A sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2012, preached at Saint Ignatius of Antioch.
When I was taking my New Testament class on the gospels in seminary, we took a study break to watch Monty Python’s Life of Brian, their spoof on the story of Jesus told through the eyes of Brian, an ordinary man who is repeatedly mistaken for Jesus in odd and hilarious ways. In the Pythons’ depiction of the Epiphany, the magi arrive at Brian’s birthplace, which is dirty and nasty and dark, and his mother is played by Terry Jones in drag. The magi are reverent, but baffled by this awful scene in front of them. The stable is stinky and gross, and none of the characters seem particularly holy. They deposit their gifts and leave. Suddenly one of them points out a light down the street, they grab the gold, frankincense and myrrh back for themselves, and arrive at a much more classic looking, beatific scene, this time bathed in soft light and aglow with angels and choirs singing.
The Epiphany is about the surprise of finding God where you don’t expect it—and so theologically, I think the Life of Brian gets at where the real messiah lies—it’s not in the beatific scene, it’s in the dirty messiness of a manure-strewn stable. It’s not in Herod’s palace, or the Temple, or even in Jerusalem; it’s in a house in Bethlehem. It is in the pain and messiness of life when we can discover that God is lying here in our midst. To appreciate daybreak and the shining of new manifest divine light, we have to know what darkness is first. And you hear that in all the Bible lessons this evening: in Isaiah the promise of a restored Jerusalem after the darkness of exile; in Ephesians a new hope for those Gentiles who had been excluded from salvation; and in the Gospel, the radiant promise that God is revealed not just to the chosen people but to wanderers and foreigners who fall down and worship.
Today’s message is that Jesus is not just for the Jews or chosen people. Jesus is not just for us. Jesus is for everyone. It is the non-Jewish non-chosen Magi who are the first people in the Gospel of Matthew to recognize, adore, and worship Jesus. And from the perspective of the first century what that means is that God doesn’t belong to one ethnic group, or one nation, but to the whole world. It’s a different message for us today—sort of. The message that the Gentiles can become followers of Christ is of course still very important to most of us. But the warning that comes with that is to recognize that it is very easy to believe we have an exclusive claim on the Christ; that Christ belongs only to us, and not to those who stand outside our expectations of salvation. I struggle with this as a Christian; I like to believe that Jesus would believe as I believe about politics, about the church, about how to worship. But when I do that, I put Jesus in a box. Which is not to say that we should not speak up when people, in the name of Jesus, commit violence or oppression and say “That is not Christ-like.” But we must have an attitude of charity towards those who are outside our portion of the church. And that’s true beyond the church as well—it is a feature of the Epiphany that Christians should be able to hear the wisdom of those outside the church, such as when Mahatma Gandhi said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.”
These Magi are guided by all the things that we should be guided by—they look to the heavens, to science of a sort; they look to prophecy and scripture and tradition; they ask other wise people for directions. So how can we be Magi? Not just how can we be wise, but how can we be people who are constantly looking and listening and searching for God? How can we be people who study and take the time to bring gifts appropriate for the occasion? It’s not just that gold, frankincense and myrrh are costly it’s that they honor Jesus as king, priest, and mortal. To be magi we would need to read widely—the Magi read the stars—so not just our Holy Scriptures but history and science and world events.
The magi encounter evil, too, on their way to Jesus. How do we discern who is dangerous, and who is to be trusted? The magi use Herod and his power to help them find Jesus, but then they are savvy enough to listen to their dream that warns them away from returning to him. We don’t read the rest of the story, but when they don’t go back to Herod, he kills all the babies in Bethlehem. Jesus frightens evil, and evil reacts with deadly force. Jesus is revealed to Herod as well as to the magi; darkness recognizes the light, even as it hates it. But evil dies, too, and eventually Jesus, Mary and Joseph return from Egypt to live and teach and spread good news.
I admit to a certain heightened love of the story of the Epiphany since I have served my entire ordained life at Churches of the Epiphany—before being at the Church of the Epiphany in Manhattan I was at the Church of the Epiphany in Agoura Hills, CA. So I’ve had a lot of opportunity to ruminate on what the Epiphany can say to a church community when it is the model we live.
A few years ago at Epiphany, a beloved family of the parish received terrible news. Their 18 month old daughter, Anna, had a brain tumor. It was one of those diagnoses than when you look it up on the internet, you just weep, because the prognosis was not good. But we prayed, visited, brought meals… Anna had surgery, radiation, and finally a few months after her diagnosis, they were ready to reintroduce the bone marrow they had taken from here before the radiation, the crucial last step that would give her an immune system again. Her parents asked for our prayers. So we put together a prayer schedule. 50 people in the parish signed up at different times of day, from Dawn Miller at 4am to Fran Wilson at 11:30pm and promised to pray for Anna at their designated time so that Anna’s parents could look at the schedule and when they were feeling despairing or alone, know that someone from Epiphany was praying for them right then, lifting them up out of the darkness.
A few weeks ago, a very healthy Anna was a sheep in our Christmas pageant. All the medical treatment worked, she’s about to turn five years old, and if you didn’t know her story, you’d just think she was an ordinary, cute kid. But when you do know her story, she’s a shining light. When Anna was diagnosed, I was desperately afraid that her illness would shatter the faith of her parents and our community. It was a dark time, full of hard questions about God’s presence. But now light has dawned. I’ve never had such a vibrant epiphany—such a powerful sense of God’s presence working through science, through love, and through prayer.
So “arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.”