2024 01 08: Epiphany 2024

Posted on 08 Jan 2024

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Inside the Cathedral Church in Lund, Sweden, there is a medieval wooden clock listed as a “must-see” in all the Scandinavian guidebooks.  Twice a day, at 12 o’clock and 3, the mechanical wooden figures parade around to the ancient music of a mechanical crumhorn.  In the span of 60 seconds the medieval show is complete and the figures disappear.  Twenty years ago, our family was in southern Sweden for New Years and we tried to experience the Scandinavian traveler’s “must-see.”  Against all odds, including a train delayed by fresh snow, we ran from the train station at 11:55, along the icy path, up the cold, stone stairs, and through the Cathedral doors just in time to see the last figures vanish into the clock.  I was disappointed.  My two boys, on the other hand, who live in a world of virtual reality and computer generated action figures, were disappointed that the 500 year old wooden figures could only parade around in a circle.  I decided I would return for the 3 o’clock showing. Alone.

At precisely 3 o’clock, two wooden knights jousted, and then two crumhorn players began to perform the Christmas carol, “In dulci jubilo.”  And so emerged the three wise men, Melchior, Balthazar and Kasper, bowing before the Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus and presenting their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. And with the final strains of “Christ is born to day” the wooden figures disappeared again into the clock.  I was delighted. Two minutes later, however, a couple walked into the Cathedral.  They turned to the clock and walked closer with their guide-book.  Then I heard the man say to the woman, “I don’t know how we could have missed it.”

Certainly the wise men’s arrival in ancient Palestine could have been better timed.  Twelve days after Jesus’ birth is, after all, just on the edge of acceptability. They could have arrived without creating such a political stir with King Herod and the royal court in Jerusalem. More importantly, they could have chosen more age-appropriate gifts.  As a dear friend wrote in her Christmas card hinting that the celebration of Epiphany would be different if three wise women had made the journey instead of three wise men. “Three wise women,” she wrote, “would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, brought practical gifts, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and there would have, been peace on earth.”  One thing, however, must be said.  At the end of the day, the wise men were not questioning each other and pondering, “How could we have missed it.”

Oddly, that is how many people feel as they enter the new year. When it’s time to drag the Christmas tree out to the curb, pack up the holiday decorations, and head back to school and work, they feel more like the forlorn tourists in Lund than the wise men who knelt down before Jesus in Bethlehem. Perhaps you feel that way too.  You had hoped that this year you would have been transformed by the experience of Christmas, and that you might have been changed and become a better person along the way.  But now, you’re just not so sure.  My friends, let me suggest that you ponder the mystery of Christmas anew.

Albert Einstein, one of world’s greatest scientific minds, once said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.”  It is that mystery, that wonder, that capacity to dream that the wisemen embodied.  They wisely followed the ancient scriptures and a mysterious star that they believed would lead them to a newborn king.  In the ancient world, the occurrence of a star or a constellation of stars was often associated with the birth of a notable person. So having seen the star, the wise men set off to worship him. The Royal Court of Herod in Jerusalem was the natural destination for a child born King of the Jews, but the star and scripture led them further to the little town of Bethlehem. In scripture we read that they followed the star until it stopped over the place where the child was and “they were overwhelmed with joy.”  They had arrived at the place where heaven and earth come together mysteriously and they “fell down and worshipped him.” That is the mystery of Christ’s incarnation.

The characters of the Christmas story remind us that there is no limit to the mysterious ways that God touches us. The wisemen were led by a star, the shepherds were led by a host of angels singing Glory to God in the Highest Heaven, John the Baptist leapt in the womb of his mother Elizabeth by the action of the Holy Spirit.  Even Joseph received messages in a series of angelic dreams.  I would dare say that you may experience the mystery of God in the love between two people,  in the beauty of a snow capped mountain, in the playful flock of sheep, in a lonely row of pines, in the wonder of music,  and even in yourself.  God’s mysterious ways are limitless. Without these creations of God’s wistful hand, especially the star, the wisemen could have been like the delayed tourists in the Cathedral in Sweden. Instead, they experienced, the wonder of meeting God’s son and being changed.

The late Roman Catholic bishop and early religious television figure Fulton Sheen wrote, “The Magi, the wisemen from the East, returned home by another way as they were profoundly changed by having met Christ, that cooing child in a makeshift manger.”  As wise as they were, they understand the majesty of God’s mysterious ways and they were changed.

For many the Festival of Epiphany is simple the final hurrah for Christmas, but what if Epiphany is actually an invitation to ponder the mystery of God’s creation and to be transformed by it?  What if this is really just the beginning and God is actually calling you and me to become a revelation of his love and peace to others?

Sometimes, when you meet someone, you know immediately and instinctively that there is something different about them.  You don’t know why or how, but you know that there is something honorable and at peace with their character, so you are anxious and curious to learn their secret. It is not necessarily how they dress or talk or act, although that may influence these things. Nor, is it that they wear a colorful name tag across their chest proclaiming a particular identity or ideology.  No, what I believe is different about them, and you can see it, is that they know Jesus.  Like the wise men on their journey home, and the shepherd who returned to their flocks, they knew that for them, Jesus was a living reality.  Jesus’ peace was in them.

It is hard to describe that inner peace, or how to measure it, but I know that it is a quality that men and women all around us are seeking. Poet Beatrice Clelland captured this new, transformed quality of inward peace, in a poem called “Indwelt.”

Not merely in the words you say,

Not only in the deeds confessed,

But in the most unconscious way,

Is Christ expressed.

Is it a beatific smile,

A holy light upon the brow?

Oh no, I felt His presence while

You laughed just now.

For me, ‘twas not the truth you taught,

To you so clear to me so dim,

But when you came to me you brought

A sense of Him.

And from your life He beckons me,

And from your heart His love is shed,

Till I lose sight of you and see

The Christ instead.*

My friends, how would this old world be different if we truly believed that each one of us is created in the image of God, and that our most profound calling is to serve as a revelation, an Epiphany of God in the world?  How would our actions and words be different?

That is my hope and prayer for you this New Year.  May Christ’s peace be “indwelling” in you. Do not feel that you have missed the wonder of Christmas.  Instead, be open to the mystery of God’s ways that invite you to experience and share the peace of Christ with others.  And let your life be transformed by him.  Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.