EPIPHANY: The Light in Our Darkness 1

Happy New Year! And greetings in the name of the Lord whose birth we celebrate.  With this first blog of 2015, I quite realize that Christmas is over and yet, based on hard biblical evidence, want to assert that it is not at all over!  The Eastern Orthodox tradition celebrates Christmas with the arrival of the magi (wise men) on January.  In Western Christian tradition January 6th is also historically celebrated as Epiphany Day. Perhaps we know the story too well.  It begins, as Matthew tells us, in a straightforward fashion.  “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?  christmas starFor we have seen His star in the East, and have come to worship Him’” (Matthew 2:1-2). Older translations call them “wise men,” which Raymond Brown (the great Catholic biblical scholar) thinks is too charitable a designation, if not downright misleading.  They are called, in the original, “magi” (which is how the Common English Bible – CEB renders the translations).  A little note at the bottom of one of those older translations says they were “a learned class in ancient Persia,” (Revised Standard Versions – RSV) which doesn’t tell the whole story. Brown reminds us that “magi” covers a conglomeration of astronomers, fortune tellers, arguers, and magicians of varying degrees of plausibility and quackery.  Bishop Willimon comments that Matthew is probably thinking of astrologers or stargazers – a ridiculous, absurdly frivolous, specifically condemned pastime by Jewish standards.  The magi would thus represent, to the early Jewish reader, the epitome of Gentile idolatry and religious quackery, dabblers in stars or chicken gizzards, forever trotting off here or there in search of some key to the future.  They were not so much “wise men” or “we three kings of Orient are” but your average, credulous, naïve, gentile horoscope devotee – sincere perhaps, learned, earnest – but utterly ignorant about religious matters (William Willimon, On a Wild and Windy Mountain, pp. 48-49). And yet, Matthew, in his own way, commends them to us. Why is that?  What lesson can these stargazers teach us? With an economy of words, Matthew tells of their unrelenting search for Jesus.  They come to Herod for help, and the religious scholars of the day carefully check things out in Scripture.  “They told him, in Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet…then Herod…sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found Him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him” (Matthew 2:5-8). The religiously learned sat while these untutored ignorant stargazers searched.  Perhaps you have heard the phrase, “wise men (and women) still follow Him.”  This is true, good, and holy advice, but it misses the first and most vital point of the lesson.  Wise people still seek Him.  These wise men, these stargazers, these seekers, would instruct us of faith’s journey.  The new year begins best for us when we seek Him. Again Bishop Willimon perceptively comments, “Do you see?  The Chosen people (read, church) pour over our Scriptures, debate fine points of theology, doing it all so decently and in order, checking one another out on correct doctrine, keeping our religion middle-of-the-road, balanced, respectable.  In our wait, we miss the whole thing” (William Willimon, IBID, p. 49). Ironic isn't it, God uses searching, seeking unbelievers (probably from Iraq or Iran) as a lesson for us.  In one sense, the search for the real spirit of Christmas reaches its culmination on December 25th with the child found in a Bethlehem manger.  In another, just as assuredly true sense, the search for the real spirit of Christmas, the Holy Spirit of God, continues into the New Year. Lessons abound for us but not the least of which is our danger in missing the warning given by God deliberately to those who are believers.  Don't get so lost in pouring over the scriptures and debating theology that you fail to enter the new year seeking Christ. I think there is a great further lesson that we must take to heart.  We are afloat on a sea of seeking people.  Assumptions of a Christian America are wildly mistaken.  In our post-Christendom world, the recovery of Epiphany: The Light in Our Darkness, is a central issue for the church. I intend to begin the New Year of our Lord 2015 writing a series of blogs on the recovery of a witnessing, sharing, evangelizing faith.  It is the primal lesson of the magi and actually (though often forget) the intended focus for the season of Epiphany. The word "epiphany" means "an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being." Check a good dictionary, and it goes on to say that an "epiphany" is a "usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something ... an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking ... an illuminating discovery" (Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary). The shock of this passage to the first century reader lies in just who finds the Savior.  It is not the great King or learned scholars.  Those who we call wise were truly unbelievers, those thought by all to lie outside God's grace and care.  The "ah-ha!" moment, the "epiphany", comes in the realization of where their arduous searching journey leads them.  Notice carefully that they are led by God (remember the star) to the newborn Lord.  If star-gazing, chicken-gizzard dappling interlopers from Iraq (Persia) are led to the Lord, why then this God is for all!  The Savior is not the property of one race, clan, or nation. The second shock comes when it dawns on us that we should have been there helping the magi find the way.  Those believers who stayed in the Palace with Herod pouring over the scriptures but failing to put their teaching into active use miss the greatest event in history.  Surely this is an epiphany – a striking new insight – that we need to be reminded of.  We are not only to seek Christ ourselves but just as importantly, we are to engage others in their seeking.  This God, the very one who comes to us in the baby Jesus, is for all.  No one is outside God's grace, not even strangers from the East.  The implications for us as we engage in ongoing conflicts in the ancient area of Persia (think ISIS) or even in the cultural wars of our own society are astounding.  They call us to reach out evangelistically to everyone and commend our care of those most perceived outside God’s love and care.  Epiphany: The Light in Our Darkness is about the great Wesleyan imperatives of evangelism and sanctification (holiness of heart and life). More to come.  Happy New Year!