Monday, January 3, 2011

Epiphany 2011 Craggy Prison near Asheville, NC

          Today is about 5 minutes longer than December 21, the shortest day of the year. The sun sets later and rises earlier. Spring is coming; it won’t be winter for ever. Christians remember on January 6 the wise men coming to the baby Jesus bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We call that day Epiphany from the Greek words epi meaning “out” or “forth” and phanos meaning “showing” so that day is the “showing out” or “showing forth” of Jesus. Jesus was “shown forth” to some strangers who had come from the east. Christians show forth his glory in the world with the gifts God gives us.

          Who were these strangers, and why should we care about their visit?  Some context: The Holy Land where Jesus was born is on the main road between Egypt and Syria and Iraq.  It’s like 150 years ago when cattle were driven past Craggy down the French Broad River from east Tennessee to South Carolina. The Holy Land was fought over for centuries by Egypt to the  south and Syria and Iraq to the north and east. In Jesus’ time a third power, Rome, had conquered Egypt to the south and to the north and west Greece and what is now Turkey. Herod was king because Rome supported him; he had limited power to keep the peace and not offend the power of Rome.

          The wise men were religious and political leaders from Syria, Iraq, and farther east. Think of the ayatolas the religious leaders in modern Iran or the militia leaders in Iraq or Afghanistan or other parts of Central Asia. Herod may have seen them as a scouting party from his traditional enemies to the north and east.

          From a Jewish religious perspective they were Gentiles – people who were not Jews, people good Jews did not eat with. Part of the human condition is that we pay more attention to what makes us different from other people than to what we have in common. We like to hang out with people like us – and we judge on the externals like skin color, language, age, common  experience,  like where we’re from, where we’ve been, and the like.  In Jesus’ time if your mother was Jewish, you were Jewish, and good Jews didn’t eat with non-Jews or Gentiles. In Jesus we have learned that God judges not on externals but on the internal qualities of faith and love. God makes us new people in Jesus’ new body for us to share Jesus’ grace and love.

          For over 700 years the prophets from Isaiah on, had proclaimed God’s love for all people, and the work of God’s people to proclaim that love both in word and in deed – to be a light in the darkness. The writings of the prophets had been read – and largely ignored – for a very long time.

          So here come these Gentile religious and political leaders from traditional enemies to the north and east.  They come to King Herod in Jerusalem with politically destabilizing news, Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” Herod was afraid. He had been a plotter all his life. He had survived several plots against him often plotted against his enemies. Herod’s first response was to lie, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” The lie is the first response of weak and frightened people. Jesus came to give us the strength of love that casts out fear and to give us power to tell the truth. Herod’s first response was to lie. His second response after the wise men went home by another way was murder, the massacre of all the babies in Bethlehem under two years old. Jesus rules, but not like Herod. Jesus came to give life, abundant life for all who will believe.

          The wise men found Jesus not in the stable but in a house. They entered, worshipped and gave gifts - gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Over 150 years ago an Episcopal deacon in New York  wrote a carol for a children’s service about the gifts. The carol reminds us that Jesus is King, and Jesus is God, and Jesus is Sacrifice – and that Jesus is risen from the dead and will come again so we also can rise from the dead and worship him for ever in the everlasting light of heaven.

          “Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown him again, king forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign.”  Jesus is king. Jesus is Lord. He is in charge; we are not in charge. That is good news, gospel news. The story of the Fall in Genesis tells us of the universal human situation. We want to be free to do what we want, when we want, how we want, and we can’t. We are limited – limited by our location in time and space. In heaven we will be able to be at all places at all times, but until we get there we can only be at one place and one time doing one thing at a time. And we are also limited by the network of relationships within which we live. We need other people to be able to live. We are never completely alone. We are always in relationship with the God who made us and who loves us; we are always in relationship with other people. Jesus wants us to listen to Jesus’ “good, orderly direction” and do his will, recognizing that “his service is perfect freedom.”

          “Frankincense to offer have I, incense owns a Deity nigh, prayer and praising, gladly raising, worship him, God most high.”  Christianity is the only religion that teaches that God became a man, “to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to . . . the God and Father of all.” Christians experience in Jesus God with us, showing us how to live, assuring us of his love and his forgiveness. At the end of life our bodies are committed to the ground, “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

“Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume, breaths a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone cold tomb.” Jesus was content to be betrayed by one of his own disciples into the hands of those who hated him, who told lies about him to a corrupt governor, and who rejoiced at his execution. Jesus gave up his own life for them, and for us. Nailed on the cross he prayed, “Father, forgive them.” Because Jesus, son of God, prayed for us we are forgiven sinners. Our life cost him his.

Finally, “Glorious now behold him arise, King, and God, and Sacrifice; heaven sings alleluia, alleluia the earth replies.” Today is about 5 minutes longer than December 21. The sun sets later and rises earlier. Spring is coming; it won’t be winter for ever. God grant us faith to see with the wise men Christ’s glory and grace to show him forth in our lives as our resurrected and ever-living King, and God, and Sacrifice, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.    

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