January 6, 2019, Epiphany YR C

Year C, Epiphany

January 6, 2019

The Reverend Dr. Brent Was

“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lordhas risen upon you.”

A blessed Epiphany to you all! And a happy New Year!  It has been a hard holiday season for some and others have experienced great joy.  I really appreciated Mo. Anne filling in last week as family was visiting from back East.

It is the Feast of the Epiphany. This is one of the principal feasts of the church, celebrating, as our Collect of the Day tells us, that “…by the leading of a star you manifested your only son to the peoples of the earth…” Scripturally, this story comes to us from the nativity story in St. Matthew’s gospel.  Just to check our scriptural literacy, remember, there is no nativity story in Mark or John… the story in those gospels begin at the Baptism of our Lord.  Also, there are no shepherds in Matthew and no wise men in Luke.  It is ok that our metanarrative conflates all of the stories, but it is important to also know that there are differences in the stories, differences that don’t diminish the truth being told, but speak of the depth of the Mystery being related. And the truth being related in the Epiphany tradition is the revelation of God to all the people of the earth, and it is told through the story of the wise men.

Now if you just looked at the worship resources I routinely consult, you’d think there was a crisis of masculinity going on in our country.  One pastor spoke of a cartoon of two churchy women talking, “The whole virgin birth thing I can understand, but where did they find three wise men?” Another referenced a joke that I saw embroidered on a tea towel hanging from our oven.  I have no idea where it came from, probably got mixed in with laundry from here.  It reads: “Three wise women would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stables, made a casserole, brought practical gifts… and there would be peace on Earth.”  Be that as it may, the crisis of masculinity in our society and the probable fruits of three wise women, there is wisdom for us on our journeys found in the Epiphany story of the Wise Men.

We’re all on journeys.  From the cradle to the grave, we are moving, always moving.  I found a lovely Epiphany prayer in a new prayer resource by Jenifer Gamber and Sharon Ely Pearson, it reads,

Brightest and best of the stars of the morning,

Help us remember that Jesus is the light in the darkness.

Brightest and best of the stars of the morning,

Keep our eyes focused on each new day.

Brightest and best of the stars of the morning,

Lead us out into the world.

We are on journeys.  And we, as the pack creatures we are, willfollow something, we will follow someone, and really, we need to be led out into the world.  Now on one hand, that is a good thing: we are lead-able; we are manageable (well, most of us anyway).  And that is a good thing, because most of us need help, we can’t get to where we need to be on our own volition, by our own will.  We are not horses, we sometimes need to be led to water.  We need the dreams of our elders; we need the visions of the young.  We need to be led sometimes, and sometimes we are able to do that, to be led, even to lead others in the proper direction.

As is the case in many aspects of our humanity though, there is a shadow side to our blessings.  Being blessedly able to follow the wisdom of those wiser than ourselves, we are also quite willing to follow whatever yahoo who happens comes around selling a message that we want to hear, or selling it in a way we can hear.  Snake oil sells.  (Well). And we will go to the ends of the earth, often against our own self-interest, certainly against the interest of the least of these, following any number of sketchy stars.  We call this Idolatry.  It gets the pole position in the Ten Commandments because it is our number one sin, treating as God that which is not God.  The great Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner defines God as our ultimate concern; meaning that whatever ultimately concerns us will be our God.  O! we want to follow!  And O! we surely do.  Seeing that we also need to follow, this combination can lead us into pickles of the most tragic variety.  The West’s current slide towards nationalism is a clear example of the dark side of our following nature.

The story of the Wise Men is a story of following, holy following, and it has a lot to teach us.  We go on and on about forming leaders, but what about forming followers? Faithful, responsible followership… isn’t that what being a disciple of Christ is all about?  Following His light into the world to do His will, God’s will?  The Wise Men were the first to follow that light and they can teach us something.

First off, the Wise Men were “sincere and persistent.”  Leaving the “East” they followed the star they had observed at its rising.  They knew of the prophecy, they observed a sign, and they were off.  And they were either bold, foolish or naïve, for they asked widely about the birth of a prophesied king, so widely that even the King, King Herod heard of their quest. And from Herod’s priests, certainly not a group with whom the pilgrims had common cause, they learned the specifics of the prophesy, that it was Bethlehem that was to be the site of the Epiphany of God.  With open hearts and open minds, they followed the star where itled, not where they wanted it to take them.  And they persisted, asking over and over again, the mighty are in the story, but they must have asked the lowly too, and everyone in between.  And at the end, they listened to their own dreams and did not return to Herod but went home by another road.  They kept their eyes wide open and on the prize that was before them, and were not distracted by the other forces at play.

This is about will.  Your own will.  We have the capacity to be sincere and persistent.  “But your will, not mine be done” is how Jesus puts it.  Yes.  Absolutely. We need to follow God’s will first and foremost and it takes a lot, a whole lot of personal will to follow God, it takes a whole lot of moral power to surrender and submit to the will of God. It takes sincerity of effort.  Sometimes is it super human, Jesus willingly walking to the Cross, Bonhoeffer to the Gestapo gallows, but much more often is it the slow persistent cadence of one foot after another, maybe the fall of one camel’s foot after another across the barren deserts East of Judea.  The wise men teach us that a godly journey is marked with sincerity and persistence.

A second lesson is that the Wise Men were unmistakably guided by God.  The star. The Prophecy of Micah.  The warning in a dream… These strangers from a strange land did not randomly bump into Jesus.  No.  Even the King of that very land resorted to genocide in the slaughter of the innocents because there was no chance that he would find a specific baby born to a peasant woman.  In those days it didn’t work that way; but it did for the Wise Men.

This lesson is about God, and God’s will and our ability and willingness to follow God’s will no matter where it takes us. Sincerity and persistence enables us to follow God; knowing that God’s will is discernable, is offered, ever offered to us, to you is the lesson here.  There are signs, though most are more subtle than a star.  My favorite discernment story is from a little skit at the vocation conference in the Diocese of Massachusetts.  It was about hearing God’s call.  The scene is coffee hour, and someone comes up to this young person and asks, “Have you ever considered becoming a priest?”  “Nah,” they answer, “I haven’t heard the call.”  The action stops and someone holds up a sign: “This is God calling you!”  And God is calling you all the time in all sorts of ways.

A notice in the bulletin, a story on NPR, something your friend mentions over coffee, a clear cut in the forest… God is calling you constantly, calling to follow where God will have you go.  We know right and wrong; it is a gift humans have if we pay attention.  In your heart God’s will is just waiting for the signs.  The lesson from the Wise Men is that following God’s will, no matter how ridiculous it might seem, will take you exactly where you are supposed to be.

A third lesson is how the Wise Men acted when they arrived at the end of their journey (well, of that leg of their journey). For that, let’s go right to the text: “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”  Their reaction to the completion of their journey was overwhelming joy, the worship of Jesus Christ, and the offering of gifts, practical or not, they were still gifts.  Those are pretty profound reactions to the world.

When was the last time you were overwhelmed with joy?  When was the last time you really paid homage, I mean really worshiped?  And yes, it is just past Christmas so we’re even weary of giving let alone receiving, but think of a time that you gave deeply, something really valuable to you to another, with gratitude that you were able to offer the gift?  How about all of those together: being so overwhelmed with joy that you drop to your knees in worship and give precious gifts from the heart?  When we approach our journey, our life with sincerity and persistence and allow ourselves to be guided by God… that is precisely the kind of reaction you can have, a reaction fitting to an encounter with the holy: joy, worship and generosity.

Those are lessons of the Wise Men, lessons from the search for the Manifestation of God in Christ by the Holy Spirit.  The legendary, mythical status of this story obscures one final lesson; that is that a little light goes a long way.  For those Wise Men, it was one little light shining in the sky. That is what led them to God.  It was not heavenly hosts and choirs of angels, it was not the flames of burning bushes or the drama of storm clouds leading Israel or even a miserable persecutor being knocked off his mule and blinded… it was one little light.  That one little light led to a prophecy that led to a journey that led them to a king that directed them to The King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  One little star revealed the will of God and steeled their own will.  A little light goes a long way.

When I was a brand-new Lieutenant of Marines, back in the days before GPS, Land Navigation was paramount.  If you didn’t know where you were, no one was going to follow you, so land nav training was constant, grueling and incredibly high pressure.  The night land nav test was particularly high stakes.   We had one lieutenant who knew celestial navigation, and he could fly through the course; record times.  (On the night of our test, it was cloudy, you have never seen so many smug sweaty people). I remember that night vividly. Probably because my entire being was focused on this little centimeter by centimeter square of glowing green tritium inside my compass.  It was pitch, inky black in the swampy Northern Virginia woods of Quantico. Black as black can be.  And all these lieutenants were bumbling around the woods, focused on our compasses, watching those little lights.  They were little, but then again it was the only thing you could see so they loomed large.  But those of us who did well in land nav were the ones that knew that it didn’t take much light, just enough to see the little arrow, and the faith to follow it where it pointed.  A little light goes a long way.  If only it was a more edifying destination than the chow hall it would be a great parable.

The Epiphany marks the conclusion of the Wise Men’s journey, and the beginning of the revelation of Jesus Christ to the world. That is what we are doing here, as practicing Christians, members of the Body of Christ, we are on that exact same journey:  Seeking a sign, seeking our God, seeking that God’s will, not ours be done.


Brightest and best of the stars of the morning,

Help us remember that Jesus is the light in the darkness.

Brightest and best of the stars of the morning,

Keep our eyes focused on each new day.

Brightest and best of the stars of the morning,

Lead us out into the world. AMEN