Merry Christmas, Pilgrim Church! I can still say that, right? Because today we are still officially in the Christmas season—Day 10, I believe. Now, I have no desire to end the season early, but I did choose the Epiphany texts today because they are some of my favorite ones in the lectionary. With these texts, we celebrate the light that comes to us and shines in the darkness—the light this world needs so desperately! And those Magi wondering in the desert, those guys FINALLY get to see Baby Jesus—who may already have been walking and talking for all we know.
While it’s the main holy day in many parts of the world, the Epiphany season really has not caught on very much among Americans. Many of us have the tree back in the box or out on the curb by New Year’s Day. But I think we lose out by rushing through these holidays, I really do. I read an article once by a guy who argued that in this consumerist world where we are bombarded with constant demands to buy, buy, buy from the season of Halloween (which begins in September), to the season of Thanksgiving, which begins just after Halloween, to the season of Christmas, that begins the day after Thanksgiving with Black Friday and ends with Christmas Day lunch, we as Christians should show our resistance to this worldview by adhering faithfully to the seasons of the Christian Calendar.
You may or may not be the type to picket or boycott, but as Christians we are called to show, in our own varied ways, that we live in the world but are not necessarily shaped by it. The writer argued that his protest consisted of observing the 12 full days of Christmas with his family, allowing the wonder of the Incarnation to “settle in” to their lives for more than just one day or one Christmas Eve service. I think there’s something to that approach: I know for me, as working mom and pastor, the twinkling lights of my Christmas tree are so much more meaningful to me in the dark quiet evenings of January than in the hectic chaos of December.
(By the way, you know Epiphany is our sacred season right now—do but you know what our secular one is?? Super Bowl Season! And in this season, the challenge of faith may get even harder for some folks, depending on how well their team is doing right now. Hail to the Redskins, right?!)
As I said before, by taking heed of these holy days, we offer resistance to all the commercial and violent crap in our world today. Epiphany is the day to remember the Magi who come from the East. This unlikely group, not Jews, but Gentile strangers from the East come looking for the King of the Jews. Appearing only once, in the story of Jesus’ birth recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, they disappear as suddenly as they appear and are never mentioned again.
But the point of their journey remains forever important—from Matthew’s perspective, these outsiders are the first to understand something special about this child.
And from my perspective, well, I’ve been thinking a lot about this story because it is the scripture of my first Sunday as pastor here at Pilgrim. Over the holidays, I pondered what it might mean to me, and what it could mean to all of you, and, beyond that, what it might mean to other people. We were visiting friends over the holidays, old friends I hadn’t seen in years—and they are not at all religious, but wanted to hear all about my life and call and what my new church was like. I went to bed that night and woke up the next morning thinking about what this story might mean to folks like them—how could this story that is so important to me speak to someone with no religious context, someone for whom these texts are not assumed truth, infallible or otherwise—someone who is likely to walk through these doors and join us for worship one day.
And in the dark by the light of their tree, when no one else was awake, I sketched out some sermon ideas. It’s about the journey, I thought. This ancient story is an archetypal story of our life’s journey, our faith journey, the road we take from birth to death to whatever lies beyond. The Magi, whether there were three or many more, remind us that we must undertake our journey not in isolation but in community. Each of us needs support, help and encouragement along this crazy road we call life because we cannot do it all by ourselves.
The Child they seek—not only the Christ, but also the embodiment of wholeness and joy, authenticity and abundant life, representing our dreams, our callings, our true identities. In Christ, we find all these things.
The Journey taken by these Magi from somewhere in the East to a tiny town in Palestine tells us that on our own journeys, we must cross boundaries of culture and comfort, we must move past what we think and what we know, move beyond our brokenness and preconceived notions and prejudices.
The Star, for me, is a promise. It’s not, I think, a light to guide our way—that seems too easy in today’s world, I don’t think we are promised our journeys will be easy and sometimes we do get lost and sometimes, well, we just can’t see the path. Rather, I see the Star as a promise that if I go on this journey, if I seek my true self in God, then I will have light in my life even in times of darkness. The Star tells us that if we cross boundaries of what is possible, we will find ourselves surprised at what we can accomplish.
The Gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh have a long tradition of being symbolic—gold to symbolize Christ’s kingship, frankincense to underscore his priestly role, and myrrh as a foreshadowing of his death. Yet I think today they simply challenge us to share our journey, to share our joys, to share our resources, to share what we have and who we are with the world, and perhaps most important, to cultivate a sense of gratitude in everything we do in life.
And, finally, the Return? The return of the Magi to their own country, wherever it was. This is, I think, my favorite part. By another road, they return. The great part about this story is that they do find what they are looking for, they reach their goal and they are changed and they live differently because of it. They didn’t quite find what they were looking for—this is important, too—they found a baby not a king—yet he was somehow exactly who they needed to encounter.
This story about the Magi, travelers seeking wholeness in community, seemed such a perfect beginning to the year and to our shared ministry here at Pilgrim. We, in so many ways, live this story every single day of our lives. In a world where too many feel like outsiders and strangers, our call is to understand that we belong to one another and to God. In a world where there are so many who don’t just feel like outsiders, but who truly are homeless and outcast, our challenge is to welcome all people as God has welcomed us. In a world of us and them, in a world of violence and ignorance, we must practice community and welcome and peacemaking. In a world of entitlement, we must practice gratitude. In a world of darkness, we must share our light. In a world of isolation, we must offer refuge. In a world of brokenness, we must seek wholeness and do everything we can to help others heal as well.
At Christmas, we marvel that light has indeed come into the world, that the barriers between humans and God have been broken down. Epiphany is when we take that truth and embark on our own journey to break down the barriers of this world—may God bless us all on this journey! Amen.
Preached January 3, 2016 at Pilgrim United Church of Christ, Wheaton, MD