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"Everyday Epiphanies" - The Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on January 6, 2019 by Kathy Miller

January 6, 2019
“Everyday Epiphanies”
Matthew 2:1-12
Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Scripture—Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage."

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;

and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.

Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage."

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.

When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.         

The Word of the Lord.           

Thanks be to God.

 

Everyday Epiphanies

I must admit that I prefer the culturally-enhanced version of the epiphany story: you know the one—a bright star appears over the manger pointing down toward the miracle of the baby and it attracts the attention of three richly-robed royals who travel from the East to join the shepherds at the stable on Christmas Eve. There’s something magical and poetic about the story of stars and light, kings and journeys. It seems ready made to be a Disney movie—it is a story for the ages.

It is also wrong. Or, at least, it is not the story we find in scripture.

Of course, when you stop to think about it, there are some rather glaring inconsistencies in the story as we often hear it—if there was a brilliant star sitting above the manger, why did it not attract more attention and more visitors? Why did King Herod need the wisemen to return to tell him where to find the baby? —surely he could have seen the star as clearly as the wisemen. Also, how long would that super bright, almost blinding star have had to have been there in order for:

  • the wisemen to see it,
  • set out on camels,
  • and travel the hundreds of miles it would have taken to get from “the East” to Jerusalem,
  • and then, after a stay with king Herod, finally make their way to Bethlehem?

I know labor can last a long time, but that seems extreme. And I find it hard to imagine Mary and Joseph sticking around in the stable after the baby was born on the off-chance that complete strangers might stop by with utterly impractical gifts.

Although the scripture breaks some of the fairytale illusion of three kings seeing a bright star in the sky, gallantly setting out to follow it, it does resolve a few of these more glaring inconsistencies:

Picture, if you will, the popular image of a large star hanging above a manger scene as three kings on camels approach the shepherds and angels and animals who have already arrived. Got it? Okay, hold on to that picture while I read to you again the beginning of the story as it is told in the narrative:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in the Bethlehem, wise men from the East came.

And poof—there go your shepherds and angels. This story takes place after Jesus was born, not the same night, which is when the shepherds and angels appeared. Okay, go back to your mental image minus the shepherds and angels:

Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising.”

And … there goes the large star above the manger. The wise men, it would seem, were not following a large neon star for they did not go directly to Bethlehem. Instead, they went first to Jerusalem (assuming, as would be natural, that a child born to be a king would be in the capital near the existing King, probably, in fact, a descendant of the current king—that is how these things generally work).

There is still a star, but it must be far smaller. Given the evidence available, it seems most likely that the wise men were astrologers and scholars: familiar with the night sky and well-read in various prophetic and scriptural texts. These were people who had been watching the night sky for years—they were familiar enough with all of the stars in the sky that they noticed when something new appeared.

Whether they were already familiar with the Hebrew prophecies and thus looking for a sign or whether they saw the star and went looking for an explanation, the result is the same—they saw something unusual in the sky and they connected that anomaly with a Jewish prophecy about a child to be born king of the Jews, and so they set out, and thus began the story we now celebrate on Epiphany.

We’re all familiar, I assume, with epiphanies—those illusive moments we all, at one point or another, have longed for. That moment when we can suddenly see clearly what until that moment has been shrouded in mystery. That moment of insight that makes us smack our foreheads and feel like we should have realized it so much sooner.

Epiphanies are those AHA! moments when the answer to the problem you’ve been struggling to solve suddenly pops, seemingly unbidden, into your head and you wonder how it is it didn’t occur to you before. It is the Eureka! of Archimedes when he stepped into a bath and realized that he could use displaced water to determine the volume of an object. It is the apple falling on Newton’s head and leaving behind a bump and the notion of gravity. Epiphanies are those incredible moments when what felt impossible or without answer suddenly becomes as easy as pie and as clear as day.

I suspect that the reason we even have a name for these moments is because they seem so magical—you cannot force an epiphany (if you could, sermons would be a lot easier to write!); indeed, it often feels as though epiphanies are entirely unrelated to the amount of effort exerted in their pursuit.

This concept of epiphanies is also, it seems to me, a fairly accurate description of how many of us think about the work of God in our lives—we know God to be beyond our understanding and bigger than we can comprehend; we know God is not within our control, and so we assume that when God wants our attention, God will get it.

The majority of us live, I think, with the default assumption that we should just keep on living our lives and if God wants us to be doing something different, God will make that clear; God will, in effect, put a bright neon star in the sky pointing to where we’re meant to be; it will be so abundantly obvious that our only real decision will be whether or not we want to follow or whether we want to be stupid and run the other way (in biblical parlance, I believe this is called “pulling a Jonah”).

I do not doubt that God can act in this way. But just as the cultural story of the magi is not quite accurate, so too, I think, this perception of our relationship with God is not quite right. Instead, we would do well to take our cues from the magi as they are described in the scripture. The wisemen were not individuals who happened one night to see a particularly bright star and then impulsively set out to follow it.

These were scholars who had been waiting and watching—they were looking for changes in the night sky, presumably expecting at least the possibility of a sign of some kind. Can you imagine the number of nights they must have spent looking only to see nothing? The number of prophetic texts they must have read that didn’t fit what they saw, that didn’t come to fruition?

Indeed, when we stop to consider the majority of aha! moments in our own context we often find that they too rarely happen out of the blue.

After all, we tend not to get answers to questions we haven’t asked.

Rarely do solutions present themselves to us for problems we have not even identified. Epiphanies may appear to be out of thin air, but they are almost always the result of hard work and frustration, of not being able to see any possible way forward and yet still continuing to look. As one writer puts it, “the story of many a science discovery … reminds us that an epiphany is more often the result of years of hard work and observation, showing up each day, even when there has been no discernible progress.”[1]

The same basic principle applies to a life of faith and our experience of God—rarely do we see God when we’re not looking for God. It happens, of course, but it is rare.

If you want to see God, you must look.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible comes from the end of the book of Deuteronomy. Having finished reiterating and reinterpreting the law for the Israelites, God speaks through Moses and says this, to the Israelites and to us, “See, I have set before you today life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life …” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Epiphanies are everywhere; they’re just waiting for us to notice them. Every day God sets in our life things that bring us joy and things that bring us irritation. Every day we have experiences that are life-giving, moments that leave us feeling more energized and alive than we did before; and every day we have experiences that are life-draining, moments that leave us exhausted or apathetic. The passage from Deuteronomy and the story of Epiphany call us to pay attention to those moments and to follow the ones that bring us life.

God may be the designer of creation and the orchestrator of history, but God does not only work in big pictures, God is equally present in the small details. God’s call for our lives is rarely a one and done proposition, nor is God’s call for us evident only in the major catastrophes and blessings of life—God calls to us each and every day, setting before us trails of life-giving moments designed to lead us in the direction of that which gives us life and love.

Scripture refers to God as Good, and Light, and Life, and Love, so it should come as no surprise to us that it is always to these things that God is calling us—for God is always calling us closer to God’s own self.

And yet. And yet life is busy and full of details and we often forget to look, to pay attention. We assume that if God wants us some place different, God will make it happen, and so we fail to pay attention to the trail of breadcrumbs God leaves in our life. We forget to look for the places in which we have experienced life and light and love, or we assume that God’s call for us must be more difficult or more arduous than that—surely it is not so simple.

And so, too often we allow the discordant noises of that which is not life-giving draw our time, attention, and focus. Or we allow ourselves to be seduced by what is fun or easy, which is not always the same thing as that which bring us life.

And so, we must pay attention. We must take note of where God is showing up in our lives (where we’re experiencing life and love and joy). With enough time, patterns will begin to emerge and we’ll begin to anticipate where we might experience God. Armed with that knowledge, we’ll have the option to follow—to make the often small choices (and the occasional big ones) that allow us to live more fully the life to which God is calling us and for which we have been created.

Amen.



[1] Kristin Berkey-Abbott, “Starlight and Intuitive Shifts,” LivingLutheran.com. https://www.livinglutheran.org/2012/01/starlight-intuitive-shifts/ (accessed 2019-01-03).

 
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