January 7 Sermon


A Reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For January 7 2018, Epiphany Sunday
Based on Matthew 2:1-12

In Matthew’s gospel, the story of Jesus begins with the birth of Jesus. Angels, shepherds, magi, and kings fill out the cast of the divine drama played on the stage of human history. This morning’s reading tells us of the magi following the star and the explanation the gave to Herod for traveling so far from home.

Magi from the east. “The bible is not clear who these strangers are; it’s only clear that they are strangers. They are from the east; they watch the stars. Perhaps they come from Babylon {not far from modern Baghdad in Iran; to the Roman Empire that region was a suspicious as it is to our current government}. Certainly {Jews would label them as} they are pagans. This group of strangers arrives as pagans and they leave as pagans. …{These strange itinerant pagan foreigners} appear to be astrologers. {They may also have been physicians and engineers and biologists. But} They know about the birth of Jesus because they study the stars. If you want to know what the bible says about pagans and astrologers, check Leviticus. {Spoiler alert:} Leviticus doesn’t much like either one. {But} here come the magi, no matter what Leviticus says {about them}. And they are not to be ignored.”[1] They are not to be forgotten.

To make sure they are neither ignored or forgotten, the church has preserved a holiday for them, the day of Epiphany. Epiphany literally means “from the light” but it could also mean “appearing because.” In most ancient cultures light is used to describe insight or understanding or wisdom. An epiphany is a new understanding, a new relationship. So these foreign pagan astrologers follow a star with unusual light providing direction to the Messiah, the Christ, the one promised in ancient holy writings to inaugurate God’s way of being within earthly realities. An epiphany, an understanding, a new relationship. We’re challenged to identify how we will seek the messiah: What signs will we receive to lead us to Christ? What sings will we trust to lead us to Christ?

Your time of congregational discernment and transition has not concluded. You will now be participating in discernment in new ways on new issues. The hard work of this transition is not behind you: it is yet in front of you. The hard work of the magi was not arriving at the house of Christ; it was in finding a new route which disentangled them from Herod.

I recently heard someone remembering an Epiphany sermon, the central idea being that when we meet Christ our journey changes, our pathways change, that after meeting Christ we cannot travel the same roads or in the same way. I like the notion, except it does not follow the biblical narrative well. The path of the magi changes not because they met Christ but because they met Herod. Effectively, Herod gave them documented alien worker status and issued them traveling visas for a specific route to a specific place. When they deviate from this route to exit the region without returning to Herod, they are invalidating their government documents.

But they took a new route because they had met Herod who meant to harm the Christ child. The passage reads they were warned in a dream; legend has the angel Gabriel using dreamtime to communicate with the magi. Whatever it was, they discerned it necessary to begin a new route, even though it was not they route they planned, even though it endangered their existing relationship with Herod, even though it potentially meant political and legal trouble for them. They chose a new course because, after meeting Christ, they knew they had to live within the parameters of justice, within the parameters of life and dignity, within the parameters of God’s righteousness.

Lyonsville, your discernment is not done. Calling Sean Weston as your pastor and teacher is a significant event, but it is not the conclusion of your transition. You too must discern the parameters of justice, life and dignity, the parameters of justice to which you are being called – even if it is not the route you planned, even if it endangers existing relationships. These are gifts of epiphany for ongoing wisdom. Amen.

[1] Richard W. Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Companion, (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2007), 81.

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