Epiphany Week One: "We Three Kings"
Today we're beginning the Season of Epiphany, which ends the season of Christmas (the famous "12 Days") and lasts until Lent.
But what does "Epiphany" mean, and why should we even care about this stuff anyway?
To begin with, "epiphany" is a word that essentially means "realization" or, more specifically, "inspired realization." When you have an epiphany you know it. You feel it in your bones.
It's more important than realizing that you took a wrong turn on the way to Albuquerque and ended up in Hoboken. That would be a seriously wrong turn.
An epiphany is when you realize something that has the potential to change your life, the way you think about things, your future, and maybe your past... in other words, it's pretty momentous.
So why should we care about an entire season in the historical church traditions dedicated to having an epiphany? It comes down to what it means concerning Jesus and, more specifically, what it means because of the Incarnation.
The Incarnation is the theology of God-With-Us, the idea that God took on human form and became one of us to rescue all of us. And over the next several weeks, we'll be learning why that is so important for you, me, and everyone.
But first, let me ask you something important:
What's the craziest thing you've ever done because you just knew that you needed to do it. You had a gut feeling. You couldn't shake it, and you just knew in your heart of hearts it was what you had to do.
We've all had moments in our life where inspiration struck, and we acted. And there may have been people in our life who thought we were crazy for it, too.
Here's a short list of innovations that were thought crazy and caused the people who invented them to be ridiculed, but they persevered to the benefit of society.
Light Bulbs: A British Parliament Committee noted in 1878 that Edison's light bulb was "good enough for our Transatlantic friends... but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men."
Coffee--thought to be something that causes a state of drunkenness. Coffee houses were for reactionaries.
Umbrella: In the early 1750s, people hurled trash and insults at the first man who used an umbrella in British streets.
Personal Computers - it was believed that they were inaccessible. 1996 book even talked about a phobia that they believed afflicted women stressed about using computers.
Vaccines - enough said.
We've all had stories about feelings that made us take action, move in a particular direction, or do something people thought might be ludicrous.
I've had some of my own, but more on that later.
Matthew's Gospel tells the story of the Magi--who followed a star to find a Savior--there's a lesson in this story for all of us.
WHEN GOD IS WITH US, WE AREN'T AFRAID TO FOLLOW STARS
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
It's not exactly clear how many "magi" there were. We assume there were three due to the number of gifts the text says they brought. Additionally, to say that they were "wise men" is kind of a misnomer. The "magi" were almost assuredly priestly sages from Persia, which means that they were astronomers/astrologists---men who studied the wonder and mystery of the heavens.
Traditions in the Church grew up in the early days of Christianity, assigning the wise men roles, names and even back stories. Melchior was a magi from Persia, Gaspar was Indian, and Balthasar was Arabian. Obviously, these are just legends and traditions, but it does speak to an early understanding of this story as a window into the expansive nature of the Gospel--to all the nations.
The star was a symbol of direction and knowledge---the wise men would have believed that events on earth were reflected in the heavens. As soon as they saw something peculiar, they began poring over all texts they could find regarding momentous occasions, prophecies, and the like. Jews were living in Persia at that time--a significant number of them, in fact. So eventually, the wise men were drawn to Hebrew texts and discovered the prophecy about the Messiah.
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
The magi embody the prophecies about the kingdom of God, and in many ways, they arrive to help the Jews dramatically confront the truth about who they are and whose they are. And all of this confounds Herod, a puppet king over the Jews, placed in power by the Roman Empire. So he decides to do what he always did when he faced a threat---eliminate it.
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
The exciting thing about this passage is that it's full of questions of power, true kingship, empire, and the coming of a new age.
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
I love the literal translation of what the wise men did when the found Jesus in verse 10: "They rejoiced a great joy very much." They joyfully worshipped him, realizing that the prophecies were true, the light had led them to the true Light, and their journey was not in vain.
The gifts they gave have often been imbued with great symbolism as well. Gold was a gift for royalty, a sign, and a symbol of the kingship of the Christ child.
Frankincense was directly connected to divine worship, used in various temples around the world, but also used in worship in the Temple in Jerusalem. Myrrh is the most interesting of the gifts because it was most often used in the burial process to anoint the deceased person's body.
Myrrh was purchased by Joseph of Arimathea for Jesus' burial; only the women who came to anoint his body never got the chance.
Here's the thing... these magi were "outsiders" to Judaism and were considered "unclean" by the Hebrew people because they were Gentiles. Yet, they showed the insiders the truth about themselves and their relationship with God.
They also went beyond reason and research---they were, in fact, the closest things to scientists that the Ancient Near East would have had to offer. In the end, they had to follow their hearts, believing that something special was about to happen and that the light they saw would lead them to it. Along those same lines, they moved beyond science to faith, trusting the journey---a journey that eventually led them to what they desired more than anything: hope. And as a result of all of this, they experienced delight. Their joyful worship reflects their freedom when they see what the light has to reveal. It didn't make them create a religion or develop a new set of rules on how things should be done---they just joyfully worshipped. I love this. They experienced delight instead of doctrine.
We--the human race---spend so much time trying to find our own way in this world, don't we? But the signs that God is with us are all around us, all of the time. And those signs can help us chase after Jesus with wild abandon if we are willing to follow them.
If We Really Believed God Is With Us—What Might It Change?
We’d see the world as full of wonder and possibility.
We would see ourselves as full of purpose and direction.
We wouldn’t be afraid of where our hearts would lead us.
Let me tell you the story of how I got here to Shepherd...
WHEN GOD IS WITH US, WE AREN'T AFRAID TO FOLLOW STARS