We just had an Epiphany

What takes up most of your time? What do you spend the most time doing? Would you notice if something new appeared in that setting? This past Sunday marked the first week of Epiphany, the season in the Church calendar where we celebrate the coming of the Wise Men to find the recently born Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). It is one of my favorite seasons because it has so many layers. It asks us to reflect on the ways that Jesus has revealed Himself to us and appeared in our lives. It marks the expansion of the Gospel as the first Gentiles (the wise men) recognized Jesus as the Savior of the world. And it demonstrates that God honors years of faithfulness to bear fruit we might never have imagined. Epiphany lasts until Lent, let us dig into all that this season offers.

Where did Jesus appear to you in the past year?

We know very little about the wise men. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that they were scholars who specifically studied the stars and the natural world. They studied the night sky so closely that they noticed when a new star inexplicably appeared.

Wise-men from the east came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is he who is to be born King of the Jews? We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him. – Matt. 2:2

I know next to nothing about astronomy, so it boggles my mind that a star could look so significant that it would cause observers to assume a great cosmic event must have occurred. What an incredible thing that God can communicate to humans through the natural world in such a way that we could realize deep spiritual thruths. The star was so special that it prompted these men to travel a great distance, likely over the course of months and even a couple of years, to find the Person that was living in its light.

The wise men saw the star because they were pursuing their vocations as scholars. They were doing their normal jobs and received this revelation in the process of their work. In the same way, where did you see Jesus show up in the course of your work and daily life last year? Where were you shaped in the process of living out your calling? Jesus can reveal Himself through the spectacular, and also through the very mundane. Spend some time thinking about where you saw Christ through simply paying attention to the life you have been given.

Jesus is for everyone

We have no indication that the wise men were Jewish, in fact they almost certainly were non-believers. They were definitely living far outside of Israel and were foreigners to the Jews. And yet Jesus revealed Himself to them in a way that they could understand. It made no difference that they spoke a different language or came from a different culture. Jesus is a savior who can cross any barrier that humans experience. Our current cultural moment is still very much defined by fear and distrust of anyone who is not like “us.” We struggle to find common ground and to reach out to one another. Let us draw on the power of Jesus to cross any border and find ourselves united by the Light of the world, the One who came to be a blessing to all nations.

What if Jesus saves your enemies?

Most Bible scholars have concluded that the wise men were from the region of Babylon, east of Israel. This is the place to which Israel had been exiled several centuries earlier. When God sent the people into exile there, He commanded them to make it count.

Build houses and dwell in them; and plant gardens and eat the fruit of them. Marry and be given in marriage, bear sons and daughters and multiply, do not diminish. Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away into captivity, and pray to God for it; for in its peace you will have peace. – Jer. 29:5-7

They were not to just sit around, biding their time until they could leave. They were to see their time in Babylon as meaningful and capable of impact. What if the wise men were primed to see the star because of faithful Israelites who had lived out their worship of God in Babylon? Perhaps the period of the exile had left traces of God that the Babylonians were meant to find. They likely would have had access to Hebrew Scriptures and as scholars may have developed an interest in Yahweh (Hebrew for LORD) and a desire to learn more about Him. God may have honored the years of faithfulness in exile to allow new believers to find Jesus.

That is a beautiful thought, and also difficult. The Babylonians were not great people. Their attack on Jerusalem was brutal and they were a pagan culture. In every way they were enemies of God’s people. And yet Jesus chooses to intentionally target them for an invitation into the redemption story. It is easy to rejoice when people we love find Jesus, it is much harder when people we hate are called to become our spiritual brothers and sisters. And yet if we were all once enemies of God (Col. 1:21-22), Jesus saving enemies is very good news. Consider where you can be a blessing in places you might rather not be. A particular facet of your work, certain relationships in your life, classes you are tired of taking. Jesus may have plans for your presence in those places that you cannot yet imagine. Pray for the Holy Spirit to give you compassion for others and a desire for their good. May we all know Jesus more and make Him known in the places to which we have been called.

Prayer for Epiphany

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that Your people, illumined by Your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that He may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with You and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, now and for ever. Amen.

– Book of Common Prayer

The Veil Grows Thin

The words are familiar ones, thanks in large part to their inclusion in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Linus recites it to America every year on national television.

It’s Luke chapter 2, the birth of Christ being announced to the shepherds. It’s fitting that it be widely and indiscriminately read to our whole society, because the message to the shepherds is exactly that kind of announcement: the proclamation of the royal birth of the King of the World to some normal working guys who were on the job. Nothing exclusive or secret, a message of Good News to anyone that wants to hear it, about a Savior who comes for everyone.

Why the shepherds? What made them special enough to receive this personal heavenly missive? As far as Luke lets on, nothing. They are special in that they are highly ordinary. We don’t know their names, we don’t know their faith, we just know that they hear this wonderful message. Luke is showing his readers that the Messiah has come for average working people, for anyone who will receive the message with gladness. The Good News isn’t for the elite, it’s for everyone.

I can’t speak for you, but when I read the part about “The glory of the Lord shone around them”, I always pictured a bright light. A host of angels is pretty impressive, so it would make sense that as heavenly beings they would be surrounded by light. I paid closer attention to that wording this year, and noticed something much bigger. In the Old Testament when the “glory of the Lord” is mentioned, it always meant God’s presence. (Ex. 33:12-23 is one of many examples.) This appears most often in reference to God’s presence filling the Temple (Ex. 40:34-38). At the time of Christ’s birth, God’s presence hadn’t been seen in Israel for centuries. When the exiles returned and rebuilt the temple, God’s glory is noticeably absent (Ezra 6:13-22). The Israelites continued worshipping God, but the glory of His presence wasn’t manifested. Until the birth of Jesus.

I don’t think I can emphasize enough how much God’s glory appearing to a group of normal people was just not a thing. God’s presence would appear to individuals with a calling to leadership like Abraham and Moses, and the prophets received the Holy Spirit to be able to communicate to the people on God’s behalf, but it didn’t happen to random people in a mundane setting. What happens with the shepherds is entirely unprecedented! God Himself was drawing near to earth to participate in sharing a message of great joy that would be for all people. The angels aren’t the main event, they’re the entourage.

angel host

This would roughly be like the President of the United States calling me to say that he is making a visit to Pittsburgh and he wanted to let me know that he’s staying downtown at the Super 8 if I wanted to stop by. POTUS doesn’t need to care about who I am and I don’t need to be involved in matters of State. Blue collar shepherds shouldn’t need to be involved in the royal birth of the King of the world. In earthly terms they’re unimportant. But this is a different kind of world leader, and His is a different kind of Kingdom. Christ came to remove the veil of separation that stood between us and God. This would be fully accomplished on the cross when Jesus would reverse the powers of death and separation (Matt. 27:50-54). And yet even at His birth, the veil was growing thin. Christ’s coming was so powerful that the gap between heaven and earth immediately narrowed. The Lord’s presence drew near as a foreshadow of the full reconciliation that was to come.

Have you read or seen “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”? In this story by C.S. Lewis there is a White Witch who represents the powers of evil and death, and she has a strangle-hold on the world of Narnia. She has created an everlasting winter in their land, where “it’s always winter, and never Christmas.” When the Christ-figure, Aslan, begins to make his way back into Narnia, the snow starts to melt and Father Christmas finds his way in to deliver the overdue gifts. When the creatures see the power of the witch weakening and being beaten back, they say to each other, “Aslan is on the move.” And so it was with the shepherds. They were witnesses to the powers of sin and darkness growing weak. God was near, Christ was on the move, everything was about to change forever.

“Christmas sends a death notice to all systems of oppression and injustice, every force that perpetuates the darkness of sin. An angel choir sang their joyous hymn, announcing the Good News, not to the powerful and privileged, but to those who had nothing else to hope in but the One Great Hope that God would come to rescue us from ourselves. The King, who sits on the throne, says, “Behold, I am making all things new!” This is why we celebrate.”

~ Sam Levy, CCO staff at Slippery Rock University

A VIP Pass to Epiphany

Today marks the beginning of Epiphany, the liturgical season that focuses on the meaning of the incarnation.  “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” Jesus drew near to appear in our midst.  This is a time to celebrate that Christ has come, our waiting was not in vain.

The Wise Men in Matthew’s Gospel give us a wonderful illustration of the magnitude of Jesus’ advent on Earth (Matt. 1-2).  One of the most compelling explorations of who these unknown men were can be found in Lew Wallace’s 19th century epic, Ben Hur.  The first 40 pages of the novel dream about who the 3 men might have been and how God called each of them to pursue a mysterious star.  Most scholars now believe that the men likely came from Babylon, while Wallace postulates that one was Greek, one Indian, and one Egyptian.  We can be nearly certain that this is inaccurate, but the heart of his character choices reflects a true knowledge of for whom the Savior came: everyone.

Ben hur

Wallace paints a picture of the men converging part way through their journeys, each having received a calling and an assurance from the Spirit that they would be led to other seekers of Truth and would all be led to the Redeemer. When their paths come together, they pause to share a meal:

“Speaking together they said this simple grace: ‘Father of all – God – what we have here is of Thee; take our thanks and bless us, that we may continue to do Thy will.’ With the last word they raised their eyes, and looked at each other in wonder. Each had spoken in a language never before heard by the others; yet each understood perfectly what was said. Their souls thrilled with divine emotion, for by the miracle they recognized the Divine Presence.”

One by one they share their stories of how God spoke to them and how the star first appeared. One by one they followed it to this meeting point and their joy and awe increased with each story from their brethren.  As night fell, they gathered their supplies to continue their nocturnal quest together.

“By and by the moon came up. And as the three tall white figures sped, with soundless tread, through the opalescent light, they appeared like specters flying from hateful shadows. Suddenly, in the air before them, not farther up than a low hill-top flared a lambent flame; as they looked at it, the apparition contracted into a focus of dazzling luster. Their hearts beat fast; their souls thrilled; and they shouted as with one voice, “The Star! The Star! God is with us!”

What a lovely picture of God bringing people together from far-flung countries and cultures, unifying them with the Spirit, and using them to send the Good News back with them so all may know that the Messiah has come.  While the historical nationality of the Wise Men was likely not what Wallace imagined, we see Paul taking the Gospel to the Gentiles throughout the Roman empire, and an Ethiopian eunuch coming to faith in Christ (Acts 8) and taking the Good News back to northern Africa. Some 300 years later, one of the greatest Christian theologians of all time would be called forth from Africa, Augustine of Hippo.  Jesus was not a local god or a local blessing, but a game-changer for the whole world.  The Wise Men and the ministry of the early Church show us that while Christianity may claim an exclusive Truth, it does not have an exclusive guest list.  Christ came for all people and the entire world is invited to consider what His drawing near means for them.

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If you would like to study the Matthew account in more depth, feel free to draw from this study guide:

Advent: Dream weaver

For tonight’s passage we’re going to keep track of how many times God communicates through people’s dreams, and how many prophesies are fulfilled through the birth of Jesus. Who wants to keep track of the dreams? Of the prophesies?

Matt. 1:18-25

  • What was Joseph planning to do when he found out his fiancée was pregnant? Why was divorcing her quietly actually a very merciful thing to do at the time?
  • What does the angel tell him to do in the dream? What does Joseph do?
  • Someone look up the verse quoted in 23, Isa. 7:14
  • What stuck out to you about this account, or what’s something that you hadn’t noticed before?

Matt 2:1-12

  • Who are these men that come to see Herod? What are they looking for?
  • What is Herod’s reaction?
  • Someone look up Micah 5:2
  • What is his response back to the wise men?
  • What do the wise men do?
  • What dream do they have? How was God protecting Jesus through this?
  • What kind of person notices a new star in the sky and follows it to a distant country? What would it have been like to go on such a journey?
  • What does this incident of God drawing foreigners to Jesus’ birth tell us about God’s love for every nation?

Matt. 2:13-15

  • What is the next dream that happens in this passage? Why do they flee to Egypt?
  • Someone look up Hos. 11:1
  • What would that have been like for them?
  • Where else in the Bible have we seen Israelites going to Egypt for refuge? In what ways is Jesus identifying with His people through this experience?

Matt 2:16-23

  • What does Herod do?
  • Someone look up Jer. 31:15
  • Where else in the Bible have we seen a jealous ruler order infant boys to be killed? How is this another way that Jesus on an individual level follows Israel’s national history?
  • What other dreams happen? Where do Jesus and His family finally settle?

———-

  • What do you think of all these dreams and all of these OT prophesies?
  • As we heard in Ivan’s intro tonight, Advent is a time when we think about areas of our lives where we are waiting for God to show up. What comes to mind for you when you think about where you wish God would do something in your life or the world?
  • In these passages we saw God act with immense power to bring His plan of salvation into the world through Jesus. How does seeing God’s power in what we just read give you hope for His ability to work in your situations that may feel difficult or hopeless?

Waiting for the stump to sprout

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

~ Isaiah 11:1

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Our Advent candles at Graystone Church.

Today begins the liturgical season of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. It is the more upbeat of the two seasons for penitence, the other being Lent.  Both are periods of reflection and heart-searching, taking extra time to ask the Spirit to identify areas of darkness within us so that we may receive the Light of Christ and rejoice all the more on its culminating holiday.

As Christmas is the celebration of Emmanuel, God with us, Advent is a time to explore the parts of our lives and world where we feel God’s absence and desire for Him to show up. It arises from the experience of the Jews as they waited for over 400 years during the interim between hearing God through the prophets, and then hearing nothing until the birth of Christ.  That is almost twice as long as the United States has been an established nation.  Four centuries of silence…of seeming absence.  Thankfully we know the end of the story and the coming of a Messiah that would change everything once and for all.  A Messiah who did not disappoint even the highest hopes of His people.  It is this realized hope that gives us the courage to face and confront the things in our lives that are not as they should be.

O-Root-of-Jesse001

This year in particular it’s easy to see the darkness and sense of absence.  Violent conflicts and illness seem rampant around the world, and the division and pain of racism is very fresh in our national experience. Ferguson has forced us to ask the question: has anything really changed? Can things really be better?  Violence against women and sexual violence on our college campuses feels like another struggle that may never change.  Where society has advanced in one area, we step back in another.  There are also countless personal challenges that we each face, some known only to us.  There may be rifts in relationships, financial anxiety and a cycle of debt, loneliness, depression, patterns of sin. We each likely have at least one area of life that feels desolate and cut off.

Advent allows us to be honest about these places of decay and the temptation to hopelessness.  Isa. 11:1 depicts Israel’s feeling of being a stump, a people cut off from growth and flourishing.  A stump is not the picture of a bright future.  But the kind of Messiah we know and anticipate can bring life from death. There is no area of the creation too lifeless for the power of God’s presence to resurrect. Just as the Israelites waited in 400 years of silence and received a Savior beyond their highest hopes, so we wait for Christ to continue to restore all areas of His creation. This Advent, bring the most hopeless parts of your life and experience to Christ and ask Him to make Himself known in a way that you could never anticipate.

“O come, Desire of nations, bind

In one the hearts of all mankind;

Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,

And be Thyself our King of Peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice!

Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”