Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, January 12, 2014
I was really, really good at math when I was in school. It came easy to me, and I enjoyed it. I did my homework, but what I really enjoyed were the extra credit problems that my teacher posted every day on the bulletin board. They were hard and I found the challenge really satisfying. I was a good math student…until calculus came along in 12th grade. Something about calculus just didn’t click with me. Part of my problem was that I couldn’t picture a lot of the problems we were supposed to solve. I remember being baffled by the idea that one could calculate the volume of a curve rotated around an axis—and I seem to remember that the same curve rotated around a different axis would produce a different answer. I still can’t picture that. Possibly I had it all wrong and have had it all wrong all these years. What I remember about calculus was that I had to study. Doing homework just wasn’t sufficient anymore. I had to work and apply myself to get calculus. I can remember the struggle, but also the feeling of satisfaction, even triumph, when the answer I calculated matched the correct answer. It was an “aha moment” when everything clicked. I expect everyone has known “aha moments,” when something suddenly makes sense in a new way. Perhaps a shift in perspective or the addition of a new bit of information helps makes everything clear. Sometimes this happens when you’re doing a jigsaw puzzle—getting one piece leads to a cascade of other pieces fitting together and you can hardly put them in fast enough. I do crossword puzzles and the same thing happens sometimes, just getting one answer—or figuring out the theme of the puzzle—makes everything clear and easy. There’s a real satisfaction in reaching breakthroughs like that. It’s the satisfaction, the feeling of accomplishment, that keeps people doing puzzles.
When I started college I was in a special major that combined mathematics with the social sciences. I thought this was a good fit for me, and it was, until the second term when calculus was the math portion of the major. Once again, I just couldn’t picture what was going on—and once we started doing problems in “n-space” and “n” was greater than 3, that is we were working in five or seven or ten dimensions, it was too much. I found that I had to work again, really apply myself. I remember a couple “aha moments,” but I realized something about my aha moments—they came at completely unpredictable times. I could spend an hour laboring over a problem or two before I got the right answer and saw how things worked, or I could spend ten minutes. I might spend a lot of time on calculus and not make any progress. Suddenly that made calculus different from all my other classes. If I spent two hours studying psychology, say, I’d learn twice as much as if I spent one hour on it. This was the same for all my other classes. More time meant more understanding; and more understanding meant a better grade. Calculus just didn’t give me the same return on my investment of time. Oh, and it was really hard.
I’m sure I’m looking at my experience in the math classroom from more than 30 years ago with some rose-colored glasses, and probably making a public excuse for dropping out of the math program I spent two quarters in all those years ago, as much as I loved those aha moments, of sudden clarity and understanding, I couldn’t make them happen, they occurred in their own sweet time.
Another word for “aha moment” is epiphany. And epiphany is the name of the church festival we’re observing today. I want to explain this idea this morning, it’s really important, not just to Christians, I’m pretty sure adherents of all faiths have a word for this experience something like epiphany. We would have had the Christmas tree up in the sanctuary this morning if we didn't need to move the piano. There are still a few poinsettias. Christmas is a season in the church, a season that runs from sundown on December 24 until January 6. Those are the 12 days of Christmas. I think it’s ironic that so many people get excited about decorating for Christmas, so many people embody the song, “We Need a Little Christmas Now,” but it seems like these same people take their Christmas trees down before New Years and stop playing Christmas music December 25. We take a little more time with Christmas here, and especially this year, we’re extending the Christmas season six days by observing Epiphany today. This is all a long way of saying don’t feel guilty if you still have your tree up!
The word “epiphany” means something like “manifestation” or “striking appearance.” It’s something that we see that really grabs our attention. In non-religious contexts it means things like “sunrise” or “the appearance of an enemy in war.” Christians have traditionally linked two Bible events with Epiphany: the arrival of the magi and Christ’s baptism. This morning we’ve got a lot of music in worship that helps tell the story of the magi who have travelled a long way and brought special, symbolically significant, gifts to Jesus. Our lesson from Isaiah reminds us that we celebrate the birth of Christ, the one we call “Immanuel, God-with-us” at the darkest time of the year. God’s glory shines all the brighter in our imaginations when we celebrate the birth of our savior when it’s dark and cold. Did you notice that Isaiah the prophet foretold riches and mentioned frankincense and gold? We all know gold’s significance. Were you surprised to find frankincense in the Old Testament? It was used in offerings that believers made at the temple. Frankincense was the only incense permitted on the altar—and it was to be only used for religious purposes. What a thoughtful baby gift for the magi to bring! And how extraordinary that these astrologers or magicians who came from a distant land, knew to bring this special, sacred kind of incense!
Scholars really are divided over who the magi were and where they came from. They only appear in the story about them in Matthew’s gospel. But here’s something to think about: they were experts at reading signs in the stars—that’s how they knew where to go to find the one born king of the Jews. They were experts in a field of study that was forbidden to Jews. God placed a sign in the sky that devout believers would not see—but that foreigners would! This says to me that Jesus’s birth was not only for Jews, but for the entire world—for everyone!
OK, now a little on the significance of myrrh. It was a perfume, but it had two other uses that are eerie foreshadowing of Christ’s destiny: In Mark’s gospel it says Jesus was offered a mixture of wine and myrrh while he was being crucified, this was a humane gesture to ease his pain, but he refused it. In John’s gospel, Nicodemus brought aloes and myrrh and helped Joseph of Arimethea hurriedly bury Jesus’ body before the Sabbath started. These gifts that came at Jesus’ birth point to his sacrificial death and his suffering on the cross.
The other event that Christians mark on the day of Epiphany is Jesus’ baptism. In Mark’s gospel this comes right at the beginning, the sky breaks open and a “voice came down from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Imagine you’re at the banks of the Jordan River, having gone out there with hordes of people from Jerusalem to be baptized as a mark of making a new beginning. Wouldn’t a voice from heaven, speaking through the sky that had been torn in two get your attention? Wouldn’t that be a manifestation of God?
In the New Testament lesson the reading points us to understand that the mystery of God’s love was revealed and made clear in Jesus Christ. The writer makes it clear that the mystery of God’s grace was not intended to be exclusive. A mystery revealed is another way to understand the concept of epiphany. That aha moment when everything suddenly makes sense, when you see clearly is epiphany. That moment when God’s love is real and you trust it, that’s epiphany.
And here’s what I want you to remember about epiphany—it’s complicated. On the one hand, these aha moments, the sudden understanding happen in ways that we do not control. I’d get my moments working calculus problems after two minutes or two hours—I never knew when things would click for me. And that they happen in ways that are beyond our control makes them feel even more special.
On the other hand, epiphanies come to us more often when we’re seeking and seeking diligently. I hear successful people all the time say things like “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” And I think that’s true with experiencing epiphany—yes, the experience is sudden and beyond our control, but we do see them when we’re looking for them. Charles Wesley, the founder of Methodism described a moment when his heart felt “strangely warmed” as the turning point in his faith, but that feeling happened while he had gathered with other Christians and hearing a reading of writing by Martin Luther. He certainly did not cause this turning point, but he put himself in a place where he could recognize it when it came upon him. I couldn’t will myself to understand calculus, but the only times I got it were times when I was working on it.
Some people are really good at recognizing God’ presence in their lives and sharing that feeling with other people. Last week there were some very beautiful sunsets, the clouds in the west were vivid pink and yellow and the sky was bright blue. At my house we’re in the habit of yelling, “check out the sunset!” We didn’t make the sunset happen, but someone looked at the window and spotted the beauty and got others to see it too. And seeing that beauty pointed me to the beauty of Creation and the love of the Creator.
God sends stunning, amazing, beautiful reminders of love all the time. We recognize them at this time of year when we marvel at the miracle of God becoming fully human. Look for signs of God’s love. Learn to expect them. And, perhaps most importantly, find ways to share those sightings, those feelings, with other people. Amen.