Boys dressed as the three kings outside a German Cathedral
German Epiphany Celebration


TEXT: Matthew 2:1-12

Why doesn't anything epiph on epiphany anymore?


The sermon this morning is brought to you by Epiphany, the holiday that Wise Men remember, but the church forgot. I know that most of you have probably not been kept up nights wondering about Epiphany. A large number of people have never heard of Epiphany, and although I had heard of it, it never really dawned on me that anyone might actually celebrate it until I visited Germany in January of 1979.

Epiphany falls on January 6, 12 days after Christmas--the day you're supposed to get 12 drummers drumming--and the day we commonly remember the arrival of the Wise Men in Bethlehem. In Germany and in some other countries, this is a big event. Children dress up as kings and travel from door to door--much as we do on Halloween--only instead of collecting for themselves, they collect money for the poor, remembering that the wise men brought gifts to the poor Christ child.

Seeing those children out in their costumes was the first contact I had with anybody actually celebrating Epiphany, and it started me wondering if we weren't missing something. Well, the more you look into church history, the more you realize that we are missing a lot of things. Epiphany in the early church was one of the great feast days--second only to Easter in its importance. The third great feast was Pentecost, another day that has drifted into religious backwaters. And even Easter is greatly watered down today. Easter used to be celebrated with an all-night vigil the night before and then the celebration continued on for what was called the "Great 50 Days" ending with a huge blowout on Pentecost. Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost were the focus of the church. Nobody even thought about celebrating Christmas until the fourth century.

So what's the deal? Or, as one of my seminary professors used to ask, "How come nothing epiphs on Epiphany anymore?" Why was Epiphany so important, and why is it so unimportant now?

For those few who might have heard of Epiphany, chances are that you will know it as the day the Wise Men came. And that is right--partially. The word Epiphany means "manifestation" or "revelation." The coming of the Wise Men is celebrated as the time that Jesus as Messiah was revealed to the Gentiles. The Christmas story is seen to symbolize the spread of the Gospel—first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles; first to the poor, then to the rich; first to the ones who kept the Temple flocks in accordance with Jewish law, then to pagan astrologers, whose occupation the law expressly forbid.

But it used to be that Epiphany celebrated more than the Wise Men. In the days when Epiphany was a great church feast, it also celebrated the revelation of Jesus in his first miracle--changing the water into wine at Cana--and the manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God at his baptism. Those three things--the Wise Men, Cana, and the Baptism were all lumped together to symbolize the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and such revelation was cause for great celebration.

That a baby was born in a manger was completely unimportant compared with the things that proved to the world who that baby was. Jesus' birth would have had no significance if nobody knew who he was--if he were not revealed in some way. The authority of Jesus came from the signs he performed, the divine validation given by a voice and descending dove at his baptism and through signs in the heavens that could be interpreted by the Gentiles. Epiphany celebrates the first signs that God gave to the world of who Jesus was. The signs were God's way of saying, "Pssst...this is the guy!" and Epiphany was the church's way of saying, "And we can never be the same again."

So why doesn't anything epiph on Epiphany anymore? There may be several answers, but I think one of them is that, for the most part, we no longer expect Christ to be made manifest. We have stopped looking for the revelation of Jesus as God's son. The early church was a church full of excitement and expectation. They anticipated the return of Christ at any time, and the persecutions which they faced forced them to be aware of their faith and to live out or die for their faith every place they went, every minute of their lives.

Many Christians today have lost that sense of excitement and expectation. The early church celebrated Epiphany with the emphasis on God's present manifestations to us and the expectation of God's future and ultimate revelation. The point wasn't to remember history, but to be reminded that God appears miraculously to us in places and in ways that we don't expect. That way we will be prepared when God does it again and be able to recognize God's coming to us.

Notice that all the events celebrated at Epiphany took place outside of the established religious structures. In a stable with Gentiles. At a river with a religious rebel and fanatic. At a wedding reception where the guests are drunk. And that is the way God still appears. God epiphs when and where we least expect it. If we're not expecting to see God revealed every minute of the day and in every place we go, we will likely miss God's coming entirely, coming away from wondrous miracles unmoved and unchanged.

The wedding at Cana was crowded, but only a few were aware that Jesus had worked a miracle in their midst. Most weren't paying attention. They weren't expecting miracles so they weren't watching and missed an event that people have talked about for two thousand years. Bethlehem was so full of people that Mary and Joseph couldn't even find a room to spend the night, but there is no indication that more than a handful paid any notice to the new life that changed all of history, bright stars and shepherd's stories notwithstanding.

If we want anything to epiph in our lives, we had better begin by expecting it and watching for it. If you are expecting company in your home, you are not going to miss their arrival unless they are purposely sneaking up on you. You have made preparations for their coming, fully expect to see them, and always keep an ear out for the doorbell and an eye out the window. Yet how many of us expect God in that way? Do we prepare? For that matter, have we even invited God to come?

Epiphany in our lives begins with prayer and ends with a warning. The prayer is one that tells God how much we would like to have God stop by...prayer that asks God to be made manifest to us. How many times do you prepare for your day by asking God to be revealed in your co-workers, in the traffic on the way, in the clients or customers you deal with? How many times do you prepare for church by asking God to speak to you in the music, in the sermon, in the others in the congregation?

If you're not expecting company, they might well show up when you are out, or asleep, or too busy in the back to hear the knocking on the door. If you don't expect God to appear or to speak or to touch your heart; if you're not looking for God at every turn and listening for God in every voice, chances are you will be as clueless as the guests at the wedding or the people in Bethlehem when God finally appears.

Epiphany begins with expectant prayer, and it ends with a warning. After the wise men have seen the child and given their gifts, God warns them in a dream not to return to King Herod and they go back to their own country by a different road. The visit to the Christ Child ends with a warning...Don't go back the way you came. This could well be one of the greatest truths in all of Scripture. Once God has been made manifest to you; once you have been inside the stable...once you have seen your water turned to wine...once you have seen the dove descend and recognized Jesus for who he is...you must not go back the way you came.

When we leave the stable, we leave with a warning from God...things must be different now. The same old way will not do. To meet Christ requires that we turn from our former way and go out by another road. We are better off never to have seen the truth than to see it and ignore it.

Once you've seen Jesus, don't go back the way you came. It's simple, and it is ignored by people every day of the year. We come to church, say the creeds, sing the hymns that declare the astounding news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. We hear the Bible that tells of the steadfast love of God. We hear what God expects of us; we hear of God's mercy; we hear that we were created by God and for God; and we go back home the exact same way we came. We remain unchanged.

And we do the same outside of church. If you're looking, the signs of God's presence are all around us. It's there in the trees and ocean and sky. It's in the delivery room and the funeral home. It's in the face of the guy under the bridge who will work for food and in the heart of my little friend Christa who made her mother go to MacDonald’s to get the man something to eat. God is present in the wagging tail of my dog, Ruckus, and in the voice of a friend on the telephone. God is in all of those places and more, yet how seldom it is that we notice or allow the encounter to change us.

Don't go back the way you came. It is the hands down most effective way to show others who God is. God is the one who transforms. God is the one who changes hearts and lives. God is the one who is willing to take pagan astrologers and use their gifts for the glory of God. If that change isn't evident in your life...if you go back home exactly the same way you came, all your words are just so much noise. Generally, they're even more offensive noise than they were before you met God in the first place. Don't go back the way you came.

We all meet God in different ways and at different times and places in our lives. The message of Epiphany is that the revelation of God is talking about more than a one-shot deal. It's not that Jesus came once and that was that. It's not that we have just one time in our lives when God epiphs, although there may be one time that stands out for us.

The message of Epiphany is the same as we hear in the book of Revelation. That Jesus is the one who was, the one who is, and the one who is to come. The God who was made manifest in Jesus of Nazareth is the same God that was manifest somewhere, somehow in your home this morning--the same God that epiphed in the opening hymn, and the God that will be revealed in some way in the fellowship hall over coffee or the parking lot when you leave. The message of Epiphany is "keep watch...for you don't know the day or the hour when God will appear."

I can't force you to encounter God. You have to have a willing spirit, and you have to be looking. But God is here to be encountered--beside you in the pews, in the sacrament of baptism and Communion, in the Scripture reading, in the offering. From the songs we sing to the prayers we pray to the sermons that are preached, the ultimate purpose of all of it is to provide a place where it is easier for folks to experience the epiphany of God...a time that is structured in such away as to encourage people to open their eyes and see the God who is here in our midst.

Let something epiph for you this Epiphany. Make space in your life to meet God. God is here this morning, but God is also outside the doors. You can find God on a walk through the woods; in your children and in the squirrels darting around your yard; in your neighbor and in the stranger in front of you in the grocery store. God is all around you, waiting to be revealed to someone willing to look. Expect it--expect it everywhere. Get up in the morning wondering where it will come and go to sleep listening for God's voice. Read your Bible expecting to hear God and come to Communion open to receive. But don't go back the way you came.  Amen.

Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson

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