Sermon Preached on January 5, 2020 – Epiphany Sunday
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Predisposed to Hope in the New Year
It is the New Year – how did that happen so quickly? New year, new possibilities, that’s what’s exciting. What might be, new adventures, the new us (if our resolutions shape us into whom we would like to be), a new beginning, a clean canvas spread out before us.
Ken’s grandmother sent me a card once that I have kept – it says, “And now we begin a new year, full of things that have never been.”A quotation from Rainer Maria Rilke, German poet and eccentric.
A new year full of things that have never been – full of promise and possibility. And we start with the celebration of Epiphany, which offers us the perspective we need for a new year. The word Epiphany means to show forth, to reveal, to show up. So let’s take a moment to uncover what’s really going on here, and the gifts Epiphany offers us.
When we enter the scene in the Gospel, the magi, or wise ones, are looking for the child as foretold by the new star they have been following. They’ve been watching the signs, paying attention to the heavens, and waiting for this new star, which has now emerged and they follow it to find the child of promise and possibility. They aren’t looking necessarily for themselves; after all, they are not of this people, they aren’t necessarily the ones to whom the child has been promised. They are “from away” as we would say. They are from the East, from other traditions and other lands, but they’ve seen the star rising and they follow it.
While the commentators tend to call these wise ones Persian, personally, I can’t help but picture them being from India, their timing being what it is. In India, New Year’s Day is huge – people go from house to house visiting friends to wish them an auspicious year, they make up small cards to give out, or they give small gifts for luck and prosperity. I could never figure out how the system works exactly. But somehow half of the families go visiting, the other half stay home so there is someone to visit. I remember it as a very long day full of greeting people and drinking tea as people try to help me connect the leaves on our complicated family tree. And that my face always hurt from smiling all day long!
On one of our trips to India, we visited the astrological observatory park ‘Jantar Mantar’ in Jaipur, and climbed the huge structures there which are designed to read the stars and planets. This is the kind of paying attention the magi were doing, reading the stars and planets, watching for what the signs foretold. Which is why, to me, these wise men will always be Indian. I can hear the lilt in their speech and picture their mannerisms – they could be members of my family, and I admit I am biased when it comes to them. But you have to give them some credit, our magi aren’t just star gazers, they are star followers. And before they follow, long before – they are people who have been paying attention. They’ve watched the skies; they’ve been looking for signs and wonders. And when they see the star rising, they follow it. Leaving all that’s comfortable, they hit the road in search of what the star reveals to them. They follow it far from home. They follow it and find the astonishing: the presence of God on earth, the incarnation.
They inspire us to our own imagining, wondering, looking for signs of the promises of God, and being willing to follow where they take us. That’s not all these magi have to teach us. For just like people in virtually all times and places, they confront evil. They have to deal with Herod on the way to Bethlehem. Herod is frightened by the revelation of the magi, and all of Jerusalem is terrified with him. Because when a violent, paranoid ruler is afraid – anything can happen. Matthew will go on to describe the tragic consequences when Herod reacts – killing hundreds of innocents in an attempt to eliminate the threat to his power.
The terror and tension of Herod stand in stark contrast to the wonder and worship of the magi. Herod is filled with anxiety and paranoia, while the magi travel into the unknown, to share their treasure and show respect to one greater than themselves. Herod is threatened and angry, and overcome with fear, while the magi are full of awe and curiosity. Upon seeing the child, the magi are overwhelmed with joy.¹
These magi are foolish enough to follow a star, savvy enough to sense the real intention in Herod’s words, and humble enough to fall to their knees before a mother and child. They travel in a state of awareness, ready to be overwhelmed with joy when the star stops. They are predisposed to joy, to wonder, they are adept in reading the signs, and positioned to see what others would not.
In this New Year, what are we predisposed to see? To experience? What if we were open to signs and wonders? Would we see things we’ve never seen before? I can remember being on the T in Boston and sitting next to a man who was sketching frantically in a composition book. I could smell the scent of sharpie as his brown marker whipped across the page. When I snuck a glance, it was very clearly a sketch of the man sitting across from us. Plaid hat with furry ear flaps pulled down, glasses, staring down at his phone. It was an incredible likeness; I was stunned when the artist hashed it out, drawing lines across the whole image. He must not have liked it, but it looked pretty good to me. Then he began again, flash drawing the woman across from us, with her long purple spiraling braids and beautiful features. Drawing quickly and accurately, he drew like a man possessed, frantically getting down just what was essential. And then, just before she got off at the next stop, he crossed her image out as well. I figured I must be missing something.
Then he flipped the page over and looked at the back of the image, where it was perfect, as each layer had bled through so that the hash marks became the background and her face was the foreground, perfectly represented on the flip side of the paper. Gorgeous, elegant, and very much the face that had been across from us. Seems he was creating the background, when I had thought he was scratching it out! A different perspective made it all clear – it was the reverse side of the image that was the finished product.
A New Year, a new canvas, a new sheet of paper in the composition book, the opportunity to take a fresh look at things.
Of course, we’re wise enough to know that a great deal won’t change – there’ll continue to be a lot of violent, divisive rhetoric. Though there’s nothing new about the ways the powers of this world act. There may always be Herods, paranoid and threatened rulers, who act erratically and endanger everyone, but Epiphany reminds us to look for signs of hope.
This may seem like too small a thing – but I recently saw a Walmart ad that surprised me. It was a collection of clips: of people greeting each other, people hugging, people shopping in Walmart, scenes from small towns, images of people helping one another, and an image of a sign that said: We are resilient We are strong We are El Paso We stand together. The voice over was about looking for sparks that shine in one another – the commercial ended with that blue screen and yellow lettering we’ve come to identify with Walmart, though the standard Walmart tagline was slightly adapted; it said: “Live better. Together.”
Given the mass shooting that took place in the El Paso Walmart, it felt like a declaration of unity in the face of the hatred and the on-going rhetoric demonizing immigrants and anyone who seems ‘other’. Perhaps that’s too small a sign of hope for you, but consider the huge cross section of the country that commercial reaches.
In this New Year, when we continue to hear divisive rhetoric about “the other” – we can take the lead from our magi from the East, paying attention to the signs and wonders readily before us. Paying attention and being willing to respond.
See signs of God at work in the world. Revelations of beauty and grace, in the faces around us – friends, family and strangers. Those who are like us, and those who are other – who offer us gifts of perspective and wisdom, who help us remember how beloved we are, together. And be willing to move into the unknown, or at least out of our comfort zone, to respond with awe and wonder, agents of revelation – pointing to the love of God in our midst.
May this year be one of imagining and wonder, looking for signs of the promises of God, and being willing to follow where they take us. May we be predisposed to hope, ready to be overwhelmed by joy. That we might catch a glimpse of Christ in our midst – and fall to our knees, receiving the incarnation anew. May we share the gift of Epiphany – God’s gift of possibility and promise for all people. Amen.
1 Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12, workingpreacher.org, January 6, 2020.