Feast of the Epiphany 2018
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan
The summer of my eighth year, my parents did a strange thing and took the family on a trip across the nation. When I look back at this I think they must have been crazy! They packed up a car with four kids (two of whom were teenagers), six suitcases, six sleeping bags, six cots, a cooler, a Coleman stove and a tent all into a 1970 Oldsmobile 88 and drove all the way from Virginia to San Francisco. I mean, we must have had to stop 3 times a day just to gas up that gas guzzler! We camped in a tent most of the way with a few hotel breaks to do laundry and enjoy air conditioning and swimming pools. We saw Yosemite, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, the painted desert and the Golden Gate Bridge, to name a few sights on our adventure. It was the journey of a lifetime and we still tell stories from that trip.
We each remember different highlights, though. For me it was Lake Mead and Hoover Dam. For one of my brothers, it was Disneyland. But we all agree that the most magical moment of that trip was when we stood and gazed down into the Grand Canyon. Dad snapped a picture of the rest of us gazing away from the camera. You can’t see the canyon, but you can just see the periphery of our faces full of awe. It is a favorite picture in our family. Yet, none of us has ever quite articulated how precious that moment was.
Life is like this. It is a series moments when we encounter God in a way that leaves us speechless but also makes us realize the full power of God’s love.
Think about those times in your life when you encountered God. There are many, I expect. There is a Celtic tradition that calls these experiences “thin places” because you experience the presence of God in a way that is like coming close to that border between this world and the next, like for a moment that border is thin, like a translucent veil you can almost see through.
In the end, it was in coming home from that trip to San Francisco that gave me the earliest realization of who we were as a family, as individuals, as plain folk full of potential, called into God’s world as servants. That Grand Canyon moment may have been a thin place, but the best part of the journey was coming home. For, as the saying goes, it is in coming back home that we learn who we are.
We are celebrating the feast of the Epiphany today. We think of this as the Sunday we remember the Three Kings. But, that’s actually a bit of an error. The story of the three kings is actually not in the Bible. It is a story that came through Church tradition later. This is not to say it is untrue, but if you notice in the Gospel reading this morning, there is no number of Magi, so not three. And there are no kings in this story, except Jesus. The Magi were not kings, they were actually Zoroastrian priests.
Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world which is still active in Iran today. It was the official religion of Persia before Islam.
These men earned the title “wise men” because of their skills in interpreting dreams and understanding astrology. They were well known for telling fortunes and preparing daily horoscopes. They were the scholars of their day and they enjoyed access to the Persian emperor.
So, Matthew tells us that an indefinite number of Zoroastrian priests followed a star to Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem. Matthew’s job here is to assure us that Jesus is a fulfillment not only of the Old Testament prophecy of the virgin birth, but also the Zoroastrian virgin birth prophecies. You see, they came to see this miracle because they too had been waiting for it.
The Magi recognize Jesus' divinity and his kingship. Matthew presents Jesus as the expected King of the Jews and the Gentiles. It was important for Matthew to show that the Gentile Magi went to Bethlehem not Rome to look for the King of the Jews, the Messiah. And they found him, wrapped in swaddling, in Bethlehem.
Epiphany is a season in which we ponder our identity as followers of this baby, God incarnate. It is a time for us to ponder who we are in response to God’s great gift of the only son. It is a time to dig into our well of wisdom and remember all those thin places where we have had “aha” moments in our understanding of who God is.
Our opening collect today briefly outlines this theme. It says to God, “by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth.” Manifestation is the meaning of the Feast of the Epiphany. God has become one of us. Take a moment - or maybe 6 weeks of Sundays - to let that sink in! And then the collect turns to God and asks of God to lead us thusly, through our faith to the very presence of God. In other words, "God, lead us back to you by reminding us of your love for us through these many epiphanies.”
The word Epiphany itself, at root, means sudden revelation or insight.
Last year at this time, I was the Interim Rector at a church with a school both named Epiphany. Each week I was asked to speak at chapel for the children. I told the students in the school in chapel the week of the Feast of the Epiphany about that old advertisement for V8 tomato juice. Do you remember that one? The actors in the ad would smack their foreheads as a sign of suddenly remembering a better choice of beverage. I had a lot of fun with those children smacking our foreheads and saying, “I could have had a V8!” That’s what we do when we have moments of revelation. We say “Wow!” and we smack ourselves out of the sheer joy of it.
These little revelations come to us throughout our lives, perhaps as often as daily. Here’s an example:
When I put away a wreath I hung on a glass storm door last year, I had an Epiphany moment. This fake wreath was a weak effort to keep up with all the reveling around me in that temporary home and I was a bit tired of it by Epiphany. But I was determined not to bring it down until the 12th day of Christmas, in good Episcopalian style. Then, removing it let all sorts of sunlight beam in through the glass storm door into the foyer of that house. This sunlight had previously been blocked by the fake wreath. So, I sat down on the bottom step and basqued in this mid-winter glow for a moment.
This is life - a series of experiences some of which are memorable, some of which are life changing. Meeting a celebrity or visiting one of the wonders of the earth can be remarkable but epiphanies that bring us new revelation about God and God’s call for our lives tend to be a bit more surprising and life altering than just those things that entertain us. Standing with my family at the edge of the Grand Canyon was life altering because we were so tuned into our relationships with each other.
Still, the epiphany of this didn’t come until we got home and told the story. And kept telling it.
Like the wise men, these experiences sometimes take long journeys either real or metaphorical. It seems we sometimes need to traverse for a while before we encounter God. And it’s never like a treasure hunt in which an X on our map tells us just where to dig. No, God’s way is to guide us with God’s light and then send us home by another way.
The magi followed the light of a star to visit the King of Kings and they gave him gifts. One gift was gold which was a very practical gift, one which would be needed when Joseph answered the dream from the Angel about rushing away from where they were because Herod was planning to kill all the boy babies under a certain age. Mary and Joseph needed to move quickly to save his life, so the gold would come in extremely handy until Joseph could find work and earn a living for his small family. They may have needed to stay in Egypt for years. Herod didn’t die until Jesus was about 4 years old.
The frankincense was a key component of the incense used in rituals as both a purification symbol and as a symbol of prayer rising to the heavens with the smoke. It was a symbol of sanctity and, probably, a recognition of the sanctity of this child to whom this this gift was presented.
Myrrh was a stranger gift because it was traditionally used in the preparation of a dead body for burial. It offered a form of preservation, but also a cleansing and help to disguise some of the less favorable scents that accompany death. It is usually accepted that this gift was a foretelling of Jesus’s death, a rather strange gift for a new baby or a young child, but perhaps not in this case. Death was to be overcome in the long run, by the end of the story.
When we tell this story, we tend to imagine receiving such gifts of gold, incense and essential oils and we ponder what we might do with these pretty things that smell good and would get us to Egypt - or maybe Hawaii or Paris. I’d rather go to those places than Egypt. If I spent the gold on a Parisian vacation, I could buy some pretty clothes and maybe trade the smellies for better par fume or at a great French restaurant!
You see how quickly I did that? How quickly we think of exchanges of our gifts for something that might mean more to us than the original gift, how quickly we see ourselves as the recipient worthy of such gifts or even better gifts. How quickly we turn into receiver over and above giver?
The better question to ask is, “What gifts do I bring to the Christ child? When we imagine bringing gifts to God, we place ourselves in the role of these Zoroastrian priests, the wiser characters of the story. But we seem to come up short when we go shopping through our souls for the perfect gift for God. “What have I to give him, poor as I am?” Or, rich as I am, I may have lots of practical resources but none seem good enough for God. I suddenly feel unworthy and that trip to Paris sounds even better where I could run away and surround my self with worldly things that might make me feel better about myself. Wherever you go, there you are, though. And I’d still be at a loss of what I could possibly give to God.
But we have many gifts to give, don’t we? The gifts God requires of us are the same gifts we have been given by God.
There are some who have the gift of hospitality, and a wonderful gift that is, whether it is extending hospitality from their home, or their church, or in the civic groups to which they belong. The gift of hospitality often gives them the opportunity to show the teachings of Jesus rather than simply preaching them.
Some might offer the gift of education, not only teaching spiritual values, but also human values that teach that all people are deserving of respect and, if not love, at least respect for their being children of God every bit as much as we ourselves are. There is the gift of service, of sanctity, of constancy, and parts of ourselves that would make this world more of the kingdom place than we can currently claim.
It takes staying tuned to the thin places and epiphanies in life to know what your gift is and how and when to give it back to God.
And so I come back to identity, to the head smacking moments in life when we realize not just who God is, not just how great God’s love is for us, but who we are in relation to God and to each other. What gift have I received? What gift can I give? These questions have everything to say about our reflection on who we are as followers of this Christ child.
So, if you want to seek the epiphanies of God, if you want to resolve to be a better person this year by seeking God, you might do better to put down your map and your shovel and simply follow the light. As if following a star on the horizon, simply follow the light that is in your own heart. Follow the light that you see in others. Follow the light that you see in the marginalized, the poor, the hungry.
And then, in coming home you will know what gift to give, to and in honor of, the Christ child. Beware, however that you may end up going home by another way.