Church Explainer: Epiphany

Hello, friends, and welcome back. I’m the Rev. Sare Liz Anuszkiewicz and this is the Sunday Sermon. If you’re looking for the bits of the bible I’ve referenced in this sermon, you can find the link right here. For the nerds in the know, this is the First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A, and here’s the sermon I preached on January 8, 2023. 

To listen to the audio-only version, click here. For the full-text, read on!

Good morning! This past Thursday was the twelfth day of Christmas, which means that Friday was The Epiphany. And today is the First Sunday after The Epiphany. Now, Epiphany as a season is going to last about two months and you can think of the Season of Epiphany (as well as the Feast Day itself) in… really four different ways.

But before I tell you the four ways you can think, live, and celebrate Epiphany, let’s look at the word itself.

Epiphany is an ah-ha! moment. It is a moment of divine inspiration. Or even, divine revelation. And divine revelation means that in a very brief and beautiful moment in time, God has revealed Godself to you. Or somebody else. So you can have an epiphany and suddenly realize, ‘oh! I need to call so-and-so right now.’ And you can have an epiphany and suddenly realize, ‘I need to quit my job and find a different one.’ And you can have an epiphany and suddenly realize, ‘oh, that’s what St. Paul means when he says we’re the body of Christ!’ And you can have an epiphany and suddenly realize, ‘I need to help that person, or I need to go and do that thing.’ And you can have an epiphany and suddenly see in the face of someone you’ve argued with, and maybe even held a grudge or resentment against… the face of Christ.

So that is what epiphany means. And now you can use it in a sentence.

Now, when it comes to the Feast of the Epiphany, we’re looking at two different moments in the life of Jesus, and we can remember them simultaneously.

First, chronologically speaking, we’re looking at that beautiful story that we didn’t read this morning (but would have, if we’d had a service on Friday), from the Gospel of Matthew. It comes right after the nativity at the beginning of the book, and it chronicles the arrival of the Wise Men. Or the Foreign Kings. Or the Three Kings. Just like it goes in the hymn we began church with, these three kings, or wise men, brought over-the-top baby gifts that were totally inappropriate for an infant born to poor parents, but very, very symbolic. One brought gold, signifying that the child was a king. Because only royalty would have that much wealth. One brought incense, and you’ve got to suspend your disbelief here, because incense was only legal for actual priests to burn in the actual temple during a rather exclusive ritual that we heard about last week, really. And so a gift of frankincense is highly symbolic and it’s only appropriate to give… to a god. And the final gift was myrrh, which as a parent, you do not want anyone giving your baby myrrh. Myrrh is a super sweet, beautiful perfume and it had exactly one use at the time. You anointed dead bodies with it so you could stand the smell long enough to bury them.

So, yeah. If I’d been in Mary’s place, getting those gifts… I might have just fainted on the spot. Or vomited. Because the wise men traveling such a long way, giving such fantastically costly gifts would be implying that my child was a King (dangerous), a God (that’s a killing offense), and soon-to-be a dead body needing burial. I mean, gold, frankincense, and myrrh make for a great hymn, but genre-wise the story just turned from a heart-warming drama to a horror film.

And then the wise men tell the young couple that the king wants to kill them, and they need to go seek asylum elsewhere and not go home. So Joseph takes Mary and the infant and flees to Egypt, reminding us that even Jesus spent time as a political refugee.

That’s one way to look at the epiphany, and in this case it was the epiphany of the wise men: the divine revelation they encountered was of Jesus himself, and while their presents were totally inappropriate in terms of baby gifts, they were totally spot on in terms of Jesus gifts. They saw him for who he was, even as a newborn: king, god, and sacrifice.

The other way to see the Feast of the Epiphany is what we read this morning: the baptism of Jesus. Now, here it’s not about whether or not the baptism does anything for Jesus – it’s how other people perceive it. I mean, he walks up to John the Baptist, and John’s like, ‘uh, you don’t need to be baptized, but I’d like to be baptized by you,’ and Jesus replies, ‘nah, just do it.’ But then… oh, then. Then everyone present gets an epiphany – a divine revelation, and it’s not just because they’re seeing Jesus. The whole Trinity is present. The Holy Spirit of God descends like a dove on Jesus and meanwhile over heaven’s loudspeakers there’s the Voice of God pronouncing that Jesus is his. And it’s an event that everyone present is aware of, everyone bears witness to it.

So when we think of the Feast of the Epiphany, we can think of the three kings and Jesus as an infant, or we can think of the Baptism of Jesus as an adult.

But then there’s about eight more weeks of the season of Epiphany. And that’s full of lots of little moments, over and over, of divine inspiration and divine revelation. We’ll get to see Jesus calling his disciples. We’ll get to see Jesus teaching that he’s the Lamb of God. We’ll get to hear the sermon on the mount cut up into bite sized pieces over the course of many, many weeks. And finally, on the last Sunday of Epiphany, we’ll see an account of the Transfiguration, where Jesus’ closest students witness their teacher illuminated and conversing with Moses and Elijah on a hilltop.

So that’s a third way to understand Epiphany – divine inspiration and revelation that we can read about in the Gospels, and that we hear referenced in the letters and stories of the New Testament. Moments where people, two thousand years ago, saw God breaking through their everyday lives, moments where people saw they had a choice to be inspired by God, to follow God, to do something different than they’d ever done before.

And the fourth way to understand Epiphany – divine inspiration and revelation – is to understand that it’s still ongoing. Right now. With you and me. God is all around us, and within us, and waiting for us to see, waiting for us to be inspired, waiting for us to follow and perhaps do something differently than we’d ever done before. In large ways, yes, but primarily in small ways. Because most of life is experienced in small ways, small moments, little decisions.

And God is here for us already. Our baptism isn’t when we are introduced to God, nor when God accepts us. It is when God is introduced to us, and when we accept God.

And that’s why, instead of the normal Nicene Creed this morning… we’ll be having a renewal of our Baptismal Vows. You may note there are no promises that God makes to us, because God has already promised us everything – love, acceptance, mercy, comfort, guidance, inspiration, peace, and joy. Our Baptismal Vows are what we offer God, and if you think about them, they try to answer the question ‘how do we love our neighbors as our selves?’ 

So let’s begin.

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