Earlier this week I overheard someone bragging about taking down all of their Christmas decorations on New Year’s Day. It was hard for me to keep quiet, but inside I was screaming, “It’s not even Epiphany!” Now it’s okay if your Christmas decorations are already in the box and back in the attic, but as for me and my house, we leave them up through January 6th. That’s the traditional end of the Christmas season, the day upon which we commemorate the visit of the Wise Men to the newborn king, and we call this day Epiphany.
Epiphany is a bit misunderstood in this day and age, as is the traditional Christian notion that Christmas is to be observed as a season, not a day. As a result, we are pretty good about getting ourselves into Christmas, but not so adept at getting ourselves out of it. But that’s okay. Just as Epiphany greets us once again we encounter three mysterious figures in the Christmas story who weren’t real sure how to get themselves out of it, either.
“And the magi, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, left for their own country by another road.” These words capture the essence of Epiphany, especially the notion of “going home by another road.” Epiphany is about the unexpected: unexpected joys and unexpected blessings, even unexpected challenges. Epiphany is filled with unexpected revelations that change our minds and change our ways.
We live in a day and age when many around us suddenly find themselves traveling by a road that wasn’t the one they expected. Lives have been altered due to economic change, or institutional uncertainties, or medical bills and long term care costs, or countless other events that have the potential to change the landscape around us, and suddenly make us feel like we are walking in unfamiliar territory. It’s a difficult thing to live through, but sometimes the challenge for us is to find the unexpected blessing that waits for us along this new road we walk together.
Today we are reminded in our scripture reading that following another road home is part of the Christmas story. After following the star that led them and revealed to them the Christ child, the wise men were also wise enough to return home by another way. In truth they were changed by God’s gift of grace and love, changed to see the world in a new way, and as a result they were prepared to change their direction in response to God’s coming.
We too are invited to embrace Epiphany, to seek the Star, the Savior born for us, to be changed by this gift and to see the world in new ways. Eventually, all of us take routes that we had never expected to travel. When life forces us from the familiar highway onto an uncharted path, we are challenged to see the new things, to experience holiness as we travel on another road, and to remember that the gift we received when our Savior was born is one that stays with us wherever we may go.
The path is seldom easy, but the scriptures make clear again and again that within the real limitations of life, we may discover unexpected possibilities for vocation, mission, transformation, and a fuller expression of life.
I’m reminded of Celtic pilgrims who often went to sea in tiny boats called coracles. The distinguishing characteristic of the coracle was that it had no rudder. Steering was accomplished by use of a paddle, but more often than not the coracle was simply directed by the current, or by the wind. Fishermen who used coracles trusted the river to take them where they needed to go, and sometimes ended up in some very interesting places.
So too are we called each Christmas season to stop pretending that we are steering by use of our own rudders, and instead understand that this is God’s current that we are following. We are called to simply trust that God will guide us to our home, to the place where we are meant to be. We may end up in some very interesting places, but those new places are also places of new life and possibility. In the midst of the wind and the current, there is a guiding force directing us toward holiness, wholeness, new life, and new purpose.
Of course, this can sometimes mean having to separate ourselves from some of those old comfortable ways of doing things when it becomes necessary. I once heard the story of a man who was fond of taking his vacations in the Canadian wilderness so that he could go moose hunting. He hired a guide to fly him deep into the forest so that he could find the best hunting grounds. After shooting two moose he got the guide to help him bring them both back to the plane.
“You know,” said the pilot, “We can’t put both of these on the plane. They’re too heavy.”
“Oh, nonsense,” said the hunter. “The pilot I hired last year let me put two moose on the plane!” So, they heaved and lifted and eventually got both moose on the plane. Then, they took off.
It was quickly apparent that the plane was too heavy. Despite the pilot’s efforts, the plane crashed into the side of a hill and luckily both men survived.
“Great!” the pilot said as he got out of the plane. “Now where are we?”
“Hmmmm,” said the hunter. “I’m pretty sure this is the same hill we crashed into last year.”
Sometimes it can be hard to let go of what’s not working so that we can find the blessing in a new thing.
But that’s exactly what we are called to do. Especially, that’s what we should expect the leaders of our church to do. Today we ordained and installed new classes of deacons and elders, and I hope that you will join me in encouraging them not just to maintain the same things that we have always done, but to look for God’s blessing in a new thing. Following the example of the wise men, who were called not just to give their gifts but were also called by a dream to explore new things, to leave the familiar in order to be faithful to God.
That’s the message of Epiphany. It’s the message that wakes us up to a God who stretches, and surprises, and transforms. Even as we seek to give our gifts to God and recognize that God’s greatest gift is right in front of us, we nevertheless must have the courage to take another road, to become a new creation, to welcome opportunity in the midst of challenge, to greet what God is doing as we seek to be a vital part of the world Christ came to serve and to save.
Let us pray…
O God, with Christmas, we celebrate the birth of your son and proclaim our confidence that your light has dawned in human life. With Epiphany, we affirm that as your faithful followers, as Christ’s church, we are responsible for letting that light shine, for sharing your message of hope, peace, and love in a world that needs to hear it.
We want to shine O God, but too often end up settling for the dimness of what is convenient and comfortable for us. Or we allow the news of the day and the uncertainty around us to overshadow the hope and confidence we have in your omnipresence and power.
We know the Christmas gift of a Savior calls for our renewed commitment to grow closer to you and lead our lives by your guiding Star instead of by our fears, wishes and warn routines. This is hard for us to do. Forgive us and fill us with your joy and love as we journey with our Savior in this New Year ahead open to adventure, newness, and your guiding presence, with us always, in the midst of whatever will be. Amen.