Message for January 6, 2019
Speaker: Minister Vicki McPhee
If you attended worship on the Sunday before Christmas, the fourth of Advent and then came for one of the Christmas Eve services, you may have noticed that the cross and the communion table went from being covered in blue to being covered in white. Stephen and I wore white stoles. You’ll see that the white remains even though it’s been nearly two weeks since Christmas. The liturgical colour of white—liturgy or liturgical, by the way, is just a fancy way of referring to religious ceremony or ritual—the colour marking this particular religious service that we find ourselves participating together in today is white. Today, along with hundreds of other churches around the world, we use white to recognize that today marks a significant day in the life of Jesus. We use white marking his birth, baptism, resurrection. And we use white today because it is Epiphany—the day on which the coming of the Messiah was revealed to the Gentiles, to those who were not of the Jewish faith.
Epiphany immediately follows the twelve days of the season of Christmas. For those of us whose world is very much shaped by the secular world, it sometimes is a funny thing to consider that Christmas is more than the day after Christmas Eve. Our faith tradition has it that our high holy day is the evening before the first day of Christmas after which we go home and move into a more secular celebration of the season. You are forgiven if you walked into the sanctuary today and were surprised that the nativity is still up and the decorations have not yet been put away. Because Christmas is over. If you haven’t already been back to work or kicked the kids out the door to school with a sigh of relief at the sudden blessed silence of everyone have been returned to their regularly scheduled programing, you will likely be doing so tomorrow. And yet, here we gather, amongst the decorations of a season gone by. We do so because the tale of the Christ Child’s birth, the nativity story, did not end on Christmas Eve. However we are not a patient people. We don’t want to wait for the story to be doled out, piece by piece. We want the whole story, told altogether. And not all people come week by week to hear the story of Christ Jesus told out in a measured way. They come, all for their own reasons, during the high holy times, and it is vital for them to hear the story from start to finish amongst a group of folks choosing to congregate, to hear together the story of the Word becoming incarnate with all the world. And so, we tell the story, from the revelation to Mary that she is expecting the child she is to name Emmanuel, God With Us, all the way to the revelation of that child, the one to become our Messiah, to the foreign scholars, the strangers from a strange land, arriving on camels.
We tell the story as if each moment happens one immediately after the other. Mary is suddenly pregnant, Joseph does not dismiss her, they travel to Bethlehem, no room at the Inn, birthing and swaddling clothes, the shepherds are visited by a multitude of angels, they travel to Bethlehem, the wise ones interpret the star as a sign, they too travel to Bethlehem. From the very start of this tale, you know the timeline has been compressed. There are very few verses between Mary being told by Gabriel that she is expecting to Gabriel telling the shepherds they are to be the first to welcome the Christ Child who was born in a stable and is now lying in manger. Anyone who has had to wait from the time a loved one has shared the glorious news that there is to be a baby born into the family, for those who have been told they have been matched with a child for adoption, the arrival of new, young family member takes days, weeks, months to happen.
The end of the nativity also seems a bit rushed. The ones we know as the Wise Men, the Magi lived far, far away. They saw the star, knew the Messiah had been born and so they began travelling. By all scholarly accounts, it is thought it would have taken months and months for the Magi to get to Mary and meet Jesus. So, this sacred story of ours that we hear in its totality each Christmas Eve, begins with months and months of waiting for Mary’s pregnancy to come to its fruition and it ends after months and months of traveling by the non-Jewish scholars to which the Messiah’s presence was first revealed. Which is why, liturgically, we do our best to keep out the Christmas decorations celebration the birth of Christ, and we keep keeping on with laying out white in our sanctuaries, we do this because, because the twelve days between the start of the Christmas season to now, the day of Epiphany, marks the passage of time that is not always understood or acknowledged as we tell the tale on Christmas Eve.
There are so many aspects of the Epiphany section of the nativity story that we can consider. Who exactly were the ones that saw the star and why were they thought to be so wise? What was Herod’s deal in being so worried about the birth of a vulnerable baby? And what about the meeting with Herod had the Wise Men so concerned that they defied his orders to return to him after they met the baby who was to become the Light of the world? Today, let us look at what the different characters of this story did when it became apparent to them that God would become manifest as light, hope and love in a time ruled by uncertainty, angst and fear. Let us look at what epiphanies each group of them experienced upon the birth of the Christ Child.
We heard King Herod had called together all the chief’s priests and teachers of the law—it is written as if Herod had called these leaders to him in advance of the Magi arriving in Jerusalem and asking the location of the king of the Jews. The Magi arrived, asked their question and Herod becomes disturbed. Then the reading goes on, giving us a memory of Herod—when he had met with the religious leaders and lawyers, they told him of the prophecy. Past tense. Which leaves the impression that the priests and scholars knew that God would be sending a ruler who would shepherd the people of Israel. And they kept quiet about it. They did not share the prophecy. We know this because if they had shared what they knew, if they shared the information, Herod would not had to ask where the Messiah would be born and the people of Jerusalem would not have been disturbed when the Magi arrived in town, telling of a magnificent star that had risen in the east.
The priests, the leaders of the very people who were held under the thumb of the state, who lived their lives at the whim of cruel and unjust laws, regulations and taxes, the religious leaders of the people did not speak of what could give hope to the masses. They denied the prophecy. They gave no authority or credence to their very scriptures, telling them they were not alone and that God would never forget them. There’s no indication of why the priests and scholars of the law tried to ignore the prophecy, why they did not lift it up. Perhaps they were afraid of the consequences of speaking out. But we all know that no matter how much we deny certain truths, eventually we must face the very reality we are trying to ignore. I like to think as I get older, I know better than to ignore what needs facing but I think instead of acknowledging that I’m denying something, my brain has become expert at assisting me in my denials. Just this week I had to face the hard, cold truth that no matter how I worked it, there was no way the blocks that I had made just before Christmas for a quilt I’m working on were going to line up with the blocks I made after Christmas. I had made a measurement error with the first set of blocks which I realized while I was sewing them. I assembled those first blocks knowing things were not correct while my brain whispered to me that it was a problem that future Vicki could figure out. I didn’t need to do a course correction, it would work out in the end. However when I went to add the newer blocks, to my dismay, they did not line up. I had tried to ignore the issue earlier on but math is math—math is ALWAYS math—and now I have a problem that I’m quite annoyed with past Vicki for denying there was a problem. The leaders of the Jewish people denied the authority of their scriptures and ignored the truth that was promised to them—that the Light of the World was sure to come.
Which brings us to Herod. You don’t really get a sense of how much he’s freaking out with the arrival of the Wise Men asking where the baby had been born but something was off because the Wise Men did not return to him after meeting the holy child, as he had instructed them to do. This suspicion is affirmed in the next set of readings in which Herod has a melt-down and orders all male children under the age of two to be killed. But in our reading today, it is enough to know the Wise Men do not trust Herod enough to return to him. The fear of the one who was to shepherd the people of Israel must of seeped out of him when he met with the Magi. And being as wise as they were, these men from the east surely understood how threatened Herod would have felt with the possibility of the prophecy of a king greater than he from long past coming true.
Lately the news has been filled with people whose power has been threatened. I can’t help but think of the sweeping #MeToo movement which has had many influential men’s careers to end in disgrace after years and decades of mistreating women. We know, from reporting, that in their attempt to keep their power, the men did their best to extinguish the stories of the women they abused or mistreated. Just last month, it was revealed that the president of the United States worked with a rag magazine to have women’s stories bought and then silenced because the magazine then owned the rights to tell the story, which they never intended to publish. Herod heard the prophecy, he asked the Magi to give him the final detail he was missing and then what? We know. We know the story. Death and destruction. Because the Magi did not tell him specifically which child was the Messiah, he went with mass casualties. When the response to truth telling, to a light shining so that the truth can be known, when that light is a threat to power and control and the response to that light is to do everything possible to extinguish it, you must know there’s something pretty darn special about that Light.
The dark is not inherently a bad place to be but there is no doubt that our instinct is to look for light—any light whatever form it might take when we are uncomfortable, sad or feeling trapped. Sometimes it’s literal light. When I was in Toronto for a conference in November I came down with the flu. I was alone in my hotel room feeling incredibly sorry for myself. I knew I needed to sleep but everything just felt so awful, I didn’t want to be alone in the dark of my hotel room. So, I turned the lamp onto its lowest setting and turned the TV onto CNN at a very low volume. It was the mid-term elections in the States. The glow of the lamp and the low voices of the TV together created the Light I needed to get through that one night of the worst illness I can ever remember having. The Light, though, can be so much more than a glow in the dark. When a dear friend of mine was diagnosed with a very serious condition a few years ago, it was just about Advent. Once word got out that he was going to have surgery that would require months of recovery, the men of the church choir that he sang with showed up at his home and hung the Christmas lights. Casseroles were prepared and frozen so his wife could tend to his needs. People drove him to and from appointments. Visits were timed so his wife could rest. His physical healing would take a lot of time, but his soul found healing in the love that was shown unconditionally to him. The Light he needed to surround him at his darkest hour was made manifest in the actions of his neighbours, his fellow church members, his colleagues and his family.
Through the child Jesus, God entered the world—no longer a distant god but now a god of love being lived in and amongst humanity, in and amongst us. The baby grew and became known as the Light of the World. It is a light that God promises to us that will never go out. Jesus, the Light of the World, expressed love and taught lessons throughout his ministry which became known as The Way. When he was at the Sea of Galilee, he met people of all shapes and sizes, types and makes and he said to them, ‘Come and follow me.’ With his disciples in tow, he began walking town to town. To Nazareth, to Bethany, to Jerusalem, to Emmaus. To follow Jesus meant travelling. The priests tried to ignore the Light that was to come. Herod tried to extinguish the Light he knew had arrived. But those that met Jesus, those who met the Light of the World, those people began to follow him, they began to seek him out. And we seek him still today.
Epiphany is the revelation to the non-Jews that the Messiah has come. Epiphany for the priests meant that despite their attempts to ignore the Light that was to come, God sent it anyway. Epiphany for Herod was that despite his attempts to extinguish the Light, courage and love would prevail and the Light would not be put out. Epiphany for the Wise Men was the realization in their seeking, their journey was not finished when they arrived at the Christ Child’s side. They must continue along a path not previously known to them. Epiphany today is a reminder that Jesus came as the Light of the World and, despite humanity’s and our individual attempts to ignore it or, even at times, extinguish it, that light, that love will always overcome. That light will never falter. We are called by God, by Jesus to come and follow. To seek the light and, day by day, be the love that Christ showed us was possible. May it be so. Amen.