Sermon of the Week
What Will You Do with Your Epiphany?
Keywords: Live Nativity, Handmade Shed, Giant Star, Celestial Omens, Howard Thurman, The Work of Christmas.
The church of my earliest childhood memories is in Atlantic, Iowa.
I lived in Atlantic from age 4ish until just before my 12th birthday.
It was there I learned the classics of the children’s choir:
He’s Got the Whole World, In His Hands…
Jesus Loves Me This I Know…
And This little light of mine…
That one would work for Epiphany Sunday.
It was there, in that church, I learned the art of how to squirm in an old oak pew
without making it squeak so much that I’d catch my mom’s eye.
When I got older, I even got to play in the bell choir
though we moved away just as I was getting good with the big bells.
What I remember most about that church, though, was the live nativity.
They had a small shed-like thing they kept in a dungeon closet somewhere
that some faithful church member built
and some other faithful member drug out of storage every December.
They spread out a rug or three
and set up a chair for Mary and Joseph on either side of a manger for a bed.
It was exactly as you might be imagining it.
Someone brought a sheep or a lamb in from the farm
and all the rest of us dressed up as shepherds or angels.
On the Friday nights of December
we’d stand up there, out on the hill right across the street from the town square.
I only remember doing it a few times.
Too cold. It was way too cold.
To stand out there freezing for this live crèche.
But I must have been old enough to have been signed up for it by one of my parents
for a shift or two, because I remember standing there
waiting for it to end.
Did I mention that it was really cold?
I have been trying to remember what role I played in that live nativity
but I have no idea.
I think I would have remembered if I was Joseph, you know
but that was reserved for some older kid, or maybe a grown up,
same as it was for Mary.
And I would have remembered if I was one of the magoi,
the so called “wisemen” of our reading today
though that word doesn’t mean they were men, necessarily.
In our imagination, there were three of them,
though the text doesn’t say that, either,
only that they were foreign scholars who were beckoned to come search
for some event of cosmic significance,
to search in, of all places,
the poor section of a backwater town in the middle of nowhere special.
They carried gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh,
and I would have remembered if I got to play one of those parts.
Those were the good parts.
I must have been a shepherd, or maybe an angel,
important enough to be there, but definitely in the chorus.
So I had a spot just on the far edge of the outer rug.
I had to be careful not to step off onto the snow
which is hard for a fidgeting, bored 11-year-old to do
when he didn’t have the benefit of a cell phone to keep him occupied.
And for maybe an hour and a half
we stood out there, trying to look holy
on some dark December evening
lit only by a single flood light temporarily placed ten or fifteen feet away,
oh, and lit also by the amazing, glowing spectacle of a star
that hung atop that handmade wooden shed.
The star was positively glorious:
fifteen or twenty huge lights
each light about the size of regular run-of-the-mill light bulb
but in all sorts of Christmas light colors
green and blue and red and yellow and white.
If you were driving down Highway Six, or circling around the city square
one night when that thing was out in all its splendor,
it might have blinded you.
I guarantee, it caught your attention
more so than any of the 8 characters, and the goat, trying to stay warm
while sharing the Christmas gospel with the small town of Atlantic, Iowa.
Arise, Shine. For your light has come!
On Epiphany Sunday, we think about that Star
the one that the whole world saw,
the one that all of Atlantic saw,
as a sign of something important happening in their midst.
We 21st century people have come to love the Christmas star so much.
Even in the weeks before Christmas,
you start seeing it everywhere.
It’s on bulletin covers and Christmas cards.
If you look closely at the stained glass window in our lobby, you’ll see it there, too.
In our house, we took down our Christmas decorations this weekend.
Do you decorate for Christmas? What do you put up around your home, if anything?
It had me thinking:
a nativity set may, or may not be part of your home decorations. They’re popular.
Some people put up a wreath at their door or garland around their living room.
Maybe you put stockings up, or maybe the kids live halfway across the country
so you left them off the mantle this year
but by Herod’s beard, I’m guessing you most certainly had a tree,
and on that tree, likely a star.
Quite often, it’s at the very top of the tree–that star—
the highest point in the living room.
In our house, we’ve even made it a tradition, putting the star up on the tree.
I used to be able to lift both kids so that they’d be able to place it just so
at the end of our flurry of Christmas decorating.
We still take a picture of me pretending to be able to hold them up there
but they’re always standing on chairs.
I can’t lift them any longer.
The Christmas star is a big deal.[i]
There was a moment, though, back when I was a kid,
that I noticed how the starlight
pictured on most of our Christmas cards was in the shape of the cross—
a quiet reminder of what is to come, maybe—
the silent night at what seems to be the end of the story.
That was my first encounter with the possibility that, if you think about it,
there can be something ominous about the Christmas star.
So it’s interesting to note that Matthew’s gospel seems to agree.
This is what Matthew says:
“In the time of King Herod,
after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
magi 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.'”
Then Matthew continues with these words:
“When King Herod heard this, he was frightened,
and all Jerusalem with him.”
And I can’t help but wonder if King Herod,
who, of course,
gets so much so very wrong,
actually gets at least part of this news strangely right.
Because, he understands that this rising star is big news.
And he also knows that it is not particularly good news for him.
Matthew is quick to note that this goes beyond pure self-interest,
beyond Herod’s brutal collusion with the forces of empire,
with Rome’s reflexive use of violence to promote its particular interests.
Because Herod isn’t the only one who looks at that star
and sees something foreboding hanging up there.
All Jerusalem agrees with him. That star is ominous news.
Sometimes we forget that
for most of human history, most people would have agreed.
The ancient historian Josephus noted that a star
stood over the city of Jerusalem just before its fall in 70 AD.
Some scholars argued
that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD had been caused by a comet.
Likewise, the appearance of a star in the sky over England in 1066,
just before the Battle of Hastings,
was seen as a dark omen of what was to come.
The online Encyclopedia Britannica has a great entry on
Celestial Omens if you want to read more about these
and several others.[ii]
So when we hear that Herod was frightened,
“and all Jerusalem with him,” it makes some sense.
Because, hey, when the heavens themselves begin to defy prediction,
there is no telling what might happen.
Who knows, who knows, what other constellations might collapse—
constellations of power,
constellations of privilege,
constellations of the possible and the impossible,
of what we can imagine and what we’ve come to expect?
If all that collapses, where will that leave us?
Who among us can say for sure that it will be better?
If everything changes, how will we know what to do?
The change that some people fear, others welcome.
That’s particularly true of the poor, the hurting.
But usually if we have any stability in our lives,
we aren’t really that fond of change.
We work hard against it, actually, even though
as they say, the only constant in life is change.
But that doesn’t make it any easier.
We sometimes prefer our change out of sight and out of mind.
We even do things to try to mask it,
like dye the grey out of our hair,
(If we’re lucky to keep our hair)
So what do we do when we see signs of change
that are obvious, and direct, and inviting,
signs like a star in the heavens?
People of faith have always talked a good game
We have so many holy texts
that encourage us to trust in God’s efforts to stir things up a little bit:
“For behold,” it says in scripture, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth….”
“Behold, I am doing a new thing….”
“And the one who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.'”
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation;
Lo, the old has passed away, and the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
We have this idea about the power of God
to take all that change in our life, the good, the bad, the scary, the hoped for
and to make it all work out in the end for good, right?
But rarely is that what we really want.
We’d prefer to avoid the change, if possible,
or, if change is going to come,
then please make it something less “new” and more “improved.”
We’d prefer some vaguely optimized version of what we are
rather than actually shaking it up a bit for something new and different.
The fact is, much of the time,
even faithful people can’t imagine a world that is much different
from the one that we already have.
A world where I am not as stressed?
Where hungry people can get food,
Sick people can get health care
Sojourners can be welcomed
Our politics can get unstuck
Workers can get fair wages
Racism can get dismantled
Neighbors can become friends
Guns can get off our streets
Suicide can be avoided as hurting people are made whole.
Can you imagine it? I mean, not just as a dream
but as something that can actually happen?
Maybe that’s the point: of course we can’t.
Not really. Not how to get there.
Not if it means risking some of our safety and stability for it.
But here’s the thing: God can.
God can see it. God can imagine it.
And God is longing to show us that vision,
which is a vision for us,
and for those we love,
and for all people,
and all creation,
and all time.
God is longing to make us part of something
that goes far beyond a shallow invocation of our hope in the new.
It seems important to name that as we begin another year,
and we are thick in the season of New Year’s resolutions.
There is something so lovely, even holy,
about naming our hopes for our lives, even when they are small hopes.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen people quit smoking
on the strength of a New Year’s resolution.
I’ve seen someone go from sitting on their couch
to running a half-marathon on the strength of a New Year’s resolution.
I’ve seen someone finish a long-abandoned degree
on the strength of a New Year’s resolution.
And I’ve seen people try hard, if only for a few months
on making their lives just a little different, a little better, a little more true.
These are all brave and holy acts, each in their way.
But, fundamentally, what makes them holy
is that each one is not an end in itself, but rather, a new beginning.
It is a step forward in trust. A welcome to change.
It is like following a star, unsure where you’ll end up.
These steps toward a different future may be small,
they may be incremental,
but they are not paltry or they are not shallow,
because they are the first steps toward the new—
the first steps toward a future that the dreamer can’t quite see,
but which the dreamer faithfully pursues, just the same.
They require tremendous trust—
trust that the strength to see them through
is there to be found,
trust that it will get easier,
trust that setbacks aren’t the end of all our good intentions
if we don’t let them be.
Learning that kind of trust
can mean nothing short of learning to see the world in a whole new way—
and to see ourselves in a whole new way.
Sometimes, it’s nothing short of learning to live in the light of a new star.
Howard Thurman was an African-American poet and author and theologian
and he wrote a beautiful verse about what happens now, you know,
what happens now, after the birth of Jesus
after the decorations are put away
and the calendar flips to a new year
and the kids start back up at school
and some friends have flown south for the winter
and we look ahead to yet another snowy January and February
and we begin to wonder what’s new, what’s changed.
Here’s what Thurman wrote:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among [the people,]
to make music in the heart.[iii]
The work of Christmas is to keep ourselves on that trajectory
so that our lives shine with the light of Christ all year long.
Arise, Shine! For your Light is Come! says Isaiah.
What will we do with the disruptive, dynamic, change-filled presence of God
in our lives?
What will we do with our epiphany?
What better day is there than today to find out?
May we, dear friends, undertake the work of Christmas
and step out in trust that the star will guide us
and that God has it all well in hand.
May it be so.
[i] Thanks here to the Rev. Maxwell Grant. Elements of this section drawn from his sermon “The Troubling Star” from January 2015.
[iii] This well known poem can be found many places. It was published in Howard Thurman’s The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations. See https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/8598/now-the-work-of-christmas-begins
Image: This is not a picture of the live nativity of my childhood, but it is a picture of a live nativity, with a lovely star. This picture is from Virginia Hills Baptist Church, and can be found at https://www.fairfaxfamilyfun.com/live-nativity-virginia