Expecting Epiphanies

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage:    Matthew 2:1-12   Epiphany Sunday  January 7, 2024

The magi had an epiphany when God revealed the location of the baby Jesus through a star that guided them.  We are invited to live with the expectation of receiving epiphanies from God to draw us closer to him and guide us toward greater understanding and devotion to Jesus.   

 

How many have already taken down your Christmas decorations?

Actually, according to the church calendar, they should still be up, at least until today.  The “12 days of Christmas” started on the 25th, and the 12th day was Friday,

and today on Epiphany Sunday we remember the visit of the 3 kings or magi to the baby Jesus, which closes out the Christmas story.

Some Christian traditions like the orthodox church don’t put their kings in the manger scene until today.

I’ll admit that we’ve have them in from the day we set up our nativity set at home.  We have a hands-on set, and our grandsons like to play with the kings and their camels.  So I think our kings are there to stay, at least while the kids are young.

It’s believed that the magi’s visit to the baby Jesus didn’t occur until he was a toddler, maybe around two years old.   I mean, the kings had a long journey to make to get to Bethlehem from their faraway eastern land.

And when these strangers arrived in Bethlehem, they must have made quite a spectacle to the locals.  I’m sure they got a lot of long stares when they paraded through the streets of Judea with their camels and bright royal clothing.

I think back of the time when we visited our son and his family when they lived in the country of Qatar.  Most men walked around in bright white robes, and I was in clothes like these.

I got my share of stares, especially when we went to the souk, the traditional marketplace in the city of Doha.  It’s funny, because there was a big pen that had camels that were for sale, but the local Qataris were staring at me, not the camels!

But you know, I think it’s really cool that these royal visitors from a foreign land are part of the Christmas story.  It reminds us of the universal message of Jesus’ birth.

These were gentiles whose culture and worldview were so different from that of those living in Israel, the traditional “chosen people” of God.

It reminds us that from the very beginning, the light of God that came into the world with the birth of Jesus was a light that shines for all people, not just for select groups.

So Karen and I “sold out” this year and bought our first artificial Christmas tree.  As we were setting it up, I saw that the strand of lights attached to it had a kind of plug that wouldn’t fit into the strands of lights that we’re all familiar with.

No, these lights were proprietary—they only work with this brand of tree.  Kind of like the old Beta tapes that Sony made, what would only work in their VCRs and not in standard VHS players, that were made by every other company.

There are people who believe that Jesus fits best in their own particular culture or race, or nation—I’m thinking of Christian Nationalism, where people fuse being Christian with being American, particular white evangelical American.

It’s like their view of Jesus is proprietary—it only fits into their own worldview, and they think it’s superior to other groups’ understanding of Jesus.

But the inclusion of the magi from the east in the Christmas story reminds us that no one nation or race or culture has exclusive claim to Christianity or closer proximity to Jesus than any other—

Jesus is not proprietary—he is the light of all the world, not just certain corners of it.  And it was a bright shining light in the form of a star that was like a flashlight that guided the magi on their long journey to Bethlehem.

Now these wise men or magi were thought to be astrologers—they studied the stars in the sky.  They probably knew the names of all of the constellations, which already had been identified a few thousand years earlier.

I bet there’s a lot of you here who could identify all the constellations—anybody?  I usually can find Orion’s belt and the big and little dipper, but that’s about it.

But that star the magi saw was a special star they had never seen before in all their stargazing.  It not only lit their way, but it also revealed to them the identity of the one whom they were seeking.

These kings knew from the start that they were going to pay homage to a new King, a king who was not only human but divine, and also a king who was destined to suffer and be killed.

Their understanding of Jesus’ true identity can be seen in the gifts they brought to Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Gold is a symbol of kingship, frankincense is symbolic of divinity, as it was a perfume offered to the gods in ancient times, and myrrh is an embalming oil used to anoint those who have died to prepare their body for burial.

We see foreshadowing of this destiny of Jesus in the response of King Herod.  Herod was crowned by Rome to rule as king over the Jews in Judea, so he  perceived this new king to be a threat to his own authority.

He claims that he wanted to know where the baby Jesus is in order to worship him, but in reality his desire was to get find a way to get rid of him.

And as Matthew describes later on in this chapter, Jesus, and his parents Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt as refugees in order to escape from Herod’s wrath.

They left their own country to escape danger and persecution, like our Afghan refugee friends and so many others are doing in our world today, and like many of our Anabaptist/Mennonite forbearers did in previous centuries.

We know that throughout Jesus’ ministry he became an increasing target of those in political and religious power because the values of his Kingdom clashed with the values of their world,

and he exposed the injustices and the corruption and the inhumanity of the existing order to the point that the authorities resolved to put him to death.   That’s a story that we’ll look at more closely during the season of Lent and Holy Week.

But today is Epiphany Sunday, and it makes sense that the scripture story today has to do with the journey of the magi from the east who followed a star all the way to Bethlehem where they found and worshipped Jesus.

The magi story is appropriate for today because it is an Epiphany story with a capital “E”.  You see, when someone has an “epiphany”, it’s like a revelation, or appearance, an enlightenment, or shining forth.

The magis’ epiphany was manifested in a star that appeared to them, a star that was so bright and clear that it shined forth the way to Jesus.  And they also had a revelation that Jesus’ identity was a new king who would be the Savior of the world.

Their epiphany came through God speaking to them through something in nature— a star in the sky.  God is like that; God often uses nature to reveal Godself to us, right?

How many of you have experienced God’s presence through something in the natural world?   Ask for some examples….

And then every once in while someone has an experience, a capital “E” epiphany like the magi did that is so extraordinary, so mysterious, so transcendent and supernatural that it defies rational explanation and is a profound encounter with the divine.

I’ve been reading a book by Dale Allison called Encountering Mystery.  Allison has all the academic credentials one could think of and he’s professor of New Testament studies at Princeton Theological Seminary.

But in this book he sets out to remind us that there are religious experiences, epiphanies, encounters with the Holy that he states are quote:

“behind, beneath, and beyond the mundane face of the world, and secreted within our daily lives, in some fundamental, magical, mystical, affectionate reality.”

Allison shares about a few of his own personal epiphanies.  One is similar to what the Magi experienced, it has to do with the stars.  Read p. xi.

Allison goes on to talk about how this epiphany at age 16 changed the entire course of his life.  Two years later, at his college freshman orientation, he felt led to sign up to major in two things:  philosophy and religion.

And eventually he got his PhD in biblical studies and became a professor at Princeton, one of the most prestigious seminaries in the country.

He says that “ultimately, I am a professor at a seminary not so much because I have the requisite credentials but because the stars came down one night when I was sixteen years old.” P. 3

Maybe some of you have had a capital “E” epiphany like Allison’s or the magi’s that is an encounter with God so intimate and life-shaking that it stays with you forever and might have a profound effect on your life’s journey.

Allison swims in the world of academia, and he sees firsthand the secularism and the skepticism towards things that cannot be proven by science and logic.

And in a materialistic world that squeezes out transcendence and mystery, Allison says that encounters with the holy are important reminders of a presence and power higher and greater than us humans,

It’s a power that is good, and creative, and compassionate and personal.

Now I want to acknowledge that most of the time, most of us will not have these kinds of capital “E” epiphanies on a regular basis.  We need to be open to them when they break into our lives, but we can’t make them happen and we can’t expect to live on a steady diet of them.

But I believe that God is creative enough and close enough to us already that we can expect to experience “small e” epiphanies, little “God moments” as we go through our daily lives.

I experienced this several years ago during a mini-sabbatical trip I took to Turkey and the Greek islands toward the end of my time as a pastor in Phoenix.

One thing on my itinerary was visiting the cave on the island of Patmos where the apostle John had lived in exile, and God gave him this vision, this revelation, this capital “E” epiphany which we know as the book of Revelation.

People were joking with me before and after the trip about having my own revelation on the magnitude of John’s.  But no, I didn’t end up having such an epiphany.

But as I reflected on the trip after I returned, I could see how there were little revelations from God to me along the way.

I was wrestling with what I should do with my future, and it became clear to me that it was time to leave my current position and allow God to lead me into something new.  I had a peace about it that I knew was from God.

I had been feeling pulled in a lot of different directions, and during that trip God helped me become more centered and focused on what really mattered.

We are beginning the season of Epiphany, which lasts until Lent begins next month.  During this season of Epiphany, let’s open ourselves up a little more to experience the epiphanies of God, capital “E” and small “e” epiphanies.

Let’s expect to experience God’s presence in our lives and in the lives of those around us, through those revelations, those “light bulb moments”, those inspirations, and surprising appearances of God as we go through our daily lives.

I want to close with the words of author Diana Bass Butler, who reflected on Epiphany Sunday in a recent newsletter:

“This year, I’m wondering: What it would be like to expect epiphanies? Not just in stars, but in the more normal course of things. 

Can we be open to the possibility that “aha” moments might happen anywhere and anytime? Maybe epiphanies — not just the big, dramatic, starry ones — are humbly manifesting themselves all around us in ways we don’t expect, and they hold the promise of insight and deeper understanding in the everyday.

…with the birth of Jesus, God’s biggest epiphany, a history-changing revelation has come into the world—the light of the world has broken into the darkness of the world, and there are manifestations of that light all around us, as many as the stars in the sky.”   

May it be so.  Amen.