I saw a bumper sticker today that read “When all else fails consult the directions.” Next to the words was a picture of an open Bible. I think that’s a perfect way to look at Epiphany, since it is the story of a journey and some very smart men looking for directions. January 6th, Epiphany, in the Eastern Orthodox Churches is the major Christmas celebration, more than December 25th. It is the day on which the church remembers the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem.
We call them the “Wise” men–certainly smart enough to recognize that in the birth of this baby something extraordinary had happened that changed even the world they lived in far to the East. These mysterious travelers didn’t know exactly what they were looking for or who they would find. Their first instincts were wrong because they went to see Herod since he was the king. God rarely operates in the way we expect God to act. God is full of surprises–like a baby born in a manger. Surely the Wisemen were like us, expecting this regal child to have a royal bassinet. They provide us with that age-old lesson that God comes into the world, and into our lives, in unexpected people, strange places, and odd times.
Epiphany is the season of “showing forth”–that is, unabashedly proclaiming God in Christ in our lives. Showing forth is something that we could stand doing a bit more often. St. Paul writes in his second letter to the Church in Corinth that we are “Ambassadors for Christ.” I always thought that being an ambassador would be a very exciting job. I picture a Cary Grant type fellow dressed in his tails, looking very stylish and being witty. I have to say that’s not a bad image for ambassadors for Christ. They are not all out on the street corners on soapboxes. Some of them are in law firms, others in college, others in hospitals, some in offices, a few in churches, and a whole lot in the neighborhood. Ambassadors are not supposed to be obnoxious, or pompous, or arrogant. They are people wise enough to figure out how to talk about important subjects in a language that others can understand. They are not afraid of their duty, but they are respectful of others. They go to where other people live, and they represent their country sometimes by word, often by deeds, and at times simply by “being there.”
Epiphany is an opportunity for us to be Ambassadors for a heavenly country, and it is a chance to tell others about the sweet hope and warm love we have found in Jesus Christ.
Three Sermons by St. James’s Youth
Youth-led Service of Epiphany
January 6, 1999
For the last ten years I have attended a Catholic school. Every day I have religion class, and once a week or so, I go to Mass. From my first days of learning, I was taught my religion. I was told that God created the world and all of its life in seven days. I never thought ‘What a miracle that was!’ Instead, I memorized God’s actions in order and just believed it to be true. I was taught that Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary and that wise men traveled from afar, following a star just to worship an infant king. I didn’t ever think to myself, ‘what a journey that must have been; what remarkable faith they must have had in the Lord!’ The journey in my mind was the long distance down the aisle at church that I would walk down to play my part as a king in the Christmas Pageant.
As I got older, I started to pray more often. Of course, I was only reciting prayers that I had memorized word for word in school. I wasn’t listening to the meanings of words. I was just “praying.” This is how you pray.
Then, two years ago, I went to a summer camp. While there I went on a four-day hike in the Appalachian Mountains. All day for four days we just hiked, giving me more time than you can imagine just to think. As my mind wandered, I began to remember all of the stories I had read from the Bible, and all of the things I was taught in religion class. And for the first time ever, I actually wondered how these things were done. Occasionally I would ask myself, ‘How is that possible…?’ or ‘How do they know that for sure?’ I would think ‘no, it was probably made up; after all, the Bible was written based on oral tradition.’ But then I would realize what I was saying and immediately brush the thought out of my head, scolding myself ‘no, that’s just what happened. They just know it.’ And for a while I was able to do this, but not for long.
I was quite taken by one of my counselor’s clear views about her faith. I told myself, ‘She’s got it all figured out, I’ll just ask her.’ So I would go to her with my doubts and questions, looking for her to give me a text-book answer and then I would understand everything.
Her answers, though, were only her own opinions and what she had come to believe. And while I did agree with her on some things, on others I did not. And I tried to tell myself to agree, but I simply could not. I had to question it, I had to find my own answers, I had to understand for myself. So while I was hiking I would think about what she told me and what all of my teachers had told me, and I questioned it. I questioned everything I ever believed in just searching and searching for the answer. I prayed to God to tell me, to make it all clear to me. Finally I was actually speaking to the Lord, not just having a memorized prayer roll off my tongue, but speaking my true heart. I prayed to God and told God all of my doubts and questions . I wanted an answer so badly that I just couldn’t see it. I finished praying and just cleared my mind and as I was walking peacefully it all became clear to me, not just suddenly, but gradually. I slowly was seeing the answers and discovering my own beliefs in God’s love. What had just been almost impossible in my eyes became incredible. I had an Epiphany there on the mountain, and my life was changed. Now instead of just assuming or doubting that God was real and had a part of my life, I believed it and I lived it.
I didn’t tell anybody that I was with on that trip what happened, because then I would only be giving them my beliefs, and I truly believe that they needed to find it for themselves. The only way for my faith to grow was to question and to doubt something if I didn’t understand or believe in it. When I did this, I let myself become open and then God found me.
How do I live with God in my heart and how do I keep him there?” That is a question I ask myself a lot, and I am sure you all do, too. To me, life is just one big search, and I am always looking for God wherever I go and in everything I do. But the funny thing is, he is always there and we just don’t know that he is. It’s just like when the three Wisemen were following the star and they probably had no idea they would find the Christ child in a humble stable. I expect Him to just pop out and say, “Hey, it’s me, God!”, but I know that will never really happen. We all wish for our own security that we are believing in something that really does exist. I learned that you can’t wait around for some big flashy sign that says “God is real,” but believe in Him and trust that He is always with you.
I know that trusting God is one of the best ways to live life because our fate is in His hands. I know that there are times when we all question our trust in God, but I believe He will never let me down. I think when we do fall on our faces God is trying to teach us a lesson, and He wants us to learn from it. Failing is not a bad thing, it’s just something to make you stronger. I have learned that many times! But when I do put my trust in God I usually succeed. One time that really stuck out in my head was when I was at camp and I got to go on the high ropes for the first time. This was a really big deal because it was 30 feet up in the air, but I was still psyched to go! I started out really well and I was flying through the first few obstacles. Then I came to the tight-rope wire with a rope for you to hold onto while you walk. That was were everyone freaked, started crying, or said they wanted to get down. As I started out I was so scared that I was going to fall. I know that I wasn’t because I had a harness on that was connected to a wire. But the fear was still there. At one point my feet slipped off the wire and I was just dangling in mid-air. That was when I thought I could never do it. I did start to cry a little, and my counselor just told me if I got back up I could finish it. I wanted so badly to hold onto my ropes, but I knew that would be cheating and it would make me feel like I could do it. As I walked on I was almost there and I just prayed that God would help me finish this ropes course. And sure enough, I did-and it was the greatest feeling in the world! That is where I succeeded and it was all because I put my trust in God and didn’t let those bad voices in my head take over my emotions.
The times like when I was on the ropes course are the times when I really feel God the strongest in my life. Even though that might be true I know he is always there, walking beside me. It’s like the story of the man who had a dream he was on the beach with Christ walking beside him, and he was walking though his life. As he walked along, it seemed like when he was having tough times, there was only one set of footprints along the beach. This really bothered the man, because he was always taught that God was always with him. The man asked Jesus why there was only one set of footprints in the sand when he was going through tough times, and Jesus said to him, “My child, that was when I picked you up and carried you along.”
Doesn’t it feel like you lose something at least once a day? Even if it is something so small, like a sock or a watch. And then, the more frustrating things–like your coat, or car keys. Almost every day it seems as though I am searching for something. This summer when I went on the South Dakota Mission Trip, I didn’t know exactly what I was searching for. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to search for lost belongings, but with the belief that everyone is on some kind of search at all times, I knew that I would be looking for something.
At one point on the trip, I went on a search for a lost bicycle with two of the boys on the reservation. We went everywhere and pretty much covered the entire area owned by the tribe. I found myself in places and surroundings that I could never picture myself seeing. I didn’t realize it until later, but on their search for the bicycle I went on my own search inside myself. As I saw them having fun outdoors, I remembered being a young child and I felt the fear of being in an unfamiliar area that a child would fear and the frustration of losing an item that a child feels. I also felt the excitement of being free to make my own choices, the adventure of covering unknown ground. Inside their never-ending search for a lost toy, I went on my own search for the child I had lost inside my self. The child that was buried by school work, friends, and social obligations. The child that knew how to have fun without spending ten bucks, and the child who thought that searching for a lost bicycle was an adventure.
In a way, our search for our little daily things and our bigger searches for the lost things inside ourselves are like the Wisemen searching for the Christ child. They didn’t know what to expect, they didn’t know how long it might take to find him, but they never gave up. In Matthew 2:8, Herod says, “Go, and search diligently for the child.” This is what the Wisemen did; they didn’t give up until they found the child.
This is also how our search for the bicycle went. Those two boys weren’t going to give up. They were determined in their search, and we looked for two hours in the most unexpected places. The boys were ready to continue their search indefinitely, but it was stopped short. Not by a star or a found bicycle, but by a worried trip leader wondering why our 15-minute walk had turned into a two-hour expedition. Those boys wouldn’t give up! They didn’t become discouraged when the bike wasn’t in the place they thought it might be. They just moved onto the next place. This is how our search for God should be: never-ending. We should never give up, because God can be found in unexpected places.