Feast of the Epiphany // 6 January 2016
“The Reveal” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
Isaiah 60.1-6, 9
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
I want to read a few words and phrases and I hope you will recognize at least one or two of them. Ready?
- Verbal Kint is Keyser Soze.
- Maybe this one: “Luke — I am your father.”
How many of you know what those have in common? Some of you have never heard of any of them and have no idea what I am talking about. But (spoiler alert, for those of you who’ve never seen Citizen Kane, The Usual Suspects, or Star Wars) each of them — Rosebud, Keyzer Soze, Darth Vader’s words to Luke Skywalker — each is on a list somewhere as one of the greatest “reveals” of all time. The reveal is the magician’s tool — it’s when the illusionist makes known something that was previously unknown. It’s also a literary term — the reveal is a plot device in a narrative, the moment in a story when the reader or the audience suddenly learns the mystery that had been hidden.
Tonight — Epiphany — this is the reveal. More than just the end of Christmastide, more than just another midwinter night, tonight is the night God reveals “the meaning and end of history.” Tonight God explains the mystery of history (pardon the rhyme). So in these few moments, I want us to look at four things: (1) the Mystery, (2) the Magi, (3) the Metamorphosis, and (3) the Mission.
First, remember the mystery —
“In the beginning” – In the beginning there was God and the garden, the woman and the man. All was as God intended. There was harmony between God and man, between the man and the woman, between humanity and the cosmos. But when our first parents fell and disobeyed the one command God gave them, they fractured the world and forfeited the Garden. But remember the cryptic proclamation in Genesis 3 — when God cursed the serpent he said:
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel. (Gen. 3.15)
That’s the first seed of the mystery. God vowed not to leave us banished, exiled. Somehow, through Eve’s offspring, God would give us back the keys to the Garden and all the harmony we had there. From that point the mystery was unfolding — the promise to Abraham, the sacrifice of Isaac, the deliverance of Israel from slavery, Isaiah’s prophecy that “darkness will cover the earth” but a light will come (Isa. 60.2) — every event of salvation history was another clue to the mystery of God’s plan to get us back to the Garden.
Then comes the reveal: The Magi — Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matt. 2.1-2)
We sing “We Three Kings” and our kids dress up as wise men and women in the Christmas pageant, but we don’t really know that much about the people Fr. Pfatteicher calls “[t]hese shadowy astrologers, traveling vaguely ‘from the east’ with their strange gifts, [who] symbolize more than we can ever say, more than we can ever know”? We don’t know that there were three, we don’t know they were “men,” we don’t know how long it took them to get to Jesus, we don’t know their names (outside legend). But we do know one thing, and it’s the final clue to the mystery — the Magi were Gentiles. They were pagans, not Jews. They were outside God’s family. But they came to worship the newborn king, and that showed us something about salvation: Salvation doesn’t come just to Jews who keep God’s law, it comes to the whole world, even Gentile astrologers, and that means it has to come by grace. St. Paul uses the word mysterion/mystery three times in tonight’s reading from Ephesians. After the Magi, now we know the mystery Paul knew, the mystery of Christ, the mystery which “was not made known to the sons of men in other generations,” the mystery is: The Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Eph. 3.6) The Magi reveal that all along — God was coming to save us all.
Point three: The metamorphosis — Everybody knows a good magician never reveals his secrets, but God does, and in our story we see how God does it. To see it we just have to follow the theme of light in the bible. Tonight is about light, right? (The Magi follow a star shining in the sky, the light of the world coming down from heaven) Remember earlier in Isaiah the prophet said “A people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa. 9.2), and when we get to John’s gospel we see what that light is. Or, rather, who that light is. Jesus says “I am the light of the world.” (John 8.12) Then came the cross — on the cross, when Jesus was dying, what happened? There was darkness. Matt. 27: From the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. See what’s happening? The light of the world is being swallowed by darkness so we could come into the light. The light of the world being pushed out so we can be let back in.
And what happens? When we see what God did for us, we metamorphosize. We change. Paul says it just two chapters later in Ephesians: At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light. (Eph. 5.8) The metamorphosis happens when we see that the light went down into darkness to bring us up into light, and that changes us, makes us lights.
Which leads to the last point: The pages of the bible have been rustling with mystery since the very beginning; the Magi revealed the mystery, which is the gospel of God’s grace; and we’ve morphed from children of darkness to children of light; so what do we do now?
That’s the Mission — St. Paul says he was made a minister of this gospel “to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 3.9b-10)
St. Paul’s mission, just like ours, is to bring this mystery to light for everyone around us. But how? Leslie Newbigin, the great missiologist, wrote a book called The Open Secret, and in it he said there are two kinds of missionaries. First, there are “pure evangelists” – they just preach; no social services, no deeds of mercy, just the message of the gospel. But Newbigin says “the logic of the gospel has always been too strong for them.” If a hungry man comes looking for food, shall we deny him in the name of the gospel? Of course not. So the missionary is drawn to build hospitals, schools, food banks. But then the pendulum swings so far that we have a second kind of missionary, the “social service” missionary. Again, the logic of the gospel is too strong. Jesus said it himself in Matthew 28 when he sent his disciples out into the world to make disciples, to baptize, and to teach. Not just to build hospitals, but to build them for God and then tell people why we built it. You see? For us to be light in the world, we have to do both — reveal the mystery, do good works, then tell people why we do them.
So — Now you know the reveal. Maybe you’ve never heard this until tonight, so you’re only just now coming into the light. That’s great — it’s called “becoming a Christian.” But the story doesn’t end there. Now you are the light of the world. Are we telling our story and doing good works? Newbigin says the church has been given a mystery, a priceless treasure, and it’s an “open secret”:
The treasure is nothing less than “the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4.1), “the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and . . . made known to all nations . . .” (Rom. 16.25-26) . . . . It is the open secret of God’s purpose, through Christ, to bring all things to their true end in the glory of the triune God. It is open in that it is announced in the gospel that is preached to tall the nations; it is a secret in that it is manifest only to the eyes of faith. It is entrusted to those whom God has given the gift of faith by which the weakness and foolishness of the cross is known as the power and wisdom of God. It is entrusted to then not for themselves but for all the nations.
That’s our mission. That is Epiphany. We know the secret; now go tell it to the world.
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