Clean Slate: Reflect
Today is Epiphany Sunday! Perhaps your decorations are already long-put away. Surely, you’ve noticed that the stores have already moved on to Valentine’s Day, with sad little bins in the corner of slightly worn Christmas merchandise on clearance. But in reality, yesterday, Saturday, was the last day of Christmas – the twelfth day of Christmas. You may not realize it, but that song that you can never get out of your head, with the partridge in a pear tree? Those twelve days of Christmas start on December 25th, when Christmas begins, and end on January 5th, and are then followed Epiphany day, January 6th. We’re blessed, this year, because Epiphany day only occasionally falls on a Sunday, and you have to celebrate it when we’re just “close enough.” But today, we celebrate Epiphany on Epiphany. Aren’t you excited? It might help if you were reminded just exactly what Epiphany is. It is the day when we celebrate the Magi coming to see Jesus and bringing him gifts, which is significant because it represents that Jesus is light to the whole world, celebrated even by these foreign strangers, not just the people of Israel, not just a chosen few. Jesus is the light of and for the whole world. But of course, even though it is not a church holy day, today is also special because it is the first Sunday in a new year – 2013. We even survived the Mayan apocalypse. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? Another year is here. A new beginning. 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 Clean Slate, as we think about new and old in our church and in our lives. We are at the start of a new calendar year, of course. It is 2013! We have a new baby in our midst – the Christ Child. 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. 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? We talk about doing new things in a new way all the time, especially in the life of the church, when we find that doing things how we’ve always done them just isn’t working anymore. You have probably participated in any number of conversations in any number of settings brainstorming how we will do a new thing – we even have a group that’s been gathering to do just that thing at Liverpool First. Pastor Aaron, as you know, also works for the Annual Conference, and his whole job is about helping congregations revitalize – that means to “re-life” them! But, I suspect, sometimes you’ve 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, somehow, 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? Or better yet, figure out how you are benefitting from things staying just as they are.
Do we want all things new, a fresh start, a clean slate? 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 clean slates? We really know 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. 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?
An epiphany is a light bulb moment. The A-ha moment. The wise men had an epiphany – God-with-us is not God, out of reach, in a palace, far above and beyond us. God-with-us is the child Jesus. The world had an epiphany – this God-with-us is God with all of us, not just some – it can’t be any other way. I pray that this Epiphany, you find your “light bulb moment,” when even though there is no palace, no gold crown, no throne, the gift of Jesus becomes remarkably clear to you, and you are overwhelmed by joy, as you, a disciple, reflect the light of Christ to the world. I pray that together, we can commit to following wherever Christ leads us, right into the unknown new life God offers. It’s a clean slate. Amen.