| Matthew 2:1-12
|Sun, January 7, 2007
Rev. Ed Searcy
|“The Epiphany”. That is what it says in my new pocket diary on January 6th. It is, to be sure, a “Christian Pocket Diary”. That means it includes “Thomas Beckett” on December 29th and “Hilary of Poitiers” on January 13th. Just keeping up with all of the dates is going to be an education in itself. But we begin with “The Epiphany”. It is enough for today. Notice that it is not “An Epiphany”. This is not the “Chapel of an Epiphany”. It is not the Chapel of Meaningful Insights. Its name is the “Chapel of the Epiphany”. This is a Chapel named for the primal Christian festival of the day when God is spotted, spied, discovered, revealed, manifest in a human being. We do not worship in the Christmas Cathedral or the Pentecost Tabernacle or the Easter Church. We are children of the Epiphany. At Christmas the message is given to those who are close, Jewish shepherds who are brought a holy telegram - in Hebrew undoubtedly - by God’s special messengers. Yes, it is dramatic and surprising and wonderful. But it is precisely what any child of the Old Testament expects. Finally the promise to raise up a Messiah to rival the great Messiah - King David - has come true. At Epiphany something unexpected happens. Foreigners show up. Outsiders. Gentiles. People who are not Jewish, who do not know the Torah, who do not receive special Holy messengers speaking Hebrew. In other words, us. This is our great festival day. The Magi are the first of the heathen to see with their own eyes. It is “The Epiphany”.
It is right that we worship in the “Chapel of the Epiphany”. And when we are asked the obvious question “Tell me, what does the name of the Chapel of the Epiphany mean?” we will need an answer. Paul is ready with one. Paul says “This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles”. The Epiphany is the reason that Paul is a prisoner for the sake of a people who are not his people. The Greek leaves open the question of just what kind of prisoner Paul has become. It may be saying that Paul is a prisoner in shackles for - on behalf of - Christ Jesus. Or it may be saying that he is a prisoner of Jesus Christ. He may be saying that he has no choice but to spend the rest of his life living for the sake of people who are not his people. The first thing to say when someone asks what it means that this Chapel is named for “The Epiphany” is to say that this space - and the congregation that worships here - is a prisoner of Jesus Christ. It is - we are - set aside for the purpose of announcing “The Epiphany” on behalf of people who are not our people. In other words the church exists for the benefit of people who are not church people. In Paul’s words: “The Epiphany is the reason that University Hill Congregation is a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of all non-church people.”
Then Paul says it is a mystery. He says it four times in twelve verses. He says that the “mystery was made known to me”. He calls it “the mystery of Christ”. He says that “in former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind”. He has a ministry of making “everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God”. Sometimes preachers fall back on the word “mystery” as an easy way out. Sometimes we like to use the word “mystery” cheaply, as a kind of theological trump card to avoid hard discussions and difficult answers. At other times we preachers do everything we can to avoid the awesome mystery that lies at the heart of the gospel. Sometimes we desperately try to explain everything, to resolve every mystery, to answer every question including the virgin birth and the miracles and, yes, even the resurrection. I don’t remember much about Rudolf Otto from my theological schooling other than his famous two word description of the universal experience of the holy. He calls it the “Mysterium Tremendum”. Tremendous mystery. Paul understands that the ways of God are a tremendous mystery. Paul does not imagine that you can look at nature or watch a sunset and grasp the mystery. Paul knows that our lives are an unpredictable and inexplicable mixture of wonder and ache, of beauty and hurt, of deep love and great pain. But Paul is witness to a more incredible mystery. He is the messenger of the greatest Mysterium Tremendum imaginable. The hidden purposes of God have been made manifest in Jesus Christ. It is an overwhelming epiphany, a shocking revelation, a sudden drawing back of the curtain to show the mystery of what God is really up to in the midst of so much confusing news.
And just what is “The Epiphany”? What is the mystery hidden for ages in God? Paul says that it is this: “the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” It is difficult for us to imagine the shock of such an epiphany. It is so shocking that it is not just any epiphany. It is “The Epiphany”. The family tree of Abraham and Sara has a massive new branch. The covenant promise between Yahweh and Israel is now also a promise with Gentiles. The root of the word “gentile” is “clan”. The Gentiles are all the people who don’t belong in the synagogue. This is a huge clan. Paul doesn’t say that Jews must become Christians. He says that the good news for Gentiles is that, through Jesus Christ, they - we - can become Jews before God. Through Christ Jesus the Gentiles “have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body and sharers in the promise”. The Epiphany is the great revelatory moment when the adoption papers saying that members of the ungodly clan of Gentiles belong to God’s own family arrive. Paul belongs to the godly clan of Israel. He is a rabbi. But the Epiphany turns his life upside down. Once Paul sees what God is up to in Jesus he will do anything “to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ”. It is the reason that a congregation whose worshiping home is the Chapel of the Epiphany cannot help but be evangelical in its heart and soul. The Epiphany is the good news that the promise of God’s love extends beyond the thick boundaries of clan. That’s the evangelical message at the heart of the New Testament. In Greek the word “good news” is “evangel”. To say that this congregation is evangelical is not to locate it somewhere in the old, beloved quarrel between liberals and conservatives. To say that we are an evangelical people is to be unashamed and unapologetic about the wonder of our adoption - both liberals and conservatives - into God’s family tree. To say that we are evangelical is to keep our life together focused out, beyond ourselves, to Gentiles who long to know and be transformed by the grace of God.
The evangelical calling surrounds us. The mission field is at hand. The hunger to know God’s mercy is huge. As the Chapel returns to some semblance of normalcy, as paths and a roadway are constructed and landscaping is completed and we sort out parking, the Invitational Ministry team will urge me to urge you to be an invitational people. We have tended to be shy when it comes to inviting our neighbours, not wanting to come on too strong or to be turned away. Such fear of rejection is a far cry from Paul’s lengthy police record. He simply assumes that a congregation of The Epiphany is instinctively invitational. Whatever your opinion of the United Church’s “Emerging Spirit” campaign one cannot deny that it is an invitational strategy. When it results in guests at our door they will need us to be ready to tell and live the great love that is revealed in the Epiphany. And when our new missional venture in Campus Ministry begins in earnest later this Spring with the arrival of a Campus Minister we will be embarking on a new stage in our evangelical journey on campus - one that will call for more than token words of encouragement, one that will call for our participation. Then there is the great evangelical calling of welcoming our infants and children and youth into the family of God because of the Epiphany. As our Christian Education Ministry continues its work we wonder how best to invite our teen-agers to know what it is to be adopted into God’s own household through Jesus Christ. No matter our age all of us who are parents ache as we wonder if we have been able to show our children the great Epiphany that promises abundant life. And then there is the Pastoral Care Ministry which also understands that the Epiphany of God’s great mercy is most powerfully made known in times of pain and grief and trouble. We have tended to think of evangelism as a growth strategy, as a way to gain new members for the church. In truth, the evangelical calling saturates every aspect of our life. The good news speaks not only to our struggle to live faithfully in community but also - perhaps especially - it addresses the private inner turmoil that besets our own hearts and minds and souls. The good news of God’s great love that is revealed in Jesus Christ is at the core of all we do and are.
Paul is incredibly bold about the church’s role in the drama of the good news. He says that the shocking adoption of the Gentiles into God’s clan is taking place “so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Now that is serious evangelism! Here I was thinking we were sharing the great good news with neighbours and students and children and elders. Paul says that through the church’s radical welcome of those from other clans - Gentiles, pagans, heathens, nonbelievers, outcasts, rejects, nobodies, the unclean, the unwelcome - the unseen powers of the universe discover what God is up to. You may have thought that greeting at the door of the church was simply nice manners. It turns out that making name tags and putting up photos and shaking hands and really taking notice and remembering names and caring enough to wonder where people are when they do not return is a spiritual activity that is not only noticed by Gentiles who wonder if they will be welcome. It is also noticed in the heavenly realm.
It is a lot to take in. We know that we have fallen short. We still find it hard to believe that the Epiphany is really for us. We know the secret reasons why God surely must judge us as unworthy. And some of those reasons relate to our shyness in telling the news of God’s love. We have not always invited or welcomed or cared as an evangelical congregation of the Epiphany. It’s true. But it is also true that in Jesus Christ “we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.” This is the great gift of the Epiphany. As fellow-heirs in the family we have access to the head of the household. We can go to God “in boldness and confidence” . We need not fear. We can dare to tell the truth about the places where we have been weak and have fallen short of our own longing to be a people of the good news. And we can ask, we can pray, we can knock trusting that our longing will be answered. We can ask for voices and lives that witness with courage. We can pray for the energy to make room for others who come seeking to belong to a people who are being transformed by the grace of God. We can knock on heaven’s door and pray that it will be opened. And when that door is opened we will see Jesus Christ reconciling ancient feuds as he hosts warring clans - even liberals and conservatives, fundamentalists and progressives - at his welcome table. There - here - as each surprised Gentile receives the bread and wine our eyes and hearts are opened to the Epiphany of God revealed for all to see in Jesus Christ. It is a Mysterium Tremendum. It is the good news. And it is the gospel truth. Thank God.