January 6, 2013
Rev. John Watts
THE TWELFTH DAY OF CHRISTMAS
Most people celebrate birthdays. But I’ve known some people who celebrate birthday weeks. One day isn’t enough to celebrate their birthday. They open a few presents each day. They are fawned over and treated like royalty the entire time. And their birthday party continues, with a few breaks for sleep, for a whole week.
That seems like a lot of self-indulgence for most of us. But there is one birthday that needs more than just one day. In fact, this birthday needs more than just one week. The birthday of Jesus traditionally is not celebrated on one day but on twelve days. The twelve days of Christmas.
There’s a song that I don’t think we’ll sing today about the twelve days of Christmas. Every year we hear about the cost in today’s dollars of the twelve gifts “my true love gave to me”. It’s over $107,000 now, by the way. The last few years I’ve been getting an
e-mail claiming that this song was a code used by Catholics inEnglandback in the days of Catholic persecution to preserve the fundamentals of their faith. The partridge in the pear tree was Jesus, the two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments, and so forth. According to my research staff, this claim falls into the category of “urban legend”.
But the song reminds us that the tradition of celebrating Christmas over twelve days goes way back. I think most people assume that the twelve days of Christmas are the twelve days leading up to Christmas. Not so. The first day of Christmas is Christmas Day. That’s when the party begins. It ends twelve days later. There’s even a name for the day when we are supposed to stop celebrating the birthday of Jesus. It’s called Epiphany. That’s today. January 6. It doesn’t usually fall on a Sunday but since this year it does, I thought I would call attention to it. Epiphany is the day the party’s over. I think there’s a song about that, too, made famous on Monday Night Football by Don Meredith. We won’t sing that song either.
The question often arises, when do we take down our Christmas decorations? We know when to put them up. We put them up the day after Halloween. It used to be the day after Thanksgiving, but it keeps getting earlier. But when do we take them down? Some people would say December 26. Others would say New Year’s Day. Some wait till March. But to be correct and proper, Christmas decorations come down after the twelve days of Christmas. That’s when the party is over and it’s time to move on to other things.
Today is Epiphany. And the Epiphany scripture is traditionally the one we always jump the gun and read before Epiphany. It tells the story of the wise men bringing their gifts to the Christ child. If you were listening carefully to the scripture that was read today, you know this passage doesn’t say what most people think it says. Most people think it says the wise men found Jesus in a manger. It actually says they were in a house. Most people think they found Jesus with Mary and Joseph. It actually doesn’t mention Joseph. It says, “they saw the child with Mary his mother”. Maybe Joseph was away buying diapers. We don’t know. And the main misconception is that people think this passage tells us about three wise men. Some would even swear that it tells us their names: Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar. Actually, we aren’t even told there are three wise men. It just says “wise men”. We assume there were three of them because we are told they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Why is the day the wise men visited Jesus called Epiphany? Epiphany means “manifestation”, which isn’t too helpful if you don’t know what manifestation means. An epiphany is a breakthrough. It happens when you see something you hadn’t seen before. Or maybe you had seen it before, but you hadn’t seen the deeper meaning that was there all the time but until the moment of your epiphany, you had missed it.
Inventors rely on epiphanies. Suddenly they see something that is possible that had eluded them before. It’s usually something so simple. How had they missed that? Or maybe it’s something everyone had seen before. It’s nothing new. But for the first time you see that this simple, obvious thing could have applications that will change everything. Maybe even make you a lot of money, if you can just get to the patent office in time. It’s like a light bulb goes on in your brain, as this picture illustrates. Here is Arthur Fry, the inventor of the “Post-it Note”, with a “Post-it Note” of a light bulb on his forehead.
Other inventors who receive amazing epiphanies weren’t so lucky. Just a few days ago Norman Woodland died. He was the co-inventor of the bar code. He said it came to him at the beach when he traced lines in the sand with his four fingers. The light bulb went off. He had learned Morse Code as a Boy Scout. But now he looked at these lines and it dawned on him. “It was a moment of inspiration. Instead of dots and dashes, I can have thick and thin bars.” They got a patent, but in those days before lasers could do the optical scanning, it wasn’t practical to put bar codes on everything in the grocery store. So they sold their patent back in 1952. They got $15,000.
It’s not just inventors who have epiphanies. They happen all the time to all kinds of people. There’s that great line from the movie, “Field of Dreams”: “There comes a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place — and the universe opens itself up for a few seconds to show you what is possible.” Has that ever happened to you? I’ll bet it has.
Maybe your life is kind of a muddle. It’s OK but it’s not great. Things are just kind of drifting. You pray for guidance on what you’re supposed to do, but you come up empty. If God is speaking, it must be in some language you can’t understand. And then suddenly, the fog burns away. The sun is shining. The cosmic tumblers click into place. It’s so clear now. How could you have missed it before?
I remember a moment like that 36 years ago this month when I was struggling with the decision of whether I was going to go into ministry. I just didn’t know. And then suddenly, I knew. It was very clear. I’d had an epiphany.
The epiphany the wise men had had to do with Jesus. God had opened their eyes so they were able to see what God was showing them. First, the star. It wasn’t just a star. It was God telling them something. But what? They followed the star and they found out. God was leading them to Jesus. And this tiny baby wasn’t just a tiny baby like other tiny babies. This was the Son of God.
They could see the truth so many still miss. And this epiphany changed their lives. Our scripture ends, “They went home another way.” It means they avoided Herod. They didn’t tell him where to find Jesus as he had wanted them to. But there’s another way we can interpret these words. To say they went home another way means they weren’t the same. They had been changed. Having met Jesus, they could never be the same again.
William Willimon was a young pastor serving a small church inMyrtle Beach,South Carolina. This is a tourist town. The main highway is clogged year around. His little church was one block removed from all the neon and all the people.
Sitting his office, struggling with his sermon, he looked out and saw a young man approaching from the direction of the highway. He watched as he made a diagonal across the church lawn. He was carrying a small canvas bag. He was wearing tan slacks, a bright green golf shirt, and tennis shoes. It was pretty obvious he was looking for the pastor of the church.
This was not a welcome realization to this pastor. It had been a long day already. There was a lot more to get done. That was just what he needed, another hitchhiker looking for money or a meal or a motel room.
The pastor decided to meet him on the front steps of the church with the objective to get rid of him as soon as possible. Unwelcome as this was, it was not unusual. In a place likeMyrtle Beach, you get used to a lot people just passing through and looking for help. There is always a sad story and they always insist on telling their sad story. The punch line is always the same. Money, meal, or motel. Preferably money.
If it’s a family, they insist on bringing all their children into the church. It’s hard to say no to children. If you do say no, you will hear some variation on a familiar line: “And you call yourself a preacher!!” This pastor was used to the drill and he just hoped it wouldn’t waste too much of his time.
The young man was wearing a big smile. He said, “You’re the pastor, right? That’s your name out front?”
“Yes, I am. What can I do for you.”
“What can you do? Nothing. Nothing more than you’re doing already.”
The pastor really wasn’t in the mood for this. He was prepared to give him some money, but not if he was going to play games. So he got abrupt, “Look, what do you want? I’m a little busy.”
The young man said, “I don’t need anything. I just wanted to stop by and say ‘hello’ and let you know how much I appreciate what you do.”
This wasn’t following the usual script. The pastor looked into his eyes to see if he could see signs of psychosis. He became concerned about whether there might be a weapon in that canvas bag. Or maybe this was just a harmless Campus Crusade for Christ reject. He wasn’t at all sure where this was heading.
“Well, that’s nice of you, but who are you? I didn’t get your name.”
“Jesus Christ,” he said.
The pastor made no response. Somehow, nothing surprised him any more. Neither one spoke until the pastor couldn’t stand the silence.
“Are you trying to be funny?”
“No. Does that strike you as funny?”
“Look,” the pastor said, “I’m very busy. I’ve had a long day. I need you to get to the point. What is it you want?”
“I know you’ve had a long day. Believe me, I know. All I wanted to do was to stop by here and tell you face to face how much I appreciate what you’re doing. I know it isn’t easy.”
“Well, that’s kind of you.” The pastor had to admit that.
“Yes, and this isn’t the easiest place to serve. But the church looks good. You’ve done a good job here.”
The pastor just found himself nodding his head silently.
“While I’m here,” the young Jesus said, “are there any questions you have about the Bible? Anything you’ve wondered about?”
“Well, I suppose everyone has a few questions. . . ” Then he realized how silly it sounded hearing himself take this guy seriously.
“But do you enjoy the Bible?” By now “Jesus” was uncomfortably close and was squinting his eyes in a strange way.
“I do enjoy the Bible, yes, I do,” said the pastor.
“Hey, if you’re Jesus, where are you going?”
“Business. You know. Usual stuff.”
And with that “Jesus” put his hand on the pastor’s shoulder and said, “I know you’re busy and I don’t want to keep you, but I just wanted to drop by and say thanks.”
“And you don’t want anything? You don’t need anything?”
“Nope. No thanks. Just keep up the good work and don’t get discouraged.”
He walked back diagonally across the church lawn, turned once to wave, and then he was gone.
The pastor called his wife. “Honey, guess who I just talked to?”
(This story is taken from On a Wild and Windy Mountain by William Willimon, pages 51-55.)
That’s one thing about being a pastor. You soon compile quite the collection of strange stories. When pastors get together, the “can you top this” competition is intense.
But one thing to guard against whether you’re a pastor on not, is being so sure you know the way things are supposed to be that that you close your mind to God’s epiphanies. You miss those rare moments when “the cosmic tumblers click into place, the universe opens up, and you can see what is possible.” The wise men followed a star. It must have felt silly at the time. But on this day, they reached their destination. On this twelfth day of Christmas, they reached Jesus. They went home another way. They were not the same. And they didn’t feel silly any longer.
Dear God, when we think we’ve seen everything, remind that we haven’t seen anything yet. You and your creation and your invasion of our world in thatBethlehemmanger is more wondrous and more wonderful than we will ever be able to comprehend. We praise you. We worship you. And we follow your star wherever it might lead. Amen.