Trinity, Jacksonville—Matthew 2:1-12, Ephesians 3:1-12
Today we hear from Matthew’s gospel about a very strange and mysterious encounter between God and a group of Persian (most likely Persian, at any rate, according to most scholars)—a group of Persian astrologers (there’s no concrete indication that there were three of them, nor is there any evidence that they were actually kings, though there’s nothing radically wrong with our traditional popular images of them)—we hear today from St Matthew’s gospel about these “Wise Men” or “Magi,” as they are often referred to, who felt an inexplicable invitation and urge to follow a strange and mysterious sign in the sky to an obscure village an hour or so (by camel, that is) from Jerusalem. But they didn’t really have a whole lot of solid material to go on, despite what we sing about the symbolic significance of their gifts
We also sometimes feel a strange and mysterious sense of the presence and invitation of God in our lives. We would probably be surprised by the stories that could be told, but perhaps never have been told, just by the people in this church this morning. But, like the Wise Men, we often feel like we have very little concrete to go on. Even if we come to a place where we are ready to recognize and name this presence as God, still “God” is such a large concept, an expansive and complex notion, that there are a great many ideas, many of them conflicting, about who God is and what God is like and what God expects of those of us who are “not-God.” It’s easy to feel like we’re in a game of “20 Questions”—Are you all-powerful? (Yes or No) Are you present everywhere? (Yes or No) Do you know everything, even before it happens? Do you love me? Would you get upset if I told a little white lie to my neighbor? etc. etc. etc.
One possible response to the mystery of God is to fall into despair: If God is unknowable, if God leaves so many unanswered questions, if it feels like God is absent, then what good is he? We like to think that God watches over us and protects us, but try telling that to the families of the children and teachers who were killed at Sandy Hook School last month. If some get spared but others don’t, then it’s nothing but a game of chance; it’s as if God didn’t really exist. What good is the “presence” that I feel if that Presence neither says anything nor does anything that I can see or hear or understand? I am trapped in my misery. There is nothing available to me but despair.
Another response is to fill in the blanks with information of our own making—as it were, creating God in our image, making God what we would like God to be. Some years ago I heard about a religion called Sheilaism. It had, at that time, precisely one adherent, and her name was—you guessed it—Sheila. Sheilaism was a designer religion worshipping a designer God. I’ll grant you, this is a rather extreme example. But it’s only extreme in the degree to which the logic is followed. Truth to tell, you don’t have to scratch the beliefs of even many conventional Christian churchgoers, even conventional Episcopalian churchgoers in the Diocese of Springfield, very deeply before you find an impulse to, if not make up a religious system from whole cloth, at least pick and choose various elements from the available options—according to taste, as it were. Left unchecked by any restraints of habit and societal approval, it leads inevitably to a virtually infinite numbers of variations on Sheilaism.
When the Wise Men finally reached Bethlehem, they saw the infant Jesus—the Word made flesh, the Messiah of God, the savior of the world—they saw Jesus with their own eyes. In the western branch of Christianity, of which we as Anglicans are heirs, this moment of seeing with their own eyes is the primary symbol—the “picture that says a thousand words”—of the Epiphany. But the reality of Epiphany is much larger than its symbol. In earlier versions of the Book of Common Prayer, the subtitle of this feast is “the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” The Magi represent all non-Jews, in other words, us! In that moment of face-to-face connection between these Persian stargazers and a little Jewish baby boy, we see the key to our own redemption. For the first time, non-Jews are explicitly included in the promises of God. Through Christ, salvation is available not only to his own people, the Jews, but to all of us who are not born into the house of Israel.
Yet, there is more we can mine from this lode: “Epiphany” means, literally, to show, to demonstrate, to take that which is hidden and make it visible, to take that which is privately visible to the few and make it publicly visible to all. St Paul writes to the Ephesians about “the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit…” For us, the good news of Epiphany is that God is a mystery but not a secret. God is unknowable, but God has made himself known. Everything we need to know about God, God has told us—revealed, disclosed, manifested. Knowing who God is and what God is like and what God wants from us is not a game of 20 Questions.
Our observance of Epiphany also reminds us that we have no need to “design” God to our own specifications of what we think he should be like, what we would be like if we were God. Indeed, if we presume to do so, we are refusing the knowledge, the enlightenment, that God has graciously given us. We would be like the adopted child who, upon meeting her actual birth parents, and finding them not like she imagined, says, “Oh, no, you can’t possibly be my parents. My father is taller and darker, and my mother’s hair is curly, not straight.” She has the option of not having anything to do with her parents, but she doesn’t have any say-so over their appearance or personality or anything else about them. They are who they are. God is who God is. He has revealed himself to us, and we don’t have the option of sending him back to the drawing board.
Rather, with St Paul, we have the option of saying, “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given…”—not found, not seized, but given—“to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known…”—made known by God, that is, through the Church, not made up by any human mind or any human organization—“…[made known] to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.”
Our job—our job as the Church and our job as individual believers—is to ever go deeper into this mystery, to soak ourselves in what God has revealed, and to tease out the implications for each of our lives. The feast of the Epiphany comforts us with the knowledge that God is not aloof and distant, toying with us by creating guessing games and smiting us with thunder bolts if we get the answer wrong, and the feast of the Epiphany challenges us to humbly and gratefully receive and lay hold of that which God has revealed. The saving and life-giving truth about God that God has made available to us is simple and accessible so that any person can perceive it and make it his or her own. But it is also inexhaustible such that the greatest minds, the keenest intellects, among us are always called to mine fresh nuggets from its riches and to apply them in concrete and compelling ways to the lives of real women and men and children. The Lord has shown forth his glory: Come, let us adore him. Amen.