January 7, 2018

2018 Jan7

Feast of the Epiphany - Year B

A sermon preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger


Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. We celebrate the Wise Men from the East coming to visit the Christ Child. Like at Christmas, we tend to focus on a nice, warm and fuzzy story. However, the story is fraught with danger and deep theological implications. The Wise Men brought the news of Herod’s intent to harm this Child King.

The deep theological implication of the visit of the Wise Men is the Epiphany or Manifestation of the Christ Child, the Messiah to the Gentiles. At the very beginning of this very Jewish story, 3 (or whatever number it wa3, because the story doesn’t actually state it was 3) very non-Jewish Wise Men recognized Jesus’ identity.

Identity: The Bishop’s theme for the Diocese this year is identity. The Epiphany is all about Jesus’ Identity as not just another person, but as God Incarnate, Emmanuel, God With Us. During the season, our readings point to Jesus’ divine identity. The Gentile Wise Men were the first to recognize Jesus as the King of the Jews, a title that would be attributed to Jesus again at His Crucifixion. Implicit in His identity as King of the Jews was The Divine nature of Jesus and The Messiah, and it was the foreign, non-Jewish Wise Men. The identity of every character in this story is important.

The Bishop chose the theme of identity presumably because she thought it was vitally important. In her Convention Address on the subject, she used the illustration of parishes in interim, while they are developing their Parish Profiles, struggle with their identities. They are better at expressing their activity than they are their identity.

You will recall that on Advent 3, not too long ago, my sermon was also on the theme of identity, and I shared with you a few excerpts from Bishop Mary’s Convention Address. Then, I encouraged you to consider your Christian identity in relation to supporting the newly-baptized and in inviting others into the faith experience, engaging in evangelism. As we hear about Jesus’ identity through the story of the Wise Men, we realize that there are many aspects to our own personal identities.

I just started watching a drama called “The Americans”. The FX Channel website describes the show as “a period drama about the complex marriage of two KGB spies posing as Americans in suburban Washington D.C. during the Reagan administration.”  The main characters are always concerned about their identities being revealed. The description continues:

The arranged marriage of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings grows more passionate and genuine by the day, but as the pressures and demands of the job grow heavier, the personal toll becomes almost too exhausting to bear. Having revealed their true identities to their teenage daughter Paige, Philip and Elizabeth’s ability to protect their cover and their family’s safety has become even more tenuous.

I have only seen 3 episodes of the 1st season of 6, and I often think: “But do they actually know their true identities? Have they become who they are pretending to be?” In the first episode, in a flashback when Philip and Elizabeth first meet one another in their homeland of The Soviet Union, they are told to tell one another about their lives:

“I'll leave you two to get acquainted,” their KGB boss tells them. “There is so much to talk about. Your lives up until now. Philip and Elizabeth’s lives. Not the other ones – those should never be discussed. It would be easy to believe in the Elizabeth who grew up in Chicago, Illinois, Philip, if you don’t know any other story.”

Years later, in the time setting of the show, Philip also recognizes that they are no longer who they were born as, when he gets frustrated with the pressure of their false identities and says to Elizabeth:

“I’m…saying we are Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. We have been for a very long time. So why don’t we get ahead of this, and why don't we make the first move and offer ourselves to them [and defect]? We could get a lot of money…We just get relocated, take the good life, and be happy.”

I had my own issues with identity when living abroad. I was an American living abroad. That’s pretty much anyone wanted to know about me, and maybe that I was a priest. Beyond that, the people I met casually could then make up the rest in their minds and build their own picture of who I was based on what they knew about Americans and about priests. We all do that with people we meet casually, but that doesn’t even scratch the surface of who we are, and we are not obligated to heave our full selves upon a new acquaintance, nor should we.

Identity has become much more complicated because we are now beginning to realize that being offered one aspect of a person doesn’t reveal the person’s full identity, and neither are we entitled to any more of one’s identity than one wants to divulge. It is a really awkward tension that I have been noticing in this millennium: We are increasingly interested in the multifaceted nature of an other’s identity, but we are disappointed when we don’t get all the facets we want to know when we realize that we have crossed the line of intrusion. I don’t remember the fascination being as intense back in my teens and 20s as it is now.

During Epiphany, we will hear stories that point to Jesus’ identity as The Messiah and His Divine Nature. As we work our way through the first 2 chapters of Mark’s Gospel, we will hear two stories of the calls of Jesus’ first Disciples. In those stories, pieces of Jesus’ identity are revealed through the characters. Later in the Season of Epiphany, we will hear stories of Jesus’ healings. It will be through those healed and through the demons that we get more glimpses into Jesus’ Divine identity. And finally, just before Ash Wednesday, the story of The Transfiguration offers clear insight that Jesus is no simple human being: “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to Him!’”

Unlike Jesus, none of us have a Divine character. But very much like Jesus, we each have many facets to our identity. Let me use myself as an example. I am a native Californian, but went to school in Nebraska, as you know. I identify as a Californian, but do not reject or deny my Nebraskan upbringing. It’s complicated since, historically, we are from where we went to high school. With an increasing transient population and fractured families and blended families, there are an increasing number of people who may not identify with being from where they went to high school. I have met many of them.

I’m also mixed-race, as is former President Barack Obama. In the 2010 Census, 9MM people identified as mixed-race, and for many it’s not a problem for themselves, but it is an issue that others have concerning them…because the mixed-race person doesn’t fit nicely into the box that the observer wants to put them in. Genetic testing available to the general public, like 23&Me and Ancestry.com, have exploded the interest in racial identity, and has revolutionized the concepts of identity that some have of themselves. Many have found that they, like President Obama and me, are not monoracial. There are many articles our there for you to read, if you wish.

With the recent breaking open of

the multiple elements to one’s

identity, we as Christians are in

an unique position to explore

who we are.

From the Incarnation of God as Jesus at Christmas through to the Crucifixion and Resurrection at Easter, we will catch many glimpses of the different elements that point to the true identity of Jesus. Following the example of the Wise Men, we should follow the star to our inner selves and pay homage to the many aspects of our own identities.

When we pay homage to our identities as Christians, we can then explore how integrated our faith is to our identity. We discover that we, too, are special. The Incarnation sanctified humanity because God chose to enter Creation through humanity, through a child born of a woman. God didn’t choose to just appear, or come in a cloud, or speak through a burning bush. This time, God chose to come as one of us, deeming the human form worthy of Divine occupation.

Our understanding of this aligns with Bishop Mary’s assertion:

“Faith is the centerpiece of our

identity. It is the operating

system…of being Christian.”

That may be a bit too far for some of us at the moment. But the more-and-more we understand faith as at least part of our identity, the more our faith moves toward being the centerpiece of our identity. Soon, we are able to share that part of our identity with others very readily, without fear of the conclusions of who they subsequently believe us to be.

The Wise Men recognized Jesus’ identity, as do others from whom we will hear in the coming weeks. They provide a model for our own self-examination, both as people of this world, and as Christians. To go back to the show “The Americans”, and drawing on the description of the show, our faith as part of identity, as it gets stronger, can parallel the main characters:


  • Like their arranged marriage, our faith will grow more passionate and genuine by the day, but as the pressures and demands of the job of being a Christian grow heavier, the personal toll becomes almost too exhausting to bear – that Cross that Jesus tells us we bear.
  • As our faith deepens, like for Philip and Elizabeth meeting for the first time, there is so much to talk about…our lives up until now…our lives as people of faith…It would be easy to believe in the Christian I am, if you don’t know any other story.
  • And eventually, we can so easily roll off the tongue that we are Christians. We have been for a very long time. So why don’t we get ahead of this, and why don't we make the first move and offer ourselves…take the good life, and be happy.

The reading from Ephesians illustrates that Paul has explored the identity of Jesus, that he has explored his own identity in relation to his faith in Jesus Christ, and that his sharing of his understanding of Jesus Christ with others is a natural part of his identity. The reading from Isaiah points to the identity of the Wise Men. The star which they followed had its own role, and would have identified Jesus as The Messiah to ancient Jews. The Wise Men recognized the Christ Child’s identity as King with their gift of gold, His identity as priest with their gift of frankincense, and His identity as Christ Crucified with their gift of myrrh.

Let us explore our identities alongside the epiphanies of Jesus’ identities that we will be exploring over the next few weeks. As we discover what Bishop Mary means by our faith being at the center of our identity as Christians, let us go forth from here every day to

proclaim Jesus as Wonderful,

Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince

of Peace.

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