Matthew 2:1-12 – A Celebration of Epiphany
I had an interesting dilemma this week. You see, because of the way the Christmas and New Year holiday’s fell this year, Epiphany kind of “got lost in the shuffle.” January 1 we celebrated the coming of a new year, with all its’ hopes and expectations, and, according to the lectionary anyway, today is supposed to be Baptism of Jesus Sunday. So Epiphany kinda got pushed aside. But, that’s not going to be the case for us. We’re going to celebrate Epiphany today and shuffle everything else back one week. Because, you see, the whole season of Epiphany is dependent upon understanding the nature and importance of Light.
Starlight in the case of the Magi or Wise Men; the Three Kings, all of these terms identify the same Biblical Characters. Starlight that represents the Divine Light; Jesus Christ coming into the world. The word ‘epiphany’ literally means: ‘showing’ or ‘shining forth’. The Divine light that shines forth from the Christ-Child. And this is an important concept to grasp as we move from Christmas, the incarnation, the coming of God into the world as a baby, into the Season Epiphany. Because Epiphany takes us forward from the visit of the Wise Men, to the Baptism of Jesus, continues with the calling of the Disciples, leads us through the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount for a couple of weeks, finally landing us smack-dap in the middle of the Transfiguration. “Oh, the places we will go,” to quote Dr. Seuss. But before we can move on I think we need to pause and consider the meaning of Light and its significance to the Magi and to our lives as well.
The Divine Light, Jesus, if often understood as the appearance of God on earth. And that’s a good way to look at the incarnation. I often use this same kind of language in my speaking and writing. Incarnation is simply the coming of God into the world. But there’s another way of viewing the Divine Light. In addition to the appearance of God, Christ is also the transparency of God. A place where the veil between the divine and creation is “very thin,” to use a popular metaphor. And it’s this “thinness” this “transparency” that brings us close to God. Not that we can fully comprehend or even begin to understand the complete nature of God, but that even in our ignorance, we can feel a connection, a bond, an intimate closeness to the Divine. An intimacy represented by Light.
Now, turning to our text. The Magi had to be really focused on their task. As we consider this idea transparency or closeness to God, I think the beauty of the concept and its profound significance, sometimes gets lost in the distractions of life.
You know, we often laugh in our house because I tend to lose my focus from time to time. Look at Becky laughing. She knows where I’m going with this. I may be in the middle of a sentence, have an unrelated thought, and abruptly change the topic. Verbal whiplash as it were. Anyone else do that? Or, and this is way too common. I’m on the internet looking up a particular topic, get distracted by a host of headlines, and forget what I was looking up in the first place. Is it just me? In our house we have a term for this. We call it “seeing something shiny over there”
Well the story of the Magi traveling from afar gives us an example of how to be focused on the goal. I mean think about it. The Magi had to travel for at least a year, one way, into a strange land with all the distractions of such a journey. There were strange foods to try, tourist traps to check out, and they were wealthy, so there had to be a temptation to “live-it-up” along the way. And if that weren’t enough, Herod tried to commandeered their quest, or at the very least, use them to do his dirty work. But they remained focused on the goal. With all the “shiny things” that could have distracted them, they remained focused on seeing the face of God.
The sixty-four thousand dollar question however is of course, “how do we find a similar focus in our lives?” How can we keep our attention on the things of the divine while resisting the distractions of life. How do we avoid chasing every shiny thing we come across?
Well, in ancient Celtic Christianity there is the practice called reading from the two books of God–the big book and the little book. It’s a concept that may be helpful here as we talk about focus. Now, the big book refers to the universe, to the creatures, to everything that has been spoken into being. ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ says the Gospel of John, and all things have come into being through the Word. In other words, logas, The Word, the Divine, actually spoke creation into existence. Thus, the universe is like a sacred vibration, a living text that we can learn to read. And this text, this narrative of nature, includes the movement of the stars, the flowing of the seasons, the dreams of the night.
But there’s also the little book. The Bible. The book of Scripture in which we listen for God speaking to us through those who have gone before, our mothers and fathers in the faith. Their experiences of God, their mistakes and failings, as well as their hopes and wisdom are given to us so that we too can learn the way in which God speaks in the human heart and in human history. And that’s finally what the Bible is all about. It’s a wonderful collection of stories about experiencing the “thin veil;” the “transparency” of God in the lives of God’s people.
And that’s what we too are invited to do. We are invited to experience God in both books; Scripture and Life. We are challenged to listen to these two books in stereo, to the big book and the little book. Because if we listen only to the little book (Scripture) and ignore the big book (Creation), we may miss the vastness of the utterance, God in all things. And if we listen only to the big book (the expression of God in the universe) and ignore the little book (the word of God in Scripture), we may miss the intimacy of the voice, God speaking in the secret places of the human heart. The challenge is to listen in both books because in concert because they provide us with the framework to keep our focus on both the sacred and the mundane. A framework that helps us to hold both of these things and all things of life in proper balance.1
And yes, this can be a difficult thing to do. But, here’s the good news! We don’t have to go it alone. We can discern the movements of life and the profound teachings of the Bible in community. A community that is and will continue to faithfully wrestling with current issues of life and faith. We will continue to be a community that focused less on proclaiming certainty and more on living the questions. And together, we will continue this mission we’re on. A mission to share the Light of God by becoming a flashlight of the compassion, and hope, and love, and peace; a flashlight that lights the path of others.
- The Light Within All Life,” the Rev. Dr. John Philip Newell, Day 1, 2013.