An Epiphany sermon preached Jan 3, 2021 at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California.
Today we are celebrating Epiphany. This is an ancient Christian celebration, dating at least as far back as the 300’s. Epiphany is one of my favorite days in the year of church life.
This word comes to us almost directly from the Greek.
“Epi”, meaning ‘on’ or ‘upon’,
and “phaneros”, which means ‘visible’, or ‘seen’.
Epiphany means to “show up, show on, show out”.
The star ‘shows up’ so the magi can make their journey and ‘show up’ and find Jesus.
For people in Israel who grew up hearing Isaiah’s promises, people who were living under occupation themselves, I wonder what the image of magi from the east, offering gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the child Jesus meant to the people of Israel when they saw the caravan moving through town.
One might think the magi would bring hope to a people, validation from outside sources that something important was happening.
Maybe the rumors of shepherds seeing angels was true?
Arise! shine! for your light has come, the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
I want the presence of the magi to remind the people of long held promises and invite them to see the world in new ways.
The text says this, however: When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.
King Herod met the wisemen and was frightened. All of Jerusalem was frightened too.
That’s how it works when you’re ruled by an insecure ruler. When you’re ruled by a despot, you are subject to the whims and fears of the despot. It’s hard to be excited about a star in the heavens when a despot is throwing a tantrum in the palace.
King Herod is afraid of a baby.
A grown man, with an army and all political power, is afraid when he hears the news of a child born to be king. Insecure leaders create an unsafe populace. And so all of Jerusalem is afraid too.
2020 was a year when fear took over our lives more than I’ve experienced in my lifetime. Yes, we’ve experienced fear before the pandemic hit. And yes, some people have been facing systemic oppression and fear that I wasn’t seeing until recent years, but this year that was fractured our society with fear in new ways.
I know things won’t magically be better because we’ve turned the calendars over to 2021, or because a new administration will be in power, but I pray that our optimism and hope that a new year will be better can be lenses that help us live by something other than fear.
A friend once gave me a Christmas card that shows there were originally 4 magi, but one of them veered off path, following Elvis, and saying, “I’m going to follow this star”.
I wonder if we’ve all been following the wrong star, and have focused too much of our energy in the shadows, or as Isaiah put it:
For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
Maybe we’ve been covered by darkness. Maybe it is time to shake off the darkness and fear, and time to show up and shine the light.
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
I’m not saying we should ignore the bad things around us, but do they keep us from looking up at where God may be leading us?
We can choose not to be afraid just because King Herod is afraid and wants us to live in fear too. .
You know who didn’t seem to be afraid in this story?
Herod tells them to report back to him, so that he, too, can pay Jesus homage. I don’t know if they believed him when he said it, but they were warned in a dream not to return to him. The magi receive an unjust order from a vindictive tyrant, and they disobey him, journeying home by another road.
Had they been led by fear of a despot in a palace, they would have obeyed his instructions. Having met the child, and having paid him homage, perhaps it became clear that you can worship Jesus, or you can worship the emperor, but you can’t give allegiance to both.
Giving homage to Jesus sends you home by other roads, away from the fear in which earthly leaders traffic.
The stars are in our sky 24 hours a day. It is only at night that we see their light to follow them. So when things seem dark and the path seems hard to find, we have to remember to look up. Epiphany comes in the darkness. Are we willing to look for its sign?
Many of us looked to the skies on the solstice to see the convergence of Saturn and Jupiter in the night sky. To our eyes, they looked so close as to be one star, but they were still 450 million miles apart from each other. It was nice, in the middle of the busy-ness of our lives, to pause and look up at the sky, collectively.
We can’t stare at the skies all the time, of course, unless we are astronomers. But when the world feels bleak or scary, when what we see in front of us is the fear mongering of Herod, I pray we’ll choose a different allegiance and look up to see where God may be directing us.
The epiphany was only the beginning of the changes for the magi, for all of us. And not all of the changes are easy. The epiphany of a child born as king in Bethlehem turned the world upside down and shook the palace in Jerusalem.
The world responds when God breaks into the world—and it isn’t always peaceful. I invite you to read ahead in Matthew this week and see how the powers of the world responded to the epiphany.
However it was the Magi knew that this star was different, that this child was a king, they followed the call and showed up for the journey that would take them home by other roads.
There’s an old book by Henry Van Dyke called the Story of the Other Wise Man. And it chronicles a magi who misses the caravan to Jerusalem because he stops to help an ill man on the side of the road. He still travels to Bethlehem, but he’s missed the holy family, who has fled to Egypt, and he’s missed his magi friends, who have gone home by another road. He goes to Egypt and searches for Jesus in the refugee camps and settlements. He ministers to those he encounters on the way, even as it delays his search for the child. He spends the gifts he’d brought for the baby to feed people, to free people, to care for people.
Finally, 33 years later, he’s back in Jerusalem as Jesus is about to be crucified. The magi is headed to the cross and encounters yet one more person who needs his help. He’s feeling a failure, having missed the king he’s been looking to give homage to his whole life, when God speaks to him, thanking him for his gifts.
The man responds with “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” , quoting a passage from the end of Matthew’s gospel in chapter 25.
And God responds to this other magi, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
It occurred to me that Matthew 25 is the way the author of this gospel invites us to follow the star. We too missed the original caravan. Yet the work of our lives is to follow the star in search of the Christ, so we can show up and help the people we encounter. The star doesn’t promise we’ll always see the path clearly, or know where we’re headed.
I’ve been reading through the poems of WH Auden and in his poem For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, the characters of the magi speak about their journey.
“At least we know for certain that we are three old sinners,
That this journey is much too long, that we want our dinners,
And miss our wives, our books, our dogs,
But have only the vaguest idea why we are what we are.
To discover how to be human now Is the reason we follow this star.”
I pray we take time and show up for the journey, ministering to those we meet on the way.
Blessings to us all on this journey. Lift up your eyes and look around. It is into the darkness of our world that God shines a star for us to follow. To discover how to be human now is the reason we follow this star. May it lead us to a child born to show us the way of peace. May it lead us to the work of hope God is now dreaming for us. Arise shine, your light has come.
We received our Epiphany Star Words in worship today. If you would like me to draw a word for you, please leave a comment here.