The Epiphany of the Lord, 6 January 2017

January 6, 2018

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Isaiah 60:1-6Psalm 72:1-7Ephesians 3:1-12Matthew 2:1-12

by Bruce Epperly

In the gloom, God’s light shines.  Against all odds, God realm is emerging.  Arise and shine!  The season of Epiphany continues the message of divine light where we least expect it and in the most troubled times.  Epiphany proclaims the universality of revelation and salvation.  Magi from a far-off land follow a star.  Though they are from another faith tradition, the magi, alone among the elite, discern the birth of God’s Savior.  Those who expect to have a corner on divine inspiration are oblivious and hostile to God’s new revelation.

The prophet Isaiah imagines the restoration of Israel after years of conflict and defeat.  God, and not some political potentate, will make Israel great again! Once lost in the gloom of injustice and oppression, and the impact of their own unjust economic policies, hope is now on the way for Israel.  A new world is being born, characterized by prosperity, sovereignty, and spiritual enlightenment.  

Was Isaiah’s dream ever realized for the Jewish people?  Will it ever be realized in our time, when leaders run headlong toward disaster and destruction, preferring greed and power to principle and justice, trampling the poor to add to the coffers of the wealthy?  Then again, perhaps, we must choose to rise, even if our leaders don’t.  Transformation has seldom come from insiders, who are invested in the status quo and the prerogatives that come from even a “kinder and gentler” injustice.  Transformation comes from outsiders – prophets like Isaiah and Amos; way makers like John the Baptist; social activists like Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King.  Jesus, too, was an outsider, who reached out to the “nuisances and nobodies,” as John Dominic Crossan states, inviting them into God’s realm.

This month, the Poor Peoples’ Campaign is emerging in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s 1968 quest for justice.  The powerless will give voice to their troubles and call upon leaders to awaken to the divine mandate for social transformation.  Fueled from the outside, this campaign and Isaiah’s proclamation, remind us that we are the ones who need to see the light, rise up, and create a new world.  We are, as Gandhi asserts, the change we have been waiting for.  We are the change the world is looking for.  Yet, how can our churches become God’s lights?  Recognizing our relative powerlessness, we need to take responsibility for what is in our power – to live by a new ethic, to stand with the powerless, to challenge the powers of evil, often disguised in their finery and social propriety.  Saving one soul, saving one moment, can be a catalyst for saving the world.  In an interdependent universe, every action can tip the scale from death to life for us, our neighbors and family, the nation, and the planet.  And, in the spirit of Maya Angelou, despite the challenges, “Still We Rise.”

Many people who claim to be orthodox Christians fail to see the political implications of God’s quest for Shalom.  American Christian leaders sell their spiritual birthrights for the hope of a conservative Supreme Court. Psalm 72 celebrates the nation’s king, and challenges the leader to place justice and equity above all else.  Biblical ethics are seldom individualistic but focus on relationships, most particularly the relationships that characterize healthy and dysfunctional communities.  In the wake of tax reform proposals that perpetuate the “war on the poor,” threats to national park land for short-term profit, expanding the use of fossil fuels at the expense of the environment, and withdrawal from the Paris Accords, it is clear where our political leaders’ priorities lie.  Though many of our leaders claim to be Christian, their Christian ethics seldom go beyond bathroom assignments, wedding cakes, and the right to say “Merry Christmas.”  Biblical ethics is always relational, social, and interdependent.  Our care for the vulnerable, including the environment, is the best demonstration of our faith in God, and this care must be political as well as individual.

The Ephesians reading suggests that although the church may have little power, its commitment to God may have political ramifications.  God’s realm is universal, and breaks down walls of division wherever they are found.  “Gentiles” – that is, “others” – belong in God’s realm.  In God’s realm, there are no walls – there is no boundary between insider and outsider.  God’s circle includes everyone.  Everyone is invited to share in mystery of salvation.  Our confidence in God’s grace inspires us to share God’s good news with the whole world, breaking down all the barriers that separate persons from one another.

God’s revelation comes to lower class shepherds and upper crust foreigners.  God’s birth comes to a homeless family of modest means.  The likely venues of divine revelation – the Jewish religious and political leaders – miss out on the star.  Is there obliviousness due to their attitudes or is God simply revealing the divine light beyond the authorized precincts?  Wealthy though they are, the magi are foreigners, the children of another faith tradition, likely that of Zoroaster.  God is bigger than our faith traditions, rituals, priesthoods, and spiritual practices.  There is salvation outsider the church!

The coming of the magi testifies to the universality of divine revelation.  While the light may shine brightest in Jesus, this same light “enlightens” everyone.  (John 1:9) Our allegiance to Christ is not diminished by our honoring of other sources of revelation.  Indeed, wherever truth and healing are found, God is its source.

In the universality of revelation, divine inspiration is not restricted to the conscious mind.  God’s message comes through dreams.  Joseph and the magi receive divine inspiration from deep within the unconscious.  As Paul says in Romans 8, God’s Spirit speaks in “sighs too deep for words” – dreams, intuitions, hunches, synchronous moments.  God is revealed in the cells of our bodies and the deep wisdom of dreams as well as the sharply-defined insights of the intellect.  (For more on God’s revelation in dreams and synchronous experiences, see Bruce Epperly, Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles: A Progressive Vision.)

The season of Epiphany invites us to give thanks for God’s many-faceted and multiple revelations. The God of strangers is also our God, and God can be revealed in our lives when we see God’s light and follow God’s star.  Let us be an Epiphany people straining our eyes for God-sightings in life’s ordinary as well as unexpected places.

Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA. and a professor in the D.Min program of Wesley Theological Seminary.  He is the author of over 40 books, including Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God, Becoming Fire: Spiritual Practices for Global Christians; and Praying with Process Theology: Spiritual Practices for Personal and Global Healing.

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