(we won't have an Epiphany service, but I wanted to share this sermon from several years ago0
“This Great Day I met them on their way,
three kings from East upon their fine horses riding.
This Great Day I met them on their way,
Three kings from East in all their fine array…”
Their names ring with echoes of mystery and wonder: Baltazar, Melichior and Caspar. Three Kings from East—the Magi, the Wisemen—lost in the mists of time and legend, emerge again to test our imagination with their rich and inappropriate gifts. Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh—fabulous and mythical offerings fit for a king in a lavish palace delivered instead to a toddler, wide-eyed and amazed, in the humble hovel of a carpenter and his young wife.
This Great Day we meet them on their way: Baltazar, Melichior and Caspar, strange travelers following their star across seemingly endless tracks of sand.
No one knows who these oriental visitors really were—or, for that matter whether they really existed or not. We call them names born of legend, not facts. Only Matthew’s gospel mentions them and, once described, they disappear from the stage—journeying home by an alternative route, going back to the mystical land from whence they came, leaving Herod terrified and blood-thirsty.
Gentile is a word that derives from the Latin word gens, which means “nation”. The Gentiles were “the people of the nations” as opposed to the people of the covenant, the people of the Promise—the Jews. To the Jews of the first century, the world was divided neatly into clean and unclean, into holy and profane, into Jews and Gentiles.
Whoever the Magi were, one thing is clear—they were Gentiles. Yet they journeyed ‘cross field and fountain, moor and mountain' to bring gifts to the newborn King of the Jews. One of the ways the Church has described the Feast of the Epiphany is the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. The long-awaited Messiah of the Jews had come, not to his people alone, but to be the Light to enlighten the nations, the savior of all humankind.
C. H. Dodd was one of the most important New Testament Scholars of the first half of the 20th century. A phrase that Dodd left us to describe one aspect of the Christian Faith is this: “The Scandal of Particularity”. What Dodd was referring to is the Christian concept that the God of Creation and Time chose to reveal “God-ness” at a particular time, in a particular place, through the life and death and resurrection of a particular historic figure. Many people would prefer a “more general” God—but the God of the Christian Faith and Church was manifest in a Jew born into the Greco-Roman culture of 1st century Israel.
One of the most important learnings from Epiphany is to recognize in a powerful way that Christianity is an expansive, inclusive religion, not tied to any culture or race or language or nation. The church should be open and accessible to all sorts and conditions of men and women. Not all Christians agree with this Truth. There are those who would make the Church a private club for the select few—a “few” determined by their color or class or sexual orientation or language or the “rightness” of their beliefs. That attitude is the real “scandal of particularity.”
The magi broke the mold; saw through the “particularity” of Jesus to the universality of God. Although Jesus did live in a particular time and place, God is the God of all time and all places.
Epiphany warns us Christians not to be exclusive and narrow in our understanding of God. The Jewish religious leaders of the first century thought Gentiles were outside of God’s love. Their understanding of God was too exclusive, too narrow, too particular. We 21st Century Christians must avoid that mistake. Our understanding of God is sometimes too provincial, too sectarian, too small and narrow.
This Great Day, we meet them on the way….
There are countless folks all around us who follow their star and seek to find God. Their backgrounds may not be the same as ours and their views may not be “orthodox”; but we must make the doors of the Church open to them. We must invite them in and make them welcome. We must open our hearts and our worship to them. The God they seek seeks them as well. And we are God’s ambassadors, God’s representatives. We must welcome them and accept whatever gifts they have to offer.
We must be open, expansive, inclusive, flexible and hospitable. God depends on us for that.
The lives of those around us depend on that.
Our lives, as well, depend on that.