We just had an Epiphany

What takes up most of your time? What do you spend the most time doing? Would you notice if something new appeared in that setting? This past Sunday marked the first week of Epiphany, the season in the Church calendar where we celebrate the coming of the Wise Men to find the recently born Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). It is one of my favorite seasons because it has so many layers. It asks us to reflect on the ways that Jesus has revealed Himself to us and appeared in our lives. It marks the expansion of the Gospel as the first Gentiles (the wise men) recognized Jesus as the Savior of the world. And it demonstrates that God honors years of faithfulness to bear fruit we might never have imagined. Epiphany lasts until Lent, let us dig into all that this season offers.

Where did Jesus appear to you in 2017?

We know very little about the wise men. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that they were scholars who specifically studied the stars and the natural world. They studied the night sky so closely that they noticed when a new star inexplicably appeared.

Wise-men from the east came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is he who is to be born King of the Jews? We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him. – Matt. 2:2

I know next to nothing about astronomy, so it boggles my mind that a star could look so significant that it would cause observers to assume a great cosmic event must have occurred. What an incredible thing that God can communicate to humans through the natural world in such a way that we could realize deep spiritual thruths. The star was so special that it prompted these men to travel a great distance, likely over the course of months and even a couple of years, to find the Person that was living in its light.

The wise men saw the star because they were pursuing their vocations as scholars. They were doing their normal jobs and received this revelation in the process of their work. In the same way, where did you see Jesus show up in the course of your work and daily life last year? Where were you shaped in the process of living out your calling? Jesus can reveal Himself through the spectacular, and also through the very mundane. Spend some time thinking about where you saw Christ through simply paying attention to the life you have been given.

Jesus is for everyone

We have no indication that the wise men were Jewish, in fact they almost certainly were non-believers. They were definitely living far outside of Israel and were foreigners to the Jews. And yet Jesus revealed Himself to them in a way that they could understand. It made no difference that they spoke a different language or came from a different culture. Jesus is a savior who can cross any barrier that humans experience. Our current cultural moment is still very much defined by fear and distrust of anyone who is not like “us.” We struggle to find common ground and to reach out to one another. Let us draw on the power of Jesus to cross any border and find ourselves united by the Light of the world, the One who came to be a blessing to all nations.

What if Jesus saves your enemies?

Most Bible scholars have concluded that the wise men were from the region of Babylon, east of Israel. This is the place to which Israel had been exiled several centuries earlier. When God sent the people into exile there, He commanded them to make it count.

Build houses and dwell in them; and plant gardens and eat the fruit of them. Marry and be given in marriage, bear sons and daughters and multiply, do not diminish. Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away into captivity, and pray to God for it; for in its peace you will have peace. – Jer. 29:5-7

They were not to just sit around, biding their time until they could leave. They were to see their time in Babylon as meaningful and capable of impact. What if the wise men were primed to see the star because of faithful Israelites who had lived out their worship of God in Babylon? Perhaps the period of the exile had left traces of God that the Babylonians were meant to find. They likely would have had access to Hebrew Scriptures and as scholars may have developed an interest in Yahweh (Hebrew for LORD) and a desire to learn more about Him. God may have honored the years of faithfulness in exile to allow new believers to find Jesus.

That is a beautiful thought, and also difficult. The Babylonians were not great people. Their attack on Jerusalem was brutal and they were a pagan culture. In every way they were enemies of God’s people. And yet Jesus chooses to intentionally target them for an invitation into the redemption story. It is easy to rejoice when people we love find Jesus, it is much harder when people we hate are called to become our spiritual brothers and sisters. And yet if we were all once enemies of God (Col. 1:21-22), Jesus saving enemies is very good news. Consider where you can be a blessing in places you might rather not be. A particular facet of your work, certain relationships in your life, classes you are tired of taking. Jesus may have plans for your presence in those places that you cannot yet imagine. Pray for the Holy Spirit to give you compassion for others and a desire for their good. May we all know Jesus more and make Him known in the places to which we have been called.

Prayer for Epiphany

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that Your people, illumined by Your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that He may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with You and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, now and for ever. Amen.

– Book of Common Prayer

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But its my birthday, Jesus!

This story may sound familiar. She was all of sudden very frightened because her baby boy was on it’s way under fairly frightening circumstances. I’m sure she must have been thinking, “This is not how I wanted it to be.” There had to be an overall sense that she wasn’t ready. Mostly because the doctors had projected this child, her second and first boy in the family, to come over a month later on Valentine’s Day. Just as the first Christmas was a miraculous intervention, on this Christmas in 1984, God had other plans.

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This isn’t the story of Jesus, though it involves him, this is my story. The story of a Christmas baby that came unexpectedly. This is also a story of what it means to have the whole world celebrate on your birthday, and, in the midst of being lost in the shuffle, what it is I’ve come to celebrate.

I was premature by several weeks. As the legend goes, my family was out enjoying the festivities of Christmas Eve with our family down the street from the house I grew up in. Now some would call my mother clumsy. I tend to think she is just always going full throttle into the adventures of life with little regard for her own safety. On this night, well before my due date, she went a little too full throttle down the icy steps of my granny’s house, she fell, and my labor had begun.

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I can’t imagine what was going through my mother’s mind as they rushed to the hospital. Was her baby going to be okay? Was she ready for this child she didn’t expect? Had her actions placed her new baby in danger? I’m wondering if similar questions entered Mary’s mind on that first Christmas as well. Soon Cindy Moore’s relatively normal-sized baby (imagine how big my head would have been had I gone full term) was born and in good health. Her questions were answered but this day left me with one big question I ask every year.

Growing up, even though our births were tied together, I had not tied my life to Jesus. So the holiday was rarely about him, but Christmas was still a fun time of family togetherness. Thankfully, my parents did a great job of making my birthday as special as it could be on a really haphazard day. They always had a special gift set aside from the others. Then, at a certain point during the day we would stop celebrating Christmas and start with the singing, the candles, and the cake.

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Sometime in college, though, I decided to follow Jesus and my birthday took on a whole new meaning. Not only that, but now I work for the church so my birthday will never be a day off. As I watch folks with those cushy summer birthdays celebrate the growing trends of birth weeks or birth months, I’ve come to despise my birthday as a day that will never be about me.

Back to that one question I ask every year…why was I born on Christmas? Why am I birthday buddies with Jesus? Why in the world would God tie a day that is supposed to be about me to a day where everyone in the world has a million other things on their minds? Why, on a day when all I want to do is hang out with my friends at Chuck E. Cheese, is it impossible to hang out with anyone anywhere? So what exactly does this Christmas baby have to celebrate during the chaos of the holidays? Let me tell you.

christmas-baby-7Neither of my parents had particularly charmed lives. Our family history is filled with stories of abuse, family turmoil, and tragic death. Any one of those things can end up defining you for a life time. Our legacies can be marked by the worst moments of our lives, the greatest examples that we indeed live in a fallen world. These moments cause great division and pain, they create the need for reconciliation.

For some reason neither of my parents threw in the towel. My mother worked for decades to make the world better for children who were dealt a similarly bad hand in life. My father lived his life with a hope that if he worked hard enough his family’s lives would be better too. God is in the business of breaking the chains of generational sin and this is the fundamental hope that comes with children.

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Each birth marks the arrival of a brand new reconciler. This new life brings with it the hope and promise of two parents that the next generations will not be subject to the pain and oppression of the last. God appeared to his people many times but often in ways that were terrifying and might seem distant (pillars of fire and smoke). On Christmas, God appeared to his people as a child. Jesus came in the most relatable form to show us that pain, abuse, even death would not define us. My parents have lived their lives with a similar hope, that our story will be defined by something bigger and better than they could ever imagine.

My wife can tell you that I still succumb to the occasional birthday meltdown, but over the years of reflecting on this story of great hope and reconciliation I’ve come to see a bigger picture. My birthday isn’t about me…its actually about the hope of the entire world. My sisters and I are the next chapter in the stories of Cindy and Bob Moore…who were the next chapters in the stories of their parents.

Each new chapter brings new mercies and new grace. From an overwhelmed, shamed, teenaged mother among the filth of a stable to a shivering, frightened, bruised Mrs. Moore, Christmas is about the lengths and the depths God will go to bring peace and reconciliation to creation. He brought both Jesus and I safely into the world under unexpectedly dangerous circumstances. But of course he did, we have a lot of work to do together and that is definitely worth celebrating.

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The Veil Grows Thin

The words are familiar ones, thanks in large part to their inclusion in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Linus recites it to America every year on national television.

It’s Luke chapter 2, the birth of Christ being announced to the shepherds. It’s fitting that it be widely and indiscriminately read to our whole society, because the message to the shepherds is exactly that kind of announcement: the proclamation of the royal birth of the King of the World to some normal working guys who were on the job. Nothing exclusive or secret, a message of Good News to anyone that wants to hear it, about a Savior who comes for everyone.

Why the shepherds? What made them special enough to receive this personal heavenly missive? As far as Luke lets on, nothing. They are special in that they are highly ordinary. We don’t know their names, we don’t know their faith, we just know that they hear this wonderful message. Luke is showing his readers that the Messiah has come for average working people, for anyone who will receive the message with gladness. The Good News isn’t for the elite, it’s for everyone.

I can’t speak for you, but when I read the part about “The glory of the Lord shone around them”, I always pictured a bright light. A host of angels is pretty impressive, so it would make sense that as heavenly beings they would be surrounded by light. I paid closer attention to that wording this year, and noticed something much bigger. In the Old Testament when the “glory of the Lord” is mentioned, it always meant God’s presence. (Ex. 33:12-23 is one of many examples.) This appears most often in reference to God’s presence filling the Temple (Ex. 40:34-38). At the time of Christ’s birth, God’s presence hadn’t been seen in Israel for centuries. When the exiles returned and rebuilt the temple, God’s glory is noticeably absent (Ezra 6:13-22). The Israelites continued worshipping God, but the glory of His presence wasn’t manifested. Until the birth of Jesus.

I don’t think I can emphasize enough how much God’s glory appearing to a group of normal people was just not a thing. God’s presence would appear to individuals with a calling to leadership like Abraham and Moses, and the prophets received the Holy Spirit to be able to communicate to the people on God’s behalf, but it didn’t happen to random people in a mundane setting. What happens with the shepherds is entirely unprecedented! God Himself was drawing near to earth to participate in sharing a message of great joy that would be for all people. The angels aren’t the main event, they’re the entourage.

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This would roughly be like the President of the United States calling me to say that he is making a visit to Pittsburgh and he wanted to let me know that he’s staying downtown at the Super 8 if I wanted to stop by. POTUS doesn’t need to care about who I am and I don’t need to be involved in matters of State. Blue collar shepherds shouldn’t need to be involved in the royal birth of the King of the world. In earthly terms they’re unimportant. But this is a different kind of world leader, and His is a different kind of Kingdom. Christ came to remove the veil of separation that stood between us and God. This would be fully accomplished on the cross when Jesus would reverse the powers of death and separation (Matt. 27:50-54). And yet even at His birth, the veil was growing thin. Christ’s coming was so powerful that the gap between heaven and earth immediately narrowed. The Lord’s presence drew near as a foreshadow of the full reconciliation that was to come.

Have you read or seen “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”? In this story by C.S. Lewis there is a White Witch who represents the powers of evil and death, and she has a strangle-hold on the world of Narnia. She has created an everlasting winter in their land, where “it’s always winter, and never Christmas.” When the Christ-figure, Aslan, begins to make his way back into Narnia, the snow starts to melt and Father Christmas finds his way in to deliver the overdue gifts. When the creatures see the power of the witch weakening and being beaten back, they say to each other, “Aslan is on the move.” And so it was with the shepherds. They were witnesses to the powers of sin and darkness growing weak. God was near, Christ was on the move, everything was about to change forever.

“Christmas sends a death notice to all systems of oppression and injustice, every force that perpetuates the darkness of sin. An angel choir sang their joyous hymn, announcing the Good News, not to the powerful and privileged, but to those who had nothing else to hope in but the One Great Hope that God would come to rescue us from ourselves. The King, who sits on the throne, says, “Behold, I am making all things new!” This is why we celebrate.”

~ Sam Levy, CCO staff at Slippery Rock University