Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

God's Epiphanies, Then and Now

 Epiphany, 1-3-2016

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

Last week, during the combined post-Christmas Sunday school, in between making coffee-filter angels and decorating cupcakes, Miss Julie reminded us that it’s still Christmas! It’s Christmas until the wise men arrive to see Jesus on the day that we call Epiphany. To which Mr. Pennenga jokingly responded, “Gesundheit!” But, he does kind of have a point– today we’re celebrating a day in the church year that sounds more like a sneeze than a holiday.

But in a way, that’s Epiphany in a nutshell. Or at least, this is how we tend to think about epiphanies in general – as flashes of insight or revelations that come upon us suddenly and catch us by surprise, like a sneeze. And most of the time, like sneezes, they overtakes us whether we want them to or not.

You all have probably heard one of the most famous epiphany stories in all of English literature. It’s a story that begins with a man that seems to have everything going for him – his business has been successful and his is very wealthy. But there is one small problem, in the fact that he “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” and nobody likes him. Oh yeah, and he hates Christmas. “Bah, humbug,” is his favorite saying on the subject. 
My favorite Scrooge

Then one night, on Christmas Eve, this man is visited by his long dead business partner, covered in the heavy chains he forged in life in every act of unkindness. He has come to warn his friend that he will be visited by three spirits – the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas yet to come.

And visit them they do, and if you want to know how that all works out, you can watch one of the dozens of movie versions or even read the original book by Charles Dickens. But, I don’t think I’m spoiling too much, though, to say that he was a changed man, and became known for his generosity to the poor, and keeping Christmas all the year through. The true meaning of Christmas had caught him, and refused to let him go, and the experience changed his life forever. And people were utterly amazed at his transformation.

This very church is named after someone who had one of the most dramatic, real-life, Ebenezer Scrooge-like epiphanies in the history of Christianity. This super-religious young man began his life with the name of Saul. In the days of the early Christian church, the followers of Jesus were hunted down, arrested, and prevented from talking about Jesus. One such follower of Jesus was Stephen, who was hauled out and stoned to death after preaching before the high priest, becoming the first ever Christian martyr.  Saul was present and watched the stoning with satisfaction as he held all the cloaks for the people doing the actual stoning. From that moment on, Saul became infamous for his relentless harassment of the early church, hauling both men and women to prison for believing in Jesus.

But persecuting Christians in Jerusalem wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to stamp out these heretical followers of Jesus all over. But on his way to a neighboring city, a bright light flashed from heaven and Saul fell to the ground, made completely blind. In that moment, Saul was visited, not by three Christmas Ghosts, but by Jesus himself.

Later, after another disciple reluctantly heals Saul’s eyesight, Saul began to be just as zealous in preaching FOR the gospel of Jesus as he was preaching AGAINST it. And people were utterly amazing at his transformation.

This Saul, who then became Paul, wrote over half of what we have of the New Testament, planting churches like it was going out of style, then writing to them when they would inevitably have problems. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, he mentions his own personal epiphany so that he can share the most amazing epiphany of all – that Jesus came not just to those who are considered to be God’s “insiders,” but to the outsiders as well. 

These outsiders – the non-Jews – originally thought to be outside of God’s grace, are now to receive the news of the “boundless riches of Christ,” to become heirs along with the insiders, to be members of the same body, and to be sharers in the promise of Jesus Christ.
And so Paul, this super-strictly-religious Jew who once persecuted Christians, became the champion of the inclusion of non-Jews in the early Christian church.

But epiphanies did not stop at Paul. The light that first dawned in a manger on Christmas keeps shining and keeps showing up even in the most unlikely places. Like, about a month ago, when Time Magazine announced their Person of the Year.

The 2015 Person of the Year is the Pro- Immigrant, Anti-Wall leader of Germany, Angela Merkel, one of only four women who have held the title of Time Person of the Year in its 100 year history. She has been in the news recently for opening Germany’s doors to one million refugees while other European nations around her close ranks and build walls. 
Under her leadership, immigrants are welcomed and treated like human beings. This is from the same country that over fifty years ago was better known for the death of millions of people and starting a world war. If you think about it, the transformation is pretty amazing.

I see the fact that it is Angela Merkel on the cover of Time Magazine, and not the face of another, more famous person who is Pro-Wall and Anti-Immigrant, as a light that shines forth in this very dark world.

Contrary to what the world wants us to believe, this light is not just for some – the rich, the powerful, the successful, the privileged, the educated, the popular, the loudest, or the most opinionated. This light cannot be controlled, manipulated, or bought by the highest bidder. It shines where it will, often in and through the most unlikely of us.

This is the great Epiphany that dawned upon the earth in a manger, and led the wise men by the light of a star – the revelation that the outsiders were no longer on the outside. That nothing can divide us any longer from the light of the love that is shining on us through the face of Jesus, the word made flesh.

That light continued to shine all through Jesus’ life, as he opened his arms to the outsiders– the poor, women, children, immigrants, foreigners, the sick, the unwanted and undesirable. 
That light could not be extinguished, no matter how hard the “insiders” tried. And yes, they did try, all through Jesus’ life. Herod couldn’t extinguish the light. The religious leaders and Roman authorities couldn’t extinguish the light. Saul couldn’t extinguish the light. Our tendency to build walls and keep people out can’t extinguish the light. Not even evil and sin and death could keep that light from shining.

To those who are in the inside, this news is terrifying. But to those on the outside, this news is life itself. And, truth be told, as much as we would like to believe we are on the inside, belonging to the in-crowd, we have all experienced being on the outside, looking in. We are all in need of being in the light of God’s love. And thanks to Jesus, we will never be outside of that love.

But there are still plenty of people on the outside. There are still plenty of walls to be taken down.  There is still plenty of darkness in this world.

The work of shining this light in the darkness of the world continues. It is a task that Jesus started, that Paul kept going, and now is ours to continue. We may not have a bright and clear star to follow, or experience our own dramatic, life-changing epiphanies, but the light of Christ goes with us as he calls us to shine his light. Even if that leads us to some dark places. Even if that means taking on the “insiders” to bring in the “outsiders.” So that someday the inside is so big that there IS no more “outside.” AMEN.

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