Year C, Epiphany
January 6, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“For we observed His star at its rising, and we have come to pay him homage.”
It is Epiphany, the wise men’s big day. We know very little of these men except that they are from the East, that they were concerned about a star and that they carried gifts. And of course that they were very keen to pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews. Everything else about them is tradition or conjecture. Even the part of there being three wise men is the product of tradition, not scripture. There were three gifts but no indication of how many gift bearers there were.
Scholarship suggests that they were astrologers, and being astrologers from the east, it is very possible that they hailed from Babylon, a center of astrological sciences in antiquity. Even with these informed guesses, it leaves us with a very important question: why did a party of Babylonian astrologers set out to pay homage and lavish gifts on a new born king six or seven kingdoms west of them? They say that they observed his “star at its rising,” but what got them up off their cushions and onto a camel to undertake such a significant if not perilous pilgrimage? How did they know to trust what had been revealed to them? How did they know to say “Yes” to God?
I have had two sort of epiphanies in my life, moments of clarity, or sudden insight, both having to do with my vocation, what I was supposed to be doing with my life. The first happened while I was in the Marine Corps, while I was leading a platoon on a counter-narcotics mission in Ventura County, California. We were finding pot fields in the national forest so the sheriffs could burn them down. We were attached to a unit called Joint Task Force – 6, the irony of the name was lost on us at that time. I was out on patrol with a team, and I was sitting with my feet dangling in a little stream when everything became quiet, calm. I realized that this wasn’t preparation for something else. This was my life, my real life happening and I looked around me, at the rifle by my side, the radio handset crackling on my shoulder, the camouflage paint smeared on my hand and I thought, “What am I doing here?” We returned to our base the next week, I resigned my commission and three months later was a civilian again.
The second came five years later in a small church in England on Easter morning. After the Marines I entered the business world, which I found to be significantly more morally and ethically complicated than service in Marine Corps tank and infantry battalions. There I was in that church and something happened. Again, things got calm, quiet-like, and watching the vicar deliver her Eastertide message I knew that that was what I was supposed to do. It was much scarier having a to dorevealed as opposed to my previous not to do, but it was so clear. And I never looked back, which was totally weird, because I had no idea what it meant since I had not been a church-goer for fifteen years and even then I did not understand, appreciate or approve of things church. I even refused to be confirmed. But here we are, certainly a lesson of consolation to parents of the unwilling to be confirmed.
But have you ever felt like that? That all of a sudden you just knew what you are supposed to do? That you just know what God wants of you or that you know just what God wants? Have you ever had an epiphany?
I have spent a lot of time in thought and prayer on discernment, on how we facilitate the process of epiphanies, revelation, of understanding God’s will for us. That is what we are talking about here, the will of God being revealed. And to be clear, I do not liken the will of God to a conscious decision process anything like ours. I do not understand the will of God to be some divine mind deciding things: things like some are saved, some are not; that good things happen to some, but not to others for any kind of human-like reason. That just does not compute, it does not reflect the truth about how the world is, or the depth of existential mystery. Terrible things happen that have nothing to do with what God wants or wills. The will of God, as I understand it, is simply the way things are supposed to be. Simple, but very difficult to discern, sometimes.
It is a funny thing, how God’s will is revealed, how epiphanies happen. They happen to those who are seeking them, straining to discern a path, seekers. They happen to the fervent, believers who are open to revelation, that are inclined to revelation, any revelation “just give me a sign.” And they happen to the unawares, the innocent bystander who was just standing there, minding their own business and next thing you know, WHAM, God gives them a good slap on the back of the head. Epiphanies happen.
The Magi were seekers. They studied the stars, searching for meaning by the best way they knew how. And when that star was rising they knew what they were supposed to do, and they did it. They followed that star, they paid their homage, gave their gifts. The key is, they wanted to know God’s will and worked very hard to affect that knowing. That is the definition of a seeker.
Then there are the believers. When I think of epiphanies of the fervent, my mind goes to Saul, the pre-Paul Saul, that is. He was up to his neck in religion, zealously following the mission he felt called to. He was already obedient to God, or what he thought was God. So he was ripe for following directions, for following what he understood to be the will of God. For believers, an epiphany can totally change the direction of their lives and work, but they are primed for it. Struck down on the side of that road, Saul was already committed, he just changed direction and became Paul. Samuel, son of Hannah who revealed God’s will regarding Eli is of this sort. His life was already dedicated to God and he was predisposed to epiphanies.
Then there are those caught unawares, regular people whom had not particularly felt nor sought the will of God who for whatever reason got the call, the Will of God Almighty was revealed. That is the nativity story. Out of nowhere, the angel of the Lord revealed himself to Zechariah and then Elizabeth, to Mary and then Joseph, and everything changed. Everything. Sure, Zechariah was a priest but he did not expect what happened. Who would? The apostles were just mending their nets, minding their own business when out of Nazareth, almost literally out of nowhere, God comes walking along and reveals their vocation and the activity of the rest of their lives. Francis of Assisi was a medieval dilettante who, with the help of the horror of war, had revealed to him a mission that is still ongoing.
What do these epiphany stories have in common? The seeking, searching Magi, the zealous Paul, the innocent Zechariah, Mary and Francis? Their lives were aligned in relation to God in very different ways, the will of God was revealed to them in very different ways, in completely different times and places and social locations, but there is a common thread. What is it? _____ They all said yes. They all, in their own ways, some with trepidation, Samuel, some with every fiber of their soul, Mary, Paul, each of them, said yes to God.
As Christians we can work for our whole lives seeking the revelation of the will of God. We can be devoted practitioners of our religion in word and deed. We can just sit around and live our lives without much special purpose and then, wham. God gets you. And wherever you are on this spectrum, seeker, devotee or bystander, you probably have as likely a chance to get a call from God, but recognizing it as such, and more importantly saying yes to God’s call, now that is a different story. Recognizing God’s call is just the first step, saying yes is an order of magnitude, or two, harder.
Saying yes to God, saying “Be it unto me according to thy word” kind of saying yes, that is a tall order; an extremely tall order that most of us are not up to. Really, saying “yes” to God, a statement that will certainly change your life in ways you can never imagine, who can do that? Who can risk everything being open like that? Who can trust that much? I certainly was not up to it as a bystander on that drug mission, or as a seeker in that little church, but God in Christ with the Holy Spirit meets us where we are. Saying “Yes” to God is a high bar, a higher bar than most of us can clear, but then, maybe we don’t have to. You see, as Simone Weil reveals to us, we don’t need to say “yes” to God, we just need to stop saying no. Stop saying no to God. This pairs beautifully with an epiphany. This is the manifestation of God’s will for us and our world. And how do we do this, how do we say yes or at least stop saying no to God? Well, next week is the feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, a supreme example saying of Yes to God. Come back next week and we’ll learn more together. AMEN.