Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A meditation given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
Epiphany is the day we celebrate when the wise men from the east made it to the stable, the twelfth day of Christmas. They scoped out Herod, followed the path revealed to them by the light of a very bright star, and brought gifts to the new King – great gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. A newly-crowned king would have been deeply honored by the gifts, but a baby? Not so much… Still, it makes for a great story in that literary way of foreshadowing. These were gifts to ease the way of a new king through death to eternity, and Jesus, by virtue of his birth, would die, and by virtue of his life and God’s will would be eternal. Matthew goes on to tell us that Joseph, Mary, and Joseph, to escape Herod’s rage, traveled to Egypt to hide. And, in another literary act of foreshadowing, “to fulfill God’s promise, ‘out of Egypt I have called my servant’”. I imagine Mary and Joseph were glad for the money they received from the gifts of the magi. Life in Egypt couldn’t have been cheap. The author doesn’t give us their interior dialogue but all of us know that parenting is expensive, especially with no relatives around to ease some of the costs.
It is a great story – all the birth stories are great stories – Luke’s angels and shepherds, Matthew’s traveling astronomers and the jealous, temper-tantruming Herod, even John’s pre-existing Word, that real but ephemeral thing that became real in flesh and blood, no longer ephemeral, but a person who lived among us, full of grace and truth – they are great stories, and they teach us so much, as great stories do, about human nature and political upheaval and nation-building, and nationalism, and trust and leadership and the best and worst of our human nature, and God. They teach us a lot about God.
We all have a little trouble understanding God, who God is, how God acts, where and why. I’ve told you this story before and I apologize for repeating myself but it had quite an impact on the way I teach about God. Years ago, while leading a retreat about prayer, I asked the participants to name just one basic belief they held close to their hearts, one fundamental faith statement they knew to be true for them. It was my intent to help them build a prayer life using that one foundational faith-statement as a cornerstone. After some quiet, the participants were asked to tell the rest of us that one true thing. It was hard for many of them. It made them self-conscious, even embarrassed. It was the first time they had been asked to say, out loud, something they simply believed. One woman said, why don’t you just ask us to take all our clothes off and spend the rest of the evening sitting on these cold, metal folding chairs naked – that would be easier! But I’m patient when it comes to making people face up to their faith and their doubts, so eventually, they each began to speak their tentative but hope-filled faith claims. When we had come around the circle, and I began to move on, one of the participants asked me to do what they had each just done - to say one core, foundational belief of my own. I don’t know why I said what I said that night. It wasn’t something that I had ever articulated before, but I told them as if I had been thinking it all along - I believe God is accessible. There it is - and it is still a cornerstone faith statement for me, though the shape, color, and texture have changed over these more than twenty-five years since that retreat. I believe God is accessible.
Howard Thurman said that Jesus Christ is the for instance of the mind of God. Or, to put it in a far less poetic way - Jesus Christ has given us access to God. Not through magical methods of communication, audible voices or messages delivered in the strange arrangement of stones or electrically charged impulses from the heavens. And not as an intermediary in that fortune-teller manner of a medium who communicates with the world of spirits. Jesus Christ does not give us access to God by making it possible to escape the anxieties of life, the struggles, trials, the long periods of mediocrity punctuated by moments of emotion, the hours, days, and years of labor which seem to be void of meaning or purpose. Jesus Christ does not relieve us of personal responsibility for our decisions, our actions, our mistakes, our accountability our responsibilities. By knowing the life we know, by having been born and dependent upon others for his early life, by having to have learned to read and make decisions, by having been disappointed in the failures of companions and angered by the duplicity of religious institutions, by having felt a breeze on his skin, the relief that comes with sleep, the refreshment of water, the sharp taste of wine and the nourishment of bread, by having been a human being, Jesus Christ has given us access to God.
Epiphany, is the time when the Christian church, liturgically speaking, celebrates its access to God, not in philosophical terms or in the language of ethics but in the way of a story. And the story tells us that scholars from the east sought a king and, guided by the light of a star, found their way to the place of his birth. His parents took him to the temple to be dedicated and circumcised and encountered there Simeon and Anna, both of whom recognized this baby as the long-awaited Messiah. They protected his life by hiding in Egypt for a time to escape the evil Herod. We are told that he learned his father’s carpentry trade, that he became somewhat of a precocious scholar of the Scriptures. Eventually, when the time was right, he came to John to be baptized in the river Jordan and he began his ministry. His ministry, one of deep and difficult justice, enraged the powerful, and he was put to death. But God’s story did not end then, nor has it ended yet.
Over the weeks of Epiphany, I want to talk more about God, how and why and what we believe. But for today, let us just say, that the star of Epiphany sheds light on the pages of a most magnificent story, and we would do well to read it again. Amen.