Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of the Epiphany (transferred) – January 4, 2015
As we begin this New Year in worship, we have introduced some silence following the sermon to allow some time to reflect on what the words that have been preached might be saying to us before we continue on with our worship. I hope we will find it helpful.
The Christmas Story unravels in a few different scenarios. Luke’s Gospel tells the familiar sweet story of the birth of Jesus, complete with swaddling clothes, singing angels, and adoring shepherds. Matthew offers the encounter of the Magi with the evil King Herod, the slaughter of the innocents which we commemorated last week, and, of course, the visit of the wise men to the child Jesus.
It’s an old and much-loved story yet it is full of mystery and missing a lot of detail as is Luke’s Christmas narrative. The story of the Magi following a star across the desert on their camels and clutching their gifts for baby Jesus has been immortalized by authors, artists, and musicians. Yet there are parts of these stories we take for granted and pieces that we’ve incorporated that are not in the Gospels.
For example, the poet Longfellow—not Matthew— named them: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar. We refer to them as the “Magi” or “Three Kings” yet Matthew never speaks of them as royalty nor specifies how many there were nor does he tell us exactly where in the East from whence they came. We don’t know how long it took them to get to Bethlehem and—while we picture them adoring a baby in the manger—it’s possible that Jesus was already a toddler by the time they arrived. The Christmas stories are an excellent example of how much influence writings outside of the Bible and legends passed on orally can have on our impressions of Biblical events. For example, in Luke’s version, how do Mary and Joseph get to Bethlehem? My guess is that we’d all say “on a donkey” and even more specifically that Mary rode the donkey whole Joseph walked beside her. That’s often how that scenario is depicted in art. Yet just read Luke’s text: no donkey is mentioned at all. The famous donkey, like several other extraneous pieces of information, first appears in the Protoevangelium of James, a second-century apocryphal Gospel. These are non-canonical texts that often provide interesting perspective. This same source tells us that Mary’s parents were Joachim and Anna.
As the legend about the Magi entered the world of Medieval Christianity, several pieces of artwork depicting the event show influence of similar non-biblical sources that add some interesting viewpoint. An early sixteenth-century artist represents one of the Magi as a Native American. What a great metaphor for the diversity of those eccentric visitors to the Christ as well as a witness to God’s radical inclusion.
This is the kind of story where the facts really don’t matter so much and, in spite of the scarcity of information Matthew provides, there is deep meaning in the passage we are given on the first Sunday in this New Year for this is one of the most ancient feasts, tracing its origin to third century Egypt. It is the Epiphany, a word that means “revelation” and it actually pre-dates the feast of Christmas and was, in fact, originally a dual celebration of the birth of Jesus and his manifestation to the world as Son of God. It is sometimes referred to as “Little Christmas.”
At the heart of all of the Christmas stories is the dream. A dream quells Joseph’s concern about young Mary’s pregnancy; dreams warn important characters how to go forward in safety and security. God’s faithfulness is revealed to Joseph and to the Magi, as their trust in God’s faithfulness is revealed to us.
Where would we be if we paid attention to our dream? There is a wonderful Hasidic story that reveals the “faith treasure” that lies within each of us—if only we would recognize it. Isaac, a poor Jew, lived in an old hovel far from the big city. One night he dreamed that if made the journey there, he would find a bag of gold under the bridge leading to the city’s main gate. He was so poor he not nothing to lose—so he started out on what one might consider a foolhardy trip.
After several days of walking, he arrived, sore and exhausted. But to his dismay, he found that the bridge was heavily guarded. Terribly disheartened, Isaac stood under the bridge, hoping for a chance to look for the treasure and his presence soon got the attention of the captain of the guard who yelled, “What are you doing here, old man?”
A simple, trusting man, Isaac told the captain his story about the dream. Hardly able to contain his laughter, “the officer replied, “You old fool, where would we be if we took notice of our dreams? Last night, I dreamed that if I went on a journey to a small village miles from here, I would find a great treasure hidden behind the fireplace in the miserable hovel of an old man named Isaac. Be off with you. Take your foolishness elsewhere!”
And, of course, Isaac went home as fast as he could and found the treasure he had dreamed about behind his own hearth.
An epiphany is the sudden intuitive perception of something, the realization of the reality, a flash of insight, a moment of vision—all the surprising, amazing stuff of God. The magi’s journey led them to a revelation, to find the treasure who was at the end of a quest they had been on all their lives.
What about us? Will we also move forward on our journey in this New Year, risk the search for something for which we yearn? Episcopal priest Elizabeth Keaton writes that “when we allow ourselves to trust…and follow where it leads, we may find ourselves smack in the presence of God.
Sometimes the treasures about which we dream are right in our own backyard—in familiar places like our home, the people we love, our church, our individual ministry in the world. We just need to look a little harder and be radically open to where the Spirit of God is directing our attention. Where would we be if we paid attention to our dreams? Maybe, like old Isaac, we’d be surprised where they lead us and what we discover at the end of our search.