Prepare the Way Worship Series: FIND
January 6, 2019 — Epiphany Sunday
Rev. Dr. Irving Cotto is an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church. A former district superintendent and director of congregational development in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, he is currently the pastor of St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Warrington, Pa. Dr. Cotto is the author of Fiesta en la Casa de Dios, a book on pastoral reflections regarding worship. He has led training workshops for lay missionaries and has written training modules for the National Hispanic Latino Plan.
Keywords: Star, light, praise, gift, journey
Epiphany Sunday is a transition Sunday; the ending of the Christmas Season and the beginning of ordinary time. This transition is the third stage in the cycle of light or the cycle of the nativity. First, we have Advent; then we have Christmas, followed by Epiphany.
Growing up in Puerto Rico and then serving for 25 years in parishes involving families from different Spanish-speaking countries, I found that these texts were often used as the framework for big congregational celebrations aimed at making children happy, Dia de los Tres Santos Reyes (Three Kings Day). This is still an extraordinary festivity in many U.S. communities. Many of these have been sponsored by social agencies, Catholic, protestant, or Pentecostal congregations.
My wife and I taught my own children to find a shoe box, fill it with grass, and place it under their beds on January 5 (the eve of Three Kings Day). It was like a second Christmas Day for them, but with a slight difference: It’s a special occasion that has not been extremely commercialized in the U.S. Among many families, it is an extra time for sharing gifts or the only time. In some places, the gifts are very humble; in other places, it’s a time for a family reunion, carol singing, or attending special church services. Many of the cultural Puerto Rican songs shared during this time highlight the three kings as saints, who also deserve our respect because of their love for Jesus.
For the preacher, Epiphany is a time to call the congregation to jump into the crescendo of the history of salvation. The light of Christ will become more intense as we progress into the Epiphany season. This particular Sunday, however, the main attention should be placed on the homage, the adoration that we owe our Savior.
The special word for this week is “Find.” In both Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12, there is movement toward the new king who was born in Bethlehem. According to Isaiah’s prophecy, the land of Israel will witness how “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn”(v.3). The text makes reference to young camels of Midian and Ephah and Sheba will come with gold and frankincense to proclaim the praise of the Lord (v. 6,7). In the gospel of Matthew, the visit of the magi is also about rendering praise not to a land, but to a newborn king.
In these texts, there is an invitation to give honor, glory, and praise to God, who has acted in favor of the covenant people and who has come to us through the Messiah. In the gospel, the wise men from the East have had a brief encounter with King Herod. We know that Herod had an ulterior motive when having what seemed like an honest and sincere conversation with these visitors. He was intending to begin a search for the newborn king to get rid of him (vv.13). Once they went to Bethlehem and were welcomed by Joseph and Mary, the first thing they did was kneel and honor the newborn child.
Epiphany offers myriad theological possibilities: a spiritual journey that takes us to Jesus; divine signs on our path that point us to where God wants us to go; the importance of the stewardship of our lives: time, talent, treasure, knowing when to start a new adventure in faith, and when to come to halt.
The Matthean text says, “they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising until it stopped over the place where the child was” (v.9). Where are those places where Jesus is and that we must stop? Under the bridges where the homeless live? At a hospice where someone is facing the very last hours of life? Among the hungry, the imprisoned? In front of the White House, demanding justice for the dreamers, the children who have been separated from their parents? At every opportunity where people are longing for the light of Christ, the Christ of Epiphany is already there.
The text and the occasion can take us in the direction of following the star in terms of prevenient grace; that is, how God has been working in our lives before we even realize it — or following the star in terms of a new direction God wants us to take; Or following the star in terms of discernment. What decision, new project, new relationship or adjustment do we need to follow through on that will ultimately bring honor to the name of Christ?
For personal reflection and sermon preparation:
- The sermon on this occasion can precede or follow a skit or a brief entrance of the three magi; follow by offering simple gifts for the children of the community.
- The sermon could highlight the importance of worship and its connection to specific social issues affecting people’s lives.
- The sermon could be a teaching moment regarding the meaning of Epiphany in the life of the church, as part of the liturgical year, and its implications for evangelization, mission, and community outreach. The themes of light, journey, gifting, and discernment can be places where the sermon could begin or arrive.
- The sermon may center on the need to be aware of our surroundings; Israel was to suddenly be inundated with people from all places, and a wave of abundance and blessing (v.5). They are to be ”thrilled and rejoicing.” Do we notice how God has blessed us? Do we stop and give God praise for all that has brought joy and happiness to our existence?