Sermon preached by the Rev. Earl M. Gould
Year B: First Sunday after Epiphany
Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6
Matthew 2: 1-12
Epiphany with a capital “E”, in our church calendar year is January 6, bringing to summation the twelve days of Christmas, and marking the arrival of the wise men from the East finding Jesus, many scholars guessing about two years after the child’s birth.
This story we love to hear each year has the underlying theme – Jesus is for all people – not just the descendants of David. This is the epiphany, the insight, the scoop, for the world.
Epiphany – with a small “e” applies to any disclosure, any manifestation of our God to us. And I feel it is legitimate to use the term, idea, to refer to any insightful or dramatic moment that instills new spiritual insight, vision, or perspective. As mentioned, we have left behind Christmas for another year, and entered Epiphany, the follow up to Christmas. The hope, the goal of this sermon is to help you get the most out of your Epiphany 2021. What I am hoping to give to you today is a deepened sense that the season of Epiphany is not just a filler between Christmas and Lent, but has its own joys and challenges to offer you on your spiritual journey.
Of course the church calendar repeats itself year after year, each part of the circle offering its particular focus. It is important to see how each season’s focus needs to be seen as part of the whole. Also that ideally we do not just go around in circles; but each year, we spiral upwards in our spiritual journey as we move through the season.
It seems to me there are three things we need to know, and keep in mind about epiphanies. The first is: our God is a self-revealing God. Christmas is huge, because what is going on here is God coming to us as a living, breathing human being – coming to earth in a very specific time and place, but also a revelation for all time, everywhere. This is the epiphany of epiphanies!
We are wired to receive epiphanies. God might come to us in a dream, God might come to us while we are studying the Bible. For example – a gleaning all we can from the writings about Jesus who walked on earth, as teacher, healer, social activist, peace maker, anti-racist, feminist, on and on.
We are wired to receive epiphanies. That means we are not expected to know it all, have all the answers, be a self-contained entity. Prayers can be the way an epiphany comes to us, remembering prayer includes listening! An epiphany can happen while taking part in worship. And don’t dismiss God using another human being to be the voice of the divine in our life. The miracle of epiphany is that it comes to you tailor made – specific for you, today.
God’s wisdom and God’s love are two essential ingredients embedded in the epiphany you receive. Wisdom is so different from knowledge. You can have all the facts, all the accumulated learning of all time, and miss out on what is of real value to you. Wisdom is putting “it all together” into a healthy action plan for your life and for those in your sphere of influence. Wisdom is not how much you know, it is who you are. God’s wisdom is imbedded in the insight, vision, the Aha moment you have.
And so is God’s love. That means only your best interests are imbedded in this epiphany God sends to you. You will not be lead astray; you will not be incited to any act that will harm you or others around you.
So, the first thing to know about epiphanies: it is God taking the initiative coming to you, just as you are, where you are. It is how God operates. God is not a recluse, God is right here with us.
Remember: the Biblical name for Jesus is Emmanuel. The translation into English is – God is with us. (Matthew 1:23)
The second thing about epiphanies; they are often overlooked, dismissed. God doesn’t seem to have a bloated ego that needs feeding. God can help you without needing to get the credit. God is always there – for you – whether you are aware of it or not.
Sometimes it makes my heart cry for God – God gets so ignored. But don’t cry for God – God can handle the rebuff; cry for those who mistakenly feel they are all alone in the world.
One of the favourite expressions I like to quote: “God keeps coming to us disguised as our life” (Richard Rohr). Yes, the tragedy of the human story is how many people live without the awareness of God in their life. Please notice: I did not say – how many people live without God in their life. That is impossible: God is always with us. The difference is some know it, some don’t.
Organized religion can be blamed for some of this tragedy of the human condition. The God of some religious groups is rightfully dismissed by those of a discerning heart. For example, the religion that proclaims you have to be part of “our group” or God isn’t interested in you. As a youthful graduate of the U of M I went to India on a two year assignment to work with rural farmers. But I also took a Bible with me – intending to convert India to Christianity! Actually, by lantern light, I spent many an evening reading the Bible – cover to cover, making many notes. And by day, truth be told – I probably spent more hours under the village square mango tree dialoguing about matters of faith with those illiterate but very intelligent and curious farmers. Yes, truth be told, we probably devoted more hours sharing beliefs about God than about the virtues of using hybrid maize seed. I went to the East ie India, but came home by another road.
And what about our dreams being an epiphany, a visitation from God? I think they can be. But, I can’t be too glib about proclaiming that. In our Christmas – Epiphany readings of scripture – God visits Mary in a dream to tell her that though a virgin, she will conceive and bear a son; God visits Joseph to dissuade him from quietly dismissing Mary as his bride elect, even though he knows he had nothing to do with her being pregnant; and the wise men are visited in a dream to escape the vagaries of ruthless King Herod, and return home by another road.
Dreams can seem so straightforward. But we need to include the story of another Joseph who makes a name for himself and gets himself out of solitary confinement by having the skill set of interpreting dreams!
When Gordon Toombs and I were both a lot younger, Gordon taught me the basics of studying one’s own dream. From time to time I ask my spiritual director for assistance in interpreting a dream I’ve had. To me, dreams are fascinating, and we moderns can put together the wisdom of theology and psychology – to see how the dream we had last night could just be a visitation from the divine.
The third point I want to make is this: Don’t dismiss the reality of what is sometimes referred to as the devil, evil in our midst. The Bible has an ongoing dialogue with this reality though it leaves much an open question, an ongoing mystery, not so much to be solved as something to live with, not be naive about.
In some ways I have come to believe that the Bible is a very dangerous book if it is not properly read and understood. I very much appreciate the scholar Karen Armstrong. In her book “The Lost Art of Scripture – Rescuing the Sacred Texts” – she gives a very compelling chronicle of how we moderns have distorted the whole point of scripture.
One serious consequence of the forgotten art of using scripture as intended is making the texts vulnerable to be used as weapons by misguided, albeit sincere Muslims, Jews, and Christians; and followers of other faith traditions, each having its own body of holy texts.
It is so,so important to have a trusted confident in our life who can help us discern the voices we are hearing. This is so because not everything we hear is from God. Spiritual Directors in my life have helped me discern that shame does not come from God. God doesn’t speak the language of shame. And we can hear voices that are simply leading us into unreality. One of Donald Trump’s lawyers has mused about his being the second coming of Jesus.
We need a society and culture that discerns the voices, that can detect a conspiracy theory, that can sort out truth from evil. The role of church in society is to be the voice of God, and to help discern the competing voices that bombard us hour by hour, day by day.
So, this Sunday is the first Sunday after capital “E” Epiphany – January 6 in our Western Church calendar. The invitation for us is to devote particular attention over the next few weeks to epiphanies.
I am here suggesting to you they are real. They are nuggets of God’s wisdom and love coming to you. Yes, mystery is part of how this happens. But God, as came to earth in human form, and as present to us in and through Holy Spirit – is always with us.
Let the story that is our Gospel reading today set the tone for these next few weeks. It is the account of wise people from the East coming to pay homage. They are not from the organized religion that is looking for a Messiah, but they recognize this child as good news and hope for the world – for all peoples.
The sense of epiphany is not something we moderns have invented: it rises from age old faith and experience, it is embedded in Holy Scripture, and bids us to “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
My prayer for you, whether a part of organized religion all your life, and/or someone searching, searching, searching; my prayer for you is that you be gifted this season of Epiphany with a renewed sense of the divine in your midst. Whether it come through a dream, a reading of Holy Scripture, through an encounter on Zoom, … whatever imaginative way God finds to reach you, (and God seems to have as many ways as there are of we his children), may God’s hope and joy and love reach into the very depths of your soul and give you life, …”For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples, but the Lord will arise upon you, and the divine glory will appear over you.
Life up your eyes and look around, you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.”