Sermons That Work

Today Marks the Celebration…, Feast of the Epiphany – 1998

January 06, 1998

Today marks the celebration of Epiphany, the revelation, the showing forth, the manifestation of God. This season is begun with the story of the Wise One’s seeking out Bethlehem of Judah in order to find the new King, the one indicated by the great light in the sky and confirmed in the holy texts of Israel. Comets, stars, strange lights in the sky have always been two-edged symbols. They portend ascent of great people and the fall of great people. One man’s rising star is another man’s falling comet. This heavenly/ earthly engagement of people and symbols, the twinning of events in the sky and earth is as old as the stars themselves. The interweaving of heavenly reality and earthly reality is part and parcel of the sacred texts of many traditions.

So the Wise One’s people of a different culture, a different realm and path towards the holy, appear with ease in Matthew’s gospel. They are members of the Wise, select men and women who, throughout the Middle and Far East, as well as Europe and Africa, had devoted their lives to understanding the order of the Universe, the wisdom, or way of its ordering, and how to live moving in the same direction as this river of blessing. If one could discern and discipline oneself they could accompany and participate in the Divine ordering and work in the world, and by living in accordance with this wisdom, partake of its blessing.

A proof, if you will, of the validity of a wisdom insight or knowing was the external corroboration. Is the world going to change, is a cosmos-bending event really taking place? To corroborate what the stars have indicated the Wise set out on their journey. Bearing the gifts appropriate for the new cosmic destabilization and reordering, Gold, for the new Ruler and new reign, frankincense, for the new self-sacrifice and union of priestly offering, myrrh for death and healing into a new way of life.

So the Wise have acknowledged Jesus as the new Light, the new king, the incarnation of Wisdom, the light that will enlighten the nations. John’s gospel also speaks to the Wisdom of God in it’s opening hymn to the Logos, or animating principle of God. Essential to God’s ordering of the universe, or wisdom, is that the Logos, the ordering, animating principle, has at it’s heart justice, mercy and self-sacrifice. These qualities are not outcomes of following wisdom but are the constituent elements of wisdom. In other words one cannot be unethically wise in this new revelation of the Logos. If a person seeks to engage the letter of the Law, one must embody and enact the spirit of the law. In this progression of reading over the last two weeks, we see the careful weaving together of the great schools of thought, wisdom and law, both Jewish and Gentile, being reframed through the demands of justice, mercy and self -sacrifice in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ life showed a new way, not only was it possible to discern wisdom, one could incarnate it as a human. Not only is it possible to know about God, it is possible to be in God and to receive God in one’s own soul.

The incarnation of Jesus Christ as Son of God, through his sacrifice and self-offering opened the way for all humankind to move from an externalized relationship with God to one which was as intimate as their own breath, their own spirit united with the Holy Spirit, the gift of God himself to all the baptized. And with the gift of the Holy Spirit come the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Epiphany, celebrating the revelation of God, also celebrates the knowing of God. And yet, many of the twentieth century are still stuck on the issues of the so-called Enlightenment spinning their wheels on the “Is there a God?” question and by staying stuck on that question miss the real one of “How do we know God?” And because of the prevalence of the belief that this is a perfectly logical question and that, following linear logic, one must establish whether there is a God before one can establish how we know God. So many people asking the wrong question and proceeding with the wrong methodology of inquiry!

We are experiential creatures, we know what we experience. In order to meet us on our own turf and assist us recognizing the divine, God was incarnated in human form as Jesus Christ, carpenter of Nazareth and Son of God. In Pentecost God gives the sign and signals in our own lives through the lived knowledge we gain from experience of the gifts given us, experiential knowledge of Who and what God is like. God gives us the gifts, the experience of the Divine life in our life so that our experience is in the first person, not second hand. We can know God and not run through our lives with an abstracted belief system based upon assent to a theoretical proposition. God is not into theory in a big way. God wants to Know and be Known, to stop at the question of whether or not God exists is a poor substitute for living, moving and having your being in the divine life of God.

Because so many of our culture-defining institutions: law, education, government, etc. assume the validity of the question of whether or not there is a God as the starting place, Christians and the Christian methodologies of spiritual knowing have been virtually lost. Because they do not match the requirements of Empirical knowing they are discounted. Even as our holy texts speak of them, the body of tradition attests to them, they proven and time tested, we doubt them. Spiritual knowing is experienced based. You have to do it to know it.

So, what do we do? How do we know? Christian knowing of God includes two vital elements, discernment of call and discernment of the Spiritual gifts necessary to equip the call. An excellent resource in learning how to hear God’s call is Listening Hearts by Farnham, Gill, McLean and Ward. They emphasize the following: Trust, that God is present, speaks to us, is loving and merciful and has work for us to do. Listening with every fiber of our being, body and spirit. Prayer that is receptive and listening. Knowledge of Scripture, scripture contains the recorded story of how God has been experienced by others and as the living Word of God continues to speak into the present. Doctors read medical books, astronomers read star charts, Christians need to read the bible to know what they are about. Humility is necessary to help us keep balance and to take responsibility for all that we are and are not and comes from drawing close to God. Encountering God’s wholeness we realize our own limits and incompleteness. Discipline and Perseverance: be intentional and make time to listen and to keep listening until you have clarity on direction. Patience and Urgency: we need to remember that it is God’s call and is in God’s time and when the time comes be ready to act. And finally Perspective: neither make an idol of discernment or be pushed off your perceptions of what God is saying “Hold it with sufficient tentativeness to be open to others and sufficient tenacity to live it out until moved differently.”

The signs of God’s call especially include: Joy: a deep interior joy that is unself-conscious and uninhibited. A temporary experience of disorientation, followed by calm and serenity. Tears that are comforting and tranquilizing rather than disturbing or fatiguing. A sudden sense of clarity. Strands of experience that seem unrelated begin to converge and fit together. Persistence, the message keeps recurring through different channels.

Discerning call assumes community. We need to be in dialogue with other Christians. Just as we need to be in community with others to discern and use our Spiritual gifts to answer God’s call. No one has all the Spiritual Gifts except Jesus, hence to be his body we must act together. Each different member has different gifts for the work of the Kingdom that Christ wants to do in the world and is vital to the body. Gifts are more than the sum of our talents and abilities. When our Gift is operating it is a “more than” experience of something that happens in our work and relationships that are in us, but not of us. They are Emmanuel, God with us, and through our experience in using them and being the vehicle of bringing God’s power to the world we learn about God. We have Epiphanies. The Spiritual Gifts are many and varied there is teaching, wisdom, helps, administration, healing, music, pastoring, wisdom, knowledge, tongues and interpretation, prophecy, prayer, giving and many more. These and others are detailed in 1 Corinthians chapters 12 -14, Roman’s chapter 12, Ephesians chapter 4. Most people writing on the Spiritual Gifts concur that there are more than those listed in the New Testament literature but these are a fine place to start.

Gifts and Call go together, Call without Gift feels overwhelming and may never be accepted or realized. Gift without Call can lead one into terrible spiritual danger of a collapse upon the self and descent into self-idolization.

The Call takes us into the territory that God is interested in. It will always involve in some shape or form the people, places and things that Jesus involved himself with, loved, healed, spoke truth to, and an engagement with the “powers that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” Reconciliation will be integral to the work of the call and our experience within ourselves, ourselves with others and with the world. The phrase “one in Christ” takes on real meaning. When we undertake this work with integrity, authenticity and humility we live the peace and joy, excitement and adventure that draws the world to Christ. There is no greater gift than this, no knowledge more life giving.

Paul, our brother the Apostle, who had one of the most astonishing epiphanies of Christ shares this: “Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power…and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the Church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places…” Ephesians 3:7-10.

If we seek, we will find, if we knock, it will be opened. Epiphany is the season for seekers. And we, unlike the Wise One’s of old, do not have to mount up on camels and set off across the desert to a foreign land. We have already received the gift, it is already there within you, in your heart’s back yard. Now is the time to open it, plumb the riches of grace and receive our God. Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema