6 January 2017
Saint John’s Memphis, Tennessee
John W. Sewell
What would have happened if, at Epiphany, there had been wise WOMEN instead of wise men at Bethlehem? They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole and brought practical gifts!
Most people know nothing of the Epiphany. As a feast of the Church, The Epiphany ranks with Christmas, All Saints, Ascension, and Pentecost. Unlike Christmas Eve, we will not need four services tonight to accommodate worshipers.
The Word Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means to manifest or to reveal. The deep mystery of the Incarnation – the coming of the Second Member of the Trinity – to live as a human being, now is revealed or displayed not just to the Jews but to Gentiles.
In Judaism, the thread of universal salvation weaves in and out among the fabric of Israel’s special call. Periodically individual gentiles found their way into the household of Israel: people such as Rahab the harlot of Jericho who hid the spies sent by Moses to scope out the Promised Land and Ruth the great-grandmother of King David was a woman of Moab.
The theme of the Book of Jonah is the concern the God of Israel has for gentile people, even including the hated Assyrians. This concern is a source of much aggravation to the prophet Jonah. Isaiah predicts that the nations will come to the light revealed in Israel. In today’s Epistle, Paul writes to the Ephesians, “that … the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”
Now, Jesus, the Son of God, has been born in Bethlehem. The Magi arrive, the first non-Jews, to encounter the Christ child. The scriptures do not label these mysterious figures kings or indeed number them three. Echoing Isaiah their gifts are gold, frankincense and myrrh. Or as the little boy put it, “the Wise Men arrived bringing gifts of common sense, frankness and mermaids. “
Following the star, they came via Jerusalem where the wise men met the wise guy, Herod, King of Judea. They asked to see his newborn son. Herod had no such son. Bethlehem is the place to look they were told. “Come back and tell me when you find him” said the wise guy. And when they came to Bethlehem the star stopped over the house where the holy family was living. After they worshiped they wisely went home another way avoiding the wise guy back in Jerusalem.
The Epiphany is our story, the story of all non-Jews who have no claim to be children of Abraham, all who are beyond the perimeters of ordinary grace. Evelyn Waugh in the novel, Helena, has the title character pray the following prayer to the Magi, “You are the patrons for all latecomers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents. … For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”
Blaise Pascal once wrote, “The knowledge of God is very far from the love of God.”
We realize that our most elegant descriptions of God are always just descriptions. We will never know enough to know what we want to know. The good news is that we experience God without understanding. The love of God is a very different economy from the economy of epistemology!
Jesus never said, “repeat after me.” What Jesus said was, “Follow me.” So let us follow him who was manifested to the Magi, that through his cross and resurrection, the love of God revealed through him will be manifest in us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.