Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany, it really is that same word, as in, “I heard myself say that and had an epiphany—I am becoming my father.” Epiphany—a realization, a revelation, a moment of insight, when what was previously muddy or confusing, becomes crystal clear. On this Epiphany Sunday and the beginning of another calendar year, you and I receive a lot of invitations to seek—seek to be better, to improve ourselves, to finally make that change we’ve been meaning to make in our lives.
Today is the first Sunday in January, the first Sunday of the New Year. And while those of us following the liturgical calendar said, “Happy New Year” six weeks ago, on the First Sunday of Advent, we still have plenty of reminders that the rest of the world operates on this other calendar. Vitamins and dental floss are on sale at Shopper’s Drug Mart. Co-workers, friends, and extended family will ask you about your New Year’s resolutions. And for the next few weeks, you’ll have to wait in line to get on the exercise bike at the gym.
It should also not surprise us that the first Sunday of the New Year gives us a text about a few worn-out travelers. I wonder how wise they are. I wonder how wise we are when it comes to our mental and physical health this time of year. It seems that everyone travels over the holidays, everyone goes on some sort of journey. Samantha and I are no strangers to this – by the end of our Christmas “holiday” on Tuesday, Sam and I will have spent time in four cities spanning three provinces. Despite two full weeks of that holiday being spent here in Newfoundland it seems like there still was not enough time to be spent with friends and family.
What is it about this time of year? As we furiously prepare for Christmas, it finally comes to us, those of us who are already exhausted, we come back a few days later ready to tackle a fresh New Year and rather than being rested by our “Vacationing” we are more worn out than ever from our “time away,” battling as some might be coughs, sniffles, and sore throats. Perhaps next year for Christmas I’ll get what I really want – and I’m guessing what some of you – really want, not presents or more shopping or a Rock em’ Sock em’ New Year’s Eve, but just a few more hours of relaxing by the fire and some sleep.
But perhaps that’s just not the way that the Christmas season is supposed to be. I’d like to tell you that the Bible gives us the rest we need, but it doesn’t. The Christ-child is born in Bethlehem and before you can say seven swans a swimming and six geese a laying, we are on to the next scene in this cosmic drama, and we see precisely what Karl Barth meant when he says Christmas begins an uprising against the powers of the world. Matthew throws us into an eternal story of epic heroism, a politically charged religious battle of life and death. Brutal King Herod rightly sensing that another one, a little baby, has been born who will challenge his strong-fisted government, sends these odd wise men, probably astrologers of some kind, on a quest to find the Christ-child. I’m always amazed at how differently the Bible depicts Christmas than how we see it in our homes, or in the world around us.
I saw an image on Facebook this past week. It was a beautiful scene of a desert, in the lower right hand corner were the three wise men on camelback, their eyes fixed on the upper left hand corner of the picture where the Star of Bethlehem is shining brightly. But in the middle of the image, right between the wise men and the star for which they had traveled so far, is a 30 foot wall, a wall that is snaking its ways along a border. On each side of the picture is a flag. One American. One Mexican.
So much for the notion that religion and politics don’t mix. You turn on the news, check Facebook, or go on Twitter this week and all you hear about is the US government shut-down and the border wall. All the Canadian networks have panellists discussing what this could mean for our country if this continues to go on south of the border for much longer. So much for finding some quiet hours in the New Year. So much for catching up on rest in the New Year, for King Herod’s New Year’s resolution is to slaughter Mary’s infant boy whose tender new-born hands pose a threat to the rule of the government.
And so it is that this epic tale of life and death, of good and evil, of light and dark come these minor characters, the magi, who are about to play a major role. Now we do not know much about these travellers from scripture. We often call them kings, though they were far from royalty. In fact the bible does not even say how many of them there were. We assume three because of the three gifts that they brought. We do not know their names. We do not know where they are from, all we know is “from the East” and nothing more.
And yet, the life of the Christ-Child rests on the unknowing shoulders of these mystery men, these Magi, not religious people at all, but rather these weird, misfit, out of the mainstream astrologers, with little to no knowledge of scripture or religious conviction. They just happen to walk across history’s stage at the right moment and find their feet scripted into a journey of darkness – a journey illumined by the bright light of God’s grace shining in the Eastern sky, shining into their misfit lives.
They are often portrayed as bumbling fools of sorts. They get lost. They are depicted in Christmas pageants wearing funny hats and bathrobes. They just don’t fit in and one has to ask the question why in the world would God allow the life of God’s own son to rest on the journey of these mis-fit men? And yet the Bible tells story after story about how God uses the misfits of the world to accomplish God’s purposes in the world, even non-religious astrologers like these can help bring about God’s good work in the world. Ironically, it is these mis-fits who have gifts they bring to the Christ-child.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit Frodo is the most unlikely candidate to carry the ring to its destruction, and yet he is given the task. “I wish I had never seen the Ring,” said Frodo. “Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?” “Such questions cannot be answered,” said Gandalf. “You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess; not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and wits as you have.”
Like Frodo, all of us, in our own unique and misfit way have been chosen, we have been created to offer our gifts to God and God’s work in the world. Contrary to much mainstream thinking, when we try to follow Christ in our lives we do not begin to mirror the values around us, but rather we discover that our lives are increasingly at odds with the surrounding culture. Sometimes these moments of mis-fitness are easy to spot and sometimes they are not.
I’m sure we all have felt that way as well, even though we try to live good lives, there may still be times when we feel like we do not belong, like somehow we don’t fit it. Whether we’re single or married (or somewhere in-between), whether we’re retired, working, or a student – every one of us, in some way or another can feel like a misfit at sometime, like we do not belong, like we do not feel at home in the world. Our lives can feel off-balance, maybe just be a few degrees, but enough to make us pause. And in that pause we might ask with Frodo, “Why me? I didn’t choose this quest, this script that I find myself in.” It is easy in that moment of pause for us to respond by saying, “Oh I want to fit in so badly, I’m just looking for normal.”
But the hope of the gospel is that God is not very interested in the normal and the mundane. God reveals time and time again that God can and will use anyone, even mis-fit magi, that God can and does love everyone, even you and I. There is no one that can escape that embrace. There is no one “too mis-fit” to be excluded by God.
This Epiphany story, is an improbable and ridiculous one. It is a story about wise magicians from a foreign land travelling to some far off country to bring a boy born in a back-water town gifts that are fit for a King. This story is absurd. But it only becomes more absurd from here – the poor will be blessed, the first will be last and the last will be first, and the son of God will be nailed to a cross. But this absurd story is an epic tale. A tale where we are all part of God’s work in the world.
In this New Year, in 2019, you and I – we can declutter our houses, eat better, and establish healthy habits this year. But we have an invitation from God and that is to travel with the misfit magi – it’s an invitation to seek something different, something besides self-improvement or goal achievement – it’s an invitation to be in relationship with God, revealed to us in the most ordinary and inconvenient moments of our lives, with forgotten, imperfect, misfit people in improbable and ridiculous circumstances. This invitation is one that says that “you are worthy” even when you feel that you are not. For in God’s story, you are valuable, not because of what you do or who you are or what you say or what circumstances exist in your live, but in God’s story you are valuable simply because you are a beloved child of God. You are worth knowing. You are worth loving. For that epiphany, thanks be to God. Amen.