Sunday, January 6, 2008

Epiphany

(Read Jer. 31:31-34, Ephesians 3:1-12)

In the late winter of 2004, I was sitting in Sunday morning worship at the Princeton University chapel, and I was feeling pretty down. My academic load seemed beyond my abilities, my personal life was overshadowed by conflict, and I had no inner peace to speak of.

Worship began and we sang a few hymns as usual, then came the prayer of confession and the words of assurance, then another hymn. It was the same Sunday morning ritual I had participated in hundreds of times. The minister assured the entire congregation and myself that, in the name of Jesus Christ, we were forgiven. He reminded us of God’s great love.

And then, as I was sitting there, all of a sudden, I believed every word the minister said and knew them to be true. All the problems I had been struggling with only moments ago disappeared, and a tingling sensation went through my heart. “God loves me,” I said to myself, and I both laughed and cried at the utter relief and pure joy that I felt. My life’s circumstances didn’t seem so overwhelming and my “issues” did not seem so big. God loved me. God was for me. God was there right by my side encouraging me in this once dismal hour.

What happened on that Sunday morning some 4 years ago was, what I consider, an epiphany. In an instant, my understanding, perspective and feelings altered radically, and for the better!

According to the Encarta World English Dictionary, an epiphany is a "sudden, intuitive leap of understanding, especially through an ordinary but striking occurrence."

That’s exactly what this Sunday morning was. It was sudden; it came out of nowhere. It was intuitive; I hit me in my heart and gut. I understood my whole life and person in a way I never had; I literally felt like a different person. It may have been just another ordinary day, but I have never been quite the same since.

That day changed my life because to know, and I mean to really know, that you are loved is a transformative moment in one’s life. So is knowing that you are forgiven. When you think about it, to realize something is for that thing to become real in one’s life. On that day, the love and forgiveness of God became real in my life.

My experience is not a privileged one; epiphanies happen to all people, the thoughtful and the thoughtless, the young and the old, the least and the greatest. (Although I will argue later that to be thoughtful is better than to be thoughtless).

Can you recall some of the most memorable epiphanies you have had throughout your life?

Epiphanies come to reveal many things. They can be related to why your car won’t start, or what you want to do for the rest of your life; they can be related to why you and your brother have been fighting for the last 20 years or they can shed light on a doctrine of the Church.

An epiphany is more than a realization; it is a spectacular realization! One minute you know facts A, B, C and D, and while its good to know those things, they don’t really mean anything significant. The next minute, they add up. You see the connection between A, B, C and D, and your understanding is altered forever.

An epiphany converts knowledge into wisdom. It changes the way we see and relate to the world. The way we know and love God.

Epiphanies are explicit communications from Sophia, from Lady Wisdom herself.

Julian of Norwich, a woman of great significance in the Christian tradition, received an epiphany on May 13th of 1373. Julian was 30 years old and living in a small room off of a church in England. She was very concerned about her salvation, as was common among people based on the hell and damnation theology of their day. Julian was literally sick to death by her fear and lack of understanding of God’s will. But then, on that fateful day in May, she had a great moment of clarity and truth when the Lord revealed to her this, in Julian’s words: “And so our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts which I could raise, saying most comfortingly in this fashion: I will make all things well, I shall make all things well, I may make all things well and I can make all things well; and you will see yourself, that all things will be well” (Julian of Norwich. Showings. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978. pg. 151.).

A profound peace came over Julian like never before. In that moment, Julian was assured of her destiny as a beloved child in God's eternal kingdom, and she achieved a level of spiritual maturity she had never known.

The epiphanies that we seek and praise God for on this day are the one’s that transform our lives and illumine our relationships with God and each other.

Today is called Epiphany Sunday because the Magi, or the astrologers, who followed the star to Bethlehem, and who were not Israelites-- they may have come from Assyria or Persia-- realized that Jesus was the King of the Jews. Epiphany is the day that Jesus is revealed as the Messiah to the nations, to the Gentiles, and not to Israel alone. It is the most important of days because the covenant with God that was once cut off from all people but the Israelites is now open to all who believe in Jesus as God’s Son.

That is what Paul is trying to say in 1 Peter. While he himself was a Jew, Paul had a revelation, an epiphany, of just who Jesus was, and through the wisdom he received, he began proclaiming to the Gentiles how they were now welcomed into covenant, into relationship with God and were born anew in Christ Jesus.

“Through the revelation [Paul] received, [he] now begins to grasp the breadth of God’s reach of love and compassion. The world has changed! Everyone, regardless of nationality, has equal, sustained, and immediate access to the love and companionship of God! This revelation, this revolution, transformed [Paul's] life to such and extent that he now introduces himself not as Paul the eminent scholar [of the Jewish nation, but as a servant of the Gospel and our Lord Jesus Christ.]” (cannot remember exact source).

God continues to speak and convey profound wisdom and insight to believers. The greatest epiphany most people experience is when they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, and not just because someone told them to, but because they know it to be true. But revelation does not stop there. One could argue that is only the beginning!

Epiphanies are one of the extraordinary ways in which God communicates with us; through them we mature spiritually and our minds are renewed into the likeness of Jesus.

God told the prophet Jeremiah, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33). God speaks to us, teaching us how to love and serve. Perhaps even more fundamental, God shows us how much God loves and serves us. To know the love of God--that’s divine knowledge. That’s the assurance of heaven.

While epiphanies are by definition sudden, that doesn’t mean that we can’t help facilitate the process. It is absolutely crucial for those following the Way to be open and welcoming of insight and change.

There are spiritual practices that we can do to set the stage for our leaps in understanding.

A new year is upon us. The beginning of a new year is a good time to reflect upon our lives: the year that was and the year to come.

Today, you have a piece of paper that asks you what you are thankful for in 2007, as well as what you hope for in 2008. Fill it out and keep it in a place where you will read it throughout the year.

The spiritual practice pertaining to 2007 involves the colorful glass bead you took this morning. It is for our gratitude. Give this colorful piece of glass a meaning; make it a representation of something you are truly grateful for. Family, friends, health—these are all important, but also consider a fruit of the spirit or a virtue. How have you grown this year? Less angry? Less materialistic? More giving? We have all grown in a spiritual way this year, and as the worshipping community of faith, it is a joy to acknowledge our maturation together.

Once you have identified this stone with something important that has happened to you, give it back to God. After I’m done speaking, you will have an opportunity to come forward, and put the jewel into this vase. What God has given you, you can come forward and give to God in reverence and thanksgiving.

Then, and this is our spiritual practice concerning 2008, come over to the table of candles, and light a candle regarding what you hope will happen to you this year in your spiritual life. Perhaps to bear a certain fruit of the spirit or a virtue that would really transform each and every day. To have inner peace? To be less judgmental? To be more trusting? It’s important that we communicate our hopes to God. By being intentional about what we desire, not only are we praying, but we begin to look with eyes open at what God is doing to help us along the way.

We cannot make an epiphany happen, but we can put ourselves on the path where God can reach us with very important, life changing messages.

The giving of the glass jewels and the lighting of the candles, these are rituals we can embrace to bring in the new year with gratitude and hope. They also might be the beginning of a great revelation, one that God is working within you. A revelation that you are partners with the Lord in creating.

This is not the end of the sermon; now comes the most important part. Please come forward with your glass jewel, handing them over in praise and thanksgiving. Then light your candle as a sign of your trust and hope in God for spectacular things to happens in 2008.

As the Lord said through Jeremiah, “I shall be there God and they shall be my people...They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jer. 31:33, 34).

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