Preaching January 2, 2022 or Epiphany

December 27th, 2021

What to do with January 2? There are 2nd after Christmas lections, and then many churches (like mine) will observe Epiphany. Several of the texts in question are fascinating. All in some way wrestle with mystery.

Ellen Davis (in Preaching the Luminous Word) noticed that the Church of All Nations next to the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem has a sign that sternly warns, “No explanations in the church.” That’s directed to the tour guides, of course. But as Ellen muses,

“We’d all do well to heed it. We in the church have been baptized into the mystery of Christ; so long as we attend to God, with every heartbeat we are drawn more deeply into a mystery that infinitely exceeds our understanding, a mystery of mercy that goes beyond even our wildest hopes and imaginings. So no explanations in the church; rather, let us speak softly and with wonder, as befits a holy place.”

I’m trying more soft speaking, silent pauses, some stammering in 2022.

Ephesians 1:3-14. There is so much theology and wisdom packed into this 202 word sentence (yes, these 12 verses are one run-on sentence in the Greek) that it is impossible to diagram! Paul’s zeal for God and the people bursts over the edges, as if he couldn’t stop rambling, could stick a pause anywhere.

Some annotations:
God has “made known the mystery of his will. That’s perfect (and the subject of my book, The Will of God). God’s will isn’t a hunch you feel. It’s been made known – and yet it’s still a mystery, not as in puzzling, you can’t figure it out, but mystery as in beyond the prosaic, something profound, mystical, beyond what we can reckon and just get done easily.

Saints – not superhuman spiritual heroes, or prissy avoiders of earthly pleasures, of champion do-gooders. The saint is one whose thinking and living at least strives to be different, special, not blending into the mobs out there. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says holiness is simply making space and time for God.

It’s aspirational. We dream of being what Paul calls us: holy. Mary Oliver’s words move me:

“Another morning and I wake with thirst for the goodness I do not have. Oh Lord, grant me, in your mercy, a little more time. Love for the earth and love for you are having such a long conversation in my heart.” Isn’t Richard Rohr right? “We don’t have to make ourselves holy. We already are, and we just don’t know it.”

Chosen? Americans think of choice as limiting, as if you choose which cereal among many in the store to buy, or the bachelor choosing which bachelorette pleases him. Ephesians does this over and over: you aren’t on the outside looking in with God. You don’t have to go find God and get God. You can be confused or even uninterested. God chose you. God is in you. Preachers should and can boggle their minds with this: Want to know how amazing you are? God chose you “before the foundation of the world.” That’s right: when God thought, Let’s make a universe with galaxies and nebulae! God also thought of you, God decided you would be you. And for the noblest conceivable purpose: that you would live with God’s Spirit in you. Go outside tonight. Gaze up into the heavens. Billions of years ago, when God imagined the vast cosmos, God was already making plans for you.

Adoption. I love Kelly Nikondeha’s marvelous theological reflections on this! Adopted people often want to find their birth parents. Why? “We want that dark corner illuminated. We imagine our own transformation at the revelation of our true origin. What goodness might be unlocked, what possibility unleashed?” Isn’t church a quest to discover our true origin? Nikondeha offers a picturesque retrospective on what being adopted was about: “A woman scooped me out of the white-wicker bassinet in the viewing room of the adoption agency and claimed me as her own. Her physical emptiness prepared the way for my fullness.”

Does the birthmother “abandon” her child? Or is it a “relinquishment”? So different. Abandonment is unfeeling and cruel. Relinquishment may be the highest form of love – as Jesus, certainly feeling abandoned by God, relinquished his divine power and his life.

Isaiah 60:1-6 is much more than “Rise and shine and give God the glory glory…” The vision is way higher, cosmic in vastness. God’s project isn’t me feeling better or getting saved. 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. Ours 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.” Isaiah envisions a great gathering of the nations (not just our neighborhood!) – and in my blog 2 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.”

Ephesians 3:1-12. Paul doesn’t write from the comforts of a library or his home. He’s a prisoner – literally! And figuratively: he’s a prisoner to Christ’s will. We can think of so many in history who’ve wound up in prison, like Paul, because of their commitments to do good for others: St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Thomas More, Jean Donovan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela… too many to name or number. Playing it safe, being a law-abiding citizen? God called Paul, and God calls us to something higher, riskier, more courageous.

It’s probably worth recalling, every now and then as we read anything from Paul, that he was perhaps the greatest but surely the unlikeliest of early Church leaders. He wasn’t a slacker or an impious, blatantly sinful guy. He was quite pious – and an implacable, aggressive, angry foe of the early Christian movement. “Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace which was given me by the working of his power.” What a mystery! – such a radical about-face. That’s what grace does. That’s how powerful God’s work is, and can be even in us today. Any of that in your calling? You became a minister – by choice? Or by the gift of God’s grace?

Paul’s mission, and the Church’s, is “to make all people see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God.” The mystery, the secret that is now out in the open, is God’s plan for the unity of all, for dividing walls to be broken down, for all hostility to cease. The Church witnesses, not by chatting about such things but by simply living out the mystery of a people unified in Christ.

Stephen Fowl points out that “the very existence of the gathered body of Jews and Gentiles reconciled to God and each other in Christ makes known the manifold wisdom of God.” As we sing, “They will know we are Christians by our love,” not for the people who are like us but for the people the world can’t believe we can love. We show the world a better way.

We’re not good at this. But it’s God’s work, and if we let God’s Spirit achieve this in and through us, the world will be in awe, and eager to join us. Fowl wrote that “the attractiveness that first drew Gentiles to God should be even more attractive in the light of this reconciliation.” That is, unlikely people were drawn to Christ, and that religion looks even more alluring when the unlikely enjoy unity with the others…

…which makes me wonder about racial reconciliation. The biggest shock of religious history might just be that Black Americans actually believed in the slaveowners’ God! That says a lot about the marvel, the attractiveness of Christianity. So then, what if we White and Black Christians genuinely became close to one another and pulled off reconciliation in our country. Who then could argue for a second that Christianity is a lame religion? Everyone would know that this really is flat out amazing, compelling, a difference maker, a blessing to all

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. He’s a Capricorn?

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 4th 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’s way is one of truth, simplicity, welcoming strangers – and even suffering? Just as The Shack begins with the murder of a child, so Jesus’s 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 the questionable characters, in what seems obviously religious but in countless other manifestations.

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.”

What astral phenomenon did the magi see? Halley’s comet? A supernova? Check out the great scene (view here! – trust me, 3 minutes well-spent!) 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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