A sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, observed on January 5, 2020. The scripture readings are Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7,10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, and Matthew 2:1-12.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
Today we basically complete this year’s celebration of Christmas on this 12th Day of Christmas. This is the day for twelve drummers drumming, (as well as eleven pipers piping, and all the rest, if you follow the old carol.) Most of us know that Christmas is more than a day, that it’s a full 12 days and officially ends with tomorrow’s celebration of The Epiphany. Epiphany is about “the showing forth” of Christ, the Day of the Three Kings, or Tres Reyes Magos.
Enjoying Christmas as a season (more than a day) can be a great gift, a gift that reminds us that no matter what, God is among us. No matter how we may observe the days of Christmas ourselves—whether quiet or loud, whether alone or with lots of people—Christmas is a liturgical and spiritual reality, observed and celebrated in churches throughout the world, running like a great undercurrent of living water beneath busy lives.
Christmastide (these Twelve Days of Christmas) is a rollercoaster of spirituality if we let ourselves hang on for the ride. On Christmas Eve, God is here, close and breathing, offering the possibility of peace on earth, and goodwill among all. But no sooner than we are reminded of God’s Incarnation, we are confronted with the results of having faith in such a God. The last few days of December show us the cost of faith, as they are martyr’s days: St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, remembers a deacon in the early church who became the first Christian martyr. The 27th is St. John’s Day, and even though John the apostle and evangelist is thought to have lived to a very old age, he suffered for his faith, and was beaten and imprisoned. On the 28th, the Feast of the Holy Innocents reminds us of the lengths to which King Herod was willing to go in order to protect his own grasp of power, as he sought to have all the male babies killed, to wipe out any future competition. The 29th is well-known to Anglophiles and those who know T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral”—it’s the day to remember Thomas Beckett, the medieval archbishop of Canterbury who was killed by the king’s thugs.
Faith in the Christ-child is put to the test very early.
Some of you were here on Wednesday, New Year’s Day, as we observed the Feast of the Holy Name. We recalled how that special name, that holy name, the name of Jesus, means “savior,” and that day reminds us that in the name of Jesus—in the name of all that flows out of it, all that it invokes and gathers– there is saving power, there is the way for our salvation.
All of this brings us to this day, the eve of the Epiphany, the manifestation, or the showing forth, of Jesus as God with us, the revelation of Jesus as King of our hearts—but not only ours, but also the hearts of all the world that would follow him. We celebrate God’s love for all people, all languages, all colors and shades, all backgrounds and diversities, everyone and anyone is included.
And we pray that we might be like the Wise Men who were led by a star. We pray that we might have the strength and the faith and the tenacity of those three, to follow wherever God leads us, whether it’s through a star, an angel, the word of a loved one, or a God-informed feeling of the gut.
In our Gospel we read that King Herod has heard from his astrologers that a special child has been born. He has probably also heard from his political advisers that the people are getting restless and wanting change. And so he is suspicious. But the Wise Men follow the star, even at great risk to themselves. They move forward, following where they feel God is pointing.
In the part of Matthew’s Gospel that immediately follows what we’ve read today, an angel appears to Mary and Joseph and warns them about King Herod, and so instead of going home to Nazareth, they go to Egypt. They become resident aliens, refugees, until it’s safe to return home.
Following so quickly after the joy of Christmas, at Epiphany we are met with all the complications of faith—of having to make decisions, of having to leave the familiar, of being urged by God to leave comfort and calm, and to move ahead—sometimes with people we don’t even know very well, sometimes with little to go on in the way of provisions or supplies.
The Star doesn’t hang in the sky the same way for us as it did for the Wise Men. And the angels may not have given us our travel plans the way they did Mary and Joseph. But we, too, are filled with God and empowered to move forward. And we can follow like they did.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the three wise men bring Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. While some commentators have suggested that these are simply gifts that wealthy folks might bring, others have suggested that each of these gifts has a prophetic overlay. The gold looks forward to the kingship of Christ, to Jesus as king of the Jews, as king of our hearts. Frankincense, like incense, is the stuff that priests use to make things holy and call down visual and physical prayers upon things, and so the frankincense looks forward to the priesthood of Christ. And myrrh–myrrh which was used as an anointment at death–foreshadows the suffering and death of Christ.
Through the days of Christmas, we have given and received gifts. We have received in Christ the gift of life, of eternal life. And so today might be a good day to take a cue from the wise men and imagine what we might bring Christ? What will we give more to God in this new year?
There’s a wonderful Epiphany hymn (“Bring we the Frankincense of our Love,” H. Kenn Carmichael, 1976) that encourages us with the words
Bring we the frankincense of our love
To the feet of the holy Child,
Ever remembering God’s great gift
Of a love that is undefiled.
Bring we the myrrh of humility
To the throne of the Son of God,
Ever recalling the purity
Of His life when the earth He trod.
Bring we the gold of our faithfulness
To the King who is Lord of all.
What do you bring, this new season?
Listening closely to God, holding on tightly to one another, and moving ahead with strength and confidence, we step into a new year. May the joy of Christmas strengthen us through the reality of the season after the Epiphany, so that Christ’s joy might resound throughout the New Year.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.