January always seems to bring a mixed bag of hope and sorrow when it comes around. At least for me, I always associate the New Year with new opportunities.
I like to imagine the coming year as a blank slate, ready for me to take it by the horns and make my mark upon it.
I like to think about the changes I want to make, and the goals I intend to aim for. January is a good month to try to set the tone for the year ahead.
But at the same time, I also know that January is just the beginning of true winter.
The days are still too short for my liking, I get tired of the darkness, and the failings of the previous year are still too fresh to fully embrace the promise of a new one.
…Yesterday we celebrated the life of Lois Thatcher.
And as I said at the funeral service, her passing serves as a reminder that death and life are inextricably linked together. Beginnings and endings are never clearly defined; as you can’t have one without the other.
But this morning we turn our attention to the year ahead, even as last Sunday we all turned our attention to the past; you here with Jonathan Reuel, and Christine and I in Pennsylvania at her home church.
And it’s fitting to look at the story of the Magi this morning, for we are on a similar journey of faith.
This journey involves paying heed to signs and wonders, as it did back then; looking back in order to see forward.
It involves adventure and risk; as it did back then.
It requires dedication and commitment as it did back then, and once we find the Christ, our journey takes us home by a different path; just as it did back then.
So today is Epiphany Sunday, which begins the season of Epiphany, which goes from today until Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent.
Those terms probably don’t mean a whole lot to most of us, because as Mennonites, we’ve turned our backs on a lot of stuff that was once helpful because of the reformation.
You might remember, maybe from a church history class you might have taken, or from your membership class, or from a Sunday school lesson; you might remember how our Anabaptist tradition began in the 16th century, as kind of a reaction against a whole lot of stuff that had been happening in the catholic church, which at that point was the only church in Switzerland and Germany, where the reformation began.
There were a couple of guys who began some reforms; Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli were the two big ones. Some students of theirs didn’t think they were going far enough. They thought the reformation needed to be even more radical than it was.
So Anabaptism was born; you could say in reaction to the signs of the times.
Among other things, we embraced the centrality of scripture alone in the life of the church, and the priesthood of all believers.
Those are good things to emphasize.
But whenever you emphasize some things, you de-emphasize others, and in some cases we might have thrown out the baby out with the bath-water, so to speak.
So we lost a lot of traditions, rituals, and other ways of conveying meaning because they didn’t fit with how these early Anabaptists understood faith.
One good example is icons; stained glass; artwork, things like that;
The early Anabaptists equated these things with idolatry and extravagance, and so it’s very rare to find a Mennonite church with stained glass (I guess it’s OK here since we bought the building from another group!).
Another thing we lost was a sense of time outside of secular time.
(I know, it sounds confusing, right? Maybe that’s why we let it go).
I’m definitely no expert on this, but there is something called a ‘church year’ that many churches use to guide their life together.
The Church year begins with the first Sunday of Advent instead of the first day of the calendar year (are you confused yet?). And it counts time in seasons rather than days.
That’s why you sometimes hear about the season of Advent, or Christmastide, or the season of Epiphany, the season of Lent, and Ordinary Time.
This morning is Epiphany, which refers to the 12th day after Christmas, or January 6th, which only falls on a Sunday every now and then.
So, whether you knew it or not, according to the church calendar, we’ve been in the Christmas season for the past 12 days, each day traditionally commemorates a feast in memory of a saint or an event in church history, culminating in the ‘Epiphany’.
That doesn’t mean a lot to most of us though, because we’ve been shaped a lot more by the commercial calendar than the church year (and as you know, December 25th signals the end of the shopping season more than anything else).
This point was driven home to me during our recent trip to Iowa, when Christine and I went out to see the movie “The Hobbit” with my dad the day after Christmas. We thought it would be a nice, slow time at the mall since it was a Wednesday and we assumed people would be either back to work, or enjoying family time or new Christmas gifts.
We were wrong.
The mall was packed. I’ve generally avoided black Friday events, but the image that I have of Black Friday is similar to what we experienced the day after Christmas.
We went to an 11:00 showing, and as we were pulling into the entrance of the shopping mall, the workers were already out taking down the Christmas decorations that had been up for weeks and (maybe) even months before Christmas.
It was clear that as far as our economy was concerned, Christmas was over.
But for us in the church, it had only begun.
The word “Epiphany” comes from two greek words “Epi” which is a prefix that means “upon” or ‘from’ or “forth” and “Phaneo” which means something like ‘face’ or ‘showing’, or ‘shining’.
So it’s a word that means something like shining forth, or showing from, or revealing.
The flavor of this word is like you’re unwrapping a gift, as you peel back the paper and what has been hidden begins to be revealed…that’s an epiphany.
In the passage we heard read today, the wise men have a number of epiphanies, or revelations.
First they read signs in the heavens and follow the star to find the newborn king.
And the corresponding question I’d like to ask you is; what signs are you following this year, and where are they taking you? Are you chasing the stars you see in the sky?
Stars are pretty enough to just stand and look at; but I’d like to dare you, as I dare myself, to chase the star you’ve got your eyes on. A journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step.
What might that step be for you?
Second, these Wise Men find what has been hidden. They encounter the Word made Flesh in the Christ-child. They find the salvation of the world in the most unexpected place. Their journey takes them to a podink town on the edge of the action; and it’s right there that the glory of God shone so brightly! This was the epiphany of epiphanies!
And so when they find him, they reveal the treasures they had been carrying with them; Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh. They respond to God’s self-revealing effort by revealing themselves.
So the question this leaves us is “What are the treasures that we carry with us into the year of our Lord 2013?” Where will our journey take us, to what ends might we go to find the face of God, and what will we offer when we get there?
The wise men had their gifts, and as tradition has it, the drummer boy had his gift.
What is it we have to offer?
Finally, these kings return to their country by a different route because of a dream warning them not to return to Herod.
I take this to mean that once you encounter Jesus, you just can’t go back the way you came.
Our journey towards Christ begins with one step.
But it does not stop when we find him.
We are constantly called to walk into new territory, without the security of an earthly king to guarantee safe passage, without the comfort of our tired resentments. We are constantly called to walk further, even after we lay down our riches, our gifts, our offerings at the feet of Jesus.
The journey doesn’t stop at the manger…in fact that’s where it just gets started!
So I’d like to invite you this morning, as we turn our attention to the year ahead, to consider the journey you’re being called to take. Consider the signs, consider your gifts, your treasures, but above all, consider the Son of the Star; the culmination of our hope; the Epiphany of epiphanies who calls us into unfamiliar territory with every breath we take.
Glory be to God the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.