Homily for the Festival of the Epiphany – Sunday, January 8, 2023
Preached at Holy Wisdom Monastery Sunday Assembly, Middleton, WI
Text is Matthew 2:1-12 with reference to Ephesians 3:1-12
If you happened to be here back in December when I last preached, you may recall that my homily began with a confession, admitting that said homily had been preached three years earlier on that very same Advent Sunday. Well, guess what? When I went to my sermon files, I discovered that I had preached here last year on this very same Epiphany Sunday. And of course, in the Revised Common Lectionary the readings for Epiphany are the very same each year. But do not to worry. This sermon is not a rerun. I figured if I once again ran a prior offering by you today, our dear Lynn would never schedule me again! So here’s a new, new homily on some very old, old lessons. And if it somehow ends up being somewhat satisfying to your ears and minds and hearts, well then, I will, as the song says, “rejoice with exceeding great joy.”
We just heard Matthew’s very familiar recording of the events behind this day: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’”
The whole thing is a bit mysterious. We have no idea really where these magi were from. “The East” is after all a rather unspecific location. And we don’t really even know how many of these magi there were or whether per our crèches they arrived on camels. Three gets the nod in our carols because the gifts they brought and presented to the child were that number.
No doubt these magi had traveled a fur piece as we say, only then to discover that splendid Jerusalem with all its pomp and circumstance was not to be their final destination. There was no big celebration happening in the palace. No trumpet fanfares were sounding. No dancing was taking place in the streets. No confetti was raining down from the rooftops. What these visitors from the East found was a frightened king and apparently an equally frightened citizenry.
Because instead of the sophisticated capital city, the magi were told to head to little Bethlehem. That’s sort of like expecting big things in Madison, only to be told we need to go to Boscobel!
If the shepherds had shown up in the stable on the very night of the birth per Luke’s account, what Matthew tells us takes place significantly after that when the magi finally reached Bethlehem. By that time Joseph had apparently been successful in finding a house to rent for his young wife and baby son. Who knows, maybe Joseph never even intended to return to Nazareth. Some Bible scholars speculate that the holy family had no Nazareth connections, at least not until they returned from their exile in Egypt.
In any case, the Bethlehem the wise men came to was a little village with business going on as usual, nothing more than the usual daily grind was happening there. Having myself grown up in a small town, I do suspect the locals were all abuzz about these strangers in town.
I also suspect that the wise men were perplexed as well when they finally located their journey’s goal in one of little Bethlehem’s many ramshackle houses. This place was hardly the worthy object of a religious pilgrimage!
And in spite of the fact that this babe’s arrival had commanded a guiding star for these seers from the orient, the child and his parents were pretty unremarkable – a tired young mom, a boy in diapers, playing with blocks. If the magi had expected otherwise, these parents were not bedecked in purple robes with brocade and gemstones around their necks. They were humble, small town, poor folk, who looked every bit the part.
No wonder Bethlehem had taken so little notice. There was no triumphant birth galvanizing the whole town. It was nothing more than an impoverished peasant couple just grateful that their first born was alive and well, given that his birthing room was in a barn surrounded by shivering farm animals and dusty straw.
Perhaps these wayfarers from the East even thought that Herod and his circle of advisors had steered them wrong. But going against any conventional wisdom, and casting away all misgivings of common sense, these magi went into the house and placed their gifts before the family and proceeded to pay the child homage, perhaps with a bent knee. A strange sight I think: to see grown adults, prostrate before a toddler.
But in this moment these outsiders cracked open the door which God’s chosen of Israel, the most insiders of insiders, had kept so tightly sealed up. The outside was now inside; giving credence to these lines from a poem by Jean Watt called “The Visit”:
We (the poet means the Wise Ones)
Had not thought
That it would be like this,
Suddenly we, the rich, the wise, looked odd,
Confounded by the foolishness of God.
In that moment in that humble house in Bethlehem, outsiders came inside, close to the beating heart of God’s plans for the world.
And thus this visit makes this story a parable for our time too. As we fret and stew on the inside of our churches over their increasing decline in membership and even relevance, outsiders keep reminding us that light and life are still coming into the world. Epiphany is the celebration of the movement of faith out into the world, and not back into the confines of church. Now the mystery hidden for ages can be seen in babies, in the poor and the vulnerable and the marginalized, in ocean waves and trees full of color, and in bread.
Yes, this is a parable. And it is so because it is no less paradoxical now than when magi knelt before a toddler because this mystery long hidden for the ages has been made plain in the incongruity of God’s appearing.
Out of Judah comes one who rules in the hearts of all people. Out of Herod’s murdering madness comes one who challenges the tyranny and oppression that victimizes and tramps down the poor and the marginalized, the migrant and the refugee. Out of the seeming obscurity of an unassuming house in backwater Bethlehem comes one whose mission it is to torment the earth – and our souls – until the world and everything and everyone in it is exalted.
Most of our carols which we sing at this time are lovely and beautiful and sweet, but one penned on our shores asks the unvarnished question: “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, how Jesus the Savior did come for to die.” For all the beauty and all the wonder of Jesus’ birth, we nevertheless know that this song speaks truth, because we know that by the light of his natal star, the cross casts its long shadow over the years from a little town called Bethlehem to a little hill outside a city wall called Calvary.
Not to put a damper on our holiday celebrations, but I remember someone once saying, “Put Herod back in Christmas.” And as frightening a prospect as that is, Herod does belong there because it is precisely to a world of Herods that Christ comes… once in the deaths of innocents in the city of David and on this very day in the streets of Ukraine. The dark, ominous events in the town the magi visited are still being played out war-torn Ukraine, and in drought ravaged, starving Africa, and in the plight of migrants and refugees at border crossings all over the globe. It is to this world and none other that the Christ comes. And though another carol we sing rightly says that love came down at Christmas, the fact of the matter is, Love came into a world of fright, then and now.
For the most part, Bethlehem missed this coming. My hope is that we will not; that we will not miss the greatest truth of all – that God comes within the shadows to take up dwelling with us.
Blessedly, Epiphany is far enough removed from the glitter and tinsel with which we have disguised Christmas to permit us to discern the bedrock of our faith in this coming, this divine arrival. It was acknowledged by wise ones in their visit to Bethlehem. And as Paul later wrote, this coming is “to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things….”
Love came down at Christmas into a world of fright. But as Borg and Crossan remind us in their seminal work THE FIRST CHRISTMAS: “Is Jesus’ light shining in the darkness? Yes. Do the Herods of this world seek to extinguish the light? Yes. Does Jesus still shine in the darkness? Yes.”
Like these wise ones whose visit we remember this day, may we too see in the darkness and the fright a light pointing us toward the new ways where God is at work in the world just as it is until it becomes the world just as it should be.
So I leave you today with the compelling benediction of Howard Thurman on this season:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.