By Cynde | Sunday, January 1, 2017 | 9:34 PM
Sermon for Jan. 1, 2017
Hebrews 2:10-18; Matt. 2: 1-2; 10-12
May the Christ Light shine through these words and illuminate our minds and our hearts. Amen.
Have you made your New Year’s resolutions? That might be the popular question this January 1, 2017, but I’d like us to ponder a more theological, God-centered question at the start of this New Year: What now? What now that the tree is on its way down or is already on the curb? What now that the guests have gone home and the leftovers either eaten or thrown out? What now when the baby Jesus in the crèche has been wrapped in tissue paper, put in the cardboard box, and toted back up to the attic? The subtle danger this time of year is that when we wrap up and put away Christmas, we wrap up and put away God, instead of asking ourselves, “What now?”
“’Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him’. . . . The star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed . . . and they bowed down and worshiped him” (Matt. 2: 2, 9-11).
This year’s calendar makes preaching during the Christmas Season a challenge because the actual date of Epiphany isn’t until Jan. 6, which falls on Friday. Next Sunday, Jan. 8, marks the occasion of Jesus’ baptism, and so in the span of this upcoming week, we will have forgotten all about the birth narratives and skipped the thirty years of Jesus’ life in which he prepared to embark on his three year ministry. Yet the Christmas Season wouldn’t be complete without the Epiphany reading from Matthew and the reminder to keep God front and center as we look to the New Year and ask “What now?”
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "If the stars should appear but one night every thousand years how man would marvel and stare." We take the stars, and THE Star, for granted. For most of us here this morning, the news of Christmas, of Epiphany, is unremarkable because it is too familiar. The angels announce the same glad tidings every year. The inn is always full, no vacancies, no exceptions. The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh never differ, and Joseph, yet again, doesn’t get to utter a word. Maybe if we only heard this incredible, unbelievable story once every thousand years it would shatter our world as it did Matthew’s when he realized--epiphany!—and recorded his belief that the child the magi searched for was truly God.
An epiphany is that moment when everything becomes crystal clear. It’s a revelation, a manifestation, and an illumination that has the potential to change us in some way. In the story of the wise men, simultaneous epiphanies occur: 1) God reveals himself in the form of a child, and 2) the magi understand who is in their very midst, signified by their humble kneeling before the child and the presentation of their gifts. They have achieved their long-sought goal. They have received their ultimate gift. What now? Instead of going back to King Herod and reporting what they have found, the magi risk his wrath and return home a different way, as different people, taking the gift of that epiphany, that awareness of God, with them.
What now for Mary after the gifts are given, the return trip from Egypt made? Luke tells us that Mary pondered all the signs and revelations about her newborn son in her heart, and that the prophet Simeon warned her that her own heart would be pierced by a sword. Her own epiphany must have been the radical realization that indeed God was using her when she kissed his very face. What now for Mary, a very different young girl from the virgin the angel first appeared to, was to place all her faith and trust in God as she continued her journey of rearing his son.
What now for Joseph? The gospel writers fail to share what Joseph felt or thought or said as the birth narratives unfolded, but they do share what he did. Joseph’s own epiphany led him to listen for God in the silence, hear his direction, and obey without question. What now for Joseph, a changed man from the one who quietly considered divorcing his fiancée, involved putting one foot in front of the other in faith.
What now for us? Did we seek the Messiah as intentionally as the magi this Christmas Season? Were we changed in some way like Mary and Joseph, made more assured of our faith, more ready to obey? Did we experience any personal epiphanies or wonder at the stars? I’m sure we all went through the right motions, did all the right things, went to all the right church services, sang all the right carols, but now, one week later, isn’t it likely that nothing’s really changed except what we owe on our credit cards?
Back to reality is where we find ourselves today, where we find ourselves after we’ve done all the right things, packed up the tree, pulled down the wreaths, thrown out the poinsettias. Back to reality is where we are now, with ordinary tasks to return to, the same daily stresses of accomplishing our to-do lists, the unchanged routines to follow.
Back to reality is where we are now, with sick family members, estranged relationships, heavy responsibilities, the weight of peer pressure, fragile hearts, worries about the future, guilt about the past, losses to adjust to, grades to worry about, and nothing to distract us from the fact that for all the gloss of the holidays, everyday life, if not difficult, is, at times, monotonous. So, what now?
At the start of this New Year, can we, like Mary, make time to ponder the incredible in our hearts? Can we sit with and absorb who the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus is? Jesus is brother, high priest, and sacrifice. He was born, the author writes, “not to help angels but the descendents of Abraham” (2:16). Us. Here. Now.
In Jesus, through Jesus, God allows us to see, hear, and know him in ways never before possible. Epiphany! Our own relationship to that cosmic, distant, impersonal God is changed because he gives us access to himself, not only by being with us, but by being one of us. God chose to live with us, in our own real, torn, corrupt, and broken world, in the middle of our own experiences, our own weaknesses, our own confusion, our own pain. Epiphany is the rest of the Christmas story because what we do with it determines the rest of our lives.
Of course, we have a choice concerning how we respond to the epiphany, just as Jesus' contemporaries did. According to John, Jesus "came to own people, yet his own people did not accept him." Who are Jesus' "own people" today? We are. We either believe that Jesus is part of God and so participate in a relationship, accepting with joy and gratitude the light and life he offers, or we don't. People have been making that choice for over two-thousand years as they ask themselves, What now?
The Epiphany of the Lord—the revelation of his human existence to our whole world—was not meant for the wise men alone, or for the shepherds alone, or for Mary and Joseph alone. The Good News, the reality that Christ walked this earth, that the kingdom is already among us, is also for us. We are not alone! Love came down at Christmas, and stayed.
Maybe this is the time of year, and the time in our spiritual journeys, when we truly need to ask “What now?” both for this congregation and for ourselves. Perhaps this is the time of the year when we need to do a bit more stargazing. Maybe what we need this day, as we get back to reality, is to look at the stars like the magi did, with eyes that recognize the star, stay focused on the star no matter where the journeys take us, and are changed by the star.
On this day of new beginnings, what the Epiphany story presents us with is a way to live in the Time Being, the reality of now, believing that Christmas is more than, as poet W.H. Auden put it, “an agreeable possibility.” The story of God coming to earth, of love coming down, is a reality that does bring “comfort and joy” and “silent nights,” and the love of Jesus Christ vast enough to contain “the hopes and fears of all the years.” The star shines on, and we are welcomed to shine with it.