Weekly Preaching: Epiphany 2020

December 30th, 2019

Although January 5 is the second Sunday after Christmas, with fine texts, we will observe Epiphany on this eleventh day of Christmas.

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Isaiah 60:1-6 feels a little like “So rise and shine and give God the glory glory…” But the vision is higher, downright cosmic in scope. God’s reclamation of creation isn’t me feeling better or the saving of souls. It’s the redemption of the created order  and it is God’s act, illustrated well by the common distinction (Christopher Lasch, Martin Luther King, Jr.) between optimism and hope. Optimism is the sunny dream that tomorrow will be better, and it’s up to us to make it so. Hope can hold it together even if tomorrow is worse; hope trusts in the larger, longer future, and it’s up to God, not us. Our task is, as our text puts it, to “stand.” I saw a doctor ask a woman to stand as he told her her husband had just died. We stand (and argue about it!) for the National Anthem. We stand at the end of worship. This standing in the soul is all about dignity, readiness, an eagerness to see and be ready to move.

I think of Oscar Romero’s words, which I might use as my benediction: “When we leave Mass, we ought to go out the way Moses descended Mt. Sinai: with his face shining, with his heart brave and strong to face the world’s difficulties.”

The 2nd Sunday of Christmas text, John 1, adores the “light that shines in the darkness.” Isaiah envisions a great gathering of the nations (not just our neighborhood!). In my blog two years ago, I suggested the feel might be (corny as it seems) kin to the dramatic ending to “Field of Dreams”  or visually, John August Swanson’s “Festival of Lights.”

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Matthew 2:1-12. The magi arrive. Not as in “wise men still follow him,” but astrologers, an art, an alchemy condemned in Judaism and Christianity! Yet, so eager is the Christchild to be found, and by everybody, that these deluded ones find their way to Bethlehem, and the Scripture/Bible-is-Clear! people miss out.

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It’s a tad irreverent, but the bawdy scene in “Life of Brian” when the magi show up at the wrong house might help us see that there’s some sarcastic humor tucked inside this text. Or maybe Owen Meany’s remark while singing the gory fourth stanza of “We Three Kings”: “Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying? Doesn’t sound very Christmasy to me.”

We also have that great line in The Shack: Mack asks Jesus, “Do all roads lead to you?” He replies, “Not at all. Most roads don’t lead anywhere”  and then adds “I will travel any road to find you.” The road our people have just taken may veer them away from the Christ child: the frenzy of gift giving, decorating, entertaining... as if when Jesus was born the angel said “Thou shalt shop and travel and party in his honor!” Mike Slaughter put it well: “Christmas is not your birthday.” How do we delicately remind people that Jesus’ way is one of truth, simplicity, welcoming strangers — and even suffering? Just as The Shack begins with the murder of a child, so Jesus’ story features the slaughter of children. Jesus enters a world where paranoid powers harm children. Explore a few of the ways in your sermon.

The notion of God going to any and all lengths to find us: Peter Shaffer’s great play, “Amadeus,” notes how the official court composer Salieri is devoured by jealousy when he hears Mozart. Overhearing the Adagio in E flat, played from Mozart’s first and only draft, completed entirely in Mozart’s head, Salieri was staggered: “It seemed to me that I had heard a voice of God,” or rather, that Mozart heard his rapturous music from heaven, and merely wrote it down, as if by dictation. Offended by Mozart’s sophomoric, immoral behavior, yet awestruck by his talent, he later said “God needed Mozart to let Himself into the world.” God surprises us by showing up in church, but out there also, in holy people but also in the questionable characters, by what seems obviously religious but in countless other manifestations.

God seems to have put some unquenchable hankering into all of us for… God. We think we’re looking for the next big thing, the big deal, the perfect person, the ultimate experience, our favorite song, or the painting you have to hang on the wall. When we say Ooohh, yes, I dig that, God says You’re getting warmer, keep coming, it’s me you’re really after.

Ray Barfield muses on the way Aristotle believed stars left a trail of music as they travelled through the heavens. Science has said No they don’t and yet now we’ve lost the joy in delighting in the stars and their movements: “Children look at the night sky and say, ‘I want to go there.’ If we ask, ‘Why?” the only answer that makes sense is, ‘I just do.’ They are not merely interested in seeing variations on the rocks that they find in their back yards.” (Wager: Beauty, Suffering and Being In the World, 2.)

What astral phenomenon did the magi see? Halley’s comet? A supernova? Check out the great scene in Pasolini’s Italian film, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” where the magi show up in the daytime, and have silent, tender interactions with Mary and her baby.

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