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Friday, January 6, 2012

Too Many Epiphanies?

In the midst of a clamor of people claiming to speak for God, know God, be God, God’s Epiphany in Jesus is the true appearance, shown in his life, death and resurrection, and now appearing in our lives.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, the Epiphany of Our Lord; texts: Matthew 2:1-12; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 (with reference to John 1)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

Our confirmands have been working through Joshua, Judges, and Ruth for daily devotional readings over the Christmas break, and tomorrow we’ll be discussing what they’ve read.  Central to the experience of the story of the book of Judges is this verse, repeated several times: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (17:6)  What a wonderfully succinct way to summarize the problems of Israel at the time.

We sometimes hear the same thing about God today – people wish that God would appear and speak to us as in days of old, since no one seems to be hearing God anymore, and everyone does “what is right in their own eyes.”  But on this feast of the Epiphany of our Lord, it seems to me that our real difficulty is that there are too many so-called appearances of God, and we don’t know what to do about them.

Epiphany is about literally a manifestation of God in the world, the appearance of God in our lives.  For Christians, Jesus is God’s self-revelation – no one knows God except through Jesus the Son of God, who makes God’s love, God’s will, and God’s plan known to us.

But as I said, there are so many people who are claiming to speak for God, or to know what God wants or desires, or even to be God.  If we are to celebrate that the real God, the true God, creator of heaven and earth, has been revealed in the world, we want to know if we’re on the right track.  How do we know if this Epiphany – God revealed to us in Jesus – is a true epiphany, and not one of thousands of impostors?

It is all Antiochus’ fault that I’m thinking about this.

He’s the wonderful guy who brought us Hanukkah.  Antiochus IV was a king in the Seleucid line of Greek rulers of the eastern remnants of Alexander the Great’s empire – they ruled over Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine.  Antiochus IV ruled from 175 BCE to 164 BCE.

Now, Antiochus IV was rather full of himself.  His predecessors and successors often chose second names to distinguish themselves from the others, or were nicknamed those second names by others.  After all, over time one Antiochus can be confused with another, and there were eventually 13 rulers of that name who were numbered, and five others without number.

His immediate predecessors had impressive nicknames: Antiochus I was called “Soter” – “Savior” – by people whom he saved in battle.  Antiochus II was called “Theos” – “God” – again, by a people who regarded him as such for his saving of their nation in war.  And Antiochus III – father of IV – called himself “The Great.”  A classic favorite, that one.  Unfortunately, not so exalted a nickname was given to poor Antiochus VIII “Grypus” – “grypus” means “Hook-Nose.”  For, we have to assume, obvious reasons.

But back to Antiochus IV.  He chose to name himself Epiphanes – that is, the manifestation of God in the world, Epiphany.  He was the first Hellenistic king to assume divine attributes for himself – his predecessors had their titles given them by others.  He was also so eccentric and capricious that some of his enemies called him “Epimanes,” a play on his self-made title, a word which means “the Mad One.”

Of course, as he thought was truly God, when he entered Jerusalem in 169 BCE he insisted upon entering the holy of holies in the Temple.  In December of 167, as part of his attempt to Hellenize Palestine, he had Temple sacrifices banned and erected a Greek altar in the Temple and sacrificed a pig to Zeus on it.

Not the most brilliant of political moves, to be sure.  Jewish revolt in reaction to this enormous sacrilege, led by Judas Maccabeus and his family, resulted in the restoration of a Jewish state for about 100 years, until General Pompey and the Romans conquered Palestine again in 63 B.C.

If this sounds familiar, it should.  The festival of Hanukkah celebrates the story that when the Temple was being cleansed and rededicated after this sacrilege, there was only enough non-desecrated oil to burn for one day instead of the eight days needed for the purification.  But miraculously, the oil lasted all eight days.
However, on Epiphany it isn’t Hanukkah that interests me.  It is Antiochus the Fourth, Epiphanes.  Because he is only one of many to claim to be a revelation of God.

And of course, that raises the question: can we distinguish true epiphanies from false?

The problem is that not all who claim to be God or know God are as obviously unhinged as Antiochus.  Octavian, the grandnephew and heir to Julius Caesar, took the name Augustus when he became emperor.  “Augustus” is Latin for “revered, most holy, excellent.”  And with that name he followed the idea that he, like his uncle Julius, was divine, and really cemented for the Romans the custom of believing the emperor to be a divine manifestation.  He wasn’t out of his mind as a ruler, though.  In fact, he presided over a reign of peace in the whole Roman empire that lasted over 50 years.

And in our time, there are many.  Some outlandish, some not.  Some claim divinity for themselves, like Antiochus.  People like David Koresh, Sun Myung Moon, or Jim Jones, in recent American history.  Now, we might want to dismiss them, and other cult leaders of our current time.  But many follow such charismatic leaders.  And many believe they are the real thing.

Others have divinity claimed for them, like the five-year-old boy in the Twin Cities who is believed to be the eighth reincarnation of a Tibetan Buddhist lama.  Strictly speaking, Buddhists don’t understand divinity and God the way we do, but still, these are exalted claims to be made for a human being.  When he’s ten, he’ll move to India to develop and grow into the divine spiritual leader he’s believed to be.

But far more prevalent is the New Age tendency simply to claim the divine within.  God is manifest in me – as I think and believe, so is God.  Which leads of course to this postulation: God’s law is what I decide – therefore what I want is right simply because I want it.  So there is not one God, there are potentially seven billion manifestations of the divine, for each of us can create God ourselves.

And again, we Christians scoff.  But what makes us any different, we who worship a first century Jewish teacher as God?  We who say that Magi from the East followed a star and worshipped a baby born to poor folks as the Savior of the world?  We who say that the festival of the Epiphany of Our Lord celebrates that the one, true God is manifest in the world in this baby?  How are we different?

Perhaps the Magi can help us.  They followed signs, investigated the truth, and eventually worshipped.

For the Magi, I am sometimes amazed they saw this baby as an epiphany.  What faith they had, to believe God was present in that place!  They believed that this baby was the Savior of the world.

But they did this after their study, after their following of the signs, and after their investigating.  And though they knew little of what we know about Jesus, the Magi did their best to discover the truth.  And then they fell down and worshipped.

For us, we know so much more about Jesus.  How he lived a life of love and taught about God’s grace.  Unlike Antiochus, Augustus, Koresh, or any others, he didn’t build himself up.  He lived for others.  He healed, taught, loved, and said this was the way of God.  And that makes sense to us.  Not manipulation and self-enhancement.  But servanthood and love.

In fact, the psalm chosen for Epiphany – and it was chosen most likely because of its reference to kings bearing gifts to the King’s Son – the psalm describes the true king, the son of God, as the one who has compassion on the poor, who preserves the lives of the needy, who delivers those who are oppressed.  Check the claims, and check the evidence of Jesus, the Magi would say.  Does he look to be the Son of God or not?

And of course it is his death and resurrection which make us clear that today we truly are celebrating the Epiphany of the true God.  Again, this is unlike any other humans claiming to be god whom we’ve mentioned.  There is a great story I heard long ago about a man who was trying to develop a religion of his own in France during the Enlightenment.  I wish I could remember where this came from, or even if it’s true, but as I heard the story, this man was frustrated that not many followed him or became dedicated to what he saw as truth and as divinity.  Expressing these frustrations to a friend, his friend suggested that if he really wanted to start a religion and be believed, he might consider getting himself killed, and then rise on the third day.

Because for us, there is this reality: that the child whom the wise men worshipped as God manifest to the world, grew up and died and rose from the dead for us.  He revealed God in a way no phony or impostor could – because no impostor could have such power and love.

And lastly, because we know Jesus specifically, we are prevented from seeking the divine in our own minds.  We do not believe that each of us can make God.  Or even be God.  For us, there is one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, revealed in Jesus, whose life, death and resurrection confirm that Jesus is the Epiphany, the revelation of God in the world for us, and for all people.  And in fact, the truth of this Epiphany is that God is with us – so we’re not God, but the Spirit of God comes to us and fills our lives and hearts with faith and life.

“No one has ever seen God,” says the Evangelist John.

“It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”  That is the truth that we know and in which we rejoice on this night of the Epiphany.  Jesus has truly made God known to us.
May we joyfully believe that this is the real thing, the one Epiphany that really matters, because we know and believe and love this Jesus, who shows us the truth about God.

And may we let the light of God shine through us – not because we are divine, but because in coming to be with us, God has given us the gift to carry this Epiphany into the world, and be God’s light, God’s star, leading people to Jesus.  So that Jesus can reveal God’s love to them, too.  So they can experience a real Epiphany as we do.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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