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I hope you had a merry Christmas. Even if this Christmas wasn't what you wanted or hoped it might be, Christian celebrations tether us to a tradition that is liberating for us and for the whole world. We surely need liberation–we need to be set free from the traps, the lies, the violence, the oppression of our society. We need saving. Left to our own devices we might hurt ourselves, hurt each other or harm the place we call home. Left to our own devices we might imagine we're the good guys and we're saving the world–crediting ourselves with some success here and there, berating ourselves for the failed enterprises, and unaware of our own capacity to hurt or harm. But we celebrate that we're not left on our own. Merry Christmas! Our worldview includes the immeasurable love of a non-violent God, a spirit-filled community of healing and hope and a new kinship with the world through the One who was born to save us. It's great to see so many of us this first Sunday of 2020 because we're going to need each other to sustain this worldview of Christian love, but we have the Spirit's help between us and among us. Let's pray together. May the words of my mouth….
This sermon is called Nativity and Epiphany and it's about how these Christian celebrations can shape our worldview and our way of living in 2020. So, nativity just means birth. For us, the nativity is the story of one poor family and the birth of a child in Bethlehem. And yet, in this nativity of Jesus, we recognize by faith that God was born among us. God was born like us. God was born to love us in an unprecedented way. God was born. God–whose name is mysterious….God who always was–who always will be–entered time. Now our God, the God revealed in scripture and our faith tradition has always dabbled in history, but not in such uncertain terms as being born requires. This time, God was born of Mary into the uncertainty of poverty. Or as another gospel puts it, the Logos–the divine Word and Wisdom of the universe–became flesh and lived among us. Christmas celebrates Jesus' nativity. We're not alone.
Epiphany Scriptures and the Magi
Even more ancient than celebrating the nativity of Jesus on Dec 25 is the church's tradition of celebrating Epiphany, which means manifestation. Epiphany celebrates that God was manifest to the world in Jesus Christ. So traditional Epiphany scriptures include Jesus' birth–the nativity stories in Luke and Matthew, and also the baptism stories, especially when John the Baptist points out: Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is Epiphany. God is manifest. Who else but God is going to take sin out of circulation? In Jesus, God is on display. Christians in the Eastern churches celebrate Epiphany including Jesus' first miracle at a wedding party in Cana as if to say: God is manifest to the world. This changes everything–even water into wine. And of course epiphany scriptures include Matthew chapter 2, the magi's visit to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. The occupied nation of Israel threatened this child, but magi came from other nations came to celebrate.
One of the Benedictine communities I visited during my last sabbatical sent me their magazine, which included this lighter note:
Three Wise Women would have…
Arrived on time.
Helped deliver the baby.
Cleaned the stable.
Made a casserole.
Brought practical gifts.
And there would be peace on earth.
We tend to assume the magi were men. We tend to assume they were foreigners–non-Israelites. But even if there were women in their party, even if they were diaspora Jews living in the East, it's the Star they followed, their joy in finding Jesus–Herod notwithstanding–and their generous gifts that make them models for celebrating Epiphany.
In the Gospel of Matthew, when God shows up in Jesus Christ, heaven makes a public announcement to all nations with a Star. Maybe it was an alignment of planets or a supernova. I don't know. And we don't have to agree on that. But the wise ones in every age affirm that this previously-uncharted light directs us away from the Herods on our page in history toward a king revealed in the face of a threatened child. The original magi got there by way of the Star and the prophet Micah who promised: And you, Bethlehem are not least…from you shall come a ruler to shepherd my people. Our public embrace of this One who leads us in the divine way of love, peace and justice is why we get baptized in his name, becoming little Christs, Christians, little lights as he is Light for the world.
For the history lovers among us, we have some prophetic background to the magi story. It's a sturdy poetic word from Isaiah that roots nativity and epiphany in a tradition of God's justice and salvation. In Isaiah 60, the sons and daughters of Jerusalem–the Holy City–had been violently scattered and Jerusalem herself, plundered. Isaiah was not speaking in generalities, but referring to traumatic historical events–the exile to Babylon and siege of Jerusalem. Hundreds of years before the time of Jesus, this societal collapse generated a theological crisis. Anybody who was expecting divine special treatment for being God's pilot project for world salvation, was devastated by the exile–both materially and spiritually. Thank God for the prophets and poets who help us see the Light in times like these.
So the poetry in the latter portion of Isaiah addresses not only one particularly traumatic political and social crisis in history, but crisis seasons throughout history–world wars, civil wars, dicatatorships, climate crisis. And, not only societal crisis, but personal faith crises that stem from–abuse, debilitating disease, layers of grief, corrupted religion, personal dead ends. Israel's old worldview was being a nation like all the other nations–but a little better, a little stronger because God was on their side. That was pretty weak theology post exile. Isaiah believed God's people had been unfaithful and that the nation had been victimized by hostile powers. In that season of crisis, God's prophetic message, through Isaiah, was assurance that this human family would be reunited, this devastated people would be restored–by the same God who judged against them when they were corrupt. The prophet's Epiphany is that God comes as fresh light for the nation. God's justice and salvation will come by way of mercy and repair. Isaiah imagines formerly terrifying and terrorizing nations becoming friendly gift-bearing visitors. According to Isaiah, God's people are not too far gone. They can reflect the glory of God and shine for justice among the nations. So, arise, shine, the light and restoring love of God has come! Isaiah 60 is a celebration of God as Light for the people who need it most. God is going to show up and love this people back to life!
Personal Faith–Public Faith
Now, if you're rather private about your faith, then Epiphany is challenging because Epiphany is about God coming as Light for the world. This is a public matter. It's not just Jesus born to Mary and Joseph–poor shepherds and well-heeled Magi show up too. It's not just Jesus getting a secret word from God–you are my Beloved–but a public baptism. It's not just a private rehab for the remnant of God's community, but a public project of justice and salvation for all nations that is dawning.
The theological core of Epiphany is that God is on display in Jesus Christ for the world and this changes the world–including our public lives, our deaths, our children, our families, what we do for money, what we do with money, our political allegiances, how we share our gifts and time, our worship, our prayer, our star-gazing and our travel. Like the magi who after seeing Jesus adjust their map and return by another way, so must we all alter our course when we recognize Jesus as the Joy we've been waiting for.
This Little Light of Mine
The good news is that God can be manifest in your life. We can't rise in our own power, let alone shine. But God shines like a new dawn for the people who need it most. As Community Mennonite Church we are a local epiphany, a manifestation of God in the world. We are the body of Christ. We're not always glorious, but the Light for the world that comes from God–shines among us and through us. There are still violent and threatening nations–ours being the recent example. There are still poor children. Perhaps this year 2020 you're drawn to this Light of Christ in a new way. If the past year has been lifeless or lonely, join us for worship as we gather around the Light of Christ. Perhaps in 2020 you're seeking to share the Light of Christ in with people who need it most. Come, be part of a community who manifests Jesus as Light for World.
Our theme music is "Jesus, I believe you're near," composed by Matt Carlson and arranged for strings by Jeremy Nafziger.
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