This is the sermon the Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles preached at the diocesan worship service for the Feast of Epiphany, January 3, 2021.
The Rev. Allison Sandlin Liles
Feast of the Epiphany 2021
Matthew 2: 1-12
The season of Epiphany begins Wednesday, January 6. “Epiphany” comes from a Greek word meaning appearance, revelation or manifestation. Like the appearance of a divine being or the revelation of some essential truth. We use the word “epiphany” when something is suddenly made clear. Christians have been celebrating this feast day all the way back to the end of the second century. Back then Egyptian Christians combined three separate biblical epiphanies that were considered manifestations of God in Christ:
- The visit of the Magi
- The baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River
- Jesus’ first recorded miracle at the wedding in Cana
This feast day and the season that follows celebrates God’s presence breaking through into humanity. It’s the amazing gift of God reaching out, taking our hand, and assuring us that no matter how bleak the world gets, no matter how much we struggle and question, or how much we feel lost and alone, God is always there guiding us.
The gospel passages appointed during the season of Epiphany invite us to join Jesus on the journey of his inclusive and universal mission. And so today as we prepare for this brief but magnificent church season, we begin at the beginning – that initial, seminal sign that Jesus is one for the world. We learn this fundamental truth through the story of the Magi and their journey from the East to worship Jesus Christ.
These magi come from distant lands, possibly Babylon, Persia, or Syria, and are not of Jesus’ tribe or his race or his nation. Israelites would have looked down upon them for being astronomers. God forbade the Israelites from using divination a long time ago. The term magi can also refer to magicians or sorcerers – two more professions clearly outlawed in the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These are people whose occupations were repeatedly condemned and prohibited throughout scripture… And yet, Matthew tells us they travelled from afar to pay homage to the newborn Christ.
The magi remind us that we should not worry ourselves with who is and is not acceptable to God. We are not to judge anyone based on their occupation, their tribe, their race, or background because God can cross all of these barriers. Jesus Christ can and does appeal to all people, regardless if they are familiar with him or not. We should not worry whether or not we ourselves are good enough to worship God or celebrate God’s love for us. God’s love is not withheld from anyone. God loves all people no matter what boundaries we may have set for them.
If you are in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, you’ve heard this sermon before. We deeply believe here that God loves all, that God doesn’t hate. But as we begin a new year, I thought it was worth repeating once again. Consider it my gift on this tenth day of the Christmas season. You thought the talk of giving and receiving was over now that Christmas day is so far behind us. But not so fast. Epiphany brings up the importance of gift giving one more time.
For many of us, it’s far easier to give than to receive. But that’s where I call you to sit today – receiving the gifts that God gives to all of us. The gift of Jesus, whose love knows no boundaries. The gift of a church family who will stand by you and affirm you even when your biological family may not. The gifts of grace, of balance, generosity, forgiveness, and fellowship. These, too, are gifts from God, though admittedly, they are harder to receive, harder to accept.
Today as we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, we will receive the gift of a “star word.” It is literally a paper star with a word written on it. The hope is that this gift of a star word will offer you a point of focus or inspiration for the year 2021…a gift that will allow us to experience God in an epiphany-like way. We introduced star words at St. Stephen’s last year and what a gift they have been to us.
One member told me over the summer that her star word was “love”. She found herself looking for love between neighbors everywhere she went – seeing folks reach out safely to those who were isolated from the rest of the world and watching random acts of kindness happen in the grocery store. Another member drew the word “time” and realized early in the pandemic that physical distancing and staying home offered more time for her to spend in prayer…praying the hours in community through Facebook live and Lenten podcasts and on her own using the Hour by Hour prayer book.
My star word was “rejoice” and I had no idea how grateful I’d be for such a word when I drew it on Epiphany last year. As the pandemic wore on and on, I found myself intentionally looking for small acts of joy to celebrate. It became the word I used in centering prayer, the word I used in simple breathing prayers when I recognized my anxiety spiraling. This word “rejoice” wove itself into the fabric of my life last year.
Many members of our church received a randomly chosen envelope holding their star two weeks ago. If you didn’t receive a Star Gift, and would like one, just comment below or send one of us an email [firstname.lastname@example.org]. I will happily send you one.
Know that you might find that your word seems quite timely. Or perhaps you might receive a word that you don’t really like. If that’s the case, please know that God often teaches us even when we are uncertain or resistant. Allow the word to speak to you. Look up its meaning in the dictionary and search where it’s found in scripture. Then place your Star where you will see it often. By your work computer or your fridge or bathroom mirror. Take a photo of your star and use it as your phone wallpaper.
Ponder your star word as Mary pondered the shepherds’ stories in her heart that first Christmas morning. Let it rest within you.
As human beings we all long for an epiphany. We long for a sign that God is with us. Typically I find myself so consumed with life that I fail to notice God’s manifestations right in front of me. But one of the surprising elements of the pandemic is the forced opportunity to slow down. I’m seeing things that I never did before. And rejoicing over them.
This year, consider your “star word” a gift to help you focus your awareness of God’s presence in your life. Consider them a gift to guide you as that star did for the magi so long ago. May it guide you to a place where you discover God breaking into the world in powerful and personal ways.
Receive this gift along with the gifts of god’s grace and peace, then share them with others. Share them without concern over whether they have the right occupation or the right nationality. God’s love transcends all boundaries we might create around people.
Follow the star. You never know where it might lead you.