Happy Epiphany! I know! You must be thinking: “Can it get any better? What a run on major celebrations! Christmas, then New Years and now,” drumroll and fanfare, “Epiphany!” Wow. Take a breath. Slow it down. Wouldn’t do to get too excited. Please, pace yourself.
OK, enough silliness. But, there was a time when the big celebration in the life of the people of God was Epiphany. Christmas was at best a minor celebration, a story read at night accompanied with hymns and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Epiphany, on the other hand, was the big feast day, worship and singing, feasting and gift-giving. This was the day that the community of faith looked forward to with joy and with hope. It was a day of orienteering.
Wait. What? Orienteering. Ask a scout, if you know one. I first discovered this activity when we lived in England many years ago. It was an outdoor kind of activity. A getting lost and then found again kind of thing. Orienteering is about using the tools of navigation to find your way around the wilderness. Maybe with just a map and a compass, maybe with more sophisticated global positioning devices now days, perhaps it is easier than it used to be. But there are still choices to be made, a commitment to follow whatever star you choose to follow.
I believe that is why the symbol for Epiphany is the star that guided the wise men to the child in Bethlehem. Not to spend more time on the cute baby stories, but to symbolize the need for a guiding star that will take us where we need to go. Or to help us become who we need to become.
Matthew 2:1-12 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The Christian life is often depicted as a journey. John Bunyan’s classic work Pilgrim’s Progress is but one example of this. Hidden in all these metaphors is the concept of the map, the guide, the star that leads us along the way. We like to think we can find our own way. But the truth is we need help. We need study, first of all, and we need the willingness to go, to leave where we are to go and seek. But we also need mentors and guides, we need helpers and leaders as we journey through this life. And of course we, being good church folk, would say that Christ is our guide, Jesus is our leader.
Of course that is true. But also kind of vague. Jesus is our guide when he turns water into wine? Christ is our leader when he walks on water? Step right up, you first. I’m not just poking fun, well, not just. I’m asking a serious question. If Epiphany is about the light that shines forth, about seeing and knowing that presence and that invitation, that call from God through Christ, then what is it that we follow? What is our star?
Mark 12:28-31 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" 29 Jesus answered, "The first is, `Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' 31 The second is this, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."
Polaris, or Alpha Ursuae Minoris, is the official name of the star we usually call the North Star. It is the one that sits above the north pole and has been a guide to navigation for almost all of human history. When you see those time lapse photographs of the stars, Polaris is the one around which all the others spin.
The scribe who approaches Jesus is asking for Polaris. What is the law by which all the others are measured? What is our guiding light, the mentor that will take us in hand and lead us toward the Kingdom?
In 2004, Dr. Scot McKnight wrote a book titled “The Jesus Creed.” In it he argues that this passage is that guiding star for all of us as Christians. If we could let these “commandments” be our guide, shaping our behavior, directing our decisions, transforming us as individuals and as the community, then we too would be “not far” from the kingdom which is what Jesus says to the scribe who asked the question in the first place.
The question was “which commandment is first of all?” At least in our translation. Others say “foremost” or “most important.” Jesus had just come through the Palm Sunday experience, had been sparring with other leaders of the Jews over issues like politics and authority and power, and now was approached by this scribe who seems a little different. Not trying to trap Jesus into saying something intemperate or inflammatory, he was genuinely curious, or earnestly seeking. Sum up the law, he asked, tell me what path to take, what priority to follow. Tell me who I am supposed to be. The law defined them, they were people of the law, but now this one at least was asking what does that look like.
Sometimes Jesus was frustratingly complex in his responses and stories. Other times he was clear as crystal, and the struggle is not in the what - as in what did he mean - but in the how - as in how do we possibly do this. This is one of those crystal clear yet overwhelmingly troubling times. The axis around which all we are and all we are called to be and do is worship and service, or devotion and ethics.
Love God with all heart and soul and mind and strength. Mark misquotes the OT (Deut 6:5) and adds in “mind” as part of the formula. His intention was that we hear Jesus as being all inclusive - emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical power directed toward God. God is the center, the source, the reason for our continued existence, source of our joy and contentment. God is all in all.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. That would answer the question - the greatest commandment. But Jesus continues on. Love your neighbor as yourself. “The second is this.” Deutera autois. Could be second, probably is, that is the most common translation of that phrase. But it could be “and also” or “next is.” Meaning not second of a series, but a continuation of the first. It is more, one commandment love God and love neighbor. Two sides of the same coin. Or the practice of one is found in the other. How do we love God? By loving neighbor. How do we find it possible to love neighbors? By loving God. We circle around these guiding thoughts, guiding commandments like stars orbiting Polaris.
Practicing Jews still today, like they did centuries ago, write this commandment on a little piece of paper and attach it to the doorframes of their houses. You remember, we talked about it not too long ago. It is called the mezuzah, and it is the little reminder that they are guided by the law, summed up in these words. It has become their Polaris.
By the way, in looking up information about Polaris, I learned something interesting. The north star, is not just a star. In fact it is a collection of stars, a multiple star it is called. First of all it is a collection of three stars - a trinity if you will - and then there are two others that are a little more distant but come together to make up the light that we see. Interesting, don’t you think. A trinity with a dual emphasis. God the three in one, approached by worship (love God) and service (love neighbor).