January 5, 2014

Today we pass out of the Christmas season, beyond the simplicity of Luke’s story of a humble birth with angels and shepherds, and beyond John’s exquisite message of the Word becoming flesh and living among us.

Tomorrow we begin the Epiphany season – shifting from rejoicing at God’s coming among us to reflecting on what it means – to us and to the rest of the world.

The early biblical story presents an account of ancient Hebrew people developing a strong ethic of internal unity against all who were “other.” In part, this resulted from an understanding that God set them apart as “a light to the nations.” It also served as a form of self-defense, as they sought to protect their identity as God’s chosen people. And in part, it came from an attempt to maintain the purity of their faith; the intrusion of outsiders into their realm threatened the integrity of what they saw as God’s command. Therefore, they divided the world into “us” and “them”  – the people of Israel on the one hand verses all others, whom they termed “gentiles.”

They felt forced into a distinction common among human beings and similar to the opening lines of “Outwitted,” a poem by Edwin Markham:

“He drew a circle that shut me out – Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.”

Israel, out of a perceived necessity, drew a circle around itself, seeing its particular people as a race specially chosen by God. Gentiles and foreigners were anathema.

Nevertheless, there were other faint voices in Israel’s experience of God that envisioned a more universal reality. That view finally found fulfillment in what the Church calls Epiphany. Today’s gospel story opens the door for a new understanding. Jesus, born in a small town in a Jewish environment, was visited by wise men from a very different world. These foreigners came into the midst of the chosen people and claimed the Messiah for their own. And in doing so, they claimed it for all people.

The story of wise men paying homage to the Christ child marks the beginning of this new understanding. It is the story of a God who has given himself to all people, a God of unity, a God who moves his people beyond the binary perception of “us” against “them.”  It is like the final two lines of Markham’s poem: “But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him in!” Wise men, bringing gifts, highlight the fact that the ultimate gift is that God loves all people, in all times, in all places – a gift for every contentious “us” against “them,” empowering a spirit of unity in God’s revelation in Christ.

The Epiphany story is a powerful demonstration of something critically important in the development of our faith – in the understanding of who and what God is. The transition from “us” versus “them” to a clearer view of the unity of all people does not come easily, however. The early church struggled mightily to understand what God was doing in Christ. One of its earliest conflicts centered on whether Christians had to be Jews first, whether the new faith would be only a reformation of Judaism or a whole new and expanded one. Ultimately, the Spirit moved first-century followers of Christ to accept a broader understanding. That all people could be God’s people in and through God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

The child Jesus has been born in Bethlehem of Judea. The joining of divine life with human life has come in the form of a helpless baby. He will show us what divine love looks like in a human being.

What has come to life is someone who will love other people with so much attention and intensity that he will release a profound energy that heals and brings new life. For those of us who before have barely been able to put one foot in front of the other, this new life will give us strength to walk boldly into the future. For those of us who have been foundering around in the dark, not knowing who we are or what we should be doing, this new life will give us hope and vision, direction and purpose. For those of us who have lost so much that we feel loveless and unlovable, this new life will give such acceptance and nurture, such unqualified loving care, that we will rise from our beds and embrace the wonder of the whole creation. The lame will walk, the blind will see, the dead will be raised.

Something new has been born. The spirit of divine love taking human form. This new life will break down walls that separate and injure us. The walls of "in" and "out"; us and them; blessed and cursed. Paul calls it a mystery, a mystery now revealed. You don’t have to be a Jew to be okay with God. Jew and Gentile – everybody – shares in the loving graciousness of God. No one is outside the reach of grace.

And within the life of that society, and every culture, the new spirit that is coming into life will be breaking down other walls that separate. This new life will leap over the cultural wall between male and female, liberating women from a demeaning patriarchy. This new energy will break down the distinctions between clean and unclean, righteous and sinner; bringing acceptance and forgiveness, grace and peace to those who have failed and are broken.

And this fragile life emerging from the manger is available to everyone. The same life that is in Jesus finds opportunity in all of us. Within each of us is a divine habitation waiting to come to full being. It is that movement of the Spirit within you that wants to give you such love that you can walk boldly into the future with hope and vision, direction and purpose embracing the wonder of the whole creation. It is that healing Spirit that draws you toward a new way of being, without walls and barriers. It is that inner voice inviting you to freedom. Freedom to respond with willing and attentive love to each moment of life. That life is available to you.

There is a simple Epiphany within and around you. The Spirit of God enfleshed yearns to come to full life in you, that Spirit of love, acceptance, healing and grace. Nurture that life like Mary; guard it like Joseph. You may run to it with boundless joy like the shepherds or you may journey to it with careful search like the wise men. But know this, the child within is your true self, your true life longing to mature. Offer to God your gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – your talents and actions, your worship and devotion, your repentance and your death. There is plenty of room at the manger. And you, like the shepherds and the wise men, can also be overwhelmed with joy placing yourself at the feet of the Christ-child and paying him homage with your life.