The wise men decided not to collaborate in facilitating Herod’s raid on the holy family. No doubt God would have found another way to protect Jesus, to ensure that Jesus grew up to accomplish his saving work in the world. But it is significant to acknowledge, especially in our particular moment in time, that God chose to move this salvation story forward through these holy non-collaborators. Somehow the wise men realized, whether by recognizing Herod’s duplicitousness or taking seriously the warning that came to them in a dream, that it would be unjust and unwise to serve as Herod’s enforcers.
THE CHURCH'S CALENDAR always sits at odds with the world’s. In the world, the season of light is Christmas. And that’s long since gone by now. But in the church, the season of light is Epiphany, when God gives us a glimpse of all the strange people who will be drawn to Jesus. We gentiles rejoice. Jesus is bringing all his weird friends over for dinner. So maybe there’s space at the table even for us.
Think of every dark place in our world. Every frightened child. Every violated person. Every victim of war or hunger. The darkness growls with endless hunger. Epiphany says this: God’s light will shine and swallow up that darkness and make all things into unending day. Hopefully God will do that sooner rather than later—through our efforts, through the church, through our elected officials. But if not, God will bring the kingdom Jesus preached, one day. And there will be unending light for those who’ve faced the most darkness.
Epiphany is a good season in which to concentrate on the church—Jesus and all his weird friends. The lectionary showers us with stories from Matthew and the psalms and Corinthians about how odd and distinctive this community is. Ministers have the inestimable privilege of serving God’s people. What joy! What light! What a marvel is the church of Jesus Christ.
[ February 5 ]
Now and Not Yet
Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 ; Matthew 5:13-20
CHRISTIANITY IS A religion of grace. We don’t get what we deserve, thank God. We get so much more. And being people of grace, we try to show forth God’s mercy in our life together—to show the world it is made and sustained in existence by a good, good God.
GIVEN THAT WE'VE ALL just had a face full of Christmas lights, most folks would be surprised to learn that in the church, Epiphany is traditionally the season of light (not lights—you can put them away). Epiphany is designed to put us in the position of those who first met Jesus on whom light slowly dawns. What? You mean the carpenter’s son, Mary’s boy? He’s the one to redeem Israel and bring justice to every last human being on earth?! There is so much light here it is hard to see all at once. Epiphany acts as a light dimmer, waiting for our eyes to adjust, trying to keep us only slightly uncomfortable, but not overwhelmed.
Some churches have a practice of announcing a sermon series for January that can attract new people—something on sex or politics, for example. Advertise it at Christmas and then deliver with your best in the new year. That’s when folks are open to new things, and best of all for us, God illumines us at Epiphany. Learning who God is throws light on who our neighbor is—one in whom divine light shines, who is therefore endlessly deserving of our respect and adoration.
Embrace Church in Sioux Falls, S.D., talks about money in January. It seems suicidal. But folks are financially hungover from the holidays, and need help. And the gospel’s words about money are good news all the time, not just in “stewardship season” or at the year-end budget rush.
[ January 1]
All Rachel's Children
Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23
NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTIONS don’t often last. They are born in good intentions, but we are weak, fragile creatures, and habits are hard things to break.
The turn of each calendar year is often filled with an influx of charitable giving, much of which intends to assist those far beyond the borders of the United States. As rigorous debates surround the ethics and oversight of such foreign assistance endeavors, one of the more innovative contributions to this important conversation was produced by South Africa's renowned theologian, the late Steve de Gruchy. In consideration of the Magi and their Epiphany visit with Joseph, Mary, and the newly born Jesus in Matthew 2:1-12, de Gruchy offers a striking interpretation of the biblical text and considers its direct relationship with international relief efforts. As private giving directed to foreign aid continues to grow ( from $8.4 billion in 2000 to $19.1 billion in 2012 ), de Gruchy shows how benevolent intent can lead to oppressive impact, and Epiphany provides important wisdom to navigate the complexities of our policies and practices.
THE YEAR IS YOUNG AGAIN. Folks are making soon-to-be-broken New Year’s resolutions. Why not preachers? Resolved: Prepare to preach far enough in advance that the Holy Spirit has some time to work with me. Preachers I admire sketch an entire year out in advance. Pastor Ken Shigematsu at Tenth Church in Vancouver, B.C., suggests that we’re creative on 10-day cycles. So he begins working in earnest on a sermon 10 days before he preaches it. Whatever system you come up with, resolve not to preach “Saturday night specials.” Sure, the adrenaline is nice, but it’s as hard to be creative on demand as it is to be intimate on schedule. That way, when you have a brilliant insight you can see that it fits, say, 10 weeks from now, and that insight is not lost if it fails to live up to the demands of a sermon to be preached in 10 hours.
Epiphany is one of our best, most underutilized words. The chapel at our seminary is blessedly named Epiphany chapel. For no actual connection to God happens in preaching without the illuminating light of the Spirit. I like to preach through the old hymn “We Three Kings” at least once during Epiphany. It reminds us who God is: God is born in our flesh, hailed as prophet and as king, and will die at our hands. Especially during an election year in the United States, when many ridiculous things will be said about God, we do well to remember these particular claims about who God is.
Growing up in Texas, fairly close to New Orleans, I knew all about Mardi Gras. It was a big deal in the South, replete with combinations of debaucherous consumption and self-exposure. What I didn’t understand, being the good evangelical Protestant that I was at the time, was that it actually was the celebration preceding the liturgical period of Lent.
It was only once I framed the excesses of Mardi Gras with the self-discipline and austerity of Lent that it began to make much sense. Not that the gratuitous self-abuse was then justified, but at least it made more sense, given the things everyone was supposed to give up during the weeks to come.
This got me thinking about how we approach New Year’s Eve, and framing it, too, by what we expect and anticipate from New Year’s Day. Yes, the celebrations of New Year’s Eve are, in some ways, just an excuse to indulge ourselves in excessive partying, but they also stand in contrast against the hopes we hold for the following day.
Activist theologian Bill Wylie-Kellermann wrote that the Epiphany season "begins and ends in light. From the heavenly star to the radiant robes of transfiguration, Epiphany is about revelation, the kind of sudden brightness that lights up the landscape of a mind or a community or a whole social order. The light reveals, but not passively; it summons and sends."
In popular understanding, of course, Epiphany is about the visit of the Magi, "wise men" from the East bearing gifts for the newborn Christ child. Since these Gentile visitors come from foreign lands, their search for Jesus and their homage to him have stood as sign and symbol that Christ's salvation knows no boundaries. (The parallels with our age, with the potential of digital media to transcend all boundaries, begin to suggest themselves.)
The story of the Magi has a dark side as well, mostly ignored in Christendom's celebration of Epiphany. On their way to find the babe, the travelers pay a visit first to Herod's court, where they're told to report back to him the location of the newborn. Fortunately, the wise men practice direct civil disobedience to the royal command, and thus they and the holy family escape Herod's wrath. But the children of Bethlehem, the "holy innocents," suffer the tragic consequences of Herod's duplicity. The lessons about relating to authority (i.e., the need to be "wise as serpents") are loud and clear.
Have you ever sat and watched a moth drawn into a light bulb? The moth simply cannot help but be drawn to the bulbs brilliance. The season of Epiphany celebrates a theme a little like this - only we are the moths and the bulb is Gods glory. Throughout Epiphany we encounter again and again the inexorable attraction of God. Whenever Gods glory is