This is a rough draft of my sermon, enjoy.
Ready for an Epiphany?
There is a lot of talk about insider language and church. We use a ton of insider language that a person who never went to church would not understand what we are talking about. When I read the scripture I always end with, “This is the word of God, for the people of God…” and you all answer, “Thanks be to God.” But if you were new to church how would you know to do that? It is not only the unconscious things we say it is the use of church lingo too. Take today for example, Epiphany. What does that mean? Actually you may be shocked, or not so shocked to realize that many church goers don’t understand what it means. For the sake of bring us all onto the same page, let me define for you why we celebrate Epiphany and what it means for us.
Epiphany means manifestation of a deity or the revealing of the divine. If you capitalize it, like we do, it means the revealing of Christ to the Gentiles. Epiphany is a big deal and a holy day in the Christian year because it marks the first time Jesus Christ, the son of God, is revealed to people who are not Jewish. If you look at all the players in the Nativity, they all are Jewish. Mary, Jewish. Joseph, a Jew. Bethlehem, a Jewish city, so that must mean the shepherds were probably Jewish as well. When the Wise Men, or Magi show up, they represent us. A gentile, to stay away from insider language, is any person who is not Jewish. Do we have any Jews in the house today? Then we are all Gentiles. The Wise Men represent us and the first time we realize that this babe which was born in a manger is God.
First, let’s clear some things up, like we do every Epiphany. These people that come see Jesus are Wise Men or Magi, they are not kings. Scripture doesn’t say they are kings, the hymn we will sing next does and that is why we associate the Magi as Three Kings. We also don’t know the number of Magi that came. Why do you think we always think of three? Because we are told that they bring three gifts. They brought gold which represents Christ’s majesty, frankincense which signifies worship of Jesus’ divinity, and myrrh which is used for burials, which signify the reason this child comes to be. Because there are three gifts we think there are three Wise Men. Yet all we know for sure is that there was more than one. They also did not show up on the night in which Jesus was born and many scholars think it was a couple years later.
We hold a lot of misconceptions about the Wise Men but they do teach us a lot of about how we should follow Christ. They have an amazing story which is a huge part of the Christmas story. Their story marks the end of the Christmas season. They are the final book end. So what do we know about these guys and what can we learn?
As I was doing my research this week I realized that the Magi have a lot in common with one of my favorite movie characters, Indiana Jones. Now I don’t want to ruin your picture of the nativity and switch out royal looking head pieces on the Magi for a fedora but there are some striking similarities between the two. Indiana Jones was first a scholar. He was a professor at Marshall College and taught archeology, which is the study of ancient cultures. He understood ancient civilizations and history. He was well versed in the Old Testament or else he would have never understood not to look when the Ark of the Covenant was opened and melted away the Nazis.
In the same manner, the Wise Men were wise men. They were scholars. Whether they were astrologers or magicians of another culture, they were good at what they did. They were book smart, well versed in their culture but also other cultures. They had to have known about the promises in the Israelite’s ancient prophets to understand that the star they followed was to lead them to something important. They come to Herod and they ask, “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews.” These foreigners had to understand this culture to be able to ask that type of question. If they were not scholars of the Old Testament they would have never read the signs that brought them to the Babe.
The Wise Men were also not only consumed by their own culture, they looked out and tried to figure out what they could learn from other cultures. The scriptures only tell us that they came from the East and we don’t know how far that means. It could be they came from Persia, which is where we find modern day Iraq and Iran. Or it could mean they were even farther East, from India or even China. Where ever they came from they knew about the Jewish cultures. When Alycia and I lived in England we realized how closed off we were to the world. In Europe, there are so many different cultures all jammed together in one geographical location. Their nations are like our states. People over there have a better understanding of different cultures because they live so close to so many. Here though, in Thomasville, NC, we are over 600 miles from Canada and 2000 from Mexico. We are sheltered from different cultures and truly we complain when they invade our space. Yet we can learn a lot from other people and the Magi went out from their comfort zone, their home land and ventured off to find a King and what they found was God.
That is something else we can learn from them. These Wise Men were not only book smart but they were adventurous. Indiana Jones taught classes but then he jumped at the chance to go on an adventure. The Magi looked up into the heavens, read the signs, saw the star and decided they wanted to put their knowledge to the test. They headed out to find the King of the Jews to pay him homage. They could have sat there in their studies, looking and wondering but they didn’t. They went out and experienced the Christ Child for themselves.
They didn’t find Jesus alone though. They had help. They did not have a fancy GPS system only a star to lead them. When they got close they needed a little extra help and so they did what every wife begs their husband to do every once in a while, they stopped for directions. They stopped by King Herod and asked where they might find the King of the Jews that was born. They needed help and they weren’t afraid to ask for it. Little did they know they asked the wrong person, but that wrong person did help them find the child. To continue with the Indiana Jones reference, Indy always had a local sidekick as well who helped him in his journey.
When the Magi finally come face to face with Jesus we learn something else about how to be good disciples. They follow the directions of Herod’s people and as they continued to follow the star. When they reached their final destination, the scriptures say, “They were overwhelmed with joy.” Their journey was over, or least the part where they search for what they were looking for. They found it and they were amazed at what they found. Their joy translated into homage or worship and generosity. They showered Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They were extravagant in their generosity but when you come face to face with God, it just sort of happens. After their experience they didn’t stop being faithful. They listened to the dream they had and did not return to Herod. They were faithful by still listening to the God that they came to worship and went home another way.
To be good disciples of Jesus Christ, the King of the Jews, the babe in the manger, we need to be like the Magi. We need to be Wise People by following the dedication and perseverance they demonstrate in this Epiphany story. We need to be well versed in our scripture. We need to understand what God tells us through his Word. We need to understand the world that God created. Jesus was from the Middle East, he wasn’t a blonde haired blue eyed American. This means that we need to learn about the Jewish culture of that day, to understand how others around the world view and worship this same Jesus, and to understand that all people are God’s children. When we do that we open ourselves to come face to face with Christ, just like the Magi.
Like the Wise Men we also need to be willing to step out into adventure in order to find God too. We cannot sit here in the warmth of this sanctuary and wait for God to come to us. God is at work right now and if we want to see God revealed in this world, if we want our own Epiphany, then we need to be willing to get out of here and find him. When we find him, when we come face to face with God, we need to worship and let generosity flow naturally. Epiphany is usually a good time to have testimonies shared within a congregation because it demonstrates how people have seen God in their lives. When we have an Epiphany we need to share that experience in order to help people open their eyes to the God we serve.
Once we come face to face with God our work is not done though. We still have to be faithful and follow God. We cannot stay in the nativity forever, we have to go home and live life. But that doesn’t mean we cannot let that life be changed by what we found. We need to listen to the God who constantly speaks to us and we have to be willing to ask for help along the way. Life is not something that is lived alone, it is a group effort, and help is needed.
True discipleship, being a true follower of Christ, means dedication to learning, being open to the chance to meet God face to face, and the willingness to be transformed by that experience. When we look at the nativity scenes and we see the Magi holding their gifts, we need to see ourselves. They represent us, the Gentiles. They give us a great example to follow and a reminder that we worship a great God. May we learn to be more like Indiana Jones and the Wise Men and be willing to step out into an adventure in order to come face to face with God. May you be ready and willing to have your own Epiphany.