SERMON: Epiphany C 1 6 19
This day when we celebrate the three magi visiting Jesus in the manger is evocative of our own encounters in the course of our lives in faith with the baby destined to be our savior. Our faith is built on a foundation made of many different materials.
There's the biblical understanding. There's the experience of feeling God is on our side. There's the knowledge of Jesus and the supreme benefit of following his teaching in our lives. And there's our own individual memories of our faith experiences in mundane ways. There are others.
The Epiphany has been personal and familiar to me as long as I can remember. I first learned about Epiphany because it was my brother's birthday. It was regularly noted that his birthday fell on such an important church date. As here at St. Paul's, we had the children's procession of the magi on the Sunday closest to Epiphany. It was also, of course, the end of the Christmas season which we knew was long gone. We could hardly remember back to December 25, presents notwithstanding.
Later I got to know a work colleague whose birthday was also January sixth. I had been working in politics and the Moral Majority had moved into the forefront of the national political process and my new work friend was the first born-again Christian I had met. We had very interesting theology and philosophy discussions, but I had the sublime pleasure of informing my new ardent Christian friend, of the meaning of his birthday in the life of Christ and in the church. I am sure I enjoyed that too much.
My most exciting connection to the Epiphany came some time later. Fast forward twenty five years and Molly and I were living in Munich, Germany. We had the opportunity to take a trip north to
Köln on the Rhine River in January and to participate in the Three Kings Festival at the massive Köln Dom or cathedral.
The cathedral was one of the more famous bombed out buildings of the German industrial areas of the Rhine in the Second World War. It was rebuilt with international financial support and stands today as a reminder of the sustaining power of faith, even after vast conflict, war and destruction.
But the cathedral in Köln is also known and has been known for over 1,500 years for its reliquary, a collection of artifacts from the Holy Land from the time of Jesus. Among the artifacts, probably the most famous, are a collection of human bones which have been identified as the bones of the three kings, or magi, who visited Jesus and his family on the first Epiphany.
On Jan.6, 2005 the huge cathedral was unheated on a very wintry day. It was easily below freezing and the floors were very cold stone. A line extended from the massive front doors around the church in a serpentine route to the sanctuary. On this day --January 6th--and this day only the cathedral places on display the bones of the three kings.
The line moved fairly quickly, so in the time it took Molly and me to take in the very high, vaulted ceiling and the maybe 60 foot high stained glass windows and the remarkable cubic form of the cathedral we were getting pretty close. It became clear that no one was spending a lot of time gazing at the bones or praying over them. They looked and moved on. So before we knew it we were in the sanctuary gazing at the reason for all the fuss: some bones.
Two things need to be said about this, I think. One is that it is difficult for us to appreciate how important relics were in an age when few were literate, most didn't have any education, church was central to people's lives, and connections to the life of Jesus were available, however improbable and however gruesome. In the early years of Christianity famous religious figures traveled to the Holy Land in search of relics. Their disruption of graves and their marketing of such things contributed significantly to the ill will in Palestine toward Europeans and previewed the hostilites of the Crusades.
Recognizing that that is part of Christian history is important. And doing so allows us to appreciate the second thing about the Epiphany worth noting: the wonder of the day, the marvelous story we inherit..
The coming of Christ was heralded by prophets, sages, wise men and kings. People wanted this Prince of Peace to enter the world. They were desperate for messages of God's love and favor, they were longing for a time of calm to live their lives. Jesus was their best hope and they followed every lead and took every chance they could to locate Jesus and, in the centuries since, to attach themselves to absolutely anything that could be remotely associated with Jesus.
The shepherds on Christmas Eve and the Magi on Epiphany are representative of all who seek God and seek to do God's will. Their desire for Jesus mirrors our own these hundreds and hundreds of years later.
The Epiphany brings into very sharp focus the utterly insignificant life of the humble family in Bethlehem. They had no authority, no earthly resources, no support from family or neighbors; they were refugees fleeing political wrath and they had their own family dynamics to sort out. This would seem to be a formula for disaster, yet instead it is a story which gives us great hope, year after year.
This understanding and this hope is reflected throughout today's liturgy. In the 10 am service our opening hymn, "Brightest and best of the stars of the morning," evokes images of the holy signals of Jesus' birth, drawing those to him who would honor and worship the newborn Lord. In our Hebrew Bible reading Isaiah calls, "Arise, shine, for your light has come..." That refers of course, to Jesus, the light to enlighten the nations.
Our psalm is a prayer for a King concerned not with power and wealth but with righteousness and justice. This was the hope for Jesus, a hope he more than fulfilled. It is also a hope which he points toward in this day, as he has in every age.
Our Epistle reading, from Paul's letter to the Ephesians, tells of '...the boundless riches of Christ,' riches of the spirit that are available to every believer.
The three kings, or the wise men, or the magi, depending on the reading and on your preference, found what they were looking for in the newborn Christ child. Not that Jesus conveyed that confidence, but the fulfillment of all they'd been told assured them that this was the one who would bring to the world a new way of being, a way of being in our lives with God, in faith.
They also knew their mission was to conceal their discovery from King Herod to protect Jesus and his family from this paranoid and violent ruler.
They knew this because of a dream and as a consequence they "...left for their own country by another road." They didn't go back the way they came and they didn't check in with Herod, as he had ordered.
As we know, ultimately people fearful of Jesus' power and spiritual authority were able to bring his earthly life to an end. But first, from his birth and throughout his ministry, Jesus brought to the people seeking hope and confidence in the love of God the very gifts they had longed for forever.
Jesus does the same for us today, being reborn each year, thrilling us with Christmas and the discovery by the Three Kings, reminding us that Jesus was born, as we prayed in our collect, "manifested ... to the peoples of the earth."
An Epiphany sermon preached Jan. 6, 2019 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY by the
Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector.