In Last week’s message we pondered What is an Epiphany answering that a Biblical Epiphany was seeing God. Following the Star is not just about a mental change or even a change of habit, but it is about meeting God. The question then becomes how does this happen? The texts of the season answer that for us. This message ponder’s Luke’s unique portrayal of the baptism of Jesus which is one that cares little about the actual baptism but instead pairs it down to the simplest presentation- The Word of the Father and the Presence of the Spirit. How do we see God? In the Inspired Word.
Our common answer to that question I think would be something of a snoozer. We have dime store epiphanies. This sermon looks at what a real epiphany is. And then it looks at what an Epiphany demands of us. If we see the star, are we willing to follow? Openness to that answer makes all the difference.
The texts in “year C” of the lectionary and when Epiphany proper falls on a Sunday make for a wonderful series. Over the next few weeks we’ll be taking a good look at how the light enters and grows in the Christian life.
Biblical Text: Mark 1:4-11, Romans 6:1-11 (and the general Epiphany Texts of the Magi, Cana and the Transfiguration) Full Sermon Draft/a>
Holy Days, like Epiphany, often come with a phalanx of texts associated with them. The day itself is a concept, and over time various texts carry that theme with slightly different emphasis. For Epiphany the texts are: The Magi, The Wedding at Cana, The Baptism of Jesus and then the Transfiguration. Stars, and lights, and voices and glory manifest. The actual text of the day is the baptism, but the sermon is a pondering of all of them, and really of the season. How do we see the glory? How do we see God? Is it all at once? Are we capable of understanding that? The sermon points at two expressions of the glory that are manifest in waters of the Jordan. And then how that glory is given to us and how it is manifest here and now, and in the world to come. At some point along that trail of Epiphanies, we do really “get it”. Be rest on the promises of Jesus, and that the Holy Spirit will enlighten us and one day sanctify us.
Above was the “King’s Cake” for this year. Below was the start of the sermon. (I don’t have a recording for this because I typically don’t do these smaller groupings from the pulpit.) Hope you had a wonderful Epiphany of Three Kings day…
On the one hand you can’t talk about Epiphanies without sounding like a pretentious schmuck, on the other I’ve been thinking about how the core texts of Epiphany and the what the season itself is about is quite meaningful today.
Here is what I mean by that. Each season of the church year has a general feeling. Lent is penitential. But to be in a penitential mood, one has to have accepted a certain story about what humans are. Advent is about hopeful waiting, but again, unless you’ve accepted a story about God, hopeful waiting can be Waiting for Godot. Christmas and Easter are proclamation seasons. Christ is here! Christ has triumphed. There are no preconditions to the proclamation. It is just good news. But you don’t need to receive the good news. Maybe it just falls off the front page tomorrow, or by the 6 PM news. Pentecost is about how we live, but it requires having received that good news.
Epiphany sets itself up in that liminal space. We’ve heard the proclamation in some way. “We saw his star in the east.” We witnessed the first of his signs, when he changed the water into wine. We heard the prophet say “behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” right before he dunks Jesus in the Jordan. We’ve heard the proclamation, and with our inner eye we perceive that something is different, but what we do next isn’t sure…
These special services I tend to treat homiletically different. If I’m exegetical meaning more surely grounded in the text on a regular Sunday, in the special services I tend to the personal and reflective. Part of that is audience, part of that liturgical settings. One theme of Epiphany is coming to know the truth. We live in an age that is constantly experiencing what it thinks are epiphanies. Also, as a Lutheran minister, I’m the heir to an epiphany of sorts – Luther’s recovery of the gospel. The gospel itself according to Paul is an epiphany – “hidden for the ages and now revealed”. This sermon is my reflections on spiritual discernment. How do I sort out true epiphanies from false claims of truth. As I say in the sermon, I think every Christian must develop some of this on their own, but this is mine.
The day on the Church calendar was the Baptism of Christ and the text recognizes that. I think in the sermon there is recognition of baptism. If not, all the hymns of the day picked up on it as their connecting theme. But as I was preparing the sermon verse 18 (“So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people”) combined with a comment by Origin (2nd Century Teacher quoted in the sermon) made me look at John the Baptist himself. What was the gospel, the good news, that John preached?
As he would say, “Christ must increase, I must decrease”, so as a preacher the core of that Good News was simply the bridegroom has come – Jesus. That is the core of any preaching. But John’s good news, just from this brief snippet (Luke 3:1-22), is expansive. And Luke’s version of John has a striking and touching emphasis. After pointing out the bridegroom – the kinsman redeemer of Israel, John preaches against a false in everyway redeemer, Herod. Jesus & Israel are the bridegroom and sanctified bride. Herod and Herodias are the mocking of that redemption. John calls him out, and pays with his freedom and life. John’s preaching of good news, includes the role of suffering.
I didn’t make the connection in the sermon because the sermon itself is more breadth than depth. Pulling together all the threads of levirate marriage that this text relies on would have been explaining too much for a sermon. Better suited for a study. But marriage as the symbol of what God does for his people, and the mocking of marriage made by the state, and John’s suffering caused by that confrontation, seems applicable.
Recording Note: I have left in our opening hymn Lutheran Service Book 405 To Jordan’s River Came Our Lord. The congregation sounded great, and that hymn really captures the core message of the festival – “This man is Christ our substitute!” Also, they sang it post the OT reading, but I’ve moved it after the sermon here. These recordings can’t really capture the full service. We don’t really have the recording equipment for that, so the focus is really on the spoken parts (i.e. texts and sermon). But, I included our Choir singing a wonderful Epiphany piece. I included such things as markers to the full live experience. Worship really is about being there.
The picture should be the King’s Cake, a galette de rois, which is a French Almond pastry with a feve or baby hidden inside. The person who finds the baby gets luck for the year (and has to bake the cake next year). Although here we don’t so much hold to that second part. The cake was the after Vespers treat for Epiphany.
I don’t have a recording. Things like Vespers tend to be, how do I say it, more intimate. So I typically move the pulpit down to the main floor. But the sermon as roughly given is in the file. For me, if there is a correct time to give that altar call, it is Epiphany. Epiphany is when you’ve seen “it”. “It” in this case is God. And of course having seen “it” is not the same thing and opening your treasures (or your heart) as the magi do. Epiphany is all about the odd roads we take first to seeing, and also to opening our treasures to the Christ child. Epiphanies are dangerous times of choice. You’ve seen, now what are you going to do?
You’ve seen the incarnation (Christmas), now what are you going to do?
Here is out Epiphany Vespers sermon which meditates on how coming to see God entails playing the fool. I didn’t record this one, sorry. But it is a short read…
Text: Matt 2:1-12
Matthew and Luke play tag-team in telling Jesus’ infancy. Luke narrates from the annunciation to the presentation in the temple roughly 30 days after Christmas and tells us they go back to Nazareth. Matthew tells us of How Joseph took Mary in, but if it weren’t for verse 1, Bethlehem might not enter his gospel. So Luke tags Matthew in to tell about the Magi. Probably a year or so later. We have an upper bound, Herod killed the children two and younger. So if we are trying to understand the story in good western linear fashion, I think that is how you harmonize the gospel. But that harmonizing might actually miss some of the tag team.
Trouble in the World
Just last Sunday I hoped to show how in one of the most amazing sentences of the Bible, “he was submissive to them” we see a picture of how God works on our wills. I said He abides. The love of God in action is that he abides with sinners who don’t get it. He abides until their hearts are open. That was from Luke and the Boy Jesus in the temple. The Epiphany reading is from Matthew and I think you have a tag-team presentation of how God abides.
The Magi, the wise men from the east, were sorcerers, astrologers or diviners. And in the OT these guys are “the emperor without clothes”. There are two comic routines with Magi. Moses beats them with the plagues as they can duplicate gnats. The great wisdom of these men can’t find gnats. The foolishness of Moses produces swarms. Daniel also gets in on making fun of Magi. They can’t tell Nebuchadnezzar his dream, and they fall all over trying to get out of the way. Likewise when Darius is presented with the “Handwriting on the wall” they can’t read it, but Daniel can. The foolish Daniel makes fools of the wise men who can’t read anything. There is a third minor episode when Balaam’s ass tells the Magi Balaam what he couldn’t see. When a Jew such as Matthew would say look, behold, Magi – everybody is ready for a joke.
Gospel in the Text
But Matthew doesn’t tell a joke. Matthew tells us God abides with them. If he had sent them an angel – like with Mary and Joseph – they would have worshipped it. So God used what they could know – star charts. The chief priests and scribes of the people know, but aren’t willing to go. These foolish Magi will get up and bring Kingly gifts at the word of the stars. So God abides.
And even with the treacherous Herod he abides. Something changes here in these Magi, because now the star is not a fixed one. They leave Herod’s place and the star comes back and it leads probably not to Bethlehem, but to Nazareth. The start becomes a morning star – an angel. And they – these Magi – after worshipping are warned in a dream. Now warned just like Joseph.
Gospel in the World
Epiphany is a celebration of seeing. So in that sense it is always a day of fools. To proclaim that now I see, now I get it is to say what an idiot I was. While Christmas is a season with White altar cloths and it is only 12 weeks long, Epiphany marks the change back to green and gives us 8 weeks. Epiphany is the Christian experience. We are always growing in what we see of God. If we are not willing to be the fool, we can’t follow the Christ. But Christ is willing to abide, with magi and with all who are willing to worship, who want to see. In Matthew, as Jesus is heading back to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he meets two blind men. They are calling out and the crowd tries to get them to shut up. But Jesus asks them, “what do you want me to do for you?” And they reply, “we want to see”. And he touches them and immediately they are healed. God abides with those who want to see even if it means the crowds think you are fools. Amen.
Christmas is a short season, just twelve days. Many years not even two Sundays. Epiphany is a longer season. It starts usually in the middle of the Week on Epiphany proper with the Star and the Magi. (This year locally we will hold an Epiphany Vespers service, so if you find yourself with some extra-time Monday early evening, come on over and sing vespers with us. We’ll have cake afterward.) Epiphany starts with a bang and ends with a bang as well. The last Sunday of Epiphany is the Transfiguration a bright shining and leading star of a different sort. In between are eight Sundays, two months, where the altar cloths return to green. The stars fade, the surprising miracles and celebrations recede, and everyday life re-emerges. What that doesn’t mean is that God is not present or stops revealing himself. That is the core meaning of Epiphany, a revealing or a sighting of God. What the season captures is that we limited humans can’t take it all in at once. We also can’t live on the mountaintop, at least not yet. But we are called to follow.
One of my favorite bible verses is Genesis 28:16 which has Jacob blurting out “surely God is in this place and I did not know it.” It is a favorite because I think it captures our living experience in our modern world. It also captures the Spirit of Epiphany. I could say that we are taught a naked universe, and it would be true, but that is not the true source of our ignorance. Our ignorance of God starts out in ourselves and our sinful nature. We start out lost and estranged from God. We start out desiring our own way. It takes an Epiphany, a revelation of God, for us to see the larger reality of our world and our existence. For most that Epiphany is Baptism, but there are more dramatic ones. But just because we have such an Epiphany doesn’t mean that we like it, or follow it, or even know fully what it means. Jacob’s stated desire after his Epiphany was “so that I come again to my father’s house in peace.” Yet he didn’t turn around and go patch things up with Esau and the Father he and his mother had just conned. Jacob spends 14 years with Laban getting conned with Leah and then receiving Rachel. Only when that family situation becomes untenable does Jacob return and still in stark terror of Esau. Following the Epiphany was not Jacob’s strong suit.
Having an Epiphany is great, but the real task of an Epiphany is following. The Magi rejoiced and they followed the star. The disciples left the mount and returned to the plain and continued to follow Jesus. The Christian life is one of receiving the Epiphany and following. God is surely here. The Father’s providence continues over the seasons and the years. Christ is present with us in Word and Sacrament. He is present when we gather and goes with us when we go through the indwelling of His Spirit. God is surely in this place – our churches and our lives. The challenge of the Christian life is to see and receive and follow. Herod heard the report of the Magi along with the scribes. None of them followed. The Galilean and Judean crowds saw the miracles, but would each refuse to follow in their own way. The light continues to shine in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5), yet many yawn at the Christmas message and still more receive it and quickly turn away. The task of Epiphany is to learn to follow.
The stars of Epiphany are leading stars. Are you willing to follow where Epiphany shines?