Epiphany: showing forth God’s secrets

Epiphany is, perhaps, my favourite of the Christian festivals and rituals. Occurring twelve days after Christmas – that is, on the 6th of January – it is a Greek word meaning “showing forth” or “sudden appearance.” Commonly used within the English language to refer to a sudden revelation, it is, for me, about being given a glimpse into the mystery of a God too big to know or truly comprehend who becomes small enough to hold in human arms. There is something incredibly intimate and inviting in that choice; something that necessitates response.

The traditional readings for an Epiphany service are:

  • Isaiah 60:1-6 – the glory of God rises upon people living in hopelessness, in darkness, transforming their circumstances in a way which reveals God’s presence and action within their lives;
  • Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 – the coming King, Christ Jesus, is to be honoured and exalted by the people and the powers of the world, for his reign will be wise and just and peaceful;
  • Ephesians 3:1-12 – the great responsibility of revealing God’s secret plan to grant all people bold and confident access to God’s immeasurable riches is entrusted to God’s prophets and apostles;
  • Matthew 2:1-12 – the wise men travel from the east to worship Jesus and, in the gifts they offer, a glimpse of the baby’s true nature is given: gold, for a king, which will provide for the family as they flee to Egypt from jealous Herod; frankincense used for worship and prayer, a symbol of holiness; and myrrh which was placed within the tombs of someone whose death was important.

The liturgy below is designed to help people experience a bit of the unfamiliar, the unknown. The traditional order of service with a central sermon has been put aside in favour of a reflection in four parts bound together by songs and prayer. The hymn and song selections shown are for  a multicultural community and encompass not only different languages but also different styles of worship.

Part 1: Opening ourselves up to the unknown

As with gladness men of old
Did the guiding star behold;
As with joy they hailed its light,
Leading onward, beaming bright,
So, most gracious Lord, may we
Evermore be led by Thee!

As with joyful steps they sped,
Savior, to Thy lowly bed,
There to bend the knee before
Thee whom heaven and earth adore,
So may we with willing feet
Ever seek Thy mercy-seat!

As they offered gifts most rare
At Thy cradle, rude and bare,
So may we with holy joy,
Pure and free from sin’s alloy,
All our costliest treasures bring,
Christ, to Thee, our heavenly King!

Holy Jesus, every day
Keep us in the narrow way;
And when earthly things are past.
Bring our ransomed souls at last
Where they need no star to guide,
Where no clouds Thy glory hide.

In the heavenly country bright
Need they no created light;
Thou its Light, its Joy, its Crown,
Thou its Sun which goes not down.
There forever may we sing
Alleluias to our King!

We say we’ve had an epiphany when the light suddenly goes on; when the unseen or the unfathomable suddenly becomes clear; when we boldly and decisively know what to do in the midst of our situation; when we are struck by a thought or a realisation that we had never had before.

Epiphany is about wise men from the East who saw a new star in the sky
and realised that God’s promises were unfolding right before their eyes.

Epiphany is about the journey that they undertook, boldly, faithfully, without knowing where it would lead them – just that it was important.

Epiphany is about the gifts that they offered – not toys for a baby to play with; but gold, frankincense and myrrh for a King not like other kings.

Epiphany is about the God-given insight into the hidden, horrible motives of those who feel their power threatened by news that signals newness for all under their rule and reign.

Epiphany is about our responsibility as those who come close to God and who God has come close to, to walk with our faces in the sunlight of God’s glory that the secret of God’s all-embracing love may be shared.

Light of the World,
Sun which does not go down,
Bright Mystery, 
give us this day a glimpse of Your glory;
an epiphany of where we fit into Your heart and Your plan.
Amen. 

Sing prayerfully a few times …

Open the eyes of my heart, Lord
Open the eyes of my heart
I want to see you
I want to see you.

***

Light of the world
You stepped down into darkness
Opened my eyes, let me see
Beauty that made this heart adore You
Hope of a life spent with You

Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down
Here I am to say that You’re my God
Altogether lovely, altogether worthy
Altogether wonderful to me

King of all days, oh so highly exalted
You’re glorious in heaven above, yes You are
Humbly You came to this Earth You created
All for love’s sake became poor

Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down
Here I am to say that You’re my God
Altogether lovely, altogether worthy
Altogether wonderful to me

***

You are holy, holy, holy
Holy, holy, holy,
Holy, holy, holy
I want to see You.

Part 2: Praising the King who has come

The prophet Isaiah urged the people of Jerusalem to wake up, get up, look up:
“Arise, Jerusalem! Let your light shine for all to see.
    For the glory of the Lord rises to shine on you.
Darkness as black as night covers all the nations of the earth,
    but the glory of the Lord rises and appears over you.
All nations will come to your light;
    mighty kings will come to see your radiance.
“Look and see, for everyone is coming home!
    Your sons are coming from distant lands;
    your little daughters will be carried home.
Your eyes will shine,
    and your heart will thrill with joy,
for merchants from around the world will come to you.
    They will bring you the wealth of many lands.
Vast caravans of camels will converge on you,
    the camels of Midian and Ephah.
The people of Sheba will bring gold and frankincense
    and will come worshiping the Lord.”

Many of us have shut our eyes to the darkness, hardened our hearts against the hope that the world can be different – that we can be different – for fear of yet another disappointment but Epiphany invites us to open our eyes and lift our faces to the light of Christ with and within us.

Yet the imagery of the coming Messiah is not only the imagery of a suffering servant, but also the imagery of a Mighty Ruler.

For some of us, when we think of kings, we think of yet another power to exploit and oppress us; another ruler to pay unearned homage to; another palace to be built on our sweat and tears; another ego to be pleased and placated. Yet the Christ who comes at Christmas-time is the King of kings, unlike any other king.

For some of us, when we think of Christ as king, a sense of anxiety or stubbornness overtakes us, for while we want a Saviour, a new best friend,
we would prefer to keep God small and manageable within our arms rather than having to contemplate the bowing down, the obedience, the surrender that the majesty of our Sovereign Lord demands.

And so I invite you to take a moment in silence to bring before God any fear, any anxiety, any rebellion within your heart that you may, with freedom and great joy, praise the King who has come.

Lord, Your light has come
Into our darkness,
Into our desire,
Into our despair,
Into our desperation.

In Your light we are made radiant;
through Your love we are gathered home.
You bring peace to Your people,
Justice to the poor,
Judgement tempered with mercy,
Compassion to the weak,
Hope to the children of the needy,
Salvation from oppression and violence. 

You come at unexpected times,

in unexpected ways:
who are we that human hands should hold you,
that unclean lips should tell of God with and within us?
Yet we are precious in Your eyes –
when we bleed, You bleed;
when we die, You die.

We see You this day for who You are –
beautiful and glorious,
mighty and magnificent,
all powerful and ever-compassionate
and we praise You alone,
for You alone are holy and humble and righteous.

A SeShona chorus with English translation in brackets:

Ndiye oga (He is the only one)
Ndiye, Ndiye (He is, He is)
O Ndiye, (He is the only one)
Wakarurama (Who is righteous)

Simudza maoko ako (Raise up your hands)
Urumbidze Mwari (And praise God)
Nekuti ndiye oga (For He is the only one)
Wakarurama (Who is righteous)

***

Hosanna, hosanna,
hosanna in the highest.
Hosanna, hosanna,
hosanna in the highest.
Lord, we lift up Your name,
with our hearts full of praise.
Be exalted, O Lord, our God,
hosanna in the highest.

Glory, glory,
glory to the King of kings.
Glory, glory,
glory to the King of kings.
Lord, we lift up Your name,
with our hearts full of praise.
Be exalted, O Lord, our God,
glory to the King of kings.

Jesus, Jesus,
Jesus is the King of kings.
Jesus, Jesus,
Jesus is the King of kings.
Lord, we lift up Your name,
with our hearts full of praise.
Be exalted, O Lord, our God,
Jesus is the King of kings.

***

A multilingual chorus with English translation in brackets:

Uyahalalela uyahalalela,
Uyahalalela Jesu wa Makgotla
(Glorious, he is glorious, Jesus Lord of hosts)
Mphefumlo wam’ Uyakhudumisa
(My soul worships You)
Uyakhazimula uyakhazimula,
Uyakhazimula Nkosi yama Nkosi
(Glorious, he is glorious, Jesus Lord of hosts)

Moya waka o ea ho rorisa
(My soul worships You)

Part 3: Surrendering to our best life
*A dramatic reading combining Psalm 72:1-7,10-14 and Matthew 2:1-12*

Voice 1: Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea during the time when Herod was king. When Jesus was born, some wise men from the east came to Jerusalem.
Voice 2: They asked, “Where is the baby who was born to be the king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

Voice 3: Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.
Voice 4: May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.
Voice 3: May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.
Voice 4: May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.
Voice 3: May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
Voice 4: May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.
Voice 3: In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.
Voice 4: May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.

Voice 1: When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, as were all the people in Jerusalem. Herod called a meeting of all the leading priests and teachers of the law and asked them where the Christ would be born. They answered,
Voice 2: “In the town of Bethlehem in Judea. The prophet wrote about this in the Scriptures:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are not just an insignificant village in Judah.
A ruler will come from you
    who will be like a shepherd for my people Israel.’”

Voice 3: May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.
Voice 4: For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.
Voice 3: He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.
Voice 4: From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.

Voice 1: Then Herod had a secret meeting with the wise men and learned from them the exact time they first saw the star. He sent the wise men to Bethlehem, saying,
Voice 2: “Look carefully for the child. When you find him, come tell me so I can worship him too.”

*As Voice 1 concludes the story, voices 2, 3 and 4 make their way to the altar and place the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.*

After the wise men heard the king, they left. The star that they had seen in the east went before them until it stopped above the place where the child was. 
When the wise men saw the star, they were filled with joy. They came to the house where the child was and saw him with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. They opened their gifts and gave him treasures of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But God warned the wise men in a dream not to go back to Herod, so they returned to their own country by a different way.

***

*a brief reflection is offered*

Epiphany is about God declaring in word and flesh: “See! I am with you! I am here in your midst!”

Often, when we hear the story of the wise men who travelled far from the East following a star, we focus on the remarkable faith required for them to undertake such a journey, or on the preciousness and the rich symbolism of the gifts that they carried with them.

Seldom do we take time to reflect on the profound gift that God offers in this moment of  revelation: the invitation to step out of the ordinary confines of human existence into the extraordinary adventure of a life filled with the power and creativity and movement of God’s presence.

The star in the sky was, indeed, a birth announcement but it was also a catalyst for those who believed in God’s faithfulness, those who trusted in God’s promises, to move beyond the boundaries of the seen and known;of reason, of geography, of budgets, of daily routine into the realm of hope and possibility.

God’s “See! I am with you! I am here in your midst!” invites us to examine whether we living our best possible life. Not a good life. Not a safe life. Not a happy-enough life. Not an at-least-I-know-what-tomorrow-holds life. Not even a I-have-all-I-could-ask-for life. Our best possible life.

A life lived with a deep awareness of our connection to God, to one another, to the world around us, to enemy and to stranger. An open-eyed life in which we look constantly for evidence of God with us, in the familiar and in the unexpected. A life in which we are not bound by rules and routines so much as liberated by Love, to love – in simple acts of kindness as well as extravagant, outrageous, generous gestures. A life in which work is a joy and a reward, and rest is protected and savoured. A life in which our immediate answer is not “No” when we are confronted by the uncomfortable, the unknown, the unplanned for; nor “Yes” to everything that is simply expected from us. A life of seeking and searching, sitting with questions, sharing stories, seeing new perspectives, standing steady on what we know to be true: “See! I am with you! I am here in your midst!”

God’s declaration set the wise men on their journey. Yet for King Herod and all the people in Jerusalem, it caused anxiety and worry, and a stubborn refusal to move from his palace and his power until he knew exactly where the king of the Jews was to be found and what was going on.

Surrendering to the best possible life that God has dreamed of for us often means giving up the security of our good-enough lives. And so I invite you to take a moment to think about God’s promise “See! I am with you! I am here in your midst!” and how you would like to respond at the start of 2016.

*the invitation can be made for people to come to the altar in prayer or to place their offertory gifts on the altar as a symbol of their surrender to their best possible life in and with God*

A SeSotho hymn of dedication with English translation in brackets:
‘Mêlê, pêlo, lê moea, (Body, heart and Soul,)
Botho kaofêla, (my whole being,)
Ke u bêêla tsona, (I am sparing them for you,)
Ke li têlla uêna.(I am saving them for you.)
Bohle (chorus):
Ê, sehlabêlo sa ka (Yes, my offering)
Ke ‘na ka sebele; (It’s me truly;)
Jêsu, Morên’a ka, (Jesus, my Lord,)
U se amohêlê! (Accept it!)
Ha ke hopola uêna, (When I think of you,)
Na nka qênêhêla’ng? (Why should I worry?)
Tsê ntlê ha ke na tsona, (I don’t have beautiful things,)
Tsê ka u khahlisang. (Which will satisfy you.)
Matla, leruo, bocha, (Strength, wealth, youth,)
Hlalêfo le tsohlê, (Intelligence and all,
U se kê ua li khêsa, (Don’t be against them,)
U li amohêle. (Accept them.)
Ho phêla hohlê ha ka, (My whole being,)
Nyênê lê bosiu, (Day and night,)
Ke ho bêêtse uêna, (I am sparing them for you,)
Ha ke ho re letho! (Let that mean something to you!)
U buê hlê, Monghali, (Talk please Lord,)
Le ‘na u ntaêlê, (Instruct me too,)
U nthomê mosêbêtsi, (Send me to work,)
Ke u sêbêlêtse. (To work for you.)
Leha u ka nthoma kaê, (Even if you send me anywhere,)
Ke na le ho thaba, (It makes me happy,)
Kahohle ho ‘n kê haê, (I feel at home,)
Moo kê rongoang k’uêna. (Where I am sent by you.)
Leha ke le lefêêla, (Even though I am nothing,)
Ke ntho êa hao ruri: (I am yours indeed:)
‘Na ha ke sa na taba, (I don’t worry,)
Ke ho uêna, nthêrê. (I am yours build me.)

Part 4: Sharing the promise of life
The news of God with us, in our midst, is a promise of life for all people – not for us alone. And so, as those who have received God’s love and light, let us pray for the life of all people, everywhere.

O Father who so faithfully brings light into the darkness, beauty into chaos, love into power
we pray this day for all who suffer under the oppression of tyranny and trouble,
of flood and famine,
of war and disaster,
of hatred and suspicion,
of greed and terror.
Make us welcoming and sensitive to all who come into our midst looking for hope and freedom.
Let Your light shine through us with the promise of life.

O Christ cradled in human arms as angels and shepherds and wise men worshipped,
we pray this day for all who feel vulnerable, fragile, afraid of what the future holds –
for those homeless by choice and by necessity,
for those barely able to afford a little bread,
for those who have been criticised and ridiculed,
victimised and abused because of their age or gender or religion or ethnicity,
for those chronically ill or in constant pain.
Make us welcoming and sensitive to all who come into our midst looking for sanctuary and justice.
Let Your light shine through us with the promise of life.

O Spirit whose guiding star leads people to the truth of Your presence,
and the best life made possible by Your love,
we pray this day for all who are on the path of seeking and searching
whether driven there by unquenchable curiosity,
or longing,
or loneliness,
or boredom,
or stress-related illness,
or heart-wrenching loss.
Make us welcoming and sensitive to all who come into our midst looking for significance and sense.
Let Your light shine through us with the promise of life.

Lord of the light of your love is shining
In the midst of the darkness shining
Jesus, light of the world shine upon us
Set us free by the truth you now bring us
Shine on me, shine on me
Shine Jesus shine,
Fill this land with the Father’s glory
Blaze, Spirit blaze,
Set our hearts on fire
Flow, river, flow
Flood the nations
With grace and mercy
Send forth your Word, Lord
And let there be light.
Lord I come to your awesome presence
From the shadows into your radiance
By the blood I may enter your brightness
Search me, try me, consume all my darkness
Shine on me, shine on me …
As we gaze on your kingly brightness
So our faces display your likeness
Ever changing from glory to glory
Mirrored here may our lives tell your story
Shine on me, shine on me …

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
We will wake up, look up,
put our face in the sunlight,
and speak up
that God’s bright glory might shine upon the whole earth.
Amen.

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