Sunday, January 06, 2013

Epiphany Sermon 2013

Preached by Ken Lyon on January 6, 2012 at Grace Church, Cincinnati

Old Testament Lesson Isaiah 60:1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Psalm 72:1-7,10-14

1 Give the King your justice, O God, *

and your righteousness to the King’s Son;

2 That he may rule your people righteously *

and the poor with justice;

3 That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people, *

and the little hills bring righteousness.

4 He shall defend the needy among the people; *

he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.

5 He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, *

from one generation to another.

6 He shall come down like rain upon the mown field, *

like showers that water the earth.

7 In his time shall the righteous flourish; *

there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.

10 The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, *

and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts.

11 All kings shall bow down before him, *

and all the nations do him service.

12 For he shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress, *

and the oppressed who has no helper.

13 He shall have pity on the lowly and poor; *

he shall preserve the lives of the needy.

14 He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence, *

and dear shall their blood be in his sight.

New Testament Lesson Ephesians 3:1-12

I Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—assume that you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.

Holy Gospel Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, 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. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.


Earlier this week, I sent out an email saying that I studying for my sermon on the Epiphany this week. Almost immediately, I got an email back from Wanda asking: “What’s Epiphany?” I thank Wanda for giving me a great starting point….

What’s an epiphany?

A big Aha, especially about something one has been studying deeply or puzzling over for a long time. It’s unpredictable. It’s life-changing, or at least we come to see something important about life differently. Examples: Newton & gravity. So that’s an epiphany: A long-sought-for “aha” that gives new insight. We have lots of metaphors: A light-bulb over a cartoon character’s head. Light breaking into darkness. Like seeing when previously you’d been blind.

Later, as I was talking with my wife Carol about the Gospel reading about the visit of the wise men, she asked: What was the wise men’s epiphany? What a great question! So I thank Carol for giving me a way to approach Matthew’s Gospel for today.

First of all, we need to pretend that we’ve never read Luke’s version of Jesus birth, with the trip to Bethlehem for the census, the manger, the shepherds, and the angels. Matthew has none of that. Matthew’s story is about the magi visiting Jesus in Mary & Joseph’s home in Bethlehem some time (up to two years) after his birth.

For a thousand years, Israel had dreamed of a time when they would regain their former greatness—the greatness on the international scene that they’d experienced briefly under King Solomon, when Jerusalem was the capital for kings of other nations to visit.

Both our reading from Isaiah and our psalm show this longing for a return to former greatness….

In Isaiah,. “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn ... the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

In the psalm, it is said of some future king of Israel: “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts. All kings shall bow down before him, and all the nations do him service. “

Clearly, Matthew has these passages in mind as he reflects on the meaning of Jesus entry into his world.

In Matthew, there are these astrologers in an country east of Israel, perhaps Persia. In their studies of the night sky, they see something that they understand to mean that a new King of the Jews has been born. It is normal practice for foreign nations to recognize the leaders of other nations, and of the birth of new kings. Think about the hullabaloo surrounding Kate’s pregnancy! ,So our astrologers, also called magi, or wise men or kings, decide to honor this newly-born King of the Jews by bringing gifts.

Seeking the new King of the Jews, they go to the palace of the current King of the Jews, King Herod, in Jerusalem. “Congratulations on the birth of an heir to the throne,” they say. But there’s no such person there. And this throws Herod--not a popular King and with plenty of reason to be paranoid about potential usurpers--into a tizzy. His first thought is that he needs to find and kill anyone who is a threat to his position. Bethlehem is the most likely place where such a usurper King might be born. After all, Bethlehem is where the great King David was born a thousand years before. He remembers that David was the man who overthrew the King Saul and took over as king in Jerusalem. He calms himself, and sends the magi to Bethlehem, asking him to let him know who this new king is, so, he says, he can come and worship him himself.

The magi proceed to Bethlehem, and are rewarded in the search for the king. They visit Joseph, Mary and Jesus in their home, and present them with the traditional gifts for a king, as mentioned in the earlier readings this morning. And then, realizing Herod’s treacherous motives, they sneak out of the country and return home. And Herod, realizing that he’s not going to hear back from them, orders the killing of all the male babies in greater Bethlehem under the age of two. But Mary & Joseph, realizing that Herod might come looking for Jesus to kill him, escape to Egypt just in time. After Herod dies, they still don’t dare go back home to Bethlehem, so they decide to settle in a backwater area of Israel called Galilee, in a city called Nazareth.

Now, back to Carol’s question: What was the magi’s epiphany? The magi were searching for the King of the Jews. They looked for him in the expected place, and he wasn’t there. They could have gone back home at that point, but they kept looking, and finally they discovered their sought-after king in a most unexpected place. Note that even when they discover that their first idea of who they would find is wrong, they keep on looking even when their search takes them away from the capital city to a small town away from the capital city. They are open to new thinking as they search…and they are rewarded with new insight into the nature of the future King of the Jews.

But the aha’s don’t end there. As mentioned earlier, the Jews had been longing for a thousand years for a new King that would take them back to the glory days of king David and Solomon—the days when Jerusalem was a capital city of a great nation that nations stood in awe of and came to with hat in hand.

As we know now, that vision of Israel’s future greatness with a new King David at its head was never to be.

But, Jesus’ followers, searching for the meaning of his life and death, had their own epiphany. In Paul’s letter this morning, we read what happened:  … it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that … the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Their aha was that they were thinking of Jesus kingship in the wrong way. They needed to rethink the nature of Jesus’ kingship. Jesus wasn‘t just the King of the Jews, he was the king of everyone. Once they expanded their vision of Judaism to include everyone, they changed the entrance requirements so that anyone could join up, which irrevocably separated them from their Jewish friends who didn’t share their aha. And the rest is history. Because of these followers of Jesus’ epiphany, Judaism’s monotheistic Yahweh God is now the basis not only for modern Judaism, but also the basis of two of the world’s major religions—Christianity and Islam. The redefinition of kingship by Jesus and his followers gave Jesus more impact on humanity than any earthly King in Jerusalem could ever have had.

Now, another question, closer to home: What does all this talk of epiphany mean for us personally. What does this teach us about the search for insight? For aha’s? For epiphanies?

One thing we learn is that it requires a combination of diligent searching plus the ability to consider thinking about things differently. For me, my search led me to take an Education for Ministry Class, and my searching there was rewarded with more aha’s in four years than I had experienced in my previous 50 years of living.

And so it is that epiphanies usually result in turning our thinking upside down. That’s what we mean by seeing things anew. The world doesn’t change, but our view of it does.

Finally, another question: How does this apply here at Grace Church?

When Carol & I came to Grace Church in the early 70’s, membership was declining, and people were fearful of the imminent demise of the church. We heard regularly about how we used to have to put up folding chairs in the aisles during some services. The underlying hope was that somehow those glory days would return, if we could just find the right leader.

As we all know, that was not to be, and I think it’s never to be. Grace Church will never be what it was in the 1950’s.

But our membership decline has provided plenty of motivation for searching and searching and searching for what God has in mind for us now. And, for those who have been able to be flexible enough to consider seeing things differently, some real epiphanies have occurred.

One that started in earnest in the 1970’s and continues today is reflected in what some of us still call the new prayer book. As we have become more aware that God’s love for his creation really is unconditional, we’ve developed a new, much more inclusive view of who is included in our worshiping community. The “new” PB is much less about groveling before a judgmental God and much more about being welcomed into God’s open arms. Grace’s value statements, written perhaps 10 or 15 years ago, are the result of what must have been a real epiphany on the part of Grace’s membership. As a result, we have come to see our value more in our inclusivity than in our numbers.

But what about today? I think we are still searching for a clearer view of what God is calling Grace church to be. And I believe that our search will be rewarded with more epiphanies—more insights.

Consider the fact that over a third of Grace’s total yearly attendance at worship services is at healing services--either on the second Wednesday night of the month or on the once-a-month Sunday morning healing service. What’s happening here? Is there a way of thinking about what Grace is about that takes into consideration this surprising information?

What if we think about Grace Church as a center of healing, thinking of healing most broadly?

Our values proclaim the healing of divisions between formerly divided groups of people. Every Eucharist as we participate in a common liturgy and drink of the common cup, we enact the healing of division between God and his people and between the members of those gathered here.

When we welcome the Rainbow band and the Narcotics Anonymous people into our facility we are welcoming into our community people who are rejected by many in our society.

When we host the community dinners, we are healing the divide between rich and poor.

Finally, in the Yoga classes and the Tai Chi classes, and we are hosting classes that are explicitly about healing body, mind and soul.

What if we came to see Grace Church as a center for healing? It would certainly enlarge our thinking about the nature of the Grace Church community. For those of us whose primary experience of Grace Church is at 10am on Sunday mornings, we come to think about all those people who are with us, but not on Sunday morning at 10, as being part of “us” not “them.” And as we did that, we’d come to understand that in this new kind of community, based on healing, our numbers were much greater than we had thought when we simply counted those we saw on Sunday mornings.

Yes, epiphanies are powerful things with wonderful implications. Let’s continue our search together.

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