The Hard Side of Ephiphany (Sept – Dec 1994)

By Matt Dabbs

by Fred Craddock
September – December, 1994

Fred Craddock teaches preaches at Emory University.
This sermon was part of the Preaching Today series in 1986, and is used by permission.

In some traditions the festival called Epiphany is celebrated on January 6th. More commonly, an epiphany is the appearance of deity or a sudden intuitive understanding or insight. It would do us all good to pause on Twelfth Night to reflect on the meaning of the wondrous Christmas season.

This is January 6th. It’s Epiphany. Liturgically, this means that we can, for a few Sundays at least before Lent, announce those marvelous passages that declare the revelation of the divine Son. Those marvelous texts of the baptism of Jesus: “Thou art my Son,” the voice from heaven. The Transfiguration scene: “This is my Son, the Beloved. Hear him.” Those marvelous, grand, glorious texts. A little breather before Lent.

That’s what it means liturgically. I myself do not come from a tradition very liturgical—about as liturgical as corn on the cob. So I have to interpret Epiphany for our family. This is the day we take down the Christmas decorations.

All of our decorations are Luke. They’re all from Luke. Madonnas that we’ve picked up here and there in travel—of wood, one is made of corn shocks, of brass, one made of glass. They’re wrapped in tissue and put back in a box like you’d put away crystal or china because they’re fragile. Our nativity scene is really cheap, but the kids made it years ago, and we put it out, and it gets prettier every year. But it’s from Luke. Straw, and a baby, and Mary and Joseph, and some animals. Sits on top of the television. We fold it back up—the little house, the little stable, folds up into a kind of box, and you just put the animals back inside. If you don’t tilt it, it’ll be good next year; just open it up. It’s from Luke. We have angels, all kinds of angels, around the house, on the mantle. They’re from Luke. We put them away. One of them I have to be careful not to store in a place that gets hot in the summer because the face is wax. It’s from Nuremberg, Germany, and the face is wax and we don’t want it to get messed up. Satin dress. It’s almost female, though you know how angels are. This one seems to be female. Luke is mostly female. All of our decorations are Lukan. We put them away today. When I finish class and go home, that’s what we’ll do. Luke is over now and we go to Matthew.

Exit the women; in come the men. Exit the stable; now it’s a king’s palace. Exit the shepherds; in the wise men from the East. Exit the angels, and in comes Herod.

We have a little music box. It plays carols—“Silent Night, Holy Night” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Just open the lid and it starts playing. It’s on the coffee table. It’s Lukan. Music is from Luke. Put the lid down on that because exit Mary; enter Rachel. Exit lullaby; enter the scream. “I heard a voice in Ramah. It was Rachel weeping for her children.”

It’s just so hard to accept that the gospel has enemies, that good news has enemies, but there it is. Herod intimidated, and all Jerusalem troubled, calling in the doctors of law and Scripture, faking, pretending to want to worship while issuing death warrants against the boy babies. The house-to-house search, and the butt of swords crashing in doors, and chariots on the streets, and lamps out early, and mothers clutching babies behind cellar doors. “Shhh, shhh, shhh. Don’t even breathe! It’s a soldier!”

It’s hard to believe. It’s hard to accept that good news has enemies. To read Matthew it’s unavoidable—those vultures circling over the shallow graves of children. Why? Jesus Christ is born.

Joseph sitting up, bolting up in bed, “Mary, Mary, get ready; wrap the child.”

“What’s the matter?”

“We’ve got to go.”

“What do you mean?”

“I had this dream. They’re coming for the boy. They’re coming, yeah, they’re coming for the boy. Get ready. We’ve got to go.”

And off to Egypt to hide from his enemies among his enemies. What else was there to do?

It’s hard to accept. Rachel crying, refusing to be consoled. “They’ve killed my children; they’ve killed my children.” Why? Jesus Christ our Lord is born! Good news! It’s hard to accept. It’s hard to accept that good news has such enemies. But what’s even more difficult to accept is that announcing the Good News creates the enmity.

All the wise men said, is, “Where is he? We want to worship, have a little worship service. All we want to do is worship Jesus,” and trouble broke out. They weren’t revolutionaries. They didn’t stop and paint posters and say, “Let’s march around the city.” All they said was, “We want to worship Jesus.” The great revolutions have not been started by revolutionaries but by people who said, “All we want to do is love, worship.”

Do you know how to really release the Serpent hatred in the world? Stir that scaly thing to crawl up from the floor of hell and wreak violence in the earth? Do you know how to get him stirred up? Just start loving everybody, and he can’t stand it. Do you know how to strengthen and increase the network of lies and deception in our world? Just tell the truth. That’s all it takes.

Poor Dr. Golter, old friend of mine—he’s eighty now; spent most of his life in China. We tried to call him an agricultural missionary. What he was was a gardener who loved God and people, and he went to China to do it. In central China he taught them how to raise other vegetables and feed the children better and have a cow and have milk. Nice. He told stories about Jesus, and he translated some of them into Chinese. Perfectly at home. Adopted two Chinese girls that he found out in a trash can.

They said, “You’re under arrest.”

“Why?”

“You’re dangerous!” they said.

He couldn’t kill a mouse! He is incapable of violence.

They said, “He’s dangerous!”

Well, he was. He was, because he didn’t know how to love just a few. He just loved because he loved because he loved. He should have known you’ve got to watch whom you love. You love the wrong people….

Now Matthew’s not alone in this. Even Luke, bless his heart, has to say it. When Jesus was six weeks old they took him to the temple. Mary was nervous. I’m sure she was nervous: first time up there, her first baby. “Where do I stand? What do they do? Do I have to say anything, Joseph?”

“No, you just stand there and hold the baby. They’ll have this little ceremony, and then you’ll be purified and the baby dedicated. There’s nothing to it.”

“Well, I’m nervous. What if he catches a cold? We haven’t had him outside yet. He’s only six weeks old. Why don’t they have this at two years? I think it’s too early.”

“Well, just stand up there. You’ll be all right.”

She goes up to the temple, and here’s this old man, Simeon: old as the hills, large rheumy eyes, spittle in his beard, shuffling about, because in his heart, God had said, “You will not die until you see the consolation of Israel.” So here he is, frightening all the mothers. Every time he sees a blue blanket he runs over. “Yeah, it’s a boy; it’s a boy. Let me see.”

He came to Mary and said, “Let me hold him.”

She was scared. Old man—he’ll drop my baby. But her fear that he would drop the baby was not near the fear created by his words. You remember: “Because of this child a sword will pierce your heart.” Even Luke has to stop singing long enough to say, “Good News creates pain, violence, and opposition.”

We know John says it: “This is the crisis of the world, that light has come into the world and people love the darkness. The time will come when they’ll drag you out of the synagogue and they’ll kill you in the name of God. In the name of God they’ll kill you and say ‘Amen.’”

How could he have known? How could he have known that people would, two thousand years after that with a .30-.30 deer rifle, aim it with telescopic sight at the back of a “nigger lover,” shoot him in his own driveway, go back to the church, sing a hymn, read Scripture, have prayer; and go home. In the name of God, they’ll kill and say “Amen.”

It’s hard to accept. It’s hard to accept that the gospel, the Good News, has enemies. But the fact that announcing the Good News arouses that enmity is even more difficult to accept. But it’s true. Jesus said in John 15, you will recall, “If I had not come and spoken to them….´ What does that mean? It means that the coming of Jesus Christ and the proclamation of the Good News has aroused the ugliness of sin and violence in the world. And 115 crying women lined up outside the little church in Bethlehem and asked the preacher, “It’s already bad enough. Our sons are dead. Keep quiet about the child. Herod is still alive. You still want to preach?”

Even more difficult, most difficult for me, is my own poor record in the face of the opposition to the gospel. It wasn’t always that way. When first I entered the ministry—or I was dreaming, that’s what it was, dreaming of ministry at seventeen years old—I fantasized the enemy. I loved the enemy. I idealized, I needed the enemy, because in my fantasies I was a martyr. I could lie on my little cot in summer camp out beside the lake of Weeki-Weeki-, or Noki-Noki, or whatever it was, and imagine what it would be like to give my life to Jesus Christ, because we’d sung that hymn around the lake that night, you know, holding candles. “Are you able? Are you able to drink the cup? Are you able? Are you able?” I said yes, yes, yes. I’d lie up there in my bed in that dormitory and imagine I’m able to give my life for Jesus Christ. I could picture myself being boiled in a pot somewhere, frozen to death in the tundras of the North, stood before a gray wall early in the morning and someone saying, “Do you still believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God? Deny him and live.”

I’d say, “I believe.”

“Ready. Aim. Fire!”

Flags at half-mast, widows weeping in the afternoon—oh, I fantasized. I needed Herod in those days. I needed an enemy. I needed opposition. Into the arena, king turns the thumb down; the cage opens; in comes the lion to tear me apart; and a monument is erected: Here’s Where Fred Gave His Life. People come with their Polaroids. “Stand over there, Charles. Let’s get your picture next to the monument where old Fred gave his life.” Boy, did I fantasize ministry. “Are you able?”

“Sure! Bring on Herod!”

Then it got complicated. Something happened. I don’t know if I got more mature, more cowardly, or what, but I was not able to recognize Herod. I still could hate Herod if I could find Herod, but I didn’t know who he was.

In Gethsemane two men approached Jesus. One had a sword in his hand, and the other, a kiss. Which is friend, and which is enemy? As it turned out, the one with the kiss was the enemy. The one with the sword was a friend. How can you tell?

I didn’t really want to get into any kind of campaign or project because I could be wrong. It’s complex. I’ve been studying theology; this is complex. You don’t just have simple right and wrong, and yes and no. There is a lot of “on the other hand” here. So I was immobilized for a long time, and when the opening came, when the opening came, I didn’t say a word.

In graduate school at Vanderbilt, I remember one time distinctly. It’s not the only time. I recall studying for those prelims, jumping through all those hoops to get the degree. Terrible experience. I was studying late at night, and the routine was about midnight to take a break, go down to the little sandwich shop, get a grilled cheese and cup of coffee. Grilled cheese, cup of coffee. When I came in, there were no tables, just little stools at a counter—an all-night place, one fellow back there with a greasy cap and apron fixing things. I didn’t really know when I was in and out of there. It was routine. I was still thinking of my work. I’d finished the sandwich, I remember. Second cup of coffee, maybe third; I don’t know. I was thinking about the important things. Everybody had been served, refill, refill—truck drivers and all of us there.

Then I saw what I had not seen before. Well, I had seen it before, but I didn’t notice it before. At the end of the counter—he was there when I went in, I just now noticed—a very elderly black man was standing there. After we had gotten our food, had our coffee, refills, refills, then the one standing there all that time was asked, “What do you want?” He said something. Fellow at the grill reached back on the back side of the grill and got a little dried-up hamburger patty, laid it on dry bread with no condiments, nothing, without a napkin handed it over to him, and took the money. The old man walked out the side door where the garbage can was and sat on the curb. He sat on the curb as in the middle of the night those eighteen-wheelers came whizzing by and blew the salt and pepper for his sandwich from off the street.

I didn’t say anything. I didn’t say anything. I felt real bad. I felt real bad about it, and when I left to go up the hill, off in the distance I heard the cock crow. But I didn’t say anything because I hate hassles.

I hate hassles. I like Luke. I like Madonnas and Elizabeths and Mary and angels. In fact, to tell you the truth, I will trade all 353 days of Matthew for the 12 days of Luke. I just hate hassles.

Today is Epiphany. What that means is, “For God so loved the world that God gave the only begotten Son.” Someone stood up and announced that with great cheer and great joy, and Herod heard it and killed all the boy babies in Bethlehem..

Is there anybody here planning to preach next Sunday?Wineskins Magazine

Fred Craddock

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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