The people’s epiphany

A sermon for the feast of the Epiphany at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio

The message of the Epiphany might be (among other things) that the grace and glory of God, the steadfast love of God for God’s creation, the mercy and faithfulness of God towards us is not a secret.

Angels proclaimed it out loud from the heavens, rank upon rank breaking the lines, the borders between heaven and invading the earth to make sure that the news was heard on the hillside.

The very arrangement of the astronomical omens led astrologers from far afield to the place where Christ was born.

And on their way, they consulted with wise men and scribes who had inherited generations of prophecy and promise, that God’s anointed, the Messiah, the saviour of the people of God would be born in Bethlehem.

It was no secret. It had been foretold. It had been witnessed. It had been written across the sky for all to see.

We are the Church of the Epiphany. If ever we have wondered what that means, we might reflect on the boldness of God’s boast, broadcasting the birth of Jesus, the Incarnation of God, the bridging of human and divine, mortal and eternal life, at the first festival of the Epiphany.

Where do we see ourselves in the story?

We hope that we are not Herod.

We are not necessarily the wise strangers, either. We mostly don’t travel too far to get here, Sunday by Sunday. We know whom we are seeking, and we know where he is to be found; ubi caritas: wherever love is, there God is. Wherever faith, hope, and love labour together, there Christ is born.

Sometimes we gather with the shepherds. In our better moments, we rank with the angels. In our more contemplative moods, we might side with Joseph, standing witness, wonderer, even helper to the Holy Family. But we should fear becoming like the people of Jerusalem.

The people of Jerusalem, the populace were shaken by Herod’s upset. They feared that his unpredictability would be more present to them, in the short run, than God’s implacable mercy. They silently cursed the magi for stirring up trouble in the palace and the Temple, for daring to suggest that the promise of God was more than just a promise, that it was nearing fulfillment, if only one would look up, and see the signs, and follow the star.

The people of Jerusalem, the people in the pews thought that a saviour would be nice, but really wished that everything would just get back to normal, allow Herod to calm down, move on to the next piece of news, without too much damage being done.

But that is not how the inbreaking of the Incarnation works. There is no pretending that anything can be undone, that pretending ignorance of the coming of the Christ, the kingdom of God drawn near, would make it go away.

The people of Jerusalem, the everyday folk may have thought that the sufferings in Bethlehem, tragic and reprehensible as they were reported, were a heavy but necessary price to pay to regain their status quo. Of course, the people Jerusalem didn’t pay the price. The children and parents of Bethlehem paid it for them. And the people of Jerusalem were wrong. They didn’t mean to be. They didn’t want to be. They just wanted things to stay the same as they were used to.

Last year, at Epiphany, we celebrated our ninetieth anniversary by looking back to what our ancestors had founded and tended, and looking forward to the new roads that God might be calling us into, leading us along. As we heed the lessons of our forerunners both here and in Jerusalem, we might wonder, and check, whether we are still open to new ideas, new ways of interpreting our own traditions, newcomers and their strange wisdom.

When the wise men came to Herod with the news of a saviour, the establishment replied, “Yes, but that is not how we do things here. We know that God has promised something new, but we are happy with the old ways.” One doesn’t have to be as mad and as murderous as Herod in order to shoot down initiatives and new ideas that might, in fact, have been inspired by the heavens.

The wise men were warned not to return to Herod, but to take a different road. If they had gone back the way that they had come, they would have risked revealing the identity and whereabouts of the Holy Family to Herod before they had a chance to flee, seeking asylum in Egypt, waiting out the threat of violence and death. When we are not open to new ways of travelling together, with friends, with strangers, with Christ, might we even be endangering the gospel? When we allow the powers that be to interpret God’s promises for us, without examining the evidence for ourselves, reading the heavens, reading the Bible, reading our prayers, are we playing into Herod’s hands?

But it is no secret that God’s grace continues to break into our lives, and that God’s promises will not be thwarted by Herod or his ilk. Even among the people of Jerusalem, there must have been some who were intrigued rather than intimidated, and eager to follow the star along with the wise men to seek this saviour whom God had sent. There must have been people, who out of their own prayers, or out of despair, who out of curiosity and hope and longing for God’s love were prepared for an epiphany, the revelation of God in Christ, and ready to take a new road.

We are the Church of the Epiphany. If nothing else, that name must mean that we cannot keep the gospel a secret, that we cannot keep it buried, or still, that we are constantly breaking open, being broken open in new ways, by the revelation that God has given us in the birth of Jesus, in the coming of Christ, the bridging of heaven and earth.

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;

but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you.

So says the prophet Isaiah, because God’s mercy is not a secret, and God’s promises are not kept under wraps, nor long contained in swaddling clothes.

As we celebrate a new year together, are we prepared for a new epiphany, the always strange and surprising revelation of God’s love among us? It is our part in the story, the part of those who witness the wonder, always anew, and whisper to our neighbours, “Come, see the child who has been born for us. See the love of God that has dawned on us. For we have seen his star rising, and we have found him, and have come to worship him.

Come and see.”

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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