Family Sunday/Scripture Prep: We’re about to hear a very ancient & wonderful story about the light of a star. You’ve heard it before, so try to hear it again as though for the first time. Consider what the spirit may be saying to you in your life right now. Read the Gospel of Mark Chapter 1: verses 1-12.
This is the best time of year for stories. One Christmas story involved a special star light. A small group of Persian priests had been following a celestial light to locate the spot where a new spiritual leader was to be born.
They traveled from afar in a dark time of year and were not disappointed. Unfortunately they lost their way a bit and checked in with King Herod who had other intentions for the child if it could be found. When Herod learned the wise men were not returning, he went into a murderous rage and had all the infants killed in Bethlehem.
When the wise men got back on track, the star led them to a lowly stable in Bethlehem. There they found the new Prince of Peace born in a manger where animals were fed. They worshiped him and offered him precious gifts. Since these men were not Jewish they represent the first time that gentiles worshipped Jesus as a divinity. That is where our faith heritage begins and that is the meaning of Epiphany.
Now imagine the same story but from a different perspective. Imagine with me the man Jesus. What would he have thought about a baby born in a stable, or visits from wise men? Did his mother recount these tales?
Imagine Jesus at age 30 fully human with human tastes and desires but not yet realizing his full divinity. Jesus leaves his home and wanders by foot for some time until he reaches Bethlehem, where his parents tell him he was born. He arrives late and it’s getting dark; yet he’s surprised by the size of the crowd. He wanders around seeking shelter and is drawn to a cave-like area in a remote part of town. There is a stir in the barn yard and there is a stench. The stable area is hewn out of rough rock and offers little comfort for people or animals.
He is drawn further still toward a lonely stable back in the shelter of the rocks and senses the stirring of animals. This is not a friendly place, not a place for creature comfort. Only those rejected by society would take shelter here. He hears a rustling inside the stable itself and is drawn further in. There is a light glow now that guides his steps. As he steps into the manger area itself, instead of donkey-food in the manger, there’s a small bundle of life being tended to by a woman and a man.
As he stops and stares, he is reminded of the story his mother may have told him many times of his own birth. Surely this can not be right that an infant would be born into the world amidst such slop and squalor. Even as Jesus is touched by the new life before him, he is also indignant at the injustice of a system that would allow for such a precious event to be played out in such a despairing place. He nods to the parents and withdraws.
As he does so he remembers another story his mother has told him about the three special men who had come to visit after his birth. They were priests from Persia who had tracked him by the stars and had come to pay their respects. His mother still kept the precious gifts that they had tendered. No kings on a night like this with such a chill in the air. Yet the memory of the stories lay close about him as though it was being re-enacted.
Every year we re-enact in plays or at least in our imaginings, the birth of Jesus and the visit of the kings. Jesus was Jewish and lived among the Jews most of his life. Yet even his birth heralds his mission for a larger circle than just Judaism. The Persian Kings that came to visit Jesus and to worship him as king represent the wider world to which Jesus came with his message of the heavenly kingdom of love and justice.
Today is Epiphany. And what is that? It is “Three Kings,” but more literally, Epiphany is God breaking into the world. To be more specific about Epiphany, here’s a reading from the Book of Daniel – Lillian Daniel, page 23 from "This Odd & Wondrous Calling:
"Epiphany is that day in the church calendar that comes twelve days after Christmas - the day, it is said, when the Wise Men visited the baby Jesus and immediately recognized him as the Messiah. (When children ask me to explain the word epiphany, I describe it as a light bulb, a sudden recognition, or an “a-ha!” moment.) [Listen to what the spirit is saying to the church]!
Let’s return to our imaginings of Jesus. As Jesus begins to wander, several days pass. He stays mostly to the outskirts of town only visiting the markets for the food he needs, bedding down in some fairly rough spots. Finally he comes upon the Jordan River and hears its waters rushing in the distance. He’s reminded of the day he came to see John – of the push and pull of the crowd as they rushed to get into place. John preached: “repent for the Kingdom is at hand.” Hearing that filled Jesus with a warm urge – to get about the work that he had been envisioning but first he must make things right.
. . . . .He joined the line to see his cousin and when he got to the front, John exclaimed that Jesus should be baptizing him, but Jesus replied that John should baptize him that all things may be right. As John did so the clouds seemed to open and a voice declared “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” And the spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove. This is one of only two places in the New Testament where the three persons of the trinity are gathered in one spot – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The other time is the Transfiguration – but that is another story.
Epiphany was originally the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the visit of the Magi and also the celebration of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus was born for all people. The visit of the Magi is meant specifically as a manifestation of God’s presence to the Gentiles – that is the non-Jews.
Epiphany is a pregnant word.
It is also called Theophany by Eastern Christians. So epiphany with a small “e” is usually a sudden manifestation or perception of the essence of something.
Epiphany comes from the ancient Greek words for “appearance.” I’m going to lock in on the word appearance. Today we celebrate the appearance of God in human form in the person of Jesus Christ. Western Christians commemorate the visitation of the Magi to the baby Jesus; Eastern Christians commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. In both traditions, the essence of the feast is the same: the appearance of Christ to the world (as an infant or in the Jordan).
Where is there epiphany, or the appearance of God breaking into our world? Where is the “good news” struggling to be born in our lives, to sing a new song and be a light to others?
The story of Jesus’ birth, the magi visit, and the baptism are as old as the Bible. Yet it’s a wonderful story.
May it be manifested as yours in a new way this year. May your new year be a new chapter in your life …filled with light…filled with epiphany…filled with a “breaking in” of the God of Light into your days.
May the God of love and peace, born in a stable, visited by Magi, & baptized by his cousin, say of you what his father said of him: “This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” Amen.