Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Sermon for Epiphany Sunday: All Things New - Square One


Sermon 1/1/12
Matthew 2:1-12, Isaiah 60:1-6


All Things New: Square One
We have many directions we could possibly go in today. We are still in the season of Christmas – today can be called the First Sunday after Christmas Day on the liturgical calendar, the church-year calendar. There are a set of lectionary readings that we don’t often get to hear, where Jesus is presented in the temple, according to Jewish tradition, and Mary and Joseph and the child Jesus meet Anna and Simeon. If you don’t know the story, I encourage you to read the rest of Luke 2, the part that happens after the nativity story. That could have been our focus today. But today we will hear the scriptures for Epiphany. Epiphany technically takes place on January 6th, after the twelve days of Christmas. It is the day when we celebrate the Magi coming to see Jesus and bringing him gifts, significant because it represents that Jesus is light to the whole world, not just a chosen few. But since we usually don’t have special Epiphany Day services on the 6th, we usually celebrate Epiphany on the Sunday closest to the 6th without going past the 6th. That would be today. But of course, even though it is not a church holy day, we can’t deny that at the forefront of most of our minds is the fact that today is New Year's Day. January 1st, 2012. It is hard to believe, isn’t it? Another year is here. Today begins a new year. And we have so many feelings, worries, and hopes wrapped up in the potential of a new year that it would be hard for us to ignore.
            So, appropriately, this month we will be focusing on the theme All Things New, based on the verse in Revelation where God proclaims, as a new heaven and earth are unfurled in John's vision: Behold, I make all things new. We are at the start of a new calendar year, of course. It is 2012! We have a new baby in our midst – the Christ Child – today is just the 8th day of the 12 day of Christmas, after all. We are about to start a new year in our church-cycle – our annual meeting is just a few weeks away. Next Sunday, we celebrate Baptism of the Lord, and with it, a chance to renew our own baptismal vows and renew our covenant with God. And when we have our annual meeting, I will give my report during worship, and set out the goals I have and would like you to share for the coming year. New starts seem all around us, just as God promises.
            In Christ we are new creations. That’s what God promises. The trouble is this, though: Do we want all things to be new? In November, at our District Day, I had the opportunity to preach to my clergy colleagues as part of an Advent Preaching Day. Here is a little of what I said to them:
When it comes to changing directions, we are pretty good, clergy, at offering up alternate routes, or at least commentary that we are going the wrong way to get where we want to be going. As a church, as local churches, as an Annual Conference, as a denomination and beyond, we are pretty desperate to find a new vision, a new hope. You have probably participated in any number of conversations in any number of settings brainstorming how we will do a new thing. And, I suspect, you’ve probably felt cynical, or jaded, or at least politely skeptical that anything will change as a result of these conversations. And then, true enough, things seem to stay the same, don’t they? Why is that exactly? If everybody agrees that things need to change, and we all plan ways to do a new thing together, and things still stay the same, what's happening? I can only conclude that we all must be benefitting from things staying exactly as they are. Do you want to see change in the church? In the world? Tell me how you have changed. How have you repented, and changed the direction of your mind, your life? … How do we benefit from things staying just as they are?
Do we want all things new? We are a people of contradictions. Yes and no. Yes, we want better lives. No, we are not ready to let go of what we have in order to get there. Nothing is worse than the unknown, is it? And God is always seeming to offer us this new life, but asking us to go into uncharted territory to get there. We want change, sure, but unless we know what God is changing us into, we aren’t really ready to commit.
So, about these poor Magi – about Epiphany – can they have some mention here? Where do they come into all things new? We really know very very little about these wise men. They appear only in this passage from Matthew. He describes them as men from the East, which may have meant they were astrologers from Persia, interpreters of stars and dreams. The idea that they were kings comes from a verse of a Psalm that talks about kings bringing gifts to the Messiah. The number three was just layered onto tradition over time, perhaps because three gifts are named, along with traditional names for each of three wise men. But again, these ideas are not mentioned in the Bible. What we do know from the Bible is that these wise men came to the palace of King Herod looking for a newborn king, since they had seen a star that was significant to them. Why did they come to the palace? Well, where else would you look for a king? But when Herod gave them information about where to find the child Jesus, they changed course, and visited the home of Mary and Joseph. When they found Jesus, Matthew says they were overwhelmed with joy. They paid him homage, and gave him the gifts they had prepared, and satisfied with their journey, they returned home.
I am struck that the Magi started a long journey with an expectation of what they would see – a king in a palace. They brought costly gifts. And nothing went like they planned. Jesus wasn’t at the palace. And when they did find him, he was in a normal home, in a small town, the child of a carpenter and his wife, totally normal by every visible clue. They could have decided they had gotten it all wrong and taken their gifts and gone back home. But Matthew says they were overwhelmed with joy. Nothing went as planned, but they simply changed their course as a new plan was laid out for them. They went where they were led. They were thrilled with where they were led. They didn’t judge Mary and Joseph and Jesus by their outer wrappings. They recognized the Holy in the child they saw. Could we be so ready to have our plans upset? Ready to follow wherever God was leading us? Could we be so joyful even when what God brings us isn’t in anyway what we are expecting? Can we lay all our gifts at the feet of Jesus, who is to be found always in the low places, and not in palaces of gold?
I have another set of Doctor of Ministry classes coming up next week. One of the texts for class is called Falling Upward by Richard Rohr. In his first chapter he writes, ╩║Merely to survive and preserve our life is a low-level instinct that we share with [animals], but it is not heroism in any classic sense. We were meant to thrive and not just survive. We are glad when someone survives, and that surely took some courage and effort. But what are you going to do with your now resurrected life? That is the heroic question.╩║ (21)
This idea – do we survive or thrive – is one I plan to return to later this month. But for today, I want us to focus on Rohr’s question – what do we do with our resurrected lives? God offers us new life, again and again – Jesus is born to us, God-with-us, as we are reminded each year, and each year we celebrate the gift of life that conquers death forever. New life is ours. We say we accept it. What will you do with your resurrected life?
An epiphany is a light bulb moment. The A-ha moment. I pray that this Epiphany, this New Year's Day, is the your light bulb moment, when even though there is no palace, no gold crown, no throne, you see can still see the gift that is Jesus, and be overwhelmed by joy. I pray that together we can commit to following wherever Christ leads us, right into the unknown new life God offers. Happy New Year! Amen. 
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