Epiphany Sermon (2024)

The Epiphany of Our Lord
Texts: Matthew 2:1-12;
Isa 60:1-6; Eph 3:1-12

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 13:44): https://fb.watch/r6rri8LjxW/


Jewish rabbis love to talk about the Torah — like precisely the moment when sunset on Friday occurs and the Sabbath begins. I’d like to begin with a story this morning about an old Rabbi who once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun. When the night had ended and the day had begun.

“Could it be,” asked one of the students, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the Rabbi.

Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” answered the Rabbi.

“Then what is it?” the pupils demanded.

“It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”

It seems to be night in our nation right now, doesn’t it? We are so divided that it seems impossible to look upon the face of any fellow citizen and see a brother or sister. We’ve divived up into so many camps, and have come to see those others as enemies. Our institutions and leaders are failing to shed the light we need to see one another as brothers and sisters. For the last several years we share our Epiphany celebration in the church with the infamous day of an attempted insurrection on our national capitol. Epiphany is about a star shining in the darkness that signals a new day; it’s about the visit of strange foreigners to the Christ child’s home in Bethlehem, signaling the dawn of being able to see anyone as a brother or sister. But two thousand years later we solemnly remember hundreds of our fellow citizens storming the capitol believing that violence was necessary to hold up our democracy. As we enter into 2024, another election year, the likelihood of political violence looms large. We are so divided. How do we begin to see one another as brothers and sisters.

In our Second Reading today, St. Paul speaks of a mystery that has alluded many generations of humankind. Now, in Jesus Christ the mystery has been revealed, and it is this: Gentiles are included in the promises of God so that they become part of the same body, part of the same human family. Brothers and sisters.

Say what? That’s the mystery? Gentiles are included in the promises given to God’s people? In the chapter before today’s reading, in Ephesians 2, this is stated more clearly, I think, than anywhere else in Scripture. It has become a defining Bible passage for me, and I commend it to you for navigating these perilous, divisive times we’re living through. St. Paul writes,

For Christ Jesus is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace. . . . (Eph 2:14-15)

In Jesus Christ, God creates one new humanity in place of the two. That’s it! That’s the Gospel! All the ways in which we divide ourselves. All the ways in which we deny seeing fellow human beings as brothers or sisters. God is working to undo all that through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Paul talked about this as creating one new humanity out of the divide that he knew well: that of Jew and Gentile. It’s also the point of Matthew telling us about the visit of the Magi. This child represents God coming to be with us, Emmanuel, in order to bring the whole human family together. No more Us-vs-Them in any respect. There’s no longer Us and Them, only Us.

Matthew goes a bit further by showing us the usual results to Us-vs-Them thinking: We believe in political violence as the only way to stop Them. Our leaders epitomize this so often. Kings and emperors always led the way in Us-vs-Them thinking throughout our history. So the tragic conclusion to the wonderful story of the Wise Men is that King Herod kills all the male babies in Bethlehem — just after Mary and Joseph and Jesus flee to Egypt. Herod is typical of human leaders in believing in political violence as the solution to all his problems. Matthew’s Gospel gives us this contrast throughout his story of Jesus: human beings believing in political violence, while Jesus the Messiah teaches us to — what? — turn the other cheek and love our enemies. While King Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of heaven chooses to suffer the violence, not inflict it.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, as we enter 2024, polls tells us that a frightening number of our fellow citizens once again believe in political violence. Have you ever thought of democracy as a wonderful antidote to such violence? That we don’t have to scheme up violent revolutions to get bad leaders out of office. We vote them out and then have a peaceful transition. Voting is one of the greatest inventions we’ve had to put political violence behind us as a constant way of life. But now millions of our fellow citizens say that they once again believe in political violence when it comes to elections. I have to admit that I’m afraid we will not be able to get through this year without at least some violence. Do you share that fear?

How can you and I become part of working to minimize that violence? Let’s not just sit around and wait for it to happen. Let’s answer the call of the Gospel to proclaim the Good News of God working to rectify our belief in violence. That the Good News of Jesus Christ revolves around God creating one new humanity in place of all our divisions. It centers on this child threatened by folks like Herod who grew up to show us a better way, a way based on love and forgiveness, a way based on suffering the violence rather than dishing it out. And you and I are called to be citizens of this new way to live as human beings.

At the end of Ephesians 2, Paul proclaims that we “are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Eph 2:19-20). In today’s reading, he calls us to share in his calling “to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:9-10). Do you see? Central to our mission in the Church is to show fellow citizens, even the “rulers and authorities,” how we can live together in peace as one family.

How do we do that? Do we continue to talk, for example, about being a Reconciling in Christ congregation? Can we be welcoming of everyone? Including those often left out based our divisions in our culture around gender and sexuality? That we might lead the way by seeing each person who comes here as a brother or sister? Can we also lead the way on things like understanding racism and standing against it? Can we even dare to wade into some of the political issues that divide us? With the aim of working to find common ground? So that we no longer see others as enemies but as citizens working toward the common goal of living in peace? We are called to bring about the dawn when we can look upon the face of any man or woman and see a brother or sister. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, January 7, 2024

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 13:44): https://fb.watch/r6rri8LjxW/

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