09 Jan Epiphany
A Sudden Realization
Epiphany is one of those church words that we hear a lot but maybe we have forgotten what it means or maybe we never knew what it meant in the first place… The word “epiphany” takes its place in the haze of those words they must send future pastors away to seminary to learn! So, in the interest of bringing us all to the same page let me tell you what Epiphany is, ok? An epiphany is the sudden realization or comprehension of the larger essence or meaning of something… According to the internet.
In our church life, Epiphany is marked by a double realization, the sinking in of the larger meaning of the birth of Jesus Christ. The first realization happens with the wise men or magi. Now the magi were not just some kind of characters that we see portrayed on postage stamps riding camels, or the nice way to get to use three extra kids in the Sunday School program, no these were basically numerologists, astrologers, magicians, folks who dabbled in all sorts of things looking for signs, interpreting dreams, you name it. For an Israelite, the magi would have been seen as heretics, not a part of the covenant they shared with God… These were outsiders.
But they had observed Jesus’ star at its rising and its meaning was clear to them, something big was happening and they needed to see what it was. So they arrived in Jerusalem looking for this child who was born, “King of the Jews”. They asked Herod, who thought he was the king of the Jews, if he knew where to find this infant. And that’s where the second realization came into play, Herod became frightened when he heard this pronouncement. If Israel’s long-awaited king had appeared then big things were going to happen and none of those things added up to Herod remaining in power of with things being cool between Jerusalem and Rome. Oh-oh.
Comfort vs Change
Now believe it or not I am the kind of guy who likes things the way they are. If things are running smoothly if everyone has fallen into a rhythm, why mess it up? That’s how power and government prefer things to run as well. Change must come only in small iterations or else one risks upsetting the apple cart. Herod had a pretty good thing going running Judea for the Roman government. As long as his financial tributes to the Roman Empire kept showing up then he was pretty free to run things the way he wanted to. But if this long-awaited and foretold king had shown up that would mean that there would now be someone competing with Herod for the hearts and minds of the populace and that never ends with peace and things being copacetic does it?
So how would you describe your lives today? Comfortable? Pretty set in your routine? How might this announcement of the birth of Jesus Christ upset your routines, your friendships, the way you are used to things running in your lives? Try this one on for size: Matthew is being very purposeful in retelling the story of the wise men from the East (Matthew 2:1-12). These were heretics. These were unclean, these were the outsiders and here they came to pay respect to the newborn king, in fact, according to Matthew, they were the very first people to do so!
I guess the closest I can come to a comparison for us today in this church would be this: how would we as a congregation welcome in an outsider, someone who doesn’t look or act like us, who doesn’t know our traditions, our rules both written and unwritten, but who showed up looking to worship Jesus? We would probably be nice, maybe even shake their hand, but would we truly show them hospitality?
I have watched many a congregation burn itself out trying to survive by throwing program after program at the problem of a decline in their attendance and membership. However the number one indicator of if someone who shows up at the door of a church stays there is not if that church has struck upon the one program that person was looking for. It is not even that there are activities taking place in a building morning, noon and night. The number one indicator of someone not just showing up at a church, which is the Holy Spirit’s job anyways, is if they make personal connections and build relationships with the members of the church right from the start.
So when a church like Good Shepherd gets to a certain age we could easily fall into a rhythm of the people we hang out with, the activities we are a part of, the folks we sit next too in our pew. But my Epiphany, my deep realization this morning, is that the birth of Jesus Christ is meant to knock us out of our comfort zone. God called the Magi, the ultimate outsiders, to worship Jesus Christ. And if God can do that, who else might he be calling who will show up at our door, maybe even today? And will we be ready to change our own routines, maybe even our usual church friendships to welcome these visitors into our midst?
May the God who comes to us, as one of us, continue to disturb us, may Jesus Christ continue to bump us out of our daily grind, and in those Holy Interruptions may we start to see new faces looking for connections even as they too are called to worship Emmanuel, God with Us. Hallelujah, hallelujah!