday. But, pack up that box anyway. Because years from now, on a winter’s day when Dad is 84, and when you are visiting from far away, you are going to open it. And you are going to sit with one another, and talk, and laugh. And it’s going to be worth it. That’s the epiphany that you will have years from today.”

Sometimes the blessings we expect are different than the blessings we get. Sometimes what we get is even better.

By the next time I see my parents, they’ll be living somewhere else. I’ll literally need to go home by another way. But, it will still be home.

The story of the Epiphany teaches me that God’s path for us is always changing. Where we end up isn’t where we always expected. What we end up with isn’t either. But if we pay attention to the signs on the journey, and we are open to where the road leads, we might just find something that is greater than we could have imagined. Amen?