Epiphany wisdom, old and new

And so we come to the Feast of the Epiphany; in which God took a(nother) risk, reaching out beyond the usual suspects, who were followers already of the ancient story of God’s guidance, messengers of God’s love for the earth.

At the Epiphany, God reached out to strangers and foreigners, who had no clue about so many things, including the political situation, and that it was very unwise to go and visit Herod to ask him about some new king.

God inspired men (and probably women) who had never heard of Bethlehem, who did not know the word of the prophets, who had no prior relationship, perhaps, with the story of God’s salvation.

God risked reaching beyond the regular congregation of angels, ceased preaching only to the choir, and tapped someone totally new, in order to say, “Here is the Christ. God is with you.”

It is thoroughly consistent with God’s intervention in the world, calling Abraham and his family out of Ur, out of obscurity, to become the forerunners of generations of nations. God sought out David, a youngest son, sent away to the hillsides to live rough as a shepherd, far from the seat of power; the lowliest child became Israel’s greatest king. God called prophets out of the most unlikely circumstances, and while an angel visited a priest, Zechariah, about his business in the temple to announce to the birth of John the Baptist, it was to an anonymous and ordinary young woman in the backwaters of Galilee that the same angel announced the Incarnation, the concept that God could come and live among us.

No wonder, then, that at his birth, God chose foreigners and strangers to bring gifts and glory to Jesus, and to take the story of his glory home with them, by another way.

A note on the translation of the word magi might be apropos at this point, though many of you have heard it before: it is the word from which we derive magic, and magician. These were people possessed of special knowledge so esoteric that it might appear miraculous or magical to the uninitiated; but it was not supernatural, only studied and hard-won. They were not, according to the biblical text, kings; that tradition came later, applying the prophecies that kings would stream to the brightness that would rise with the dawning of the day of the Lord, the eruption of the Messiah, the coming of the Christ. And the bible gives them no number; there may have been three, or thirty-three, or three hundred; they were enough, after all, to scare Herod half to death and all the way into murder. The gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh are probably responsible for our imaginative vision of three men carrying one precious item each. Speaking of which, it is not absolutely clear from the word that the Magi must all be men. There may well have been women, wise or otherwise, among the delegation that visited Jesus from the East. The three men with crowns and beards that we depict kneeling before the Christ-child are our projected representatives of an unknown group of seekers and seers, drawn by the irresistible call of God upon their intellect and their emotions to come to Jesus.

The picture that we expect to see is not always the one that is painted by God, who has the unerring capacity and tendency to do unexpected things, through unexpected people, in unexpected places, at any and all inconvenient and auspicious times.

What does this mean for a parish named for the arrival of the Magi at the manger of the Christ-child on its ninetieth anniversary of service to this city and its surrounding communities?

For one thing, it must mean that whatever we are imagining right now pales in comparison to what God has imagined for us.

We are honoured and privileged as we gather on a significant anniversary to give thanks for the wise women and men who had the vision and who followed God’s dream of establishing this church here in Euclid. Some of them we have known and loved as family. Some were gone before even the longest-serving people here had a chance to know them. But even they are our family. They built the home in which we worship, and in their wisdom they dedicated this parish to the remembrance of the Epiphany, that moment when the unexpected and unpredictable brightness of God shone once again in strange places and converted strangers to the knowledge and the homage and the love of Christ.

They were inviting a certain uncertainty to the party when they chose this feast as our day of dedication.

So it is that even as we celebrate the wise women and men who have led us to this point, we cannot only look back. Even those first visitors to the manger did not travel home by the same road they rode in on. They were sent a different way, to explore new routes, meet new people on the way, to spread the good news of Jesus to those who were not even waiting for it.

If we are to honour the spirit of the Epiphany, we need not only open our eyes to the star that has already stopped over the place where the Saviour was born. We need to open our hearts to the stranger, the unlooked-for emissary whom God has called out of places unfamiliar to us. We who are gathered at the manger should expect unexpected guests, and their undiscovered gifts, and welcome them with open hearts and open arms.

And we should expect God to send us on new roads, through unfamiliar territory, on our way home.

If I were to try to tell you what that might look like, I know that I would be selling your vision short. You have the wisdom and experience to read for yourselves the signs that God is painting in the sky to lead you on. I have learned at least that the picture that I expect to see is not always the one that is painted by God, who has the unerring capacity and tendency to do unexpected things, through unexpected people, in unexpected places, at any and all inconvenient and auspicious times.

So wise women and wise men of the Epiphany: I charge you to read the sky, to listen to the stars, to strain to hear through the music of the spheres the small, still voice of God; to see in the stranger the reflection of God’s call to worship at the manger of the Christ; to try out a new and unusual way home; to share your wisdom, your inspiration, your love with all whom you encounter on the way, and especially with one another in this ninetieth anniversary year.

And may the brightness of God shine out from this place that all who see it may know the love of God, made manifest and glorious in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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