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.
The text is the second Sunday of Easter standard, Doubting Thomas. At least that is the first element that gets caught, but the text is larger than that one character. It is a story of seeing God, but it is also a story of beatitude or blessing on not seeing. The reality of the action works at counter-purpose with most of our natural assumptions about seeing God. The beatitudes bless not sight, but the Word. This sermon moves from the text and what it tells us about Christ, to our sending and moral responsibility and lastly to the eschatological reality of seeing God.
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.
The text is the Road to Emmaus. It is one of those stories that pop out. Other than Jesus, the main characters are all but anonymous. Cleopas and his unnamed companion and a road between two cities. You get the feeling that Luke heard Cleopas tell the story and said to himself, “I’ve got to include this one.” This is one of the serious faults of the three year lectionary as the story only gets read on a Sunday once every three years. It is too reactive and psychologically rich a story to only meditate on together once every three years.
Just off the top of my head I could think of four strands of biblical theology that Emmaus puts a capstone on: table fellowship (i.e. God eating with sinful men), the road or the journey, Seeing and not-seeing God, The City of God vs. the City of Man. In other words, in five minutes I could outline at least five good sermons from the text that each would have a different doctrinal point and gospel message. The one that I worked with here is the power and place of word and sacrament. No theme operates exclusive to the others. Seeing and not-seeing plays a key motif when you talk word and sacrament, but it is still a supporting roll.
When you strip the church to its core, when our personal and often misguided desires fall away from the church, what remains? Word and Sacrament. How do we see or recognize the risen Christ in our lives? Through Word and Sacrament. What is the correct order? What is the individual’s role in faith? How do these things function in the life of the believer? What is the tragedy and triumph of Word and Sacrament? These are some of the questions that this sermon contemplates as it attempts to apply both law and gospel.
(I wanted to make one stray comment. John, the man who does our recording, usually includes at least a couple of verses from the hymn of the day. Lutheran Service Book #476 – Who are You Who Walk in Sorrow was this service’s hymn. It is a modern text (copyright 2000) paired with a haunting american hymn tune (Jefferson). The text is a powerful one made more so combined with the minor key and lilting tone of the tune. Here is a link to someone who has typed it out. You can find a reflection on many of those biblical themes in the hymn as well as another one from the Easter Season of death and Resurrection. That is a powerful and meaty modern hymn.)
The text for the day shows people who are captured and oppressed by that unholy trinity of the devil, the world and our flesh. Simon’s mother-in-law running a high fever (flesh), the demon possessed man (devil) and the crowds (world) all are healed. They all have the release proclaimed to them. The all recognize the authority of the Word of Jesus. But they all have different reactions. They are all freed. The devil, the world and the flesh are all rebuked, but only one of the reactions is appropriate.
After three Sunday’s looking at how we see God through the sacraments, the theme this Sunday was the proclaimed word. And while we can say we see God in the Word (especially THE WORD, Jesus Christ), that seeing function is more answered by the sacraments. God has instituted and promised to be present in Water, Bread, Wine and absolution. Those are something physical that we can “see”. The proclaimed word is more about answering that second order question, how do we know we’ve seen? We know we’ve seen because someone has told us and we believe that testimony. Our belief influences what we see. We can see the sacraments because we believe, because the Holy Spirit has created eyes of faith. But the orthodox faith doesn’t just push something called fideism, or faith in faith. Out faith does not rest on an emotional desire or something we gin up in ourselves. Saving faith rests on the Word. The proclaimed word brings forth a reaction. Preachers don’t (or shouldn’t) proclaim themselves or feelings or vague movements. Preachers proclaim the Word. And THE WORD is Jesus Christ. How do we know we know? Christ told us. It all rests on him. Who do you say he is? What is your reaction to the proclamation?