TITLE: The Aha Experience SCRIPTURE: Matthew 2:1-12
January 6 is Epiphany. In the church we celebrate Epiphany every year, but lots of people don't know what it means. Epiphany is difficult even to type. My fingers always get snarled when I try to type it -- E - P - I - P - H - A - N - Y. The folks who designed the QWERTY keyboard (the one that most people use) really made it hard to type Epiphany.
My dictionary defines an epiphany as an "unexpected manifestation." I prefer to think of an epiphany as a great discovery --an "Aha!" experience. Cartoonists picture an epiphany with a light bulb above a cartoon figure's head. That says it pretty well. An epiphany is a light suddenly switching on in our head.
When I was in high school, I heard an unusual epiphany story in a science class. It had to do with Archimedes, an ancient Greek scientist. Archimedes had his epiphany -- his Aha experience -- when he lowered himself into a bathtub and noticed how the water rose higher in the tub. He raised himself from the water and saw how the water got lower in the tub. It suddenly dawned on him that there was a scientific principle at work -- a principle that he could use to predict the buoyancy of a ship. Archimedes got so excited that he ran out into the street shouting, "Eureka! Eureka!" In his excitement, he forgot to put on his clothes. He was running down the street in the buff, shouting "Eureka! Eureka!" In my high school days, many years ago, that seemed like a pretty racy story.
Did you ever have an Aha experience? Most of us have. My Aha experiences usually come after I sleep on a problem that I have been trying to solve. I'll be working on something, and I'll bump up against problem after problem. Finally I'll give up and go to bed. Then sometime in the middle of the night I'll wake up with the solution. The solution just comes to me. It is an epiphany -- an Aha experience -- but I'm careful not to run out into the street shouting, "Eureka!"
The Epiphany that we are observing today has to do with the story of the Wise Men as told in the Gospel of Matthew. It was an Aha experience for them as they followed a star to the baby Jesus. It was an Aha experience to follow a star that nobody but God could have put in the sky. It was an Aha experience to see the star stop over the house where Jesus was. It was an Aha experience to see the baby.
Matthew says that when they saw Jesus, they "knelt down and paid him homage" (2:11). They approached Jesus as if he was a king and they were ordinary men. They knelt -- just as they would have done in the presence of a real king. They brought expensive presents, just as they would have brought to a real king. Their actions reflected their belief that they were, in fact, in the presence of a real king. They were in the presence of the one who was "born king of the Jews" (2:2).
I don't know to what extent they understood this, but their encounter with Jesus was God's way of telling them that salvation was for them too -- not just for the Jews. If they understood that -- if they "got it" -- that was their best Aha experience.
But this was also an Aha experience for the readers of Matthew's Gospel. Matthew was Jewish, and he was writing for Jewish Christians. In the early days of the church, you couldn't become a Christian unless you first became a Jew. It took awhile before the church began to open its doors to Gentiles.
But here, at the very beginning of this Gospel that was written by a Jew for Jews -- Matthew tells this story that shows that Gentiles have a stake in Jesus' birth too. The good news of God's love isn't limited to Jews, but is available to Gentiles too. That would have been quite an epiphany -- quite an Aha experience -- for the Jewish Christians who were the first people to read Matthew's Gospel.
And just in case these readers missed the significance of this story, Matthew then tells the story of a Roman centurion -- another Gentile -- who had great faith. In fact, Jesus said of this Gentile, "Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith" (8:10).
And then Matthew tells about a Gentile woman who had great faith (15:21-28).
And then, to ice the cake, Matthew ended his Gospel with these words. Jesus said:
"Go therefore and make disciples of ALL NATIONS,
baptizing them in the name of the Father
and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit,
and teaching them to obey
everything that I have commanded you" (28:19-20)
Did you catch that? "Make disciples of ALL NATIONS." The Greek word that is translated "nations" is ethne -- which also means Gentiles.
So what I am telling you is that all through his Gospel, written for Jews, Matthew is emphasizing that God has brought Gentiles inside the tent. He is saying that Jesus came to save Gentiles just as he came to save Jews. He is saying that Jesus is for all of us. And if we can ever get that through our heads -- that Jesus is for all of us -- that will be a real Aha experience.
It isn't easy, you see, to believe that Jesus came to save US. Oh, it's easy enough to believe that Jesus came to save the WORLD, but it is much more difficult to believe that Jesus came to save ME. I'm not good enough. I would like to be a good Christian, but I still do bad things. Is it possible that Jesus has come to save ME? Maybe he tried, but has he succeeded? It is hard to believe, sometimes, that he has.
Do you ever feel like that? Do you ever wonder if this Jesus stuff applies to you? Most of us wonder. Most of us feel unworthy. When it comes to religion, most of us feel like outsiders looking in through the window. We try to hide it, but we wonder if God really loves US.
In one of his books (Six Hours One Friday), Max Lucado relates a story told originally by a teacher of underprivileged children. The teacher told of a nine-year-old girl whose name was Barbara. Barbara was always quiet. She never spoke -- never. When the other children sang, Barbara was silent. When the other children laughed, Barbara sat quietly. The teacher could see that Barbara was listening, but she couldn't get her to talk. Barbara never spoke a word.
Then one day the teacher told the children about heaven-- what a wonderful place it is -- how God prepared heaven for those who love him.
Then, much to the teacher's surprise, Barbara raised her hand. It was one of those precious moments that teachers pray for. The teacher acknowledged Barbara and waited to hear what she would say. This is what Barbara said. She asked, "Is heaven for girls like me?" (PAUSE)
Have you ever felt like that? "Is heaven for girls like me?" "Is heaven for boys like me?" "Is heaven for men like me?" "Is heaven for women like me?"
Epiphany's answer is YES!!! Yes, heaven is for people like you. Heaven is not only for people LIKE you -- but heaven is for YOU! God created heaven for YOU! Yes, I understand that you are not good enough! Yes, I know that you do bad things! If you weren't a sinner, you wouldn't need Jesus. Jesus didn't die on the cross the save people who didn't need him. Jesus died on the cross to save YOU!
Billy Graham put it this way. He said:
"Jesus stopped dying on the cross
long enough to answer the prayer of a thief.
He stopped in a big crowd one day
because someone touched the hem of His garment;
and He'll stop to touch your life
and change you,
and forgive you."
That is the hardest thing for us to understand. It is the hardest thing to believe. But if we will allow ourselves to believe it, it is the most wonderful Aha experience imaginable. It lifts a terrible burden from our shoulders. We can become truly joyful when we finally believe that God loves US -- when we finally believe that God loves ME! Let me assure you that God does, indeed love US. God does, indeed, love YOU.
And then there is one more Aha experience in this Epiphany story. It is this -- that God loves the rest of the people too -- including your neighbor who plays the trombone -- including every ne'er-do-well and every scumbag and every derelict -- including people whom you might prefer that God NOT love -- rapists and murderers and such. It's hard to believe that God could love people like that. It's hard to believe that God could love rapists and murderers -- but if we can get our heads wrapped around that idea, it will be a great Aha moment for us.
One of the great things about believing that God loves rapists and murderers is that it becomes easier to believe that God loves US too.
So as we begin this new year, let us start by believing that God loves us -- even us. And our neighbor -- even our neighbor. And our enemy -- even our enemy. And then let us respond to that love by loving ourselves -- and our neighbor -- and our enemy. Amen.