A Stunning Epiphany
| Isaiah 60:1-6
|Sun, January 6, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|It is January 6th. ‘Epiphany’. In the early Centuries the feast day of January 6th was one of the three principal festivals of the Christian Church ... along with Easter and Pentecost. Originally, January 6th marked the day on which the Church celebrated the Baptism of Jesus ... or it marked the day for celebration of Christ’s birth (in fact, for some it still is Christmas Day). But after the adoption of the Roman midwinter festival as the day when Christians celebrate the nativity of the Messiah, January 6th became what it is for us still, ‘Epiphany’. January 6th has long since lost its primacy among Christian Holy Days in our part of the church. I wonder how many pay any attention to this ancient celebration? Not many, I suspect. Of course, that is a bit of an embarrassment for us since we worship not in the “Chapel of the Nativity” or the “Chapel of the Baptism” or even the “Chapel of the Resurrection” ... but in the “Chapel of the Epiphany”. January 6th, it turns out, is this Chapel’s feast day. But is it ours? Or is ‘Epiphany’ just a word ... an ancient name ... a tradition that has lost its power to open us to the mystery of God in our life?
Epiphany. It is a Greek word which means “manifestation”. Manifestation, which means “made clear or obvious to the eye or mind”. January 6th is the day when we name that Christmas and Easter and Pentecost mean nothing in the world without Epiphany. God can be born into the world in Christ ... can be raised from death ... can enter the world in a spirit of wind and fire ... but if no one sees all this activity for what it is, then life goes on, unchanged. Epiphany is the moment of sudden insight ... that moment in the novel or movie when the mystery is resolved unexpectedly. Epiphany is that moment in the lab or on the therapist’s couch when you say: “Aha ... so that is what’s going on ... I get it!”. Without an epiphany the Biblical story is just that, a story like lots of other stories. Without an epiphany Jesus is just one more great teacher. So it is hard to imagine a more fitting place than this Chapel of the Epiphany to mark this 6th day of January.
And notice that this is not the ‘Chapel of an Epiphany’. This is the ‘Chapel of the Epiphany’. This is not just a little insight, an interesting ‘aha’ among many others. No. This is the stunning epiphany ... the shocking revelation ... that lies at the very heart of Christian life and Christian community. The scriptures that are traditionally read on January 6th - the ones we have read here today - are startling: when the world gains sight it sees that God enters history in Jesus. Make no mistake. This is stunning news.
It stuns Isaiah’s generation. They live in despair. Looking back, they see a ‘Golden Age’ when religious people flocked to the Temple and God was revered in Israel. Looking around, they see the past ways lying in ruins, their once strong community now scattered. Looking ahead, they can only see things getting worse. Isaiah sees something else. He sees reason not to wallow in despair. He says it is time for celebration: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen up on you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples, but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” In the midst of thick darkness covering the earth, God is up to something in the life of God’s little, overlooked people Israel. Out on the margins of the Roman Empire ... in the life of a dis-spirited people ... God is already rising up in glory. Why? For the spiritual benefit of Israel? No. God is doing this for the nations that are submerged in darkness ... and the kings who need light to rule justly in a dark world. Here is the gospel in sum: in a world that cannot save itself from the darkened cycles of terror, greed, domination and violence, the God of steadfast love is arising in a surprising people to bring light that overcomes the darkness. That, my friends, is either foolish dreaming that changes nothing ... or it is stunning news that changes everything.
That’s why Herod, and all of Jerusalem with him, is stunned by the arrival of oriental wise men who come calling to pay tribute to a “newborn king of the Jews”. It stuns Herod and Israel because they don’t know of any such birth. They are unprepared that God might be up to something new. Herod fears that this could mean the end of the status quo. The sudden epiphany which the wise foreigners bring is not cause for Herod to sing a carol for joy. It is stunning, shocking news that soon everything may be changed. The first sign of that change is these strangers with their odd customs and strange ways of speaking. They arrive with wealth to place at the crib of a Jewish baby. They see something in Mary’s boy child that Jesus’ own people do not see. And, in this act of homage, these foreigners become the first to see what God is up to in Christ. Their surprising epiphany foreshadows the epiphany that opens the eyes of Peter the fisherman and Matthew the tax-collector ... not to mention Mary and her sister Martha. The magi from the East are first to glimpse what scores of untouchable lepers and dirty Samaritans and all manner of undeserving sinners will soon be stunned to see: that the steadfast love of God is met in the flesh and blood of Jesus, born of Mary.
That is the thing about an epiphany ... about ‘The Epiphany’ ... it is so unexpected, so surprising, so stunning. An epiphany isn’t self-evident until it is suddenly so unavoidably obvious. Until that ‘aha’ moment it isn’t even a possibility. But after that ‘aha’ nothing can be more sure. You can sense the wonder of epiphany in Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church: “For surely you have heard ... how the mystery was made known to me by revelation ... 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 ... as it has now been revealed ... that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel ... this grace was given to me ... to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” Paul is stunned by the Epiphany. You remember how it happens to him. He hears of Jesus ... and does not believe a word of the story that this crucified rabbi is the Messiah. Instead Paul hunts down the followers of Jesus for imprisonment and death. Then, out of the blue, he is blinded by the light and overcome by the voice of the Risen Christ whose undeserved forgiveness transforms Paul. Now the impure are not to be turned away ... or hunted down. Now the outsiders are also God’s beloved ... orphans who, in Christ, are adopted into the family of God’s own children. This stunning epiphany makes Paul a missionary - inviting every sort of stranger and foreigner, low class and high class to share in the Epiphany that Jesus is God’s own child.
But how to share in the Epiphany? I used to think that there was some way to make it easy. I was schooled to provide helpful illustrations in sermons so that people would ‘get it’. Yet the illustrations seemed only to help people confirm assumptions that they already held ... that, once the oddness is stripped away, Jesus is a pretty reasonable teacher, after all. Then, every once in awhile, I would just tell the old story. I would simply open up the pages of the Bible and dare to let it speak. To my surprise, sometimes someone would say something like: “Aha ... I heard it today ... I have been listening all these years and today I heard it for the first time ... it was like a bolt of lightning ... like an electric shock ... I get it ... and I’m at once excited by the joy and terrified by the call”.
These days, it looks to me that our life in the Chapel of the Epiphany is something like that. We open the Holy Book and listen to its odd accents ... and look around at one another ... seeing God bringing surprising life to birth in lives that were, not so long ago, without hope. Listening to the text and looking at what is happening in our life together we suddenly put two and two together. It is like a bolt out of the blue ... it is a stunning epiphany: God in Christ is here ... doing a new thing at this very Table. We are not learning about what happened long ago, far away ... we are caught up in what God is doing now in a dark world. And do you see ... God is calling forth a people filled with hope for God’s kingdom come ... filled with joy at the living presence of God’s Christ child ... filled with trust in the compassionate way that he walks with us. While our culture isn’t looking, God is transforming the church - slowly but surely - into the very place of hope, joy and faith that the world longs to find. The church - including this church - is being prepared as God’s gift for the world ... as a people whose life together offers the promise of God for all of life. Here ... in surprising hospitality offered to the stranger and in sacrificial acts of loving care ... here in daring repentance that risks new ways of living in the world and in the difficult work of forgiveness and reconciliation ... Jesus is revealed as the living Lord whose way is the joy and peace of eternal life ... lived here and now.
I wonder ... in worshipping in the ‘Chapel of the Epiphany’ are we perhaps becoming a ‘Congregation of the Epiphany’? Pray to God that this is the truth about us ... and that our new life in Christ becomes a stunning epiphany of the steadfast love of God.