arise, shine

Matthew 2:1-12

These days, to hear someone say,
“I’ve had an epiphany” is to require a context.
“You’ve had an epiphany about what?”
Because it doesn’t automatically mean,
if it even ever did, a manifestation of the divine.

As often as I think to, when I answer the girls’ questions
about how much further or how much longer—
their questions about how many books
or toys or candy they can afford to buy—
when we’re assessing
how many leftover Christmas’ homemade potato yeast rolls we froze
and how many that means we each get—
as often as I think to, I say, “And that’s math”—
hoping for an epiphany into math’s everyday significance.

Even though, according to Merriam-Webster,
the primary definition of epiphany is what we celebrate today:
“January 6 (or the Sunday closest to it)
observed as a church festival in commemoration
of the coming of the Magi
as the first manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles”—
even though the secondary definition of epiphany
is “an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being”—
even though it’s not until we get to the third definition
that we have “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, realization, or disclosure
a revealing scene or moment.”

So you see the primary and the secondary definitions of epiphany
(having to do with Jesus and with God),
have, in our culture and in our language,
become subordinate to the tertiary—the third definition—
according to the dictionary!
Imagine that: we took something about God and made it about us!
Today is about reestablishing primary meaning.

So I spent some time this past week
considering some words and their meanings.
A theophany for example, one of the words I’ve been considering,
is a revelation of God—
classically linked with thunder and lightning,
clouds, light and fire, the earth shaking,
and either God or an angel saying, “Now don’t be afraid!”
Sinai offers us perhaps the quintessential
Old Testament example of a theophany.
You notice God both initiates and fulfills a theophany.
There’s someone else there, but they don’t have to do anything.
It is all God.
It’s all God happening.

Epiphany, by way of contrast,
is the realization of what is encountered in a theophany.
They’re not the same thing—
though often used interchangeably—
even by scholars.

So we can have a theophany without an epiphany,
but not an epiphany without a theophany.
And an epiphany, unlike a theophany, is not all God.
God initiates epiphany in theophany,
but an epiphany is fulfilled only in the human response to God—
the human insight into God.

Etymologically, “theophany” comes from two Greek words:
theos, meaning God,
and the verb phanein (to show).
“Epiphany” also comes from two Greek words
(or a Greek word and a Greek prefix)—
that same verb phanein (to show)
and the prefix epi
translated at various times “upon/at/close upon/on/upon/above.”

So an epiphany is truth shown on something else—
through something else—
stacked next to something else.
It is an indirect insight into the truth.
And today, the epiphany is about insight into God
through Jesus.

So here’s a question for you:
what kind of epiphany did the magi have?

Maybe the first question should be what did the magi expect to find?
And they tell us, don’t they?
“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they ask.
“For we observed his star at its rising,
and have come to pay him homage.”
They came looking for a child born king.
Nothing about God.

So was their epiphany an insight into kingship?
Why would we think otherwise?

Well, maybe because some translations read
“We have come to worship him … and they worshipped him.”
Ours doesn’t.
Ours reads, “We have come to pay homage … and they paid homage.”
And the Greek word can actually be appropriately translated either way.
So no help there.

We also know that in 66 C.E., so some years later,
“astrologers from Persia …
came to [the Roman Emperor] Nero …
because of certain prophecies in the stars,
to worship him as king of the universe in the west
and then return by another route”
(Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew
[Atlanta: John Knox, 1975] 37.
See also Ben Witherington III, Mattthew
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2006] 58).
Okay, let that simmer.

Now consider what the magi saw.
They saw a young child,
probably a toddler,
tearing through the house.
You notice there’s nothing about a manger—
nothing about a stable?
Our text, in fact, specifically refers to a house!
Just wreaks havoc with manger scenes,
but a two-year-old probably isn’t going to be too happy in a manger.
And while a stable owner might be fine
with someone in his stable for a night or two,
probably not for a year or two!

According to Justin Martyr, writing in the second century,
“the Holy Family took up residence temporarily
in a cave near the village of Bethlehem.
This is plausible since many peasants
did make caves their homes in that region”
(Witherington, 60).

If they stayed long enough, in the house,
the magi, no doubt, saw Mary and Joseph changing a diaper
(remember last week we noted they both needed to be purified?
Nothing like changing a diaper to make you feel the need for purification!).
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they saw a tantrum—
if they saw tears—if they heard wails.

Now remember the Nero comparison—
all those parallels:
magi following a star,
worshipping a king,
going home by another way—
events that happened after the Jesus story,
but before Matthew wrote the Jesus story.
So Matthew knew these parallels—as would have his readers.

And here’s the thing: Nero was born in 37.
He was 29 years old at the arrival of the magi, not two.
He was established;
he had been ruling as Emperor for 12 years
(He ruled from 54 to 68).
So the magi showed up near the end of his rule.

So we have a comparison
between Caesar
in all his glory and might in the impressive heart of the vast Roman Empire,
and this young child of a poor couple
in some backwater town outside Jerusalem—
the Emperor in all his power,
and a helpless child—
a vulnerable child—
an utterly dependent child.

Not sure that this helps us any
trying to determine if the magi were thinking about king or God—
if they gained insight into kingship or God,
but these two stories juxtapose
very different portrayals of power and authority.

So what if—
what if the magi went home
not to found churches—
not as the first Gentile converts—
converts to what—anyway?
What if they went home not to tell the story of Jesus
(there really wasn’t a story of Jesus yet for them to tell)—
what if they just went back—
not even with a different understanding of God,
but with some sense
that if the king they expected—
the king foretold to them in the stars,
could be born to that poor couple in that backwater town,
then maybe they had a responsibility
for the care of all children.
What if that’s all they went back with?

In our world
we still do not acknowledge
(not in any practical—realistic—effective way)
that the child is born
who could eradicate cancer.
The child is born who could put an end to Alzheimers.
The child is born who could radically change the way we use energy—
who could unlock more of the quantum mysteries,
who could revolutionize nano-technology,
but that child, with all her potential—all his potential—
is born poor—
is born without medical resources—
is born without educational opportunity.
And so everyday,
we lose more than we could possibly know.

Whether Matthew intended to or not,
he tells a story of a faith so confident in its God,
it does not require the story to be told always as God’s—
so confident in God it tells a story
that doesn’t have to be about God.
Matthew tells a story of a God big enough
to encompass stories not called God-stories.
He writes of a people assured enough in their faith
not to to be threatened by that.
He writes and such a story comprises Scripture holy enough
to contain that.

I so love truth that transcends—
escapes its expression—
a story that says so much more
than it knows or even necessarily intends!
Is that what’s going on here?
Maybe.
Or did Matthew know what he was doing?
Because I also love writers who offer clues
to more than they explicitly say.

I suggested at the outset
we would try and restore primary meaning today—
to take what was of God that has been taken from God
and return it to God.
What if that has nothing to do with what we say about
what we believe about God,
and everything to do with the way we treat each other?

Just for fun, complete this sentence:
God does not care what I believe
as long as I ….
Now give that some thought this week.
Not so much that it doesn’t matter what you believe,
but about how you finished that sentence:
God doesn’t care what I believe
as long as I … what?

Now, please, you know me well enough to know
I’m not saying it’s not important what we believe.
It is. It’s very important.
But I’m saying we have made it too important.
The world and the church need fewer people
saying they believe in Jesus,
and more people living into Jesus.

The story is told of the failing monastery—
do you remember it?
I’ve referenced it before.
I think it’s a story Anthony de Mello tells.
And one monk in this failing monastery receives a vision.
They’re shutting down.
They’re losing monks.
And the revelation this one monk receives
is that the Messiah is among them.
The Messiah is one of them.
Well, they all began treating each other differently—
more respectfully—
more hopefully—
which led to more peace—
more joy,
and the monastery was transformed.
It shone
as a light to the people.

Final thought: Steven Johnson gave a TED talk
on “where good ideas come from.
wikepedia identifies him as a popular science author and media theorist—
whatever that is.
His TED bio describes him as examining the intersection
of science, technology and personal experience.
In his TED talk, he names how we
tend to think and how we tend to talk about
a stroke of genius—
a flash of insight—
a so-called eureka or lightbulb moment—
an aha moment or an ooohhhh moment—
an epiphany.
He uses the word—an epiphany—
a moment of individual insight.
Research suggests otherwise, Johnson suggests.
Research suggests a process—
a conversation—
a lifetime of connections—
what he calls a liquid network—
a slow hunch—developing through the years
that allows for an assimilation into new thought.
It’s a simmering.

Interesting to wonder
what all went into the magi being open to seeing truth in Jesus—
whatever that truth was.
I mean we have no idea. There’s no way to know.
But to think about the magi growing up—
all their relationships—
all their studying—
all their questions—
all their wondering—
all their conversations—
all their experiences.

It’s a wonderful deemphasis of the individualistic.
It’s this liquid network—
not what one person does or thinks or understands.

What if that’s true for salvation too?
That it’s not just about what one person does
or thinks or believes or confesses
as it is the network of conversations,
and relationships,
and prayers and experiences that an individual has—
someone choosing to be a part of a church
on that journey we’re all on together.
This is the community in which I want to identify myself—
in which I want to find myself—
in which I want to explore—
in which I want to do life.

It is the first Sunday of the new year.
You may or may not do resolutions,
but in the good and appropriate reflections about life
that kind of come naturally at this time,
I hope you will consider your faith journey
not so much as so individual,
but as connected to where you come from—
connected to where you are—
connected to where you’re going.

I hope you will consider church—
I hope you’ll consider faith—
I hope you’ll consider salvation—
as some kind of liquid network—
a slow hunch—
a simmering—
in which we recognize, name, and celebrate
love and grace and forgiveness and joy and wonder and peace—
in which we recognize, name, and celebrate
to greater and lesser extents, the flavors of God—
the very different flavors of God in their consistency—
theophanies and epiphanies,

as often as we think to, saying to each other
“And that’s God!”—
hoping for an epiphany into everyday significance.

2015 awaits us.
I guarantee you,
it will be full of theophanies.
Can we be the community
that encourages and celebrates and facilitates epiphanies?
Do you see God?
God’s going to be there—
all around us.
“That’s God!”

Not a bad way to consider a new year!

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