Sunday, January 06, 2008
The Epiphany: A Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12
January 6, 2008: Epiphany Sunday
How many times has it happened to you? How many times have you had “an epiphany?” By which I mean, how many times have you had a sudden realization? An “aha!” moment (or a “duh!” moment)? A time when, as folks in Boston used to say, dawn came to Marblehead? I can name several epiphanies I’ve had right off the top of my head: the moment when I realized I felt called to ordination as a minister. The moment when I realized that the end of the marriage did not mean the end of happiness forever. The moment I realized my children are different people than I am. (Still working on that one!).
When we speak of having an “epiphany,” we usually mean that we have somehow been shown something that wasn’t entirely clear to us before, and that this something makes a difference in our lives… that, henceforth, we will live, and move, and think in different ways than we did before. And that understanding of epiphany is true to the church’s celebration on the Twelfth Day of Christmas. You won’t find the word “epiphany” in the New Testament, at least not in this passage from Matthew’s gospel, the coming of the Magi to worship the Christ child. “Epiphany” is a theological concept; it developed after the biblical tradition was already in place. And it is an important concept. Epiphany means “showing” or “manifestation.” In this case, it means the showing of the showing of the Messiah, the young Jesus, to his foreign visitors.
It’s pretty critical that we understand about that last bit, the “foreignness” of these visitors. Matthew’s gospel is the one most closely associated with Judaism, with God’s covenant with God’s chosen people Israel. It’s Matthew who is always connecting the dots for us, between the story of Jesus and the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. And yet one of the first stories he tells us about Jesus has to do with a murderous king, the despicable Herod, whom Jesus can count among his own people. At the same time, Matthew shows us the recognition of Jesus, the truth of who he is, by foreigners, outsiders, people with perhaps only a passing knowledge of Israel and its covenants. The story of the epiphany is the story of God being revealed to outsiders. Those who should have been the first to worship Jesus are the ones who are quickly seen to be gunning for him. Those who should have been the very last to know or notice him, seek him diligently, find him, worship him, and even, in the end, protect him.
There are lots of “epiphanies” in this passage, if we care to notice them. The first and most obvious is the recognition of Jesus by the Magi, the outsider-astrologers from the East. But then Herod has an epiphany, too, doesn’t he? Herod is “shown” that there is a newborn king, by virtue of the interest of the Magi, and when dawn comes to his marble head, Herod is terrified. He recognizes that in Jesus, even in a very young, very vulnerable Jesus, there is a threat. The people of Jerusalem have an epiphany: when it becomes clear how rattled Herod is by the news of a newborn king, the people know perfectly well that their bloodthirsty ruler is liable to do something dreadful. And so they, too, are terrified. Finally, the Magi have yet another epiphany: dreams once again come into play… they realize they can’t trust Herod with news of the child… and so they slip away, going home by another way so as to avoid Herod’s wrath.
All these epiphanies. All these realizations that God is about something new and marvelous, and it makes a difference. It has an impact. Lives will be changed. I wonder again, what about our epiphanies? Can we remember a time, a moment, when were we “shown” God’s love, as startling and unexpected as the worshiping of a baby peasant by foreign dignitaries? Can we remember a time when we realized we wanted—we needed—to follow Jesus, to set out on our own pilgrimage for Bethlehem and beyond?
Some of us do have life-changing epiphanies about our faith, and we describe them in various ways. I realized as a fourteen-year-old on a church youth retreat that there was a different way to live than I had previously considered; I realized that it had something to do with the gospel; and I realized that I wanted to seek out that way. A friend of mine describes knowing herself a sinner in need of saving at about age 7, and her joy at being baptized by full immersion in her parents’ Baptist church. For some of us our epiphanies came later in life… like the man described by writer Kathleen Norris who is hanging out with hard drinking, hard drugging people, who has his epiphany when the man driving him somewhere decides to make a stop to kill someone. (They weren’t home.) Norris describes that man as having a sudden stunning realization that the path he is on is no longer viable, it is no longer a path for life. All these are epiphanies, and I know that many of you have stories that you could add.
And maybe there are some of us who are still searching, still wondering… still following after the starlight, in hopes of being shown something extraordinary, though we may not be sure what it is quite yet. And you know what? The scriptures are filled with the stories of people who didn’t even know they were looking for God, when God came looking for them. God came looking for the Magi… astrologers from another land, another religion… God sought them out and found them and met them right where they were. God spoke to them in a language they could understand. This is such good news for all of us, both those of us who have our epiphany stories, and those of us who continue to search for the star and the marvelous One to whom it points. God is looking for us. God has placed a star in the heavens over each of our heads, over each of our lives, and God comes to us right where we are. God had an epiphany too, probably before worlds were created and time started on its forward course. God’s epiphany is that God wants each and every one of us, wants to hold us close as children, wants to give to each of us the gift of life abundant. Like those outsider astrologers, God has set out on a journey to find us. And we can trust that we will be found. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Thanks to Brian Stoffregen of the Midrash Online Lectionary Group for this insight.