"Continuity and Change"
Marie Paul ~ Northwood United Church ~ January 7, 2018
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12; Ephesians 3:1-12
Have you had enough of Christmas? We attended concerts in December, decorated our homes with Christmas Trees and lights, saw pageants, celebrated a candle-lit Christmas Eve service, wrapped and unwrapped presents, prepared, cooked, served and feasted on holiday foods, ate too much chocolate, fought off colds. And finally, the kids will be going back to school tomorrow.
Oh, tree chipping has already been happening this weekend. Is your Christmas tree taken down yet and ornaments packed away? I’m not quite done with Christmas, even as I prepare to write my next paper, start the new term, buy the textbooks, and start attending classes. Today, you get a bit more Christmas. Because today we are celebrating the Epiphany, the story of wise ones following a star and bringing gifts to Jesus. The Feast of the Epiphany comes as a time to interpret, explore, and develop a greater understanding of the meaning of Christmas. Epiphany is both a feast day and a full liturgical season of 6 Sundays in the Christian church. It sits in the middle of 4 other seasons: Advent & Christmas, Lent & Easter. Those seasons are times of preparation for and celebration of our foundational Christian stories, the birth and death of Jesus. The season of Epiphany offers us continuity in the connection of ancient prophecy, sacred story, and interpreted meaning about Jesus. That’s why we got 3 readings today; to hear the prophecy from Isaiah, the gospel story of Jesus, and the Apostle Paul’s interpretation of the good news about Jesus. I often think of Epiphany as that light-bulb that comes on with a flash over some animated cartoon character’s head, when they suddenly have a new idea. Wow. Now, I’m noticing the continuity and rich complexity of our scripture and our faith.
Isaiah 60:1-6 The Light is the Glory of the Lord, the Presence of God In our first reading we heard a translation of ancient Hebrew poetry. Vivid poetry, traditional beloved, with well-known rhythm and patterns, and emphasis noticed in the places were the patterns change. What an opening. Arise, shine, the presence of God rises upon YOU. It’s a strong imperative instruction, a command. I have been imagining sharing this wisdom with my teenagers. Arise, shine, be the shining beloved star that God created and shares with the world. From “the most basic experience of darkness and light we are drawn to the very presence of God.” Exilic, post-exilic context, “the glory of the Lord” meant the real presence of the Lord, guiding in the wilderness, in the tabernacle, from the Temple and with the people Darkness, araphel, thick darkness, no stars, no moon, shrouded in heavy clouds, sounds like the Lower Mainland but with no urban light pollution, darkness, depression, alone in the utter black, chaos and confusion, references to Genesis and creation, and the powerful, basic experience of light & dark When God’s glory and presence shines, nations and rulers will gather, beloved family will gather, abundance and riches will be brought to us Post-exilic experience of the scattered being gathered home, the children, sons & daughters, beloved children, also resonates with Matthew’s gospel birth narrative Riches from afar, seafood, tuna steaks, wild pacific salmon, camels, think rich luxury cars and sports cars, and imports and an abundance This prophetic poem describes a time of joy and abundance when we celebrate the presence of God. It sounds like Christmas! And so we return to today’s Epiphany story, an extension of the meaning of Jesus, the incarnation, God begotten not made, born among us.
Matthew 2:1-12 Wise Men Visit Herod, Offer Gifts to Jesus Yesterday I was exploring and praying with other United Church Students from Vancouver School of Theology while on retreat. Our teacher reminded us that sacred journeys, pilgrimage is done while in community. Even if alone, you encounter other pilgrims, hear their stories, notice how heavy their pack or their spiritual burdens may be. The wise ones from the east went on a journey that had a sacred story, a prophecy remembered. These journeys have beginning, middle, and ends. You start the journey, arrive at the site of a holy story, and you return home. The passage in Matthew uses a repeating, three part pattern of ideas in it’s structure, ABA, a chiasm. This structure emphasises the centre, In Bethlehem, a prophecy fulfilled. [provides continuity of connecting ancient prophecy with foundational birth narrative / story & Paul’s gospel interpretation and contemporary interpretation of meaning] The emphatic centre verse quotes from the Book of Micah chapter 5, verse 2, which speaks of a prophecy of ruler/leader coming from Judean clan Ephrathah, in Bethlehem There is also a similar ABA chiasm pattern in the liturgical year. Epiphany comes as the centre of Advent Christmas & Lent Easter, patterns of preparation for & celebration of Sacred Events, followed by interpretation & understanding. This sermon reflection also has three parts, with a similar position at the beginning and the end, and something different, an epiphany pageant, in the centre. I invite you to think of your spiritual place in one of the three stages of the sacred journey. Are you in the first stage, busy setting out, talking, gathering, meeting, preparing? Or are you more in the second stage, arriving at a sacred time, able to offer gifts and notice God’s presence in your life, daily? Or are you in the third stage just past a significant faith event or a life-changing experience? Are you completing some significant work, or grieving the loss of a loved one, and wondering what’s next? Our life is a journey and we celebrate the mystery of God with us, even while we live in an incomplete, broken world, distant from God and still seeking God. With the help of others, I offer an epiphany pageant or mini-pageant for you. This time done by adults, where I invite you to embark with us on a holy pilgrimage, notice your place in the story and prepare a new path forward as we turn toward a greater understanding of God present in our lives.
Dramatic Enactment We observe a star. (start in East, Look up, Point up, move arm toward West) We gather, discuss and agree, plan and prepare, and set out. (gather two others to join me in looking at Star, confer, pack)
We meet with Herod, (bows, handshakes) and hear a prophecy. (hand to ear listening)
We follow the star and were overwhelmed with joy when we noticed it had stopped. (dance about, wild ecstatic gestures)
We offer what gifts we brought. (carry 3 gifts, kneel one by one, present & open gifts)
We receive a warning in a dream. (yawn, sleep, snore, lean head on shoulders of others, wake and suddenly report dream) We return home by another road. (take long way back, hugs goodbye)
Did you notice where your place was in the story? I was reminded of a contemporary situation in the warning about Herod. Herod needed to understand and eliminate threats to his rule as King of Judea. There’s a leader feeling threatened and reacting erratically as he puts out fires. (sound familiar?) Dreams in Matthew’s birth narrative carried divine communication with people. People come to their faith in weird, sometimes mysterious ways. We don’t know who dreamt, one or all three of the wise ones? But we know it was a decision of consensus, these wise people gathered, agreed to travel together, followed the star, and agreed to go home by a different road. Community discernment about the path ahead, into our future, is there a new way forward, for you as an individual, for this congregation? Our United Church is in a process of discernment around remits, particularly about different organizational structure, and about the possible call to ministry being one call and one ministry. Gathering information and learning about the issues and people involved, and Listening to the spirit and noticing harmony and agreement or the stress and tension of disagreement, can help us discern what God is calling us to.
Today’s scripture offers us continuity and change, and God present with us in our lives, through it all. We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.