(A sermon based on Ephesians 3:1-13 & Matthew 2:1-12 for Epiphany Sunday, January 2, 2011)
January 6 is the day of Epiphany (manifestation, unveiling, revelation) on the Christian calendar; it comes twelve days after Christmas and marks the end of the Christmas season. Many churches do what we are doing which is to observe Epiphany on the Sunday before the day of Epiphany.
If you’ll stop and think about it, I think you’ll agree that Epiphany should be one of the most meaningful days of the season for us. Why? Because it’s the day on which we celebrate the revealing of the Christ child to Gentiles.
“So what?” you might ask.
Well, a Gentile is anyone who is not Jewish. We’re not Jewish. We’re Gentiles. Therefore, Epiphany is about the revealing of the Christ child to us—not to us instead of to Jews, now, but to us along with the Jews; it is about the revealing of Christ to everybody.
The Wise Men (magi, scholars) were our representatives, then, in the story of the birth of Christ. In their non-specified but definitely non-Israel home—the “East” most likely refers to Persia but we can’t know for sure and it doesn’t really matter since the point is that they were somebody else from somewhere else and thus represented anybody else from anywhere else and everybody else from everywhere else—God through a star announced to them that a new king of the Jews had been born and they followed the guidance of that star until they got to Bethlehem.
Once they got there they worshipped him and then gave him their famous gifts and went home.
(I wonder how life was different at home for them when they got back. I wonder what they did with what they had received. How will things be different for us? What will we do with what we have received?)
Remember that everyone who had been involved in the birth of Jesus to this point was Jewish; everyone was part of the predominant religion of the area and thus was an insider. Elizabeth and Zechariah, John, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds—all were Jewish.
The Wise Men were Gentiles; they were the first concrete indication that the coming of Christ into the world was not just for the Jews who had expected a Messiah to come but was for the Gentiles—which is short for “everybody else.”
Soren Kierkegaard expressed amazement that the chief priests and scribes who told the Wise Men where to find the new king did not accompany the foreigners on their trip to Jerusalem: “What a vexation it must have been for the kings, that the scribes who gave them the news they wanted remained quiet in Jerusalem!” [Soren Kierkegaard, “Only a Rumor,” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2001), p. 289]
And we say to ourselves, “Foolish scribes. Foolish priests.” “Given all that they knew that the Wise Men didn’t know,” we ask, “How could they not have gone?”
Would we have gone? Better put, would we go?
Before you answer too quickly, let me drop this news flash on you: we’re not the Gentiles anymore.
We’re not the outsiders anymore. We’re the modern equivalent of the priests and scribes; we’re the insiders who are burdened with knowledge and cursed by familiarity. You can’t be much more of an insider these days than being a Christian in America and being a Baptist in the American South; we’re covered up with Bibles and Sunday School lessons and Christian videos and music and books. We know the jargon and we’ve heard about Jesus so much that he feels kind of like our legendary uncle that never quite makes it home for the holidays.
What evidence is there in our lives that we have really gotten up and gone to see Jesus for ourselves?
Kierkegaard, still speaking of the priests and scribes who failed to accompany the Wise Men, said, “This is as bad as if a person knows all about Christ and his teachings, and his own life expresses the opposite. We are tempted to suppose that such a person wishes to fool us, unless we admit that he is only fooling himself.” Have we gone to see Christ? Do we know all about Christ? Do our lives reflect Christ? How are we practicing the love, grace, and forgiveness about which we should know if we know him?
We are not the Gentiles anymore; we are the scribes and priests who better watch out lest familiarity breed a neglect born of over-confidence.
There are still Gentiles, though.
Just like the Wise Men of so long ago, they might look different, they might talk different, they might think different, and they might believe different. But they just might be the ones who are open. They just might be the ones who are willing. They might be the ones who are able. They just might be the ones who are following the light that we have, as incredible as it is, developed the ability to ignore.
I’m sure that it never occurred to the scribes and priests—clutching their scrolls as tightly as they held on to their traditions—as they watched those strange and foreign outsiders head off toward Bethlehem, that the foreigners were riding off to embrace the life that could have been theirs.
There was in the early years of the church a controversy, once it became clear to all who had eyes to see that the Gentiles belonged in the church too, over whether or not Gentiles had to become Jews before they could become Christians. It seems almost that the reverse was true—everybody, Jews included, had to come to see God’s reality as revealed in Jesus with the eyes of outsiders. They all—we all—had to see God’s grace for what it was, namely, a free and undeserved and magnificent gift that came in surprising—even shocking ways.
So we’re not Gentiles anymore, but let’s try to be….