Homily: Epiphany, Jan 3 2016, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ps 72; Eph 3:1-12; Mt 2:1-12
For those of you keeping track, today is the tenth day of Christmas. Today we celebrate the Epiphany which falls on January 6th. Or perhaps I should say, begins on January 6th, because in our church year, Epiphany is not just a day but a season. And of all of our seasons, I dare say that Epiphany is one of the least known. All of us are familiar with Christmas and Easter, and we probably know a little bit about Advent and Lent as well. But what is this season of Epiphany that we’ll be journeying through for the next five weeks?
The Epiphany story that we’re most familiar with is the one that we heard in today’s gospel, the visit of the wise men from the East to pay homage to the child Jesus in Bethlehem, bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew, our gospel writer, has woven many threads into this story. The birth of Jesus is given a historical setting: it is situated historically and chronologically within the reign of King Herod, around the year 6 BC. We learn right from the start that the story of Jesus will be a story of conflict: the scheming of Herod shows us that even within a few months of his birth the conflict between Jesus, as the king of Israel chosen by God, and Herod and his successors as the kings of Israel chosen by the Roman emperor has already been set into motion. Jesus is clearly identified as the Messiah, God’s anointed one: his birth in Bethlehem is shown to be the fulfilment of the Messianic prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures. And the arrival of the foreign visitors, the wise men from the East gives us a hint that Jesus’ birth is important not just for the people of Israel, but for all the nations.
But Epiphany is not simply about remembering the visit of the wise men. In fact, it’s more like the reverse. The story of the wise men is meant to be an illustration of what Epiphany is all about. So let’s back things up a moment. What exactly do we mean by the word “epiphany”? Have you ever had an epiphany? The word “epiphany” at one level simply means to make known. A manifestation or a showing. The child Jesus was shown, was made known, to the visitors from the east. But when we use the word epiphany we’re usually talking about more than a simple showing. To have an epiphany is to see something for the first time. It’s an illuminating discovery, a sudden realization of the essential nature or meaning of something. To have an epiphany is to get something all of a sudden, to be struck with an intuitive grasp of reality. In cartoons, it’s when that light bulb goes on over top of your head.
Paul in his letter to the Ephesians that we heard in our second reading talks about his own epiphany as the revelation of a mystery.
Sometimes we talk about an epiphany as an “ah-ha” moment. There are famous examples. Sir Isaac Newton, as one example, had his epiphany when he saw an apple fall and realized that it was the same force of gravity which caused the apple to fall and the moon to orbit about the earth.
I imagine that most of you have experienced some sort of “ah-ha” moment at some point in your life. So what is that flash of insight that Matthew is hoping his readers will have when they read today’s gospel? What is the great mystery that was revealed to Paul when he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus?
The epiphany for both Paul and for Matthew’s community was the realization that not only had God made himself known in Jesus, but that God’s intent was to make himself known not just to a select group, to the Jewish people but rather to all peoples, all ethnic groups, all nations. God’s plan is the uniting of both Jews and Gentiles into one community, a community based not on blood-lines but rather on adoption into one family as children of God, and Jesus the Messiah was sent to bring this plan to its fulfilment.
We may have difficulty realizing it today, but this was a totally radical idea two thousand years ago. The Jews were expecting a Messiah who would defeat the foreigners in battle and reestablish the kingdom of Israel, not someone who would end hostility and gather all together into a single family. The self-understanding, the identity of the people of Israel was based on their covenant relationship with God. “I will be your God and you will be my people.” That was the promise given to Moses on Mount Sinai. For over a thousand years, the people of Israel had kept themselves separate, forbidding marriage with foreigners, practicing circumcision as a mark of identity, and keeping their own dietary and purity laws. The idea that God now wanted to end that separation and re-establish his people to include both Jews and Gentiles was absolutely unthinkable.
Yet that’s exactly what happened in the early church. It didn’t happen without a struggle. Imagine what it was like for the first generation of Jesus’ followers based in Jerusalem when this upstart Paul started advocating full and equal membership in the church for Greeks and other foreigners. And not only did he want the foreigners included, but he wanted all the rules changed in order to accommodate them. No longer would circumcision be required. No longer would the dietary laws have to be followed. No longer would Jerusalem hold the place of honour in the church. No longer would your status be determined by who your parents were or how well you kept the law of Moses. No longer would foreigners have to follow Jewish practices before they were allowed to eat at the same table. Two thousand years ago, this was radical stuff.
This is the Epiphany that we’re talking about today, the sudden flash of insight that Jesus came for all humanity, that God’s plan is to bring all people into his family. This is the “ah-ha” moment that radically changed and shaped the early church.
For the people of Israel it was a radical change in their vocation, in the mission that they’d been called to by God. It was not totally unforeseen however. More than five hundred years before Jesus’ birth, a prophetic voice had called for Israel to take on this new mission. “Arise, shine,” the prophet Isaiah calls to Israel in our first reading. “I will give you as a light to the nations.” “Nations shall come to your light and all will be gathered together.” Isaiah foresaw that one day all nations would become God’s children by faith, and that Israel’s role was to be a light that shines in the darkness and draws all people to it.
Now, Israel as a people, wasn’t too successful at breaking down the barriers between nations, and so the responsibility passed to Jesus as God’s chosen one, and from Jesus to his followers in the early church, and from them, through the centuries, to whom? Well, to us.
We are called to be a light that shines in the darkness for all people, so that God can be made known, and all may come to his light.
God’s plan is still to draw all people to him, and to gather all together as his children. Our vocation as the people of God, what we call the church, is still the same mission which was prophesied by Isaiah so long ago.
How are we doing with that, here at St. Albans in downtown Ottawa, at the dawn of the year 2016? Are we a light that shines in the darkness? Are we making God known? Are people drawn to God through us?
We’re doing some things right. We support the Open Table in partnership with our neighbourhood churches, a monthly free meal for students which has blossomed into a warm and hospitable community. We open up the church as a centre for the arts, hosting concerts, theatre groups and fundraisers which draw in thousands of people each year. And the most visible thing that we’ve done in this neighbourhood is to welcome Centre 454 into our building, and the Centre in turn extends a welcome to all those who walk through its doors, offering coffee and a variety of support services, particularly to those who are dealing with homelessness, poverty and a variety of other challenges.
Now there’s always more that can be done, we know that. But it’s also good once and a while to celebrate what we are doing, and what God is doing in our midst. That’s what feast days are for, and today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, the day that we remember the vocation that God has given us to be a light for all people.
When we uphold justice, when we act to meet the needs of the poor and oppressed, when we love one another, our light does indeed shine in the darkness, and people are drawn to God’s light when they see it reflected in us, however dimly.
But when people are drawn to God through us, how do we receive them? Do we greet them as family? Are we willing to make the sort of difficult changes that the early church had to make in welcoming the Gentiles? Or do we simply assume that newcomers are the ones who have to make the effort, and that they will have to adapt to our ways rather than the other way around?
The truth is that often our churches are not easy places to enter for people who are unfamiliar with them. And yet despite our solid wood doors and the windows that you can’t see through, despite our strange language and customs, people come. Every Sunday, we have new people who join our worship. And any time our door is open during the week, people walk in. Do they feel welcome?
Many of you made New Year’s resolutions in the last few days. For our new year’s resolution as a community this year, I would like us to re-commit ourselves once more to the practice of hospitality. How can we do better at welcoming people into our church community? Do we talk to visitors? Are we willing to make changes in how we do things in order to integrate all people into our worship and activities? When we discover barriers to hospitality, are we willing to dismantle them, even if it is difficult or time-consuming or expensive? Do we simply wait for people to walk into church, or do we find ways to bring church into the community?
If we want an example of what it means to practice hospitality we need look no further than the early church, which allowed itself to be completely transformed in order to draw in those who were considered outsiders.
We tell the story of the wise men each year at Epiphany to remind ourselves that the birth of Jesus is not just for insiders, not just for any particular group of people, not just for our community, but for all. God wants all of us to be members of his family.