Today we are celebrating epiphany—Epiphany is a special day on our Christian calendars. It’s when we celebrate the coming of the wise men to visit the baby Jesus. Now right away, I want to disabuse you of the notion that these are three kings. I know, that’s the way the hymn goes—a hymn, by the way we will be singing after this sermon because, hey, it’s epiphany. It might be three men traveling to see the baby Jesus. Might not. We don’t know because scripture doesn’t give us a number. More than two, probably, but there could have been dozens or even hundreds, all going to the same place—which of course, is Bethlehem.
Also according to scripture, these traveling men are not kings, but wise men, that is, magi (from which comes our word magic) or astrologers. Our lyricist needed a one syllable word for wise men or magi, so astrologers wasn’t even in the running. Kings was the word du jour.
Yes, astrologers existed in the 1st century just as astrologers exist today. Unlike today, though, these wise men, or astrologers, held high political positions. Rulers consulted them when making important national decisions. “Should we go to war, or not? Is the drought about to end, or are we in for another couple of years? I know, I’ll ask my astrologer!”
Astrologers who actually got it right when it came to forecasts were highly regarded in gentile kingdoms throughout the middle east. However, they were NOT highly regarded by the Jews. Why not? For one simple reason: Astrologers had been condemned by God himself. In Deuteronomy we read: “There shall not be found among you …anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer (that’s someone who talks to spirits)… for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord.“ In fact, there was a saying back in 1st century Judah, What do you call 5000 dead astrologers at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee? A good start. You are supposed to laugh or groan here!
But, in this particular case, the birth of Jesus, God seems to have used astrologers to his good and high purpose. Remember, up to this point in the birth narrative, the only people to know about Jesus’ coming are Mary and Joseph, of course, maybe the innkeeper, some animals, the shepherds, and a little drummer boy. God wanted the whole world to be on notice. “I have done something profound here!” So, what does God do? God hangs a star in the sky. He knows THAT will get the astrologers attention. Then they were tell their superiors and in short order the entire world will be put on notice.
The astrologers see the star of course, —a huge, gleaming diamond of a star which made the other stars look like chalky dots on the great blackboard we call the night sky. “What is THAT?” the astrologers asked themselves. It wasn’t a fixed star, as they knew some stars are fixed. Neither was it a wandering star (as are the planets—stars that move in a predictable pattern)—it must be a meteor. That is what astrologers referred to as anything that was neither fixed, or traveling—a comet, a meteor. Only it just stayed there. It didn’t streak.
Somehow those astrologers figure out the star is a sign—it’s a sign that a new king has been born. After studying their star charts and maps and atlases they decide that this new king has been born in Bethlehem. They pack up their camels being sure to take with them some precious gifts for the new king. Then they, whether three or thirty or even three hundred, we don’t know, then they travel forth-- from their home countries. They meet up in Jerusalem as if on cue. They meet in Jerusalem before heading to Bethlehem, because they are entering what could be dangerous territory. If it looks like they are sneaking in, the king might think they are up to no good purpose. So, they go directly to King Herod—to assure him that theirs is a friendly visit.
Herod, of course, as I mentioned in a previous sermon, is paranoid—it’s part of his nature. The news of a new king, IN HIS VERY OWN KINGDOM—well he knew what that meant. This NEW KING would be his RIVAL. His mind jumps into overdrive—gotta get this thing nipped in the bud! The stage is set for the rest of our gospel narrative. From the get go—the very beginning of Jesus’ life, Jesus is unwelcome by the powers that be—the story that unfolds in our gospel narrative will concern human power versus God power; the authority of a human king, versus the authority of Christ, the messiah, sent to initiate God’s holy kingdom among us.
And now I want us to leave off talking about wise men and King Herod, and look ever-so-briefly at the word, Epiphany. As I mentioned in the beginning of this sermon, Epiphany is the day we are celebrating. Maybe you know the word Theophany already. That word is made up of two Greek words—Theo, for God and phany, p-h-a-n-y, for manifestation, appearance. A theophany is an appearance of God—as happened when God appeared to Moses in the burning bush; and when God appeared to those escaping Hebrew slaves. Remember, God was in a pillar of cloud leading the Hebrew slaves across the Red Sea.
Ok. So we know the word phany means appearance, manifestation. Epi, as in Epiphany, simply means “over and above, or super, in the Greek language.” So, Epiphany means over and above the normal appearance of things. The star was not your normal, run-of-the mill-star, planet, or even meteor. It was a sign from God. And we experience epiphanies—moments that are above and beyond what we know as normal, or even coincidental—we read these as moments as special. God has slipped us a stocking stuffer. God winks at us. Tokens of God’s steadfast love.
And so, I want to spend the rest of our time today sharing some of the epiphanies, or over-and-above moments in life. I have collected quite a few over the years. It is my hope that once you hear these, you’ll make a connection. Oh yes, I’ve had a similar experience—if you do, share these with me, and I’ll add them to my collection.
The first I will mention concerns Cove Church. At that church we had a building separate from the sanctuary--an education building that had been taken over by the Covesville Child Development Center. There was one room in that building, though, that was ours—it was used for storage. After I came to the church, the congregation decided “Wouldn’t it be nice to use that space for our fellowship hour?” So we got busy. We hauled off boxes and old broken furniture. We, meaning congregation members, painted the walls. Then someone donated a hand-me-down oriental rug, which sounds wonderful, except. Except that it was not your usual oriental rug. The colors in the thing were pastel, and our broken-down but still usable sofa was not. It was a dark green. Yuk! As all churches, Cove was on a shoestring budget. Knowing this was a far reach indeed, I still put a notice in our e-mail newsletter: “Needed: one lightly worn sofa in a pastel color.” Within an hour of sending that newsletter, someone in the congregation wrote back: “I have the sofa. Could someone come pick it up?” Glory be! And it matched, perfectly. As in, that rug and that sofa were made for each other.
Ok. I realize that is not life-changing, but that little epiphany, that wink from God, made my week. It was an indication to me, that God was with us in our refurbishing project.
A colleague one-upped me, though. After I shared my own epiphany he said that his church, again, on a shoestring budget, was refurbishing its kitchen. The church needed to change out the kitchen sink, which was of certain special-order dimensions. He phoned an area salvage company, giving the man on the other end of the phone-line the specifications for the sink. “Good luck with that!” was the response he got. But so sure was he that Go would come through, my pastor friend said, “Just call me when it comes in.” Within the week he had it!
This past month, I experienced, or friends and neighbors experienced, a number of epiphanies—that’s my take on those happenings, anyway. I don’t know if December was special, or if it is because around Christmas time, we are especially attuned to events of a slightly numinous, spiritual nature. I think it’s probably the latter, though. You know, there are those people who find four leaf clovers ALL THE TIME. How do they do that? Apparently, there isn’t really a trick to it. You just have to train your eyes and your mind to see them. So it may be with epiphanies. At Christmas time we train our eyes to God’s winks.
All to say, the following epiphanies come from this past December. The first is from a neighbor friend of mine—her name is Linda. She complained to me that she had just had a major repair job on her car, It ran her $384. She doesn’t have a permanent job right now—she’s cobbling together several part-time jobs--and Christmas was upon us. She was worried about money.
And then. At the same time as the car repair, a friend of Linda’s, who had been seriously ill, moved to a different state to live with a sister. Linda volunteered to clean the friend’s now-empty apartment. Linda is vacuuming, wiping down shelves. Under some shelf-lining paper she finds an envelope. Inside is--$380 CASH!!!!! She phones her friend. Her friend says, “Oh, I always keep extra money around. I don’t need it. Just keep it.” So in one swell foop, as they say, Linda’s car repairs were paid for!
Then there is this one: In December, we had an early snow, remember? Charlottesville got 14 inches. A young, single, neighbor-woman trudged over to my house the day after the dumping. “Can I borrow your snow shovel?” As I handed it to her, I say, “It’s at times like this, you could use a couple of young strong men in your life.” It was a joke. I went back to whatever it was I was doing. An hour later, I look out my front window. In my front yard are two young, strong men—my neighbors. They are shoveling my front walk and knocking snow off my snow-laden bushes. Now tell me that’s not God’s wink!
Finally, if you were with us on Christmas Eve, you couldn’t help but notice, when you left our sanctuary—God had hung a humongous yellow moon in the sky. I mean really. Have you ever in your life seen such a beautiful night sky? A moon, a star. God’s stocking stuffers.
As those wise men, so too, we experience epiphanies. When we do, our lives are changed—for a moment, maybe even for a lifetime. May it continue to be so for you as for me. Amen