Saturday, January 7, 2017

When Jesus Shows up: 4 stories of Epiphany

Call to Worship for Epiphany

Shine brightly,
star of God,
and guide our wandering world
to where a Prince of Peace is born. 

Where children wish upon a star
or wise men scan the universe in hope 
let your bright beams 
surround their dreams
and guide their hesitating feet
to where a miracle is born.

Enable each of us
to make a New Year’s journey
leaving behind the prejudices and fears
of yester-year,
embracing a fresh openness
by which we welcome all world pilgrims
whose journeys lead to worship and humility. 

Be a sign today
of mercy and of love
like a rainbow in spring
or the bright summer sun,
and show us how our lives
can include the forgotten and forlorn,
   the grieving and the hurt.

And we will offer
to our God
now seen and touched in straw-filled bed
the best gifts in the world:
our joy, our grief, our life.

David Jenkins

The Epiphany story found in Matthew 2: 1-14 is the story of how God revealed that Jesus came not only for the Jewish people, but for everyone--epiphany does mean manifestation. But in this passage we find 4 epiphany stories not just one. While the Magi are the most prominent characters in the story, there are 4 encounters with Jesus, 4 distinct responses to the encounter, and 4 different outcomes.

Matthew starts out the starts out the passage by establishes distinct parameters for "ownership" of the Messiah. I believe he does this on purpose. He writes:

"After Jesus was born in Bethlehem (means house of bread) in Judea (meaning land belonging to the Jews), during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east (the distant place beyond the borders of Israel where the sun rises) came to Jerusalem. and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews (again, a distinct statement of ownership)? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’"

The Magi were outsiders. They had no claim on the Messiah, yet they came to see this king being born.Their response was to seek.
That's the first story.

The 2nd story Matthew includes here is the story of Israel's religious leaders. Herod calls them to ask where the child might be found. Here there is a group that shows up and have seen a sign that Israel's messiah had arrived and what is their response? Indifference. The religious leaders provide the information asked for, but then they go about their business without a twitch. If you had been waiting for a messiah for centuries and there was even an outside chance he had arrived, wouldn't you be scrambling to Bethlehem to see for yourself?
That's the 2nd story.

The 3rd story is that of Herod. Like the others, Herod does acknowledge Jesus as a king (the Jewish leaders may not have accepted Jesus as a king, but they did accept the Messiah as one) but Herod sees that king as a threat.  His response it rejection out of fear and self-protection and it reveals the worst version of him.
That's the 3rd story.

The 4th story is that of Mary and Joseph. They may have had some sense of ownership when it came to the messiah; after all, they were Jews, but their response was obedience. They humbly understood that they were stepping into a much larger story even as this king in the form of a child was stepping into their story. All we see in the story is that Joseph has a dream and follows the instructions God gives him without complaint. Mary and Joseph gave up their entire lives and all the expectations that might have gone with them to fill their role  in this unfolding story.
That's the 4th story.

Even though the responses were so different, in many ways the outcomes were very similar. After each of these parties had their encounter with Jesus, their lives were never the same again. This is expressed very well in T.S. Eliot's poem, "The Journey of the Magi."

Journey Of The Magi by T. S. Eliot
'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and
And running away, and wanting their
liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the
lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns
And the villages dirty and charging high
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a
temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of
With a running stream and a water-mill
beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in
away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with
vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for
pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so
we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment
too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say)

All this was a long time ago, I
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had
seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different;
this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like
Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these
But no longer at ease here, in the old
With an alien people clutching their
I should be glad of another death.

They journeyed so far to find a king, and ended up in a stable--yet they still felt compelled to fall down  and worship. And then, as Eliot points out, when they found what they found, and understood what they understood, how could they expect to go back to life and have it be the same as it always had been? How can any of us? You can never un-see what you've seen, or un-learn what you have learned.

Do you see yourself in any of these responses? Why are these responses so different?
Have you ever had an encounter with Jesus that made it impossible for you to go back to life as it was--even though you might have wanted to?


  1. In reading the scripture and T.S. Eliot's poem I find I relate with the wise men. I have expectations of how life should be and how God will be with me in this life. But sometimes my expectations do not come true. Sometimes God asks me to change my expectations. He asks me to let go and trust him.

    Recently, God showed me I was expecting fairness and justice in my life. He invited me to let go of my perceived needs for fairness. As I practice letting go and trusting God's loving authority over me I find I have more peace and freedom. I can breathe. Freedom, wholeness, peace, being at home in God are much greater gifts than my own expectations. Thank you, God, for loving me, loving all of us, and helping us find our wholeness in you.

  2. Dianna,
    Your comment reminds me of a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
    Perhaps the same should be said about freedom and peace.