The Preaching of the Word
First Presbyterian Church
116 South Loudoun Street, Winchester, Virginia 22601
Charles Marshall Webster, Transitional Pastor
Second Sunday after Christmas (Epiphany Sunday)
January 3, 2016
Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
Epistle Reading: Ephesians 3: 1-12
Gospel Reading: Matthew 2: 1-12
The formal custom is to keep the Christmas greens up until Twelfth Night, or the following day that we call Epiphany, a Greek word that means to uncover, to reveal, like taking the lid off the stockpot. The uncovering, of course, has to do with the revealing of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, the child of Bethlehem who comes to be known as the Son of God. At Epiphany we remember the story of those mysterious Wise Men1 who arrive in Bethlehem to bring their treasures of gold and frankincense and myrrh2, uncovering the fact that the child who has been born in peasant circumstances is none other than the King of all kings, and the Lord of all lords. The Wise Ones stand in our stead and worship with gifts.
As the lights on our trees and the decorations around our homes are put away for another year, the earth loses its shine and seems gray, less bright than it has been for a month or so. We hurry to Valentines Day or St. Patrick’s Day in our minds and plan a winter’s respite, and hope that we can make it through the dark days of winter.
In recent days the papers and television news have done a retrospective of the year just past remembering all the stories that have shaped our lives and people we have bid farewell. Looking at those stories, we realize once again that we never know what we are heading into in the New Year. We never know where war will come, or peace, or what continent will be hit next with some wicked illness, or where the earthquakes will be, where civil unrest will be breaking out, or what new vaccine might be introduced. What discovery in the stars will change our lives? Or who will be married and who will be divorced. Or who sitting here feeling well this first Sunday in January, may not be here at year’s end, we don’t know. We just don’t know.
Mystery is much of what we labor under, what gives us pause, and makes us anxious at times. The unknown that wakes us in the middle of the night at some strange sound, or with some fevered sweat. “We never know,” we say, and yet we do, we come to know what is meant to be and what is not, and what will be so anyway, regardless of its meaning.
Mystery is what the church was all concerned about in its earliest days. At the beginning and at the end of Jesus’ life they were not sure what to make of him. From the Wise Ones to the twelve disciples they scratched their heads and tried to figure out whom it was they saw, this masked man who came through town. After he died, his resurrection blew to pieces all their theories prior to that time. It made them rethink what he said and who he was in the light of that resurrection. They wrote stories of his birth and cast the light of the star of Bethlehem upon him, and traced his family ties to Joseph’s line which placed him full and square in the house of David.3
Gnostics were what they called the ones who thought they had the mystery figured out. They understood, they said, that he was not what we thought he was at all. He was a ghost, an imaginary being, not flesh and blood like us. There was a secret mystery to be understood, if you could understand. And they thought they did, but didn’t.
When Paul or whoever was writing with Paul’s pen wrote to the Ephesians, he spoke of mystery as well and how what had not been known was now revealed, an epiphany of sorts. “…surely you have heard of the commission that was given me for you.”4 the author wrote the saints in Ephesus, “and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation5….In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed.”6 Elsewhere, Paul wrote to the Corinthians that now, in this life, we see the mystery as if we were looking in a mirror dimly where we can only see in part. But some day, in God’s time we will come to see everything clearly and understand fully, even as we have been fully understood. For the time being we live with the mystery, Paul declared, with only partial understanding of what it all means.7
The promise of a new year is that anything can happen. The mystery of that yet untravelled road is that every way seems open before you. Each New Year carries with it many opportunities. There are discoveries to be made, and new friends to meet, and new adventures to explore, places to go, work to accomplish, books to read, skills to gain, vacations to enjoy. Maybe at last you will get rid of those ten pounds you are resolved to lose. Maybe that new job you have been wanting will become a reality. Maybe a new love will come your way. The promise of a new year is that anything can happen.
I don’t need to tell you that bad things can happen as well. You wake up one morning and there is a lump in the breast that you have never felt before and who knows where it will lead? Your mother calls one afternoon to tell you that your dad has had a stroke and time is short, and come as quickly as you can. They are cutting back on personnel at work and then one day, your boss tells you you’re out the door as well. The mystery of the New Year is that anything can happen.
Children want to know what is going to happen next. Their excitement at Christmas to open the packages and find out what is inside becomes unbearable. The mystery of it all is so enticing. And children are intrigued by the future in the same way. After a disastrous event children will ask whether something else as bad will happen. And our task is to reassure them that many are working hard to keep them safe, that God is watching over them, and that we are there for them.
As adults we learn not to ask too many questions, not to want to know too much of what is yet to be. We are fascinated by the future and daunted by it as well, because anything can happen. Maybe Jesus knew what he was saying when he said, “…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”8
The writer of the letter to the Ephesians says, “Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things…”9 Of course, when the writer claims he can explain God’s mysterious plan hidden for all ages, he is not saying that he can read the tea leaves of the future or give a Jeanne Dixon prediction regarding the next twelve months. Christianity is not astrology, and those who want to know everything that is about to happen will not find it in Ephesians.
Ephesians’ claim is larger and a more expansive affirmation than any future telling, and maybe a more practical one as well. What is declared here is that God’s plan is revealed in Jesus Christ, and the plan is to take on human flesh and join with us, and to know our life and to lift that life all the way to heaven so that “in life and in death we belong to God.”10 It is not a promise that all will go well, but that in all that goes well and in all that does not, God is with us and will not abandon us. We are in the everlasting arms of God.
There is a prayer that I love that is part of the Book of Common Worship. It’s a prayer written for use in the daily prayer service:
Eternal God, you call us to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go
out with courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand
is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.11
At Christmastide, I often quote some lines that capture some of the mystery with which we live and celebrate the possibilities of what is not yet known. They come from W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being, A Christmas Oratorio.
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for
He is the Life.
Love Him in the world of the Flesh;
and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.12
From Auden’s perspective there is nothing to fear about the future. The unknown will reveal rare beasts and take us on exciting adventures. Even anxiety can be a friend as it delivers us to a place that we need to discover. The Apostle Paul, I think would agree. “Nothing in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,”13 he declared. And with such a traveling companion as Christ, we will not lose our way.
Christmas is over and the holiday celebrations have wound down. The trees are getting recycled, and the ornaments, each one with a story, are packed safely in their boxes once again. This coming week the Christmas trees and lights will disappear from our church sanctuary and we will be opting for the simpler style that is our customary fare. Life goes on, for good or for ill, and we look forward to the future and what it will reveal. And as we do, we do so with the good news of the birth of a savior still ringing in our ears. And the confidence that is born in him that one day there will be peace on earth, and nothing, not one thing at all can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Anne Lamott quotes E.L. Doctorow as saying that, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”14 Sometimes I think life is like that, like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. Especially if you know what the mystery is all about and what it reveals…that God is sovereign over all, and that in Jesus Christ, “the light of the world,”15 we are not alone. Knowing that much can illumine our path all the way home.
1 Matthew 2:1b
2 Matthew 2:11
3 Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 2:1-10
4 Ephesians 3:2
5 Ephesians 3:3
6 Ephesians 3:5a
7 1 Corinthians 13:12
8 Matthew 6:34
9 Ephesians 3:8-9
10 Heidelberg Catechism, 4.01
11 Book of Common Worship. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993) p. 501.
12 W.H. Auden, For the Time Being. (New York: Random House, 1944).
13 Romans 8:39
14 Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. (New York: Anchor Books, 1995) p. 18.
15 John 1:4, 8:12, 9:5