This morning, we are celebrating Epiphany. Technically, Epiphany is on January 6, but we moved it up to today because it worked better with our preaching schedule.
When I started as a pastor 11 years ago, I was given the job of preaching on Epiphany, and I remember asking, “What’s Epiphany?” as I really had no idea.
There are two things going on at Epiphany.
The first is a more technical understanding. An epiphany is a sudden or striking realization. It’s an “Aha!” moment. A light bulb turning on. A “Eureka” moment! A moment where we fog is lifted and we now see.
Like this for example.
Do you see an old woman, or a young woman?
And then, that moment where you see both of them… Ah! There it is!
That’s an epiphany.
The second thing about Epiphany Sunday is it’s where we celebrate the magi from the East coming to visit the child Jesus, and bring him frankincense, myrrh, and gold.
Now there’s a lot of lore and myth around the story of the magi. We call them wisemen, magi, kings, astrologers… We talk about three, but their number is unknown. Over the centuries we’ve even given them names! Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior! (Not exactly high on the baby names of 2015 though).
For this morning, it doesn’t really matter. We’re just going to roll with the plot of some people from afar came and visited Jesus.
But, a quick aside. There’s a joke going around on social media every Christmas. Have you ever wondered what it would have been like if the three wise men were women? They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, brought practical gifts, and there would be peace on earth. Har har. Very funny. I resent this, as I make a mean casserole, helped deliver my kids, and can change a diaper with my eyes closed.
Okay. Back to the journey of the magi.
But let’s start with the word “journey.”
I like the idea of journeys. It’s a word that signifies experience. It signifies adventure. It’s a word that signifies to us that the destination isn’t the only goal. That how we get there is partly the point. It helps us understand that we’ve never truly arrived, that we’ve never finished, that every step is part of the experience.
When I go canoeing, I love getting to the campsite for the day. I love setting up the tent and making a fire and watching the sun go down. I love watching the sun rise in the morning and showing my kids the beavers swimming by.
But the campsite isn’t the only goal. I also love getting to the campsite. Where every corner you turn you look for a moose in the shallows. Where you see a fish a jump close to you. Where you see fallen trees and cliffs and bays waiting to be explored.
In a journey, every part of it is included in the experience.
We also use this language for faith. Not a destination. A journey.
It’s where we understand that being a disciple of Jesus, that growing in our faith, that learning to love and forgive, learning to trust God, is a continual process. We’ve never really arrived. We can usually be sure that if we thinking we’ve arrived is a sign that we haven’t. God is never really done with us, and very few of us claim to have this whole spirituality thing nailed down, or consider ourselves experts in grace and peace, so we use the language of journey. Where every new day is a new challenge and opportunity. Where every time we stray from the path, we can get back on the path. Faith journey has become part of our vocabulary.
Years ago, I was taking a CMU course with a prof from Harvard, Sharon Daloz-Parks, and besides being an incredible teacher, she said something that has stuck with me ten years later.
She said that while she understands why we use the word “journey” to describe our faith, she found it to be a bit to individualistic and self-centered. That faith is my journey with God, and really, if this is my journey, who are you to criticize it?
This, I believe, has led to many of us in Canada say, “Well, we’re spiritual, but not religious.” Which, on one hand, I totally get and understand and have respect for this. We believe that life is bigger than us an our individual successes and Boxing Day shopping, but we don’t want to participate in religious rites and rituals that don’t give us life. But on the other hand, if you were to ask how our “non-religious spirituality” affects our lives, very few of us would cite extra giving, or volunteering, or mediation, or shoveling extra driveways, or loving our enemies.
When we make faith a journey only about ourselves and God, we risk people hiding behind the idea of God while exhibiting very little transformation in their lives.
**Note – Christians are also really, really, really good at hiding behind the idea of God while exhibiting very little transformation in their lives. Heck, I’m pretty good at hiding behind the idea of God.**
So, my prof told us that instead of the word journey, she uses the word “pilgrimage”.
A pilgrimage is a trip to a holy site, and when we’re there, we encounter something divine that changes us. And then, we go back home, bearing gifts for our community.
A journey is about a trip and back. A pilgrimage is about being changed and blessing our communities.
It’s like MCC’s SALT program that I went to Zimbabwe with 13 years ago. SALT is an acronym for Serving and Learning Together, where they send young people around the world to work in a variety of NGO’s for a year. And when we got back, at our debriefing, they said to us.
“We kind of tricked you. We sent you to serve and learn, but really, while the serving you was great, if we really only cared about that, we could have hired locals to do the work you did with much for efficiency, since they understand the local language and culture. But, what we really send you out to do was to learn. To learn about who you are and a bit more about the world and a bit more about God, and now that you’re going home, you’re going to take all that you learned and go and serve at home. We thought about calling the program Learning and Serving Together, but the acronym LAST isn’t quite as good as SALT.”
You’re going to take what you learned with you and serve at home. A pilgrimage.
I now like to think of the journey of the magi as the pilgrimage of the magi, where they left everything to go and encounter Jesus, and because of that experience, their lives were never the same.
They allowed an encounter with Jesus to change them. They had an epiphany, their “Aha!” moment. They re-orientated their lives around it. They followed a star to a foreign land and met a king.
At Christmas time, it’s really easy to go on a journey to visit baby Jesus. We have children’s concerts and Steve Bell played with the WSO and we have Christmas carols everywhere and churches fill up for Advent, especially on Christmas Eve. We donate extra money, volunteer more, and go caroling with our friends. We talk about the Christmas spirit being in the air.
So maybe a better question for us to ponder is, do we allow those experiences to change us? What gifts do we bring back to our community? Are we more generous? Peaceful? Loving? Hopeful?
As we have for all our Advent services, we’ll have a slideshow of paths and offer a time of reflection. As we reflect today, let’s ask ourselves,
Because of our pilgrimage to the manger on Christmas, what gifts are we bringing back to our community?