(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Sunday Worship on January 8, 2017, Epiphany Sunday)
Epiphany: The Little Cousin of Christmas
The angels proclaimed the good news loud and proud. The glory of God shined bright into the Bethlehem night. The shepherds saw the child and raised a holy ruckus.
But now, two weeks later, the wonder and joy of Christmas is beginning to fade. Families return from their travels, children return to school, life returns to normal. And Christmas—it returns to the attic or the basement, to the boxes and bags from which it sprang not too long ago.
It is always a sad affair, saying goodbye to Christmas.
In the church, part of the way we say goodbye to Christmas, is by celebrating another holiday: Epiphany. Epiphany is like the little cousin of Christmas. Christmas is all fireworks and flashing light, miracle and glory. Epiphany is the quiet child in the shadows, likely to be overlooked. Unlike Christmas, it doesn’t have angels or a heavenly chorus. There is no divine shine or holy hubbub to catch your attention. All that Epiphany really has, is a strange entourage of characters: authorities who are fearful of losing their power; a group of strangers from the East, talking about something mysterious and wonderful; and a silent star.
Epiphany: Where We Live Most of Our Lives?
But I feel a special closeness to Epiphany, the neglected cousin of Christmas. Because I think Epiphany is where we live most of our lives.
Many people imagine faith to look a lot like Christmas. For them, faith is the spectacular: angels in the sky with glory, a chorus of heaven breaking the silence of night, the miraculous erupting amid the ordinary. And so they expect to experience these things in their own life. They expect to live in the time of Christmas.
But if I’m being honest about my experience of faith, I don’t live in the time of Christmas. I’ve never heard angels singing in the sky. I’ve never had a dream where I’ve heard an unmediated word of God. I’ve never had a moment when I immediately think, that was an undisputed miracle of God.
I live in the quieter, less certain time of Epiphany. A time when the religious leaders are facing inward and don’t quite know what’s going on. A time when political leaders act out of fear and self-interest. A time when outsiders are coming in, when strangers are using different words than I do and living in a different way.
The quieter, less certain time of Epiphany can be frightening. If I cannot rely on the angels to come to me, like they came to the shepherds, or if I cannot depend on divine communication directly disclosed in dreams, then where does my faith become real? Where do I encounter God?
The good and difficult news of today’s Epiphany scripture is that we might encounter God where we least expect to: in the face of the stranger.
In today’s story, the strangers from the East—the ones who rather blindly followed a star—are the messengers of God. The more I think about this, the more I am amazed. These strangers from the East would not have called God by the same name that the ancient Israelites used. They would not have known about the prophecies of a Messiah. They would not have known how to offer a proper sacrifice at the Temple. All that they knew was that there was Something special—Something that demanded their attention and even their worship—underneath this star.
Beyond the Stopgap “God” of Religion
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German minister and theologian famous for his resistance to Hitler, once wrote that he felt a “brotherhood” with religious outsiders more than he felt with people in the church. He complained that when he talked about God with religious folks, he started to feel “awkward and uncomfortable” and even “slightly dishonest.” Why? Because in the church, the name “God” often becomes a reference to a spectacular solution. The name “God” becomes a stopgap solution of supernatural proportions. Can’t explain something scientifically? Bring in God. Afraid of death? Bring in God. Feel really bad about yourself and want to feel better? Bring in God.
But for Bonhoeffer, God wasn’t a solution to be brought in when we couldn’t do things ourselves. God was already at the center of life, already at the heart of our daily experience. Our normal lives—everything from working and eating to talking and sleeping—all of this was already filled with the wonder and mystery of God. And so Bonhoeffer said that he actually felt more comfortable using the name “God” with religionless folks, because with them “God” was not a name used to solve a problem but rather a name used to express wonder at the mystery of life and gratitude for all that is good.
Strange Messengers Pointing to Something Special
I have to agree with Bonhoeffer. For me, strangers outside of our religion can point us to what really matters in our faith.
Some of you know that I moved to a new house a couple months ago. The best way I could quickly sum up my new housemate, Nick, is to say that his list of recent accomplishments includes serving the police department and performing stand-up comedy. He is both dependable and droll. He is also agnostic. So he is an outsider to today’s church, a stranger, and yet I would also call him “wise”—not unlike the wise men in our scripture today.
Much like the strangers from the East, who surely spoke in a strange dialect, Nick speaks with different words than I do. He wouldn’t normally use words like “sin” or “forgiveness.” Rather, he’d talk about messing up or getting a second chance. And yet despite this difference, Nick takes life seriously, as though there is something special in it, something worth paying attention to—even if that something doesn’t go by the name “God” or doesn’t have a God-shaped appearance. Just like the strangers from the East, whose words alerted the religious leaders to something those leaders were not aware of, Nick and his impious jokes often point me beyond my own selfish and self-certain projections of God to something more mysterious and more alive.
In fact, I have a working hypothesis now that a good comedian is just the alter ego of a pastor. His jokes do much more than make you laugh. They open your eyes to what really matters and what doesn’t. A good comedian smashes our idols even as he suggests there is something special, something worth living for. Much like Jesus, he brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly. Seen in a certain light, a good comedian is the prophet of a coming kingdom—a kingdom that has not quite found flesh yet, but stirs somewhere in our hearts and echoes in our laughter.
The Best “Hangover Cure” for Christmas
Living with Nick reminds me of the good news proclaimed by Epiphany. Even if we don’t receive the visits of angels, or dreams that make the divine will distinctly clear, God lives among us. The flipside to this good news is perhaps difficult to digest: we might encounter God where we least expect to—on the lips of strange messengers. Perhaps someone who calls God by a different name will point us to where Christ is living in our world. Perhaps someone who does not believe in the name “God” at all, will reveal to us the mystery and wonder of God in a fresh and vibrant and unexpected way.
If you’ll allow me to channel Nick’s language for a moment, I would say that Epiphany is the best “hangover cure” for Christmas. Having come down from a celebration of angels and divine dreams and God’s glory written across the sky, we might feel a sudden despondency at the unremarkable plainness of our lives. Where is God?
Epiphany proclaims the good news that Christ has not left us. He’s here as he always has been. We may just need the helping hand of a stranger to find him.
Whose good news
We sometimes hear
By the lips of strange messengers—
Be revealed among us
This Epiphany season,
And confront us
With life-giving truth.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Letter to Eberhard Bethge: 30 April 1944,” http://www.onbeing.org/program/ethics-and-will-god-legacy-dietrich-bonhoeffer/feature/letter-eberhard-bethge/879, accessed January 5, 2017.