Cynthia Ruud grew up on the shores of one of the Great Lakes and has lived close to them her whole life. She has wonderful memories of fishing the great lakes with her dad when she was young; but in the 70’s pollution brought an end to all that. Even when they cleaned them back up again in the 80’s she never paid much notice to the great lakes. But one day she happened to be passing alongside one of the lakes and she noticed cars were stopping and people were getting out and climbing onto the embankment and pointing out into the water. She stopped to see what all the commotion was about... thinking someone had drowned or there was a boating accident. Not so.
As she crested the embankment, to her amazement, she saw the lake as she had never seen it before. The surface of this huge body of water was as smooth as glass and perfectly transparent. You could see right to the bottom of the lake all the out to the mile breaker and beyond. Every rock, every sandbar, huge schools of Coho salmon and rainbow trout were visible. Even the hulls of boats long sunk could be seen.
It was mesmerizing – a miracle really. She stood there for some time drinking in the beauty of the moment before leaving. The next day she came back for a second look, but the glass had darkened, and the lake withheld its wonders once more. Still, that one glimpse helped renew her love for these majestic lakes.
I tell you that story because it’s a good example of an epiphany... the season we have just entered. Epiphany literally means “to manifest, to reveal, or to show.” That’s what the lake did that day – it revealed all the secrets of its depths to the people. And every once in a while, God provides an epiphany where the wonder and mystery of God is revealed to us. Epiphany is God’s coming-out party – God lets off some fireworks and makes God’s presence known like never before. Epiphany is when God gets loud!
What is the loudest you’ve heard God? When in your life have you recognized the presence of God most profoundly? I’m sure if you asked the wise men that question, they’d say it was when they finally saw Jesus.
The story of the wise men is found only in one gospel – Matthew alone records it. But the impact of it is so great that we retell it every year on Epiphany Sunday. Why? Because the incarnation – the Word made flesh – is as loud as God gets! So loud that it attracted the attention of wise men living in distant countries to the east who traveled a great distance to behold it for themselves. When they finally behold the Christ-child, they have no words! They are speechless before this great Epiphany of God and leaving their gifts they return home another way... changed!
Epiphanies are rare ‒ they don’t happen every day, but when they do, they can be life-giving and life-changing. The bible is filled with epiphanies: Moses experienced an epiphany when he ascended the mountain to receive the commandments from God. When he came down the mountain, they say his face glowed because he had been so close to God. Peter, James and John had an epiphany of God when they saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain. God got so loud that they lay prone on the ground, silent. Paul had an epiphany on the road to Damascus when he heard Christ speak to him and the light is so bright around him that he was blinded for a time. The experience changed him from being a persecutor of the church into a builder of the church. And John had an epiphany in his old age which he recorded in the book of Revelation. And epiphanies of God still happen today. People don’t always talk about them but if you press them, you’ll be surprised how many people have had one.
Frederick Buechner defines epiphanies as “glimpses of home” and says: “To have faith is to respond to what we see by longing for it the rest of our days; by trying to live up to it and toward it through all the wonderful and terrible days, breathing it in like air and growing strong on it; by looking to see it again and see it better. To lose faith is to stop looking.”
Israel had all but given up hope of being free and their faith was burning low when they were led into captivity in Babylon. But Isaiah stood up and proclaimed a word of hope – “Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” He prophesied that God would shine upon them, and not only would they return home and rebuild the temple, but that all nations would be drawn to them because of their relationship with God. This prophecy comes true in today’s passage when these Magi ‒ stargazers – wise men came to Bethlehem from eastern countries. A mysterious and wondrous star led them to Bethlehem and to the Child, but it was their own faith that led them to kneel before the Child and to offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. There is no gift too rich for that Child of God who bids us come and worship.
Epiphany Sunday is traditionally the day people begin to pack up Christmas... box up the decorations, throw out the tree, wrap up the crèche figurines. I suggest you leave the crèche scene out a little bit longer... not to prolong the celebration of Christmas but to remind you of the persistent faith of those who did not stop looking for him even well after his birth.
We are all Magi on a journey to find Jesus... the scriptures predicted his birth, the star announced his arrival, but it is up to us to go and find him. and to worship him.
Eberhard Arnold puts it this way:
“The little stable at Bethlehem was the place where the love of God broke through to humankind. The wise men out of the East followed the star and discovered the place of breaking in, where the mystery of love lay in the helplessness of a human baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes in the feeding trough of an animal. They discovered the place where God’s love had come down. That is the most important thing for each of us; to discover in our own time and hour the place where God’s love has broken through, and then to follow the star that has risen for us – and to remain true to the light that has fallen into our hearts.” (Inner Words for Every Day of the Year)
A colleague of mine in ministry died of ALS some years ago. ALS is a neurological disease that steals away a person’s ability to control their muscles. Over time they lose the use of their arms, legs, body, speech, and breathing. The person’s mind however is not affected so they become trapped within a failing body.
My colleague first noticed he was having trouble playing his guitar and went for testing. The prognosis came back, and it was devastating. He and his wife went to church one Sunday and sat in the back row, arriving late. It was raining outside, and they sat there looking at a stain glass window of Christ with rain running down it. Suddenly it occurred to him that the rain running down the face of Jesus was in fact tears. The Lord was crying for him! That epiphany lifted his spirits that day and sustained his faith for the road ahead.
Epiphany happened when God’s love broke through the darkness originally in Bethlehem. Who knows where he will break through next. We may even find him here – in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup around this table.