Chosen by God

Scriptures: Matt. 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12

I am sure that most of you have not been kept up nights wondering about Epiphany. A large number of people have never even heard of it. And although I grew up with it and I’d heard of it, it had never really hit me that it was worthy of celebration until I went to South America, in Colombia, with my roommate when I was in graduate school.

There, it is a significant celebration. Epiphany falls on January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas, the day you’re supposed to get twelve drummers drumming and all those other things, and the day we commonly remember the arrival of the wise men in Bethlehem. In Europe, in places, in South America, and a variety of other contexts and countries, this is a big event.

Children may dress up as kings, and travel from door to door, much as we do on Halloween. Only instead of collecting for themselves, they collect for the poor, remembering that the wise men brought gifts for the poor Christ child.

The more you look into church history, the more you realize that we are missing a lot of things in the modern church today. Epiphany in the early church was one of the great feast days, second only to Easter in its importance. The third great feast was Pentecost, another day that has kind of drifted into religious backwaters. And even Easter is greatly watered down today.

Easter used to be celebrated with an all-night vigil the night before, and then the celebration continued on for what was called the Great Fifty Days, ending with a huge blow-out on Pentecost. Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost were the focus of the Church. Nobody even thought about celebrating Christmas until the fourth century.

So what’s the deal? Why was Epiphany so important? And why is it important now? For those few who have heard of Epiphany, chances are you’ll know it as the day the wise men came. And that’s right, partially.

The word epiphany means “manifestation” or “revelation.” The wise men are celebrated on Epiphany because, you see, the story is said to represent the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles. And it used to be that Epiphany was celebrated even more than the wise men. But I want to touch on that bit with the Gentiles.

The wise men – and they are called magi which is wise men – we’re going to sing a hymn after my sermon, “We Three Kings,” it’s commonly held that they’re kings but there’s no proof of that, they were wise men. It’s commonly held there were three, but there’s no proof of that. All we have is that there were three gifts that were given – gold, frankincense – which is very expensive, and myrrh.

These wise men were probably astrologers, as Donna had noted, in the East, and that’s important for us to understand, I think. It’s not that God is saying astrology is OK – guiding your life by the horoscope is not something to be recommended. But the fact was that God, when He calls someone, will make a way for you to respond.

These magi were also astronomers – men who knew the constellations in the sky, had charted their movements, and could travel by them. Sailors used to do that, you know. As the wind filled the sails, and the ship continued on what was almost always a long journey, the men on them counted on certain sailors who were knowledgeable telling them where they were, and which way to go. They were usually called “navigators”. My father was one of those, though he was in the Air Force. The nickname was “Raven”, and his job had more to do with instruments and radar than sextants and stars; but he was also an amateur astronomer, and loved looking into the night sky. Many years he tried to teach us kids the different names of stars and constellations, and how to find Polaris (the North Star). I guess it’s kind of obvious that last bit could not overcome my directional impairment, since I can get lost day or night, but that’s what he did. And in a different, more metaphorical way, he taught us to “look to the heavens” for guidance in life.  While not a magi in the conventional sense, he was a pretty wise man.

So God called these men – these magi – and they traveled a long way. How do we know that they traveled a long way? I know that it’s frequently pictured – even here in our little nativity scene – that the wise men are there with the baby Jesus in the manger, and Mary and Joseph are there, and it’s a stable or guest room or whatever – and the fact of the matter is, if you read and listen to what Donna said in Matthew, it says they came to the house where Jesus was. There was no stable.

Herod asked the wise men when they had first seen the star, and there’s a reason for that. He wants accurate information before he takes actions. Then he goes through and he kills every baby under two years old. You see, they had been traveling, it’s estimated, for at least eighteen months. So Jesus wasn’t an infant. He was a toddler.

It didn’t make any real difference, for he was still a king to the wise men. He was still revealed, not just that night to the shepherds when he was born, but even when he was eighteen months old, to the Gentiles, through these wise men who came and traveled a long way to visit him.

God chose them to show the revelation of Christ, the Messiah of all, to the Gentiles. And it’s important, too, that that story is only in Matthew, because Matthew writes that Jesus is King. Each of the Gospel writers had an assumption behind their theme. Mark, it’s “who is this man”. With Luke, it’s talking about the healer and the “Son of Man”. With Matthew, Jesus is the King, from the get-go. And his question, his challenge throughout his gospel, is “what are you going to do about it?”

But Matthew also wrote to the Jews. More times than any other gospel writer he talks about fulfilling the prophecies. More times than any other gospel writer he talks about Jesus in the context of the synagogue and in worship. And yet, also in Matthew, written to the Jews, is this declaration that God has come for the Gentiles as well.

It was an astounding thing, I’m sure, to the readers of the early church. The baby that was born in a manger was relatively unimportant, compared to the events that proved to the world who that baby was. Things like the wise men coming, the miracle at Cana, when he changed water into wine. Even his baptism – we just read about that this morning in Sunday School, where the heavens opened, and the Spirit came down like a dove, and rested upon him, and the voice of the Father said “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased.”

These things are often all lumped together to show, to symbolize the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and it is this revelation that was cause for such great celebration. Each time, though, that revelation was given to a few even though it was made known to everybody at large.

I’m sure that it wasn’t just the wise men that could see the star. I’m sure that it wasn’t just Jesus who heard the Spirit speak at his baptism. Here you have these men, the wise men, who went to see Herod. Herod called scribes, he called elders of the law, and he said, “OK, where is he supposed to be? Where is Jesus supposed to be?”

And they knew. They knew that he was supposed to be in Bethlehem. They knew the time was ripe for the Messiah. But you see, they didn’t care. They were more concerned with earthly power; THEIR power. The wise men did care. Thought men of power and learning, God moved their hearts. God showed them the way to find Christ and worship him.

In the early church, they anticipated the return of Jesus at any time. They were full of excitement and expectation. They were suffering persecutions which they were forced to endure, and that made them very aware of their faith. There’s nothing like possibly dying for your faith to make it clear to you what you believe and hold to be important.

Many of us today have lost that sense of excitement and expectation. In that early and persecuted church, the point of Epiphany was not to remember history, but to be reminded that God appears miraculously to us, in places and ways that we don’t expect.

If we remember that God seems to thrive on unexpected appearances, and if we keep expecting to see God everywhere we turn, then maybe we won’t miss it when it happens again.

God has chosen each of you. You are here, you understand that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. You understand that he is the Savior, the only way of salvation. He has chosen you. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t still appear to you, still reveal Himself to you today.

That appearance may take many forms. That appearance may take many people. How many times do you prepare for your day by asking God to be revealed in your co-workers? In the traffic on the way to work? Maybe in your housework? Your tests, your teachers.

How many times do you prepare for church by asking God to speak to you in the music? I hope you ask for it in the sermon. But how about even in the congregation, and the others that you see here.

How many of us honestly, truly expect a real life-changing encounter with God when we open these doors, when we come in? I can tell you, that those few who do expect such things usually find them. But if you don’t expect them, it’s baffling to me why you would come.

If you’re not expecting company, they might as well show up when you’re out, or asleep, or too busy in the back to hear the knocking on the door. If we don’t expect God to appear or to speak or to touch our hearts, if we’re not looking for God at every turn and listening for God in every voice, chances are we’ll be as clueless as the guests at the wedding, or the so-called scribes and learned men that worked for Herod, or even all the people who were crammed into Bethlehem, when God finally appears.

If we’re looking, the signs of God’s presence are all around us, as much outside the church as inside. It says in the Psalms that creation itself gives praise to the Lord. The trees, the oceans, the skies, the deer, all of the creatures of the woods and the fields. God is in the delivery room and the funeral home. God is in the face of the homeless man sleeping on a grate, or in the face of a child who puts a dollar in his hat.

God may be just sitting beside you in a pew, or might call on the phone this afternoon. We all meet God in different ways and different times and places in our lives. The message of Epiphany is that the revelation of God is talking about more than a one-shot deal.

You see, it’s not just that Jesus came once and that was that. No, there was Easter, that bright and glorious morning when God blew the lid off of everybody’s ideas about what God could and couldn’t be and do. Come Easter morning, all bets were off. The tomb was empty, and God was on the loose.

He appeared and disappeared out of rooms. He was now here on the beach having breakfast with disciples, and there walking with other disciples who had no clue who they were talking to on the way to Emmaus.

The message of Epiphany and Easter is that God is not dead, dried out, and stuffed into your Bible somewhere around the Psalms. God is alive and kicking, and giving revelation here and everywhere in the hopes that those who He has chosen will tune in to the right frequency.

The God who was made manifest in Jesus of Nazareth lives, and is made manifest somewhere, somehow in your life this very morning. That God was calling you when you came to Him? That is not the only call that He makes. God is calling you even now. It could be that God will be revealed right after the service in the fellowship hall, or out in the parking lot.

The real message of Epiphany is not so much about the wise men and the gifts, though those are cool. The real message of Epiphany is “Keep watch, for you don’t know the day or the hour when God will appear.”

I can’t force you to encounter God. You have to have a willing spirit, and you have to be looking with a loving spirit. But I can assure you that God is here to be encountered – behind you in the pews, in the sacrament of Communion that we’re going to celebrate today, in the Scripture readings of the Word, even in the offering.

From the songs we sing to the prayer that we pray to the sermon that’s preached, the ultimate purpose of all of it is to provide a place where it’s easier for people to experience the revelation or the epiphany of God; a time that is structured in such a way that we are open to it, in order to follow Him.

God has set a star in every one of our lives. Look for it. Follow it. It takes time. It takes effort. And at the end of it, you give God your best, because that’s what He’s worth – your best, everything you have. Because He gave everything He had, for you.

Watch, and may God reveal Himself to you this day, and this week, and as we celebrate living a life of following of Jesus. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

January 6, 2013

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