By Joanna Shenk

Matthew 2:1-12
Mark 1:4-11, this version also read in addition to the NRSV

I was in high school when I first learned the word “Epiphany.” At my school we had a Spring Arts Day each year, where the high school grades competed against each other in various categories: vocal, instrumental and theatrical performance, as well as poetry, prose and visual art. My sophomore year the theme of Spring Arts Day was “epiphany” so that’s how I learned the word.

I was involved in the 10th grade vocal performance in which we sang a medley from Les Mis. Our grand finale was from the song “Do You Hear the People Sing?” I’m guessing some of you are familiar with the words, but if not, here are the first few stanzas:

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the songs of angry men?
It is the music of the people
Who will not be slaves again!

When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?

Then join in the fight
That will give you the right to be free!

The word epiphany means the appearance of a divine being or an illuminating realization. In the Christian tradition the festival of epiphany celebrates the illumination that Christ’s presence brings into the world. In the case of Les Mis, the people realized they had the power to be free and they were going to fight for it.

Perhaps this song is similar to what John the Baptist was saying in the wilderness. He was preaching repentance and people were flocking to him. He was talking about a divine presence that was coming their way and would guide them further. John was definitely preaching about a world that people were longing to see.

Biblical scholar, Ched Myers, writes that Mark’s choice to begin the story of Jesus in the wilderness with John the Baptist was a declaration of war upon the political culture of empire. Mark does not offer a genealogy for Jesus or a birth narrative, like other gospels do. Instead his story begins in chapter one with this crazy guy, John, in the wilderness.

Mark intentionally describes John (the camel hair and leather belt) to associate him with the prophet Elijah, who challenged the established order in his day. Mark was signaling that John is the prophetic voice that Israel has been missing.

In those days Jerusalem was the center of power and John was out on the margins. Ched writes that “Mark creates a spatial tension between two archetypically opposite symbolic spaces,” the wilderness and the institutional religious center. In this instance, all the country of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem (the city) were coming to John in the wilderness. This made him a threat to those in power since the people that had been under their sway were now drawn to this prophet in the wilderness.

To this point, John was killed for speaking against Herod soon after baptizing Jesus. That he was a mentor to Jesus is no small thing and communicates that Jesus was not “neutral” in terms of his orientation toward those wielding power. Through the act of baptism Jesus becomes an outlaw, by association with John. Baptism was a declaration of resistance.

When I was talking with my spiritual director about it she said baptism is also a “world consciousness change.” I like how Soren’s version of the text framed it, “He saw the universe how it really is and he felt it resonate to his core.”

That definitely sounds like an epiphany to me. It brought hope to those who were on the margins and at the same time, was threatening to those in the center of power.

Although it’s not in our text for today, I find it instructive what Jesus does next. He goes from baptism further into the wilderness, where he’s confronted by Satan. As we talked about in our Lent series on the soul last year. One way to look at Satan or the devil is as our shadow selves… the parts of us we repress or try to repress, the parts that can do great harm. In the wilderness Jesus confronted these things… he had a spiritual battle and came through it.

While working on this sermon I was grateful for feedback and thoughts from others in the congregation. Claire offered this thought about the wilderness experience: What if in that time he was really sitting with the question of what risk he was willing to take? He recognizes even with organizing and action that the empire is still strong. So, he recommits thru baptism, then he goes out in the wilderness to really think about: Is he willing to take the risk he’s being called to?

Claire’s thoughts also resonate with what many scholars articulate: That the wilderness was a time for Jesus to get clear on the way of liberation and he affirmed that it’s not through dominating power. In other words, he was reflecting and wrestling with how to create the kindom of God, the beloved community.

There’s so much in there for us to chew on… baptism as resistance, the wilderness journey as a time for shadow work and deepening our resolve to take risks for the world we know is possible, clarifying strategies and then heading back to Jerusalem to do some serious agitating.   

Now let’s move to the other epiphany story. The one we’re probably more familiar with. We have the magi, who were foreigners and rather than being kings, they were more likely astrologers or sages. In antiquity it was common for the birth of a great leader to be accompanied by a cosmic symbol.

The magi seemed to have been in tune with the cosmos, they were able to see the universe as it was and that led them to Jesus. They were coming from the outside, from the margins of Jesus’ world and they rejoiced in the epiphany.

The person at the center though, King Herod, was a different story. 

He is described as a powerful despot serving Rome’s interests in colonial Palestine, oppressed his own people with taxes to fund his grandiose building projects.

Ched writes, “Herod ‘instituted what today would be called a police-state, complete with loyalty oaths, surveillance, informers, secret police, imprisonment, torture and brutal retaliation against any serious dissenter.’

“Herod is understandably disturbed that these foreign diplomats have named the child King of the Jews, for that is his own title! He clearly understands it as a challenge to his political legitimacy…”

Whereas the magi from the margins recognize Jesus as a sign of hope and worthy of their honor, King Herod at the center of power, is threatened by the baby, ultimately to the point of a killing rage.

Again we see the contrast of margins and center and the contrast of those given hope by the epiphany while others are threatened.

As we think about these two epiphany stories, I like the questions that Claire raised in our conversation: I wonder what we are looking for and what the symbol would be to tell us it is coming? What’s the sign we are seeking that a new age is coming? What would tell us that THIS is the time, that now is when we do what we have been waiting for?

The writers of the gospels were telling these stories to their communities to strengthen and inspire them. They offered these narratives of epiphany so that people had clarity about what it meant to be part of the Jesus movement.

What story do we need to be told today to activate that kind of faith in us? What is a sign of hope for us today that will at the same time be threatening to those with political and economic power?

Might one of the signs be a group of Mennonites singing hymns in downtown San Francisco demanding that big corporations pay their fair share of taxes? I think so. And if you want to learn more, please come to Education Hour this morning.

It’s exciting to be a part of a community that’s willing to experiment and be creative and take risks together. May we claim our (Ana)baptism as a declaration of resistance and a rebirth of consciousness. May we honor the wilderness journey, in it’s grief, pain and transformation.

And, Claire reminded me that Epiphany season is also Carnival season… a time when the poor reimagine a more just world, when roles are reversed by the donning of costumes and when creativity erupts like 1,000 glitter cannons. 

When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

Will you join in our crusade? (or better said, parade!)
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?

Then join in the fight
That will give you the right to be free!

Amen, and may it be so.