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The New Year and Epiphany

January 1, 2012
Sermon:  The New Year and Epiphany
Text:  Matthew 1:1-11


Christmas trees have already been discarded by the roadside, left like dead soldiers waiting for the body wagon.  Artificial trees have been packed in casket-size boxes and put away in the attic, basement, or garage, along with tinsel and many ornaments.  Some people are waiting though, just a day or two longer, for a few more pine needles to fall onto the carpet so that their vacuum cleaner can have a really good workout.

Nothing is quite as over as Christmas when it is over, yet we have been reminded this morning that the season of Christmas extends past December 25.  In fact, the ancient tradition of observing the twelve days of Christmas actually counts days, beginning with December 26 and continuing to the twelfth night on January 6, known as Epiphany.  We are still in the heart of the Christmas season according to the church calendar.  While we have put away many of our decorations, we still have more to understand from Scripture about this season of the year.

The word epiphany means a manifestation, a revelation from God, a sign that God is making a significant impact on our lives.  Perhaps January 1 is no better time for us to think about how God reveals Himself than on this day. 

If we read the Scriptures carefully, we see that epiphany moments exist throughout the nativity narrative of Jesus.  Mary had a startling and strange confrontation with the angel Gabriel in which she learned of her pregnancy out of wedlock with a child conceived by the Holy Spirit.  Joseph had dreams, just as his Old Testament counterpart did.  Joseph’s dreams revealed to him that God was at work in his life as well as in the life of Mary.  The shepherds also received from the angels a divine epiphany.  They were minding their own business, taking care of their flocks, when all of heaven broke loose.  Furthermore, the elderly Simeon and Anna, who received the Christ Child in the temple, acknowledged his role as the promised Messiah.

Of all the epiphany accounts that we find in the birth narrative of Jesus, none is more fascinating than the one we find in Matthew 2.  Hear now the Word of God.

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

Who were the Magi?  These men, probably members of the Zoroastrian religion, lived in a part of the world that we hear about often in the news – either Iraq or Iran, some part of the great Persian Empire.  Why had they traveled such a long, long way, following a star?  A part of their belief was that the sky was a mirror.  They believed that when they looked at the heavens, they saw a reflection of what was happening on earth.  When the Magi saw the unusual star of great magnitude over the city of Bethlehem, they knew that royalty had been born on earth.  They determined to follow the star until they found this royal person destined to become the king of the Jews.

Who were the Magi?  The Magi were dreamers and dream interpreters.  They were astronomers, astrologers, fortune tellers, and star-gazers by any other name.  They were magicians.  Our words magic and magician come from the same root word as Magi.  We might compare these three to people sitting in fortune-teller booths at the county fair, people answering the psychic hotline, people foretelling the future by looking at the stars, tea leaves, or tarot cards.  The Magi were also speakers of sacred words spoken at pagan sacrifices.  They were horoscope enthusiasts.  All Jews condemned that practice.  The faithful Jewish generally perceived them to be outcasts.  Though a complete an anathema to the people of Israel, these men came from the East to Bethlehem to worship the Christ Child.

The story, as it unfolds in Matthew, seems to indicate some separation in time between the shepherds visiting Jesus in the manger and the Magi arriving.  Tradition says that they probably found Jesus as long as two years later.  One indication is that they came to a house, not a stable, to offer their gifts.  Another indication is that Herod was determined to kill all male children under the age of two, probably a calculation made from the time the Magi first saw the star to the time they found Jesus.

The fact that the Magi are foreigners is strange enough, especially since the reference to them appears in Matthew’s Gospel, text generally considered for Jews.  We might expect a reference to them to show up in Luke’s Gospel, a Gospel for the Gentiles.  The fact that the Jews considered the Magi’s religion to be pagan puts an even greater emphasis on the fact that God’s blessing is for all people in all times and in all places.  Christ has come to demonstrate the love of God for every single human being.

Many Christians are afraid to be different, afraid to be un-orthodox, because they believe that God might not approve.  At times we may be uncomfortable with religious expression that is completely standardized, religious expression that says everyone must think alike.  We look at the story of the Magi and learn that certain concepts in the Christian faith are absolute, stable, unbending, like Jesus Christ is Lord.  Beyond that, the faith has room for many differences.

Members of U-2 and its leader, a man named Bono, have professed to be Christians.  Some years ago, however, when the band sang “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” the title offended many in the Christian community.  How can a Christian be uncertain?  How can a Christian claim, “I am still searching”?  We learn from the Magi that this search lasts a lifetime.  This search never ends.  Some years ago, a campaign promoted the motto “I have found it.”  If we know Jesus Christ, we have found the truth.

Sometimes in our religious experience, truths just occur to us.  It is not so much that we find them.  They are thrown into our path, revealed by God Himself.  These core truths are epiphany moments.  In my own walk with the Lord, I am still, in a sense, searching for an ever-deepening awareness of God’s activity in my life.  I hope that is true for you as well.

The Magi were searchers.  They did not claim to know everything already.  We certainly do not know it all either, but we must be diligent seekers.  The truth is that a double search is happening.  “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near,” counsels the prophet Isaiah (55:6).

It is also true that God is searching.  This is not hide-and-seek; this is seek-and-seek.  Jesus could say, “I have come to seek and to save the lost.”  A double search exists in our search for God and in His search for us.  A part of the message of the Magi is that we must be willing to search, willing to allow the revelation of God to transform our lives.

We also learn a truth from the Magi by considering the gifts they offer the Christ Child.  Gold is a gift for a king.  Frankincense is a gift for a priest.  Myrrh, an embalming spice, symbolizes the suffering and death of our Savior.

Consider another interpretation of these gifts by looking at what they meant to the Magi.  Magicians used frankincense and myrrh as elements in their pagan practice.  Their willingness to sacrifice these particular gifts of value basically say, “We now are surrendering these items, which represent our old way of life.  We are surrendering them to the One who has come as the Messiah, the One who has come as the Savior of the world.”  They certainly challenge us to look again at our lives and to ask if we need to sacrifice possessions we hold very dear, sacrifice belongings we might even consider to be precious or indispensable.  Do we need to put them aside so that we can more fully follow Christ?

The Magi were stargazers.  We must acknowledge the great divide that exists between the oriental mind and the Occidental way of thinking, the great divide between Confucius and Socrates.  Easterners tend to think in circular paths, focusing on the cycles of life.  Westerners tend to think in linear paths, in cause and effect relationships.

A difference also exists in the two groups’ understanding of the heavens.  Astrology and astronomy, which grew up together, are first cousins.  Mystics studied astronomy and astrology with no real distinction.  In fact, this study was one of the original seven liberal arts.  Kings and other rulers generally employed court astrologers to predict the future, to guide them in their decision-making.  Even medical students in ancient times learned astrology as part of their education.

In the time of the Great Awakening, about the 17th century, the scientist Copernicus did not practice astrology.  He was the first to suggest that the sun was the center of our universe, advocating that the earth rotated around the sun, not the other way around.  Kepler and Galileo followed his thinking.  The Roman Catholic Church at that time held onto the ancient idea that we were the center of all of life, that our world was the center.  The church actually excommunicated Galileo for his belief that the sun is the center of the universe.

Do you remember how Rick Warren begins his book The Purpose Driven Life?  The very first sentence of that book reads, “It’s not about you.”  From the time we were young children, we thought we were the center of the universe.  My grandchildren think they are the center of the universe, and I am ashamed to say that I contribute to that belief.  I treat them as if they are the center of the universe.  The truth is that at some point we must realize that it is not about us.

The Magi seemed to have a significant epiphany when they realized that their lives had to revolve around the Son.  We, too, have a significant epiphany when we realize our lives must revolve around Jesus, not just the baby lying in a manger but also Jesus who walked this earth, Jesus who taught us by his life how we should live, Jesus who died on Calvary’s cross, Jesus who died in order to give us a way to be saved from our sins, Jesus who rose from the dead, Jesus who gives to us the promise of life eternal through his resurrection.

God has a plan for every life.  I often quote Jeremiah 29:11:  “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to do you good and not harm, to give you hope and a future.”  That verse is excellent for New Year’s Day.  God does have a plan for every single life.

How do we find that life?  We do not find it by believing that everything revolves around us.  We find that life by learning from the Magi that this life is a search, a long pilgrimage.  God is ever-present, always making Himself known.  He will surprise us, surprise us with something as simple as red geraniums blooming on a front porch on New Year’s Day.  My geraniums look as if it is the middle of June.  They are beautiful.  Sometimes God will surprise us, maybe with a star, maybe with a child.  We will find our epiphany moments, these moments of revelation from God, in many different ways.

Let me mention three predictable means of finding God that we should not neglect.  I want to invite you to embark on the journey of reading the Bible.  Your bulletin today includes a plan for reading the Bible through in one year.  You will face many pitfalls along the way.  You will find yourself trying to catch up in your reading.  Please, begin reading the Bible today.  It may be that you will not read it all the way through in one year.  That is fine.  Just read something from the Bible every day.  Why?  The Bible records what God has already said, what God already wants us to know.  If we read His Word individually and if we read it as a congregation, we will be absolutely amazed at what He has to show us.

Second is prayer.  Before long we will have a service of dedication for our new prayer room, which some of you have seen.  I invite you to sign up to pray one hour every week.  Come to this prayer room or pray in your home.  Can you give one “sweet hour of prayer”?  Can you pray for one hour with prayer focused on this church, on your own spiritual needs, on your wider concerns?  Doing so will allow you to discover a Power that is accessible to you in no other way.

Third, we find God through worship together.  Those of us who lead in worship work hard to make these times meaningful, and today we have a very special time together.  Coming to the Lord’s Table is our opportunity to reaffirm who we are as Christian people, to reaffirm the sovereignty of Christ Jesus in our lives, to declare that the world does not revolve around us, to assert that the center of the universe is the Son, Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.

This is not a Baptist table.  This is not Morningside’s table.  This is the Lord’s Table.  All who profess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, are invited to participate in this wonderful form of worship.  Let’s take the meal together now as the people of God.

On the night he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread.  He broke it and blessed it.  He said, “This is my body broken you for.”

Prayer for the Bread:  Our Father, as we are gathered here to worship, we ask Your blessings upon this bread.  As we partake, may we remember that we are doing so in memory of Jesus Christ’s body, which was broken for us.  We pray that as we receive this element, we will also receive spiritual nourishment, that we may be Your servants with all of our energy and being.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.

For several years, I have thought that the new year was not so much about my resolution as it was about my consecration.  So these words:

 Take my life and let it be,
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee.                                                   
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.

Jesus said, “This bread is my body, given for you.”  Eat it as often as you eat it in remembrance of him.  Eat all of it.

Prayer of Blessing for the Cup:  Our Father, in the quietness of this time as we begin a new year, we pray that You would restore our souls.  Help us to “turn our eyes upon Jesus” so that “the things of this world do grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”  As we drink of this cup, we are reminded that his love, his forgiveness, and his peace sustain us in those moments when we most need him.  We thank you, Jesus.  In your name, we pray.  Amen.

Take my will and make it Thine,
It shall be no longer mine.                                       
Take my heart, It is Thine own, 
It shall be Thy royal throne,

Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”  Drink it as often as you drink it in remembrance of him.  Drink all of it.

So we begin a new year, not only as individuals, as separate families, but also as a church family.  This year will be full of all kinds of surprises, but the one constant is God.  He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  When we gather here and profess Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we acknowledge that the foundation of our faith in Christ cannot be shaken.

Do you know Jesus as your Savior?  Have you acknowledged him as the Lord of your life?  If you have never done that, I can think of no better time than now to make him your Lord and Savior.  This is an opportunity for a new beginning.  We invite your response.

Kirk H. Neely
© January 2012


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