Sunday Spotlight: A Feast of Epiphanies
These first verses from the second chapter of Matthew are among the most action packed accounts found in the sixty-six books of the Bible. A Hollywood script writer would be hard pressed to match the inspiration and the intrigue, the triumph over treachery. As a preacher, I’m swamped with the symbolic richness of this gospel. A single sermon doesn’t do it justice. But let’s try.
One brief definition of an epiphany is: a sudden intuitive insight into the essential meaning of something. This week’s gospel for the Feast of the Epiphany is literally a feast of epiphanies. It is chock full of insights into the meaning of the coming of Christ and the transformation it promises for you and me and for all the people of the world.
Start with the vision of the Magi. They had devoted their lives to studying the heavens. And then suddenly there was a brilliant light they had never seen before. For all their astronomical knowledge, they were baffled and intrigued. So they dropped everything and set out to follow wherever this strange star would lead. For mile after mile, over mountains and across deserts, they fixed faithfully on the constant celestial signpost which lead them to the newborn Jesus.
The journey of the Magi raises the question: What star do you follow? Does it lead to Jesus? Or is it all about getting and keeping more stuff – filling the hole in our souls with things… a bigger paycheck, a bigger house, season tickets, the best table, the latest I Phone, the hippest sneakers? They are all really great stuff to have. But go to as many funerals as I do and they shrink to insignificance. The Magi got it right the first time. Follow your star to Jesus – his love, his way – they are all that endures.
All four gospels have examples of the Messiah of the Chosen People reaching out to all the people of God’s creation. Significantly, right from the birth of Jesus, God mobilized the heavens to reach out all the way to Persia. Today we walk in the footsteps of the Magi. Our home is even more distant than Persia. We follow Christ from across cultures and across millennia. The gates of heaven have been thrown open to us. No matter how humble our condition, we stand before the throne of God no less noble than the kings, no less beloved than the prophets, no less entitled than Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The Magi did not come empty handed. And neither should we. Jesus, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, does not need our gold, frankincense and myrrh. All creation does his bidding. But he does want us to give back, for our own sake, to demonstrably express our gratitude, to get some skin in the game. Our gifts, our tithes, our charity, our service – all don’t buy us God’s love and redemption. Those are gifts outright. The Magi did not bribe the star to lead them to Jesus. They did not pay Mary and Joseph to see their child. They humbly laid their gifts at the feet of the newborn king in adoration, in gratitude and in awe. And so should we.
And then there’s Herod. The world has seen his like so many times. In his self-centered soul, the Epiphany is all about him. It is his opportunity to eliminate a potential rival, no matter the cost. Deceit, deception, mass murder: these things afflict other people. To him, they are an average tyrant’s cost of doing business.
Today the lands crossed by the Magi are plagued by a new slaughter of the innocents. And these new Herod’s are far more fiendish than the average tyrant. Most recently, Canon Andrew White, the Anglican Vicar of Baghdad, reported on the beheading of four children who had refused to renounce Christ. With knives at their throats, they told their ISIS tormentors that they would always love and follow Jesus. And so they have followed him… all the way home to the Father.
While we are appalled by this horror… to be honest… haven’t we all got even the tiniest touch of Herod in us? Too often, we take life on our terms. We tell ourselves that we are the arbiters of good and evil. And what we think is going to be good for us, we almost always see as the obvious good. We don’t operate on the scale or rapacity of Herod, but we do let our egos lead us around by the nose.
Epiphany is a good time to alter that course. It is time to remember that only Jesus is the way, the truth and the light. It is time to recognize that our star is the grace of God and that it still leads to Jesus. The Magi did not journey alone. They journeyed together. And so should we. Jesus is waiting. In joyful praise and adoration, let’s follow the star together.