Preaching Notes for Epiphany (January 3 and 6, 2016)
This year as I’ve been thinking about Epiphany and the texts associated with this day, I have been reflecting on the popular use of the word “epiphany.” And so instead of going to a theological dictionary, I went to the most popular source of information that I know of: Wikipedia. There I found an article that defined “epiphany” as a feeling. To quote Wikipedia, “Generally the term is used to describe scientific breakthrough, religious, or philosophical discoveries (defined earlier as experiences of sudden and striking realization), but it can apply in any situation in which an enlightening realization allows a problem or situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epiphany_(feeling)).The article goes on to note that originally the word referred to an insight through the divine, but that today the concept may or may not include a connection to God, although most people still believe that the fundamental nature of an epiphany is that it is a supernatural event.
The church celebrates Epiphany as the sudden realization of not just the wise men, but of all disciples of Christ in every age, that Jesus is the physical manifestation of God. In the early church (and in eastern churches today) the day of Epiphany marked the culmination of the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle and was a day for celebration, gift-giving, and most important, baptism into the Christian faith. This day, even more than Christmas, is the day-of-days for followers of Jesus Christ.
Keeping in mind the popular definition of epiphany as well as the liturgical definition, one way to approach this day and this story from Matthew’s Gospel, is by telling a story of an epiphany that you had. Tell a story from your own life that helped you see and understand Jesus from a new perspective. Maybe it isn’t one “big” experience that brought a sudden and striking new realization. Maybe your story of faith is a whole collection of smaller stories that have added up over time to your realization that Jesus Christ is Lord of your life.
Or maybe something has happened recently that opened you up to a new insight.
Whatever strikes you first is what you should go with. People need to hear your stories about why you believe what you do and why you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. They need to know why you have decided to follow Jesus. Don’t talk around it or intellectualize it or try to make it entertaining. Just be clear and honest. Tell your congregation a story about a time when you were suddenly and inexplicably opened up to the reality of Christ in your midst. Give a concrete example of epiphany in your life. Why? Because if preachers don’t set the example for what it means to share our faith stories from the pulpit then we miss an important opportunity each week to teach others how to share their faith with the people they meet.
I wish I could be there to hear each and every one of you. But please know that I am praying for you, that as you reflect and prepare you may be truly inspired by the one who has shown forth the light of God in this world and in your life personally.
Isn’t it amazing that someone like Saul—a narrow-thinking Jewish zealot by all accounts, a man who had viciously persecuted Christians—could be transformed by an encounter with the living Lord into a completely different person? Isn’t it incredible that his transformation was so great that he was compelled to change not just his name but his whole life and attitude, to became the one who was willing to risk himself in order to reach out not just to the Jews but to the Gentiles as well?
As I write these words, the news is reporting that as of mid-December 2015, Americans are more fearful about potential terrorist attacks than they have been since the days after September 11, 2001. According to one report that has looked at the situation by the numbers, an increasing number of Americans, both Republican and Democrat, think that terrorism is the number one threat to the country. Fully seventy percent think the focus of the threat is ISIS. This has caused a significant number of people to become concerned about going to the mall, getting on airplanes, and becoming a victim in a mass shooting (see http://www.vocativ.com/news/260740/by-the-numbers-americas-new-terrorism-fears).
I don’t want to suggest that people are misguided about their fear, or that fear is unwarranted. I worry about the same things as everyone else. Fear is a very real thing and it doesn’t help to deny it.
But I do want to suggest that what we do with our fear has significant consequences for us and for the world we all share. If we respond to our fear by closing ranks, turning inward, focusing only on protecting ourselves and our loved ones, and placing the blame on a particular group of people, then we run the risk of not only creating a more dangerous world for every woman, man and child on the planet, but we miss the opportunity to shine the light of God’s grace into the world around us.
And isn’t that what Epiphany is about? It’s about proclaiming the gift of God’s grace that was given without merit to each one of us. It is about living in the light of that grace so that it shines on all people—woman or man, gentile or Jew, slave or free, Muslim or Buddhist or Christian or Hindu or none of the above, heterosexual or homosexual or transgendered.
Like Paul, you and I have been transformed by our encounter with the living Lord in the person of Jesus Christ. As such, our purpose as disciples of Jesus is the same as Paul’s. Our mission is to share the good news of the boundless riches of Christ and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly place (Ephesians 3:8-10, NRSV).
The prophet Isaiah speaks a word of hope for the future into those who have become overwhelmed by fear, both in the past and in the present.
Because, you see, the Israelites during the time of the prophet Isaiah were a lot like Americans right now. They had been conquered by the Babylonians and their land had been destroyed. Those who had survived were hauled off into captivity, but many did not survive, and many more held a status of “whereabouts unknown” to the surviving exiles. They were mourning the past and facing an unknown future.
It was precisely into this fear and despair that a prophecy of the light of God shining on Jerusalem was spoken. Into the fear, grief, and anxiety of the moment came a bright vision, like a ray of sunshine suddenly breaking through the clouds after a morning of thundershowers and torrential rain.
All the nations will be attracted to this light, the prophet said. Even foreign kings who worshiped other gods would be drawn toward the light shining over Jerusalem! All of Israel’s lost sons would return home, and Israel’s daughters would be carried toward this light in the loving arms of their nurses. Even the livestock would return and the wealth would be restored. The Lord God would save them all!
“Look around,” the prophet commands! God’s light always shines through the darkness and the reign of God prevails, even in the most dire of circumstances. This is what gives us hope. This is what helps us stand up to our fears. This is what gives us courage to go forth in the name of Christ and respond not with anger, but with grace and mercy.
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