On Christmas Eve, as we were talking about this deep longing for home that most all of us understand, I shared with you how this “journey home” was a trope that we see played out in some of our favorite movies. For example, I mentioned the classic The Wizard of Oz, and how Dorothy, nearly as soon as she leaves Kansas and ends up in Oz, is already trying to get back home. But of course there is another trope, another part of this story, and many of the same movies, that is also at play here, and that’s the quest to find this certain thing, this item, this person that is going to be the solution to the problem. In Dorothy’s case, she is, of course, off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz. Her desire is to go home, but she’s been told that the Wizard of Oz is the solution – he will tell her what she must do to get back to Kansas.
And of course, as is the case in many of these movies, when Dorothy finally arrives to meet the Wizard, it isn’t at all what she expected. The Wizard turns out to be a sham. At first, Dorothy is terribly disappointed. But, the Wizard does help the Lion, the Tinman, and the Scarecrow realize their dreams – realize they have the courage, the heart, and the brains they’ve so desired. He tries to help Dorothy too, and when his plans fail, it turns out Dorothy already has the means to get home, clicking together her ruby slippers. Her adventure has not been at all what she expected. The Wizard wasn’t what she expected. She didn’t expect to meet these three who became dear friends along the way, and didn’t anticipate that she had the ability to defeat the Wicked Witch and find her way home. But despite her journey bringing her nothing she expected at the start, Dorothy leaves for Kansas ready to go home having loved and learned from her strange experiences in Oz.
I’ve been thinking about journeys like Dorothy’s – journeys where we set out with a clear aim, or goal, or purpose in mind, only to find when we reach our destination that what is waiting for us is not at all what we expected. Have you ever had a journey like that? Our scripture text for today is about a journey like this. Today is Epiphany Sunday. It’s also just the 10th day of Christmas. As I mentioned last week, the season of Christmas in the church calendar lasts 12 days, starting on December 25th, when Christmas begins, and ending on January 5th, the day before Epiphany. Epiphany day is January 6th, but when Epiphany is not on a Sunday, we celebrate Epiphany on the closest Sunday before the 6th. The word Epiphany is from a Greek word that means literally “coming to light,” or “shining forth.” Epiphany is the day when we celebrate the Magi, Wisemen from the East, coming to see Jesus and bringing him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This 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.
We really know very little about these wise men. They appear only in this passage from Matthew. Matthew describes them as men from the East, which maybe 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 – a loose connection at best. 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.
We don’t even know why the Magi would be interested in seeing a new king of the Jewish people, since they themselves were not Jewish. But what we do know is this: when they were looking for this new king, they expected to find him at the palace. That’s right where they went – straight to the palace, to have an audience with Herod. They expected, perhaps, that Herod had a new child who would eventually become king, or some other similar chain of events. Instead, they find a baffled and frightened Herod, who has no idea what they are talking about. They’re sent to find this new king by Herod, guided by additional details about the child’s likely place of birth, and eventually, finally, they find Jesus with his mother Mary. They have brought gifts for the child that would have been appropriate at the palace: gold, frankincense, myrrh. Costly gifts. And so they offer these gifts to this child, Jesus, who they find not in a palace, but in a normal home, in a small town, the child of a carpenter and his wife, totally normal by every visible clue.
The Magi could have decided they had gotten it all wrong and taken their gifts and gone back home, disappointed that they had come so far only to find that the Wizard of Oz was just a man behind a curtain. But Matthew says they were “overwhelmed with joy.” I love that phrase. 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. And 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. The Epiphany is the coming-to-light, the shining-forth of Jesus as light of the world. And it wasn’t what the Wisemen set out to see. But what was revealed to them by the light was nonetheless exactly what they were seeking, overwhelming them with joy.
I’m wondering what we are expecting, as we journey with God. As we begin a new year, what destinations do we have in mind? I’m wondering about what solution to our problems, what fix for our troubles, what cures for what ails us we are expecting to find at the end of the yellow brick road. And I’m wondering, then, what we do when, inevitably, what we find in Oz, or underneath the Star of Bethlehem, is not what we were expecting. What will the light of Epiphany reveal to us?
I’ve been reading the book Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling. She’s the writer and star of the TV show The Mindy Project. Or you might know her as a writer and actress on The Office – she played Kelly Kapoor. She’s a very funny writer, and she spends one chapter of her book divulging, with great wit and sarcasm, all of her beauty secrets. One of them? Stay in the shadows! We look best, she insists, under the forgiving lighting of shadows, out of the light, tucked away into a corner a little bit, without the harsh brightness revealing every detail of ourselves that we’d rather keep hidden. I think about this fact sometimes with my camera on my smart phone. On most smart phones, if you use it to take a “selfie,” the camera automatically switches to a setting called “beauty face.” It gives your skin a nice uniform glow, and erases any imperfections and subtracts about 5-10 years of wrinkles and lines from your skin. Selfies, after all, are pretty close-up pictures – and do we really want to see everything about ourselves that the camera might reveal?
Most of us know what the word Epiphany itself means in everyday usage. Epiphany means a sudden realization of the truth about something. It's the lightbulb moment, the "A-Ha" moment when the pieces fall into place and comprehension succeeds. It's the moment of recognition. Today we celebrate that the light of the world is shining. But more than just acknowledging the light of Christ, our task is to look closely at just what the light of Christ is revealing in us. Our task is to let that light shine into our lives and bring all of the dark places out of the shadows. What would it mean if the light of Christ focused on your life and made visible everything that has been hidden and unseen? What unexpected things might we see, discover, when the Star of Bethlehem shines on us?
I’ve been thinking about this in two ways: First, I think letting in the light of Christ would make us deal with aspects of ourselves and our behaviors that we try to hide in the shadows, or cover up with “beauty face” mode. Do you struggle with envy or coveting what others have? Are you facing an addiction that you can’t control? Are you holding on to resentments or conflicts with others that you have been unwilling to resolve? God at work in us reveals all those things – uncovers them, not so that we can be judged and condemned, but so that we can be healed and redeemed and move forward. This is a time when so many of us are making New Year’s Resolutions, and I think that the reason that so many of us fail in our efforts is because we don’t really examine what’s behind our feelings – why aren’t we happy with what we have, always longing for what others have, for example? And we never ask for support – we start out to change our lives on our own, without the grounding, the source of our being. It is Christ who is the light, and we can’t shine without that source, God, empowering us.
What would it mean if the light of Christ focused on your life and made visible everything that has been hidden and unseen? Here’s the second way: We don’t see ourselves very clearly. One of my favorite verses of scripture is from 1 Corinthians 13. Not the beginning part, love is patient, love is kind, although that’s very lovely. No, my favorite part is near the end of the chapter, when Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” I think that may be our hearts’ desire – to be known fully, completely – and also our deepest fear – that someone will see us – flaws and imperfections and things we’d rather keep in the shadows. So often, we look at ourselves and see our failures, our faults, our flaws. We gloss right over the gifts we have, the way that God has created us, the strength we have, the ways that we have been uniquely formed and blessed and placed in this world so that we can serve and give and bless others. We just don’t see in ourselves all that God sees in us. And so we let ourselves off easy, because we’re convinced that we can’t do what God knows we can do and do well. When the light of Christ brings everything in us into view, when we let that light shine in all the overshadowed places, then we start to see ourselves as we really are, as God created us, and as God is calling us to be. God sees us, all that the light of Christ reveals in us, and is overwhelmed with joy in us.
That’s the journey of Epiphany. We find at the end of the long road we travel not some magic solution. Instead, we find the light of Christ, light of the world, shining back at us, dispelling the shadows, revealing who we really are. God isn’t disappointed in what’s revealed in us. God is full of hope at all that yet might be in us. May we, like the Wisemen, lay our very best gifts as an offering of thanksgiving at the feet of Christ, overwhelmed with joy. For we find there perhaps not at all what we expected, but instead, shining in the light, we discover exactly what we’ve needed. Amen.