Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, though the feast itself happened on January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas. For this congregation, it was also significant because that was the day that we commended to God one of our best and brightest brothers, Howie, who passed away on New Year’s Eve. It seemed appropriate to commend to God such a guiding light to so many people on that day. Today, we remember another guiding light: the star that led the magi to discover Jesus, the Savior of the world, not in a palace, but in the most unexpected of places: with his young, poor parents in an occupied land. That’s quite an epiphany.
To have an epiphany can mean a number of different things, as you all well know. The word itself has roots that mean “to reveal” or to make clear. To the Christian calendar, of course, it means the revelation of Christ to the magi, Gentile astrologers, scholars, maybe even kings from the East. But if your friend tells you that they’ve had an epiphany, it could mean something different: a moment of realization or clarity. It could be something deep and meaningful, like realizing one’s purpose in life, or it could be something far more trivial, like a list of statements that Buzzfeed published online recently.
Sudden realizations like:
Your car keys have traveled further than your car.
The object of golf is to play the least amount of golf.
Or, finally, “Of all the bodily functions that could be contagious, thank God it’s the yawn.”(1)
Whether it’s something trivial like these or something profound, epiphanies are moments where we sit back and go “HUH,” where we realize something important that we hadn’t thought of before, where we begin to see things differently.
The story of the wise men itself is full of epiphanies — epiphanies within the epiphany, if you will. You see, we’ve been subjected to so many representations of Christ’s birth story that we sometimes forget what’s actually in the text and what isn’t.
For example, Matthew is the only Gospel that gives us this story of the magi. Matthew doesn’t mention shepherds. Therefore, there is no Gospel story that gives us both shepherds and wise men — our nativities, and our church year, are a composite story, piecing together the details of Christ’s birth from two different ancient accounts, from Matthew and Luke. HUH!
Second, how many wise men were there?
If you’ll look at the text closely and forget your assumptions, you’ll see that it doesn’t exactly say. We get three from the fact that there were three gifts, but there could have been two or three or four or six. HUH!
Also, it’s pretty clear from the text that this story happens in a house, not a stable. This story probably didn’t happen on the night Jesus was born, but up to two years later. We know this because when Herod tries to take Jesus’ life to keep his own power, he has all children two years and under killed, based on when the star that announced his birth rose. HUH!
Finally and most significantly, we know from the text that the wise men came looking for a king. That’s probably why they went to Herod’s palace: you find kings in palaces. Duh. If you’d followed the star right to the house of Joseph the young carpenter and Mary his wife, you’d’ve thought Google maps done got you again. No. The king of the Jews couldn’t be in this house. Kings are supposed to be in palaces. But they found the King right there, with his poor, young parents in a land that’s not even ruled by the Jews, but occupied by the Roman Empire. Huh.
So there you go: epiphanies about the epiphany, breaking down the difference between what the text actually says about Jesus’ birth and the details that our culture has filled in — and the ones we’ve overlooked because we’ve heard the story so many times.
What most people know about Jesus can be summed up in two episodes: his birth and his death and resurrection. Christmas and Easter. This is when our churches are at their fullest, and arguably, these are the two most important moments in Jesus’ story or in anyone’s story: where his time on earth began and where it ended.
But it’s also true that what’s in between is crucial, too. It’s true of all of us — it’s a kitschy thing to say, but people often refer to “the dash” in all our lives — the time between the year we were born and the year we die. As we remember and grieve the loss of our brother Howie, it becomes even more clear: Howie’s life among us is what mattered, much more than just where he was born or how he died. His life is when he made an impact on us. That’s when he became the guiding light that we knew and loved that pointed to Christ, just as the star that guided the wise men led them to Jesus as a child.
In the same way, though our church won’t be as full during this time between Christmas and Easter, this time — this time between Jesus’ birth and his death and resurrection — is the church’s time to live with the incarnated Christ, who was born in the most unexpected of places and lived in the most unexpected of ways. As I said earlier, we will read the Gospel from the middle of the congregation during this time as we remember that Christ is born and lives among us. The sign outside reminds us of the same thing.
When I was doing my very first internship in my very first church job, I was at a United Methodist Church in Midtown Atlanta called St. Mark. St. Mark had an excellent children’s director named Jackie. Jackie, who was in her 60s at the time, had been doing children’s ministry for quite awhile. She was battle tested and parent approved. And, as any good children’s director does, she was always coming up with new and crazy ideas. On the morning of Epiphany Sunday that year, after the prelude, Jackie’s voice rang out across the hushed sanctuary: Where is the Christ child? Little voices rang out behind her: “He is among us!”
As she came into view, we saw Jackie’s trusty, near life size wooden camel, Diego, rolling on his wheels behind her, and then, about ten tiny Methodists with Burger King crowns on their heads. “Where is the Christ child?” Jackie yelled out again. “He is among us!” the kids responded. Soon, the congregation got into it too.
Tears brimmed up in my eyes as I thought of these kids — and this whole congregation — being invited into the story. Today we come searching for the Christ child, just as the magi from the East did.
Every time we look, we find the Christ child here: in bread. In wine. In water and words. In the Holy Spirit that lives in each of us. Where is the Christ child?
He is among us.
He is in the most unexpected of places: not in a palace, and not in some heaven far away, but among us.
That’s quite an epiphany.
So may we live, as our Howie did, to point to Love, and to point to Jesus. May we remember the life of Christ in the coming weeks. Though our church won’t be as full as it will be on Easter, we will be blessed to hear the words of Jesus’ teaching and his life during these weeks. The Christ child is among us, and we will live the story here, week by week, and maybe we’ll have even more epiphanies along the way.
Where is the Christ child? He is among us. May we do all we can to point the way.
Thanks be to God. Amen.