Epiphany of the Lord, January 6, 2019
Epistle Lesson: Ephesians 3:1-12 (The Message)
This is why I, Paul, am in jail for Christ, having taken up the cause of you outsiders, so-called. 2 I take it that you’re familiar with the part I was given in God’s plan for including everybody. 3 I got the inside story on this from God himself, as I just wrote you in brief. 4 As you read over what I have written to you, you’ll be able to see for yourselves into the mystery of Christ. 5 None of our ancestors understood this. Only in our time has it been made clear by God’s Spirit through his holy apostles and prophets of this new order. 6 The mystery is that people who have never heard of God and those who have heard of him all their lives (what I’ve been calling outsiders and insiders) stand on the same ground before God. They get the same offer, same help, same promises in Christ Jesus. The Message is accessible and welcoming to everyone, across the board.
This is my life work: helping people understand and respond to this Message. It came as a sheer gift to me, a real surprise, God handling all the details. 8 When it came to presenting the Message to people who had no background in God’s way, I was the least qualified of any of the available Christians. God saw to it that I was equipped, but you can be sure that it had nothing to do with my natural abilities. 9 My task is to bring out in the open and make plain what God, who created all this in the first place, has been doing in secret and behind the scenes all along. 10 Through Christians like yourselves gathered in churches, this extraordinary plan of God is becoming known and talked about even among the angels! 11 All this is proceeding along lines planned all along by God and then executed in Christ Jesus. 12 When we trust in him, we’re free to say whatever needs to be said, bold to go wherever we need to go.
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
An old joke goes, “How do we know that there were three wise men? Because if they had been wise women they would have asked for directions, arrived on time, and brought useful gifts like diapers, baby oil, and casseroles.”
In one legend the three wise men were Gaspar from India, Melchior from Persia, and Balthasar from Arabia. In other traditions there were 12 wise men, representing the whole of the Gentile world, just as the 12 tribes of Israel represent the whole of the Jewish world. Epiphany means revelation or manifestation and is the day that we celebrate the revelation of Jesus as God and king and sacrifice for the entire world, both Jewish and non-Jewish, as represented by the visit of the Magi. The Gospel lesson for today tells us that they brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh: gold because it is a suitable gift for a king, frankincense because it is a suitable offering for God, and myrrh because it is suitable for anointing one who has died. The magi have come to be referred to as “kings” even though the word “magi” actually means priests of the Persian prophet Zoroastor. The magi were priests who studied and interpreted the stars. When they saw in one star the arrival of a great Jewish king, they traveled so seek him and pay him homage.
At epiphany we celebrate God’s revelation in Christ as a light to all nations. When the priest Simeon saw Jesus at his dedication in the temple, he said, “God, you can now release your servant; release me in peace as you promised. 30 With my own eyes I’ve seen your salvation; 31 it’s now out in the open for everyone to see: 32 A God-revealing light to the non-Jewish nations, and of glory for your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).
One popular billboard message says, “Wise men still seek him.” And for the record, wise women do too!
If you pay attention to the trends concerning organized religion—and I think we should pay attention to them—it seems like fewer and fewer people are seeking God, and fewer and fewer people have any hope or expectation of finding God in a church. That’s what it seems like. Church attendance is falling. Churches all across this country and even this presbytery are closing. Not too long ago, I read a story about a cathedral in England that has become a campground: families pay to camp in cathedrals that are no longer used for worship. It seems like no one seeks the Christ child anymore.
That’s what it seems like, but I don’t think that’s the reality. I believe with all of my heart that men and women around the world still seek God, still hunger and thirst for righteousness, still long to step out of the darkness of sin and suffering and into the light of right living and abundant joy. But I also think that the church has forgotten what seeking God looks like. Or maybe we never knew to begin with. If so, we are not alone, for it has always been easy to forget what seeking God looks like. Let me give you an example.
Many, many years ago, a man wrote this:
We Jews know that we have no advantage of birth over “non-Jewish sinners.” 16 We know very well that we are not set right with God by rule-keeping but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ. How do we know? We tried it – and we had the best system of rules the world has ever seen! Convinced that no human being can please God by self-improvement, we believed in Jesus as the Messiah so that we might be set right before God by trusting in the Messiah, not by trying to be good.
Have some of you noticed that we are not yet perfect? (No great surprise, right?) And are you ready to make the accusation that since people like me, who go through Christ in order to get things right with God, aren’t perfectly virtuous, Christ must therefore be an accessory to sin? The accusation is frivolous. 18 If I was “trying to be good,” I would be rebuilding the same old barn that I tore down. I would be acting as a charlatan. 19 What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work. So I quit being a “law man” so that I could be God’s man. (Galatians 2:14-19)
That man was Paul, and he was writing to the church in Galatia about how he learned the futility of seeking God by being good, being right, or being certain. Paul, you see, was a Pharisee, one of the very people who so frustrated Jesus by trying so hard to be good, right, and certain that they ended up condemning other people whom they called sinners, wrong, and lost. Paul abandoned that futile search when he quite literally “saw the light” and was confronted with his own error by the risen Jesus himself. Paul admitted that he was wrong and came to understand that everyone—Jew and Gentile, man and woman, slave and free—stood on equal ground before God when the light of Christ came into the world.
What Paul learned was that seeking God does not look like being good, being right, or being certain. It looks like letting go of all pretensions to goodness, rightness, and certainty, and embracing instead God’s grace. Hearing Paul’s story makes me wonder if the church also mistakes seeking to be good, right, and certain for seeking God.
Earlier this week, I read an article written by a Baptist minister named Marc Wingfield. In it, he wrote:
There are many things the church universal and churches more specifically might – or should – admit we were wrong about. But admitting any error does not fall easily from the lips of religious folk – ironically, the very people who want others to confess their sins and turn from their wicked ways.
Too much of Christianity is built upon absolute certainty and not enough on divine mystery. I’m reminded of one prominent Southern Baptist pastor who assuredly declared that he had not changed his mind on anything ever. And I’m haunted by the words of an older adult friend who struggled with our church’s decision two years ago to be fully inclusive of LGBTQ Christians. After hearing a presentation on various ways to understand Scripture, he said: “You’re asking me to say that what I learned about the Bible from my parents and grandparents was wrong on this issue. And if I say they were wrong about this thing, then I have to ask what else they were wrong about. I just can’t do that.”
Rev. Wingfield goes on to write that the church needs to admit that it has been wrong in its historical stance on several huge issues: racism, protecting sexual predators, the leadership of women, what it means to be pro-life, exclusion of LGBTQI folks, mistaking attendance for discipleship, and placing our hope in politics. In all of these areas the church at one time or another has been just like the Pharisees—too preoccupied with our own notions of goodness or faithfulness or purity or righteousness or certainty or power to see that maybe God has another plan for us; too enamored of our own powers of judgment to see that the only judge is God and that God in Christ puts us all on even ground.
So what does that mean for our own ideas about seeking God and our fear that maybe no one is interested in seeking God anymore? I think it means that we need to have another look and we need to look with the eyes of Jesus.
[One day] Jesus saw a man at his work collecting taxes. His name was Matthew. Jesus said, “Come along with me.” Matthew stood up and followed him. 10 Later when Jesus was eating supper at Matthew’s house with his close followers, a lot of disreputable characters came and joined them. 11 When the Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company, they had a fit, and lit into Jesus’ followers. “What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cozy with crooks and riff-raff?” 12 Jesus, overhearing, shot back, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? 13 Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders.”
Maybe seeking God doesn’t always look like three wise men bringing costly offerings. Maybe it doesn’t look like trying to be good or right or certain. Maybe it doesn’t look like our notions of respectability.
When I was doing Clinical Pastoral Education at Wake Med Hospital in Raleigh, one aspect of it was IPR, interpersonal relations. As part of IPR each of us had to tell our life story. One component of my life story is that I was promiscuous far beyond what any other woman I have known would admit to. I probably slept with dozens of men before I married Chris. Another aspect of my life story is that I’m the adult child of an alcoholic and my parents were largely dysfunctional and non-relational. I was terrified to tell this story. Clinical Pastoral Education was a requirement for ordination, and the only outcome of telling my story that I could imagine was to be judged unfit to lead a church. But instead of being judged, I had one of the most surprising and significant moments of grace I have experienced in my life. My CPE supervisor, John Edgerton, responded to my story by saying, “You were starved for relationship.” What a powerful moment of grace it was for him to reframe my story in that way!
Maybe that’s what seeking God looks like.
Maybe it looks like a young woman sleeping with way too many men because she’s so hungry for relationship. If we’re wise, we’ll see that Christ puts us on even ground with her.
Maybe it looks like a young man struggling with addiction because his loneliness or despair or self-loathing is so painful. If we’re wise, we’ll see that Christ puts us on even ground with him.
Maybe it looks like a middle-aged man striving for more and more material security because he cannot imagine being secure in anyone’s love, much less the love of a faithful and self-giving God. If we’re wise, we’ll see that Christ puts us on even ground with him.
Maybe it looks like a middle aged woman trying to control her children, her spouse, and her friends because she feels so powerless over her own life. If we’re wise, we’ll see that Christ puts us on even ground with her.
Maybe it looks like preteen girl obsessed with perfect hair, perfect teeth, perfect clothes, perfect body because she feels so keenly the need for approval and acceptance. If we’re wise, we’ll see that Christ puts us on even ground with her.
Maybe it looks like a rebellious teen not caring for his hair or teeth or clothes or body because he’s sure no one else does. If we’re wise, we’ll see that Christ puts us on even ground with him.
To be wise in inviting folks to travel with us to seek God, we need to be wide open, unflinching, and grace-filled, just as John Edgerton was with me so many years ago.
Over the coming year, the Session and I—and all of you, I hope—will spend time asking ourselves and each other and God how we can open our doors to more folks in the community, how we can reach out to more people, how we can become a more vibrant and sustainable church. By all reports the odds are strongly against us. In all probability we will fail. If we go the way of many small, struggling churches, we will close the church doors before too much longer.
I am no wise man—hell, most days I’m not so sure that I’m a wise woman either!—but I do know one thing: over two thousand years ago, a most unlikely king was born to a most unlikely couple in Bethlehem, the unlikeliest of towns. He looked for all the world like a failure. But despite his rejection, humiliation, and death, we still come here every Sunday seeking him. If we are wise, we will see that there are fellow travelers struggling their way over many a weary mile seeking his light. If we are wise, we will help them to see their struggles not as failure, but as a search for grace. God give us wisdom!