Epiphanies
A sermon on Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7,10-14, & Matthew 2:1-12 by Jill Friebel , 6 January 2008
 
Today is Epiphany Sunday.  Some of you might ask what is Epiphany Sunday?
 
Because many of us come from Baptist backgrounds we have not had a history of celebrating the liturgical year like most of the churches around the world do.  I have loved being introduced to the richness of a yearly rhythm that is much deeper than the Sundays of Christmas and Easter of my past.  I know when I started it was a steep learning curve, and it takes a long time to pick up the significance of some elementary stuff that others may take for granted.  Now Nathan being the liturgical scholar is so immersed in it he is able to convey it beautifully in the words of our liturgy and the rituals we practice.  But for most of us there can be gaps along the way and because it is assumed it is awkward to ask.  
 
So an Epiphany generally speaking is an a ha moment or an illumination.  One of those really significant moments that can creep or burst in upon your consciousness and changes the way you understand something.  It is like a light turning on in darkness.  A new awareness of something that changes the way you perceive your life.  
 
Leunig describes one sort of epiphany like this, “There you are standing in the kitchen, paused between one ordinary thing and the next, when all at once this strange feeling enters the body like, wine, gently flooding our veins with mysterious sweet mixture of grief and yearning...” 1
 
So what was Epiphany for the church?  
 
It starts with the disciples.   They had a growing corporate a ha moment.   It all came together after the death and resurrection and many appearances of Jesus.  Later as they sat around over food and drink they would have talked day and night about everything that had happened, and it was a bit like Leunig’s wine analogy “gently flooding their veins with mysterious sweet mixture of grief and yearning”.  
 
Jesus had physically left them, and lights are turning on all over the place.  So much so that they began rewriting their whole Jewish history.  The implications kept snowballing. Their lives had been changed forever by the presence of Jesus and now the puzzle was beginning to fall into place.  Mind you, it was both simple and profoundly complex, but that is the way it always happens.  
 
You can be sure there was no small talk between them.  There was too much nutting out, too much remembering, and it wasn’t just a past experience, they were filled with the Spirit of Jesus.  He was gone, but he was present and he had opened up the way to God and nothing was the same.
 
A light had come into their darkness, and it turned out to be a light that no darkness could extinguish.  The darkness of death could not extinguish Jesus, he had returned and now the past was beginning to make sense.  
 
They were promised a new King and they got a fragile baby born in the back blocks of Bethlehem.  It didn’t make sense at the time, but looking back from the resurrection it begins to fit together, some of it anyway.   The light came and a King had been born, but not in the way they had anticipated.  And yet in another sense nothing had changed at all.  Rome was still in power, the disciples were being chased and hunted and generally the political and social events were dark and dangerous.  
 
But the epiphany, the illuminating experiences they were having had them praising and worshipping God.  They realized with great joy and thankfulness that Jesus was the One that had been promised to Israel and the one they had been longing for all along.   They submitted themselves to God, and were filled with his love.  They took it upon themselves to get the good news out.  Nothing could stop their love and passion, no fear of rejection or death could shut them up.  We are still reading the stories of their reflections and conclusions and what continued to happen to them.  But what we read has a progression of thought.  Different authors see different things and the same authors grow in their journey of light.   Paul was one who pushed the boundaries more than some of his contemporaries in drawing the Gentiles in.  For us now we can see where Paul may not have gone far enough, for even he was limited by his cultural context.   The truth of Jesus life and death and presence in 2008 can keep bringing new light to us now in our situations.  
 
 So Walter Brueggemann reflects on Matthew’s story saying:
 
“he is not the first one to imagine three rich wise guys from the East coming to Jerusalem. His story line and plot come from Isaiah 60, (which we heard tonight) a poem recited to Jews in Jerusalem about 580 B.C.E. These Jews had been in exile in Iraq for a couple of generations and had come back to the bombed-out city of Jerusalem. They were in despair. Who wants to live in a city where the towers are torn down and the economy has failed, and nobody knows what to do about it?
 
In the middle of the mess, an amazing poet invites his depressed, discouraged contemporaries to look up, to hope and to expect everything to change. "Rise, shine, for your light has come." The poet anticipates that Jerusalem will become a beehive of productivity and prosperity, a new centre of international trade. "Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. . ." Caravans loaded with trade goods will come from Asia and bring prosperity. This is cause for celebration. God has promised to make the city work effectively in peace, and a promise from God is very sure.
 
Like Matthew, the wise men know about Isaiah 60. They know they are to go to Jerusalem and to take rare spices, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Most important, they know that they will find the new king of all peace and prosperity. But when Herod (the current king in Jerusalem) hears of these plans, he is frightened. A new king is a threat to the old king and the old order.
 
Then a strange thing happens. In his panic, Herod arranges a consultation with the leading Old Testament scholars, and says to them, "Tell me about Isaiah 60. What is all this business about camels and gold and frankincense and myrrh?" The scholars tell him: You have the wrong text. And the wise men outside your window are using the wrong text. Isaiah 60 will mislead you because it suggests that Jerusalem will prosper and have great urban wealth and be restored as the centre of the global economy. In that scenario, the urban elites can recover their former power and prestige and nothing will really change.
 
Herod does not like that verdict and asks, defiantly, "Well, do you have a better text?" The scholars are afraid of the angry king, but tell him, with much trepidation, that the right text is Micah 5:2-4:
 
But you, O Bethlehem, David’s country, the runt of the litter – From you will come the leader who will shepherd-rule Israel.  He’ll be no upstart, no pretender.  His family tree is ancient and distinguished.”(The Message).
 
This is the voice of a peasant hope for the future, a voice that is not impressed with high towers and great arenas, banks and urban achievements. It anticipates a different future, as yet unaccomplished, that will organize the peasant land in resistance to imperial threat. Micah anticipates a leader who will bring well-being to his people, not by great political ambition, but by attentiveness to the folks on the ground.
 
Herod tells the Eastern intellectuals the truth, and the rest is history. They head for Bethlehem, a rural place, dusty, unnoticed and unpretentious. It is, however, the proper milieu for the birth of the One who will offer an alternative to the arrogant learning of intellectuals and the arrogant power of urban rulers.
 
The narrative of Epiphany is the story of these two human communities: Jerusalem, with its great pretensions, and Bethlehem, with its modest promises. We can choose a "return to normalcy" in a triumphalist mode, a life of self-sufficiency that contains within it its own seeds of destruction. Or we can choose an alternative that comes in innocence and a hope that confounds our usual pretensions. We can receive life given in vulnerability. It is amazing -- the true accent of epiphany -- that the wise men do not resist this alternative but go on to the village. Rather than hesitate or resist, they reorganize their wealth and learning, and reorient themselves and their lives around a baby with no credentials.
 
Bethlehem is nine miles south of Jerusalem. The wise men had a long intellectual history of erudition and along-term practice of mastery. But they had missed their goal by nine miles. It is mind-boggling to think how the story might have gone had Herod’s interpreters not remembered Micah 2.
 
Our task is to let the vulnerability of Micah 2 disrupt the self-congratulation of Isaiah 60. Most of us are looking in the wrong place. We are off by nine miles. We are now invited to travel those hard, demanding miles away from self-sufficiency. Epiphany is a good time to take the journey.. The way beyond is not about security and prosperity but about vulnerability, neighborliness, generosity, a modest future with spears turned into pruning hooks and swords into plowshares.
 
The wise men, and the eager nations ready for an alternative, made the trip. It would be ironic if the "outsiders" among us made that move and we who are God’s own people resisted. Imagine a nine-mile trip . . . and a very different way home. 2
1 Leunig  “The rapture of sadness past.”   The Age December 22, 2007
2 Walter Brueggemann  “Off by Nine Miles”.  Sermon from Text Week, internet.