Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Imagine for a moment that you are the president of the United States. You are going about your business, doing your president thing, when one morning you hear a knock on your door. Some dignitaries from various nations approach your desk with a question. They eagerly ask, “Where is the new president of the United States? Our intelligence has informed us that a new president is now in office, and we have come to pay our respects.” Your blood suddenly turns cold. To your knowledge there has been no election, no new president. You are the one in power, and you’d like to keep it that way. After all, you've worked so hard to get here. Who, then, could these ambassadors be speaking of? And what might it take to keep all this confusion quiet?
Where else would you look for the president of the United States than at the White House? And where else would you look for the birth of a king than in a royal palace? But when the wise men finally showed up on the scene that first Christmas, knocking on King Herod’s palace door, they were not welcome visitors. Their arrival struck fear into the hearts of those in power. Their arrival signaled to those who had a stake in the status quo that change was on the horizon. And for someone like King Herod – comfortable, in control, and backed by the Roman Empire, change is a bad thing.
But this is not exactly how Christmas cards and Hallmark store displays have taught us to imagine the scene, in a stylized stable with well-behaved animals, dirty shepherd next to richly dressed men bearing gifts, with bright pointed star hanging overhead, shining light on the serene scene. In reality, Christmas is long over by the time the star leads these wise men to the place where Jesus is. Their journey was long and hard, probably through mountains and deserts, and when they finally arrived their news brought fear and not joy. But through hardship and suspicion they still pressed on, until finally the star stopped and revealed to the wise men where Jesus was. It was there, in a house somewhere in Bethlehem, that these wise sages of the East witnessed the unveiling of God face to face. They saw firsthand God’s “epiphany.”
This day and this season we now enter into has a funny name. “Epiphany” is not a word we use often anymore. “I had an epiphany at work today,” you might say to a friend, referring to brainstorming a good idea for a project. Really though, it’s that light bulb moment, quite literally, when a realization dawns on you, when suddenly things make sense and you can’t figure out how you couldn't see it just a moment ago. It’s when the world suddenly shifts into focus, like putting on a new pair of glasses and you’re taken aback for a moment at how clear the world looks.
When those really good ah-ha moments happen – like when you fall in love for the first time or the birth of your first child– your life is never quite the same again. And how could you live your life in the same old darkness now that the light has dawned? How could you put on your old out-of-date glasses now that your way is bright and clear? You can never go back, nor would you want to. You are living in a new world. Everything has changed.
Everything changed the night when Jesus was born, when the King of Kings and Lord of Lords reveals his face between bands of cloth in the straw of a manger. Everything changed when angels announced his birth and shepherds sang his praises. Everything changed when these men from another religion and another country acknowledged Jesus as their true king. As Mary’s song said, the world would be turned upside down – the mighty would be brought low and the lowly lifted up, the hungry would be fed and the full sent away empty. The ordinary order of the world of haves and have-nots could no longer hold. All because God revealed God’s true character in a baby born in Bethlehem.
But Epiphany is not just a one-time occasion that we celebrate and remember having happened in the past. No, God has Epiphanies all over the place. The God we worship is continually revealing to us who God is and how God is working in the world – through people, through churches and congregations, and even through other unlikely sources. Even Hollywood can sometimes be a medium of God’s epiphanies. Have you ever seen a film that just hit you right here, even if you’re not sure why? Les Miserable was such a film for me. And if you haven’t seen it yet, I would highly recommend it.
It follows the fortunes of one man, Jean Valjean, as he is chased through life by the sins of his past but at the same time being drawn by hope and love into a better future. At the very start he is a hardened criminal, released on parole after 19 years in prison. He seeks work but is turned away time and time again because he is an ex-con. Hungry, cold, and desperate, he finds himself sleeping in a church, where the bishop of the church finds him and welcomes him, feeds him, and offers him a warm place to sleep.
But Valjean saw the fine silver cutlery while he ate and in his wretched state he could not help himself. That night he stole the silver and took off. He is caught and dragged back before the bishop, beaten and in chains. . Valjean knew that this was it for him, that he would go back to prison and would live the rest of his life there. The soldiers knew that too. They sneered and repeated his ridiculous story, about how the bishop had felt sorry for Valjean and had given him the silver out of pity. Like any person, even a bishop, would be so kind to an ex-con.
But the bishop said, “That’s right. But my friend you left so early, surely something slipped your mind…” He took the silver candlesticks down from the mantle, “you forgot, I gave these also, would you leave the best behind?”Both the soldiers and Valjean are aghast. Valjean is released, but the bishop was not finished. He told Valjean that he must use the silver to become an honest man, and that his gift had rescued Valjean’s soul for God.
Valjean couldn’t believe it. This bishop, this upright man in the church had not only lied about Valjean stealing the silver, but had given him the candlesticks to boot! The bishop had given him his freedom, and said that he had a soul worth saving. Before this, Valjean had been consumed by hate and despair, but now he wondered if there was another way to live? What if he did have a soul, and his life now belonged to God? How should he live?
The rest of the movie reveals to us how this man chose to live the rest of his life after this epiphany - to live for others and not just for himself. At the end of his life, on his deathbed surrounded by his loved ones both living and dead, he is able to sum up his life: “to love another person is to see the face of God.”
Though we don’t know what happened to the wise men after they saw the face of God, we can assume that they were never the same again. Their lives had changed. For one thing, they had become fugitives, sneaking out of the country to avoid becoming Herod’s informants. Herod had no intention of paying homage to the new born king. He would rather snuff out any threat to his power than see the true face of God revealed in a humble child.
But God continues reveals himself in unexpected places and to unlikely people. God reveals God’s face to a teenaged girl and her carpenter fiancé…..to dirty shepherds in the middle of the night… and to star-gazing sages of the orient…. And also to you and to me. For God revealed his face in the form of a small child so that all people could have a place at the table – Jews, gentiles, men, women, and children, black and white, carpenters and lawyers, straight, gay, depressed, happy, mentally-challenged, socially challenged, financially challenged, bored, addicted, busy, ex-cons and bishops. Lift up your eyes and look around - we’re all here at the table, because the light of the world shown out and brought us to this place. “Arise, shine; for your light has come.” Amen.