[Today’s sermon was written by me, exactly ten years
ago. I’m repeating it today because it
is one of my favorite sermons and Epiphany is my favorite season to preach.]
Imagine this: three old men traveling hard through treacherous lands, freezing in the mountain passes, broiling in the desert, traveling sometimes by day and sometimes by night, stopping only to sleep and rest the camels, eating jerky and dried fruit along the way, so as to lose no time.
These scholars from the east had seen a new star and divined its meaning. But how could they be sure? What if the star disappeared as quickly as it had arisen? What if they were too late? What if they were wrong?
They no longer told their story to fellow travelers met at an oasis or some resting place along the caravan route. They did not enjoy being laughed at, especially when they harbored their own doubts. Finally they rode in silence, too worn and tired for any conversation.
How must it have felt – to cross the Jordan, so close to their destination, and lift up their eyes to the jagged hills rising before them? That last climb, winding up and up and up to Jerusalem, past groups of Bedouin camped in the tiny valleys, must have seemed endless.
And what of that awesome sight, as they rounded the last curve, revealing the sight of Herod’s temple shining atop the temple mount, glittering in the desert sun?
At least the ride to Bethlehem after their meeting with Herod seemed no more than a moment, because the end of their journey was in sight and now they would know. They found their epiphany in a humble stable in Bethlehem and they gave the baby gifts in joy and thanksgiving.
Epiphany, as you know, means a showing forth, a manifestation, especially a spiritual truth or reality making itself felt or visible in the real world. It is a beam of light in the darkness, like the star the wise men saw. It’s the experience we have that makes something clear, like the cartoon character with the light bulb over his head. It’s that click we hear in our heads when we suddenly see the whole picture – when we finally "get it."
On this day, when we celebrate Epiphany, we acknowledge that the journey of the wise men to find the Christ child is also the journey of every child of God. Their journey is also our journey. We too seek to find the Holy, to validate our relationship to God, and to offer gifts of thanksgiving.
We, too, travel through treacherous lands. Our way sometimes leads through dry country, where hope drains away like rainfall in the desert, where we barely remember who we are or where we’re going or why. Sometimes we travel in high places where we can see the world laid out before us and doubts flee. We feel certain of our purpose and our destination.
In the dark of night we know cold and fear, yet we keep on, encouraged by the star we see when the night is clear. We make wrong turns and have to backtrack to try again. We travel miles only to find ourselves in blind canyons. We have to forge roaring mountain streams, despite our terror of being swept away, because there is no other choice.
Like the wise men, we seldom speak to other travelers about our purpose. We don’t tell, when we see or hear from loved ones after they die. We make no attempt to describe or explain our own small epiphanies: how a beam of sunlight once transformed me; how eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while sitting on a rock 3 billion years old gave me a glimpse of my connection to the entire universe; how the sight of a deer emerging from the woods, or the bump of a walleye against my lure, tells me all is right with the world; how the lap of waves against the hull of a sailboat as I fly in silence across the lake assures me that God is alive and well. We so fear the laughter of others that we seldom share our deepest experiences of joy.
But, ah-h-h, when we travel in the green valleys, where the water runs clear in the streams, the sun is warm and the breeze is cool, where the way is easy and the fruit falls from the trees, we feel certain that this is the life we are meant to live.
But in the end, we too must make the long trek up into that last range of mountains, one step after another, uncertain about what we will find, no longer even thinking, but only trying to find the stamina to keep on climbing – both hoping, and not hoping that this is the last steep part.
Only at journey’s end will we find our true home – and the gift we give will be ourselves, laid at the manger each Christmas, offered at the altar every Sunday, and returned to the Spirit at the moment we die.
As T.S. Eliot says, near the end of The Four Quartets:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
In our society we say to people, "Have a nice day." The Chinese used to say, "May you live in interesting times."
What I wish for us is this: a fascinating journey with one or two boon companions, full of peaceful and happy interludes, but with enough trouble and struggle to teach us what we must learn, and to give us zest and faith, enough zest to enjoy the good times and enough faith to face the hardships to come.
So I say: May we find the God we seek, and may we too arrive where we began and know the place for the first time.