The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak
Epiphany Sunday – Christmas I – New Year’s Day – 1 January 2012
The Sacrament of Holy Communion
Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
From the Book of the Prophet, Isaiah:
Arise, shine; for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you…. And all nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.
From St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians:
To me, though I am the very least of the all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ….
And From the Gospel According to St. Matthew:
The three wise men, often called the Three Kings, followed the star and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation,
For some Christians, one of our Lord’s most problematic teachings is His instruction that we should be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Contrary to the sweet Jesus images popular in the contemporary church in which Jesus is always presented as meek and mild, we know from Scripture itself that He was street-smart – smart in the ways of this world as well as wise with the perfection of divine wisdom.
He knew human nature. He should; after all, He created it. He saw it fall. He knew sin and the essential corruption of the free soul as those created in His own image choose to disobey the source of their life to become obedient to death. That’s why He came to us.
He came to us as God made man, the divine veiled in the human so that we could see Him and know Him – and in knowing Him, love Him – and in loving Him, serve Him.
He came to us so that, given a second chance; we would choose Him over the Prince of Darkness. His light broke the darkness imposed on this world. And He sought us out – and continues to seek us out – so that we will seek His light and get out of the darkness. Arise! Shine, Your light has come! But make no mistake. Jesus Christ, the light of the world – this man was smart in the ways of the world.
The full teaching goes as follows. I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Good advice in those days; equally good advice today. We’ll get back to this in a minute.
The Gospel lesson set for Epiphany gives us the account of the Wise Men’s visitation to Jesus some twelve to eighteen months after His birth. Being astronomers as well as astrologers, they studied the stars and the constellations reading them to determine divine revelation. That was their job as magi, the magi being priests, diviners, seers, prophets, magicians and fortune tellers, as they served as intermediaries between God and man; or better expressed, between the gods and man.
The three Wise Men are designated as such because they were in fact very wise men – well educated not only in the just mentioned astrology and astronomy but also in religion, history, philosophy, and politics. Legend tells us that they were of royal lineage, wealthy, powerful, prestigious and impressive men in every way.
Being well educated in and of itself, does not necessarily make one wise. Wisdom is a quality of insight, perception, intelligence and talent that functions with or with out education, education being the accumulation of knowledge – important for sure but not the most essential aspect of wisdom.
Wisdom involves the gift of discernment – that is the ability to see the truth in a world of falsehoods disguised as truth and to know the liars from the truth tellers. The truly wise always know truth from falsehood – darkness from light. The three wise men were both well educated and wise. And also street smart. They could not only discern but could also apply what they had perceived.
Although gentiles and thus not among God’s originally chosen people, God nonetheless chose to reveal Himself to them in and through their religion to come to His. (His religion was and is the person of Jesus Christ.) They studied the stars. So He set for them a star.
Being smart as well as wise, they also were smart enough to follow worldly protocol as well as divine guidance. Being some kind of heads of state, they called upon the head of the Jewish state, King Herod. It was the polite thing to do – to call on the present King of the Jews as one sought the newborn and future King of the Jews. In so doing, they discerned that the present king feigned enthusiasm regarding the newborn King of the Jews failing to convincingly veil his fear. Later, in a dream, the Lord confirmed their perception and they were smart enough to leave the country without consulting with Herod. Smart move. Wise decision.
Not everyone can accurately perceive light from darkness, truth from falsehood and good from evil. In fact, we can be easily deceived. Thus, the image of us as sheep applies. Sheep are not very intelligent. The baby lambs are cute, warm and fuzzy. But the adult sheep will not be able to recognize evil. Easy prey for the wolves, the sheep become victims of their own stupidity.
That’s why sheep have shepherds; to lead them and guide them and protect them and save them. Hence, Christ the Good Shepherd. Without Him, all we like sheep have gone astray. And, having gone astray, we’re then led to slaughter. Being both wise and smart, the prophet, Isaiah, said precisely that having properly perceived that most people are neither wise nor smart but so easily deceived and preyed upon.
The Wise Men knew Isaiah’s prophecy. They knew that one day the One True God would send a Savior to His people – a King to rule in the perfection of wisdom, goodness and truth – a King who would be the light of the world whose light would defeat the present and future darkness – a King of Kings – a divine King whose righteousness and truth would save His people; but not only His people but also all people – for all people would become His chosen people. Hence, He chose these foreign kings to seek out and know – and love – the newborn King of the Jews who would be their King as well. And they would love Him for they would perceive that He was no threat to them but rather their fulfillment of their highest hopes and deepest desires.
They followed the star. They found the child and offered Him gold because in their wisdom they knew that everything even the wealth of this world belonged to Him. They presented frankincense – the necessary fragrance of worship because they could see that this little baby boy was also God made man. And they also presented myrrh, the ointment for embalming; for they knew that the baby would become the man who would somehow conquer even the power of death. Wise men. Divinely chosen. And smart to choose the One who had chosen them.
Being smart and wise, I wonder if they ever wondered why God has chosen them rather than any other wise men or kings. He sent that star to them. In all of their glory, wealth, wisdom, education, power and prestige, perhaps they, like St. Paul, felt unworthy of their new chosen status. I suspect that they did. After all, unlike the arrogant Herod, these kings wisely knelt before this One True King – humble in wisdom.
St. Paul considered himself to be the least of the saints – saints here referencing anyone who had acknowledged Jesus Christ as the Lord and savior all mankind. In the presence of the holy, one should feel unworthy. Yet the unseerachable riches of God’s saving work had been entrusted to him to proclaim salvation to the gentiles. God had commissioned Paul to carry out the mission that He had begun when He set a star for the gentile kings to follow so as to find their salvation.
And we, in our generation, being sheep in need of the One True Good Shepherd, being foolish even as we believe ourselves to be wise, and making stupid decisions against ourselves as we all too easily give ourselves over to deceivers – God has chosen us as well to receive Him into our hearts, bodies minds and souls – unworthy sheep but however unworthy, sheep of His fold.
Each of us has been commissioned to proclaim Christ’s light in the darkness that can so often overcome us.
As we live in an evil world, He tells us to be wise as serpent and innocent as doves – to perceive the truth and hold fast to it. To love with holy love and to be wise men and wise women.
He gave the Wise men the star. He gives us this most holy sacrament. The wise men followed the star and came to the Christ. We come to His table and find Him as well. By His grace He has disclosed to us the mystery hidden for ages but now revealed. And in Him – and through Him – we can live forever. So come to this sacred table, not because you must but because you may. Choose the One who has chosen you to live forever; a wise choice – a smart move.
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, bless us with the grace to wisely perceive good from evil and make us smart enough to choose the good and defeat the evil. Let your light shine in our darkness and make of us a holy people, devoted in heart, in mind, in body and in soul to your Son,
Jesus Christ, the King of Kings
and the only Savior of the whole world,