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The Epiphany – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

“Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem where ‘he who has been born king of the Jews’. We have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.” So Matthew, alone among the Gospel writers, records that extraordinary visit of the wise men, which we celebrate today. Epiphany.

Ever since I was little I have been fascinated by this story. The thought of the strange, Oriental figures following a star. I have often wondered what it is that caused these men, who must have been wealthy, respected, no doubt comfortable – what made them leave their homes and go on this dangerous journey into a strange land. T.S. Eliot in the Journey of Magi imagines how difficult the journey must have been: “A cold [?] we had of it. Just the worst time of the year for such a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the very dead of winter.”

He imagines they must have thought of turning back: “There were times we regretted the summer palaces or slopes, the terraces and the silken girls bringing sherbert.”

Yet, Matthew tells us, they persevered and reached their goal. They came to Jesus, and bowed down and worshiped him. And then he says, “they departed to their country by another way.” Back to the summer palaces, the silken girls and sherbert? Yet how could they ever be the same again – for they had seen the Christ and they had believed.

T.S. Eliot, at the end of his poem writes, “we returned to our palaces, these kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.”

God had broken into their comfortable lives and profoundly disturbed them. They had known they had to leave everything behind and follow that star.

And so, the Bible and the whole history of the Church is a continual story of this God breaking into people’s lives, disturbing them. Look at Paul: I am quite happy thank you very much – I’m proud that I was circumcised on the 8 th day, of the people of Israel , of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, a pharisee, a zealous persecutor of the church – as to righteousness under the Law I am blameless.

But God found a chink in his armor of pride and self-reliance – and he broke through – so bright was Paul’s Epiphany that he was blinded by it. And for the rest of his life he suffered because of it. He left all his security behind and followed his Lord into a world of risk, uncertainty, suffering, beatings, shipwrecks, imprisonment and death. Yet, he says in the Letters to the Philippians, everything I had before – status, wealth, education – I cont as worthless because of the surpassing worth of having Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of everything – but I consider all that as rubbish if only I can have Christ.

History is strewn with such people: St. Anthony of Egypt , St. Francis of Assisi , St. Benedict, and maybe some of us here: all who were living a comfortable, untroubled existence, until they experienced the Epiphany of God in their lives. And, like the first disciples, they left everything and followed Christ.

They weren’t masochists, somehow punishing themselves, as some kind of penance – they changed their lives because they’d seen something better. They had glimpsed something or someone so wonderful that every thing which had seemed so important to them before was no longer important. As Donatus put it: “Christians are a quiet and holy people who have disovered a joy a thousand time better than this sinful world.”

The Letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 11, describes the same thing with all the great figures of the Old Testament, from Abraham onwards, who obeyed God’s call, and left behind their old existence and country because of the things promised by God. “They were not yet in possession of them, but they had seen them far ahead.” For here we have no abiding city, but we seek they city that is to come.”

What about us? Have you had experiences of God which have broken into your life: Moments of transcendence and meaning for you. They can be very disturbing. They can start making us feel guilty, or uneasy – make us ask difficult questions about our way of life. For some people, such experiences of God so threaten their lives that they refuse to listen or respond and as a poet put it “they seal up their souls.”

Yet God will not allow us to live our lives on the purley materialistic level – he will carry on disturbing us, challenging us, making us feel uneasy, makingus long for a homeland beyond the familiar. Job says to his friends, “O have pity on me, for the hand of God is upon me!”

The writer Castile said in a sentence which has always meant so much to me, “The misfortune of man has its source in his greatness: for there is something infinite in him, and he cannot succeed in burying himself completely in the finite.”

But by God we try! In that poem by T.S. Eliot, when the wise men return to their land, changed by the encounter with God, they say “We returned to our palaces, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with other people clutching their gods.” Those wise men had seen something so great that they were changed, no longer completely at home – and to return home and see those people clutching their gods – no, they must have felt –they aren’t going to help you – they’re an illusion: you’re called to be children of God – your hope is in him, your life is hid with Christ, he is your life and your light and your salvation.

When you have grasped that, you cannot return to the old ways. When God disturbs you, breaks into your life – just when everything seemed nice and comfortable – be thankful – for that is God’s Epiphany to you. It is the source of our greatness and our dignity as children of God, that God won’t let us be comfortable with the familiar, the materialistic. We have here no abiding city. But we seek a city that is to come. We are on a pilgrimage, a journey towards God.

My prayer for you in 2004 is that God will come to you and challenge you and disturb you, but only that is done to you so you may become more the person that God wants you to be – because then, and only then, will you know the answers to your longings – the the peace of God which passes all understanding.

Amen.

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13 Comments

  1. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas on January 13, 2015 at 08:22

    It is very helpful to read your sermon as I muse about my next sermon about climate change. Through the rising seas, the spreading droughts and massive floods, and the many species already dying on a rapidly heating planet, God is breaking into our nice, comfortable lives. This Epiphany is our awakening. Startled, appalled, we remember who we are — a people created in the image of a loving God, entrusted with the care of God’s Creation — and we know that we must change course fast. No wonder that Lent immediately follows Epiphany!

  2. Christopher Engle Barnhart on January 9, 2015 at 08:34

    I think my Epithany was my Cursillo in the fall of 2010. My wife had made her Cursillo in 2009. After that she contiued for a year to have me go to Cursillo. I resisted because of past disappointments which had lead me away from the church for 15 years. It took a year of her pressuring me but finally I gave in and said wsould go. Several weeks before the Cursillo, I began to have doubts about going to Cursillo. Then one night I had a dream in which I was standing in the corner of a room. In the opposite corner was an open door and a number of individuals, former priests and bishops I had known. I could not see their faces but I knew who they were. They said two things to me. First, “Go” and tghen “Come”. I took this to mean, “Go to Cursillo” and “Come back to the church”. Well, I went to my Cursillo and it was a weekend I will never forget and after Cursillo I returned to church. I felt changed. Members of my church welcomed me back as if I had never been away. I find myself now early every morning reading prayers, reading the litergy each day, studying various writers including the SSJE sermons. My life was change. I had my Epithany.

  3. Martin Wheeler on January 9, 2015 at 08:32

    I especially appreciate the closing comment that unless we are disturbed we never find the true answers to our longings or know the peace of God.

  4. Elizabeth Vickers on January 9, 2015 at 08:13

    I am 84 years old, have been active in my church and community for over 30 years, and during this past year, concluded all my volunteer duties or so I thought. I was invited to serve on the Search Committee for a new rector at our church. I declined the first invitation, declined the second invitation and reluctantly accepted the third invitation. The excuse of my age was not accepted. This is an unexpected challenge in my journey. Is this my Epiphany?

    • Barb Murphy on January 12, 2015 at 13:37

      Yes Elizabeth, it is so good your heard the call to you that your wisdom and age and experience with your parish in NE Mass will be a wonderful asset to the Search Committee you joined. Hearing God’s call and responding, not knowing where it will take you.
      I’m listening, trying to be open….

  5. John Fritschner on January 9, 2015 at 07:57

    Geoffrey – Bullseye! Thanks for the words from T. S. Elliot whom I do not read much but who has lots to say here as well.

  6. DLa Rue on May 17, 2013 at 10:12

    The ? in para. 2 is “coming,” as in:

    ‘A cold coming we had of it,
    Just the worst time of the year
    For a journey, and such a long journey:
    The ways deep and the weather sharp,
    The very dead of winter.’

    For the whole poem, see:
    http://allpoetry.com/poem/8453741-The_Journey_Of_The_Magi-by-T_S__Eliot

    I like the juxtaposition of Epiphany with the Pentecost season, two different types of Jesus’ appearance in our midst….

  7. Pam on May 17, 2013 at 09:21

    Your wonderful words remind me that I am always a bit disturbed by the Episcopal three-legged stool, the legs of which are reason, tradition, and the Bible. Paul and all the others you mentioned EXPERIENCED God’s breaking through into their lives, and they were changed forever. We now call that the action of the Holy Spirit. To ignore the powerful nature of an experience with the living God is to miss something that can absolutely and forever transform one’s life. I wish experience with the holy were included as a fourth leg. It is amusing to me that a recent biography written about John Newton revealed that he had trouble being ordained because the Anglican establishment in England were suspicious of his zeal and passion for God!

  8. Charles Hawes on January 6, 2013 at 17:54

    Thank you for your thinking aand feeling in Christ.

  9. Anders on January 6, 2013 at 06:52

    Thanks for pointing out how my life is hid or hidden with Christ, and that God will carry on disturbing me, challenging me, making me feel uneasy, but remains my light and salvation.

    The risk of the epiphany paradigm is that it flows from extremes of the wealth and riches of the Maggi to the blinding light that Paul experienced. Good made for TV drama with perhaps a prerequisite of being privileged upper middle class.

    However, your quote from Castile (or Carlyle?) applies beyond the purely materialistic level. For me, the finite I seek to bury myself in is the certainty of having a job, paying rent and other less extravagant challenges. The epiphany is not giving up silken girls and sherbet, but rather in accepting ambiguity, the process of discerning God’s call before I can obey it. For me, epiphany is more an act of humility described in a verse Christina G. Rossetti’s hymn In the Bleak Midwinter.

    What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

  10. Martha Holden on January 11, 2012 at 17:14

    Eight years old is this sermon, which may be how I can “get it.” It is perfect for me right now, and so true. Thank you for it, and for the Words. I have fun forwarding them on to my buddies — and joy when they sign up themselves! This one goes to my family, who has yet to understand…..

  11. Diane Barnhill on January 6, 2012 at 06:10

    A blessed Epiphany to all! Please remember me in your prayers as I pepare for surgery on the 23rd. Your remembrances will be most sustaining to me. Thank you. Diane

    • Shamrock on January 6, 2013 at 08:58

      God bless you, Diane. You are in my thoughts and prayers,

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