Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister



 The Irony of Epiphany

Sunday, January 4, 2009



Ephesians 3: 1-12


Rev. Dean Snyder

The Wikipedia entry on irony has some great examples.[i]

One is the story by O. Henry entitled “The Gift of the Magi.” Do you know it? A young couple is too poor to buy each other Christmas gifts. The wife cuts off her treasured long, beautiful hair to sell it to a wig-maker for money to buy her husband a chain for his heirloom pocket watch. Meanwhile, he has pawned his watch to buy her a set of combs for her long, beautiful hair. That’s ironic.

A true Wikipedia example of irony happened in 1974 near here. In 1974 the Consumer Product Safety Commission distributed 80,000 lapel buttons promoting "toy safety," and then had to do a recall of their own pins because they’d been painted with lead paint, had sharp edges, and had small clips that could be broken off and swallowed. Ironic.

Here’s another Wikipedia example of irony: During the 1920s The New York Times repeatedly heaped scorn on crossword puzzles. In 1924 it lamented "the sinful waste in the utterly futile finding of words the letters of which will fit into a prearranged pattern;" in 1925 the New York Times said "the question of whether the puzzles are beneficial or harmful is in no urgent need of an answer. The craze evidently is dying out fast;" and in 1929 it said that "The cross-word puzzle, it seems, has gone the way of all fads." Today, of course, no newspaper is more closely identified with the crossword puzzle than The New York Times. Ironic.

Wikipedia includes an example of ironic last words: “They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance," were nearly the last words of American Civil War General John Sedgwick before being shot through the eye by a Confederate sniper.


The Bible is full of irony. Biblical history is consistently ironic. Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. He becomes a senior public official in Egypt and they have to come begging him for food to survive. Joseph says to his brothers: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” (Genesis 50: 20) Irony.

The basic story line of the Bible is ironic: A group of powerless slaves become the spiritual leaders of western civilization.

The Jews are conquered by the Babylonians in Jeremiah’s time. Israel ceases being a nation and the Jewish people go into Diaspora. They are spread throughout the world and this is what preserves Jewish identity and religion. The very act meant to destroy Judaism saves it. Ironic.

Epiphany is a season of irony. The one whom his followers believed to be the Jewish messiah who would restore Israel to its position of world dominance and glory instead institutes a new spiritual movement in which there is neither Jew nor Gentile. Actually, he doesn’t even institute it. It just happens, taking everybody by surprise. This new thing happens that changes everything for everybody and it is the last thing anybody would have expected. It is not even something that Jesus seemed to explicitly teach.

The book of Ephesians calls it a mystery. Ephesians was probably not written by Paul, but it is written in his voice as though he were speaking…a literary device used often in epistles. Paul is the apostle to whom the mystery has been revealed – the mystery that Gentiles have become members of the same body and sharers in the promise of Jesus Christ. (Eph. 3:6) This, he says, is “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” (Eph. 3: 9)

The Greek word translated mystery is a derived from the word muo which literally means “to shut the mouth.” A mystery is something that makes us shut our mouths. It is what a southerner means when she says: “Well, shut my mouth.”

The Greek word for mystery and the word irony are very similar, I think. The fact that the Jewish messiah includes the Gentiles, and that this is the purpose of Jewish history from the very beginning is ironic. It shuts everybody’s mouths.

During Epiphany we celebrate the coming of the magi to worship the Christ child, a story included in the Gospel of Matthew to make the point that including Gentiles was always God’s purpose, even before we came to understand it.

During Epiphany we celebrate the spread of Christianity throughout the known world of biblical times, and then eventually into every corner of the globe, so that the church has become a global body where every tribe is included and every language is spoken.

But we also celebrate the irony of history…the irony of God…God is ironic.

You might even say that to believe in God means believing that life and history are ironic. When we are weak then we are strong. When we think we are strong we are often really weak. The best laid plans of mice and men.[ii]

To believe in God means to recognize that we are not in control of history. We are not in control of much of our own lives.

I’ve been reading the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr again. He is most popularly remembered because of a prayer he wrote that has come to be called the Serenity prayer: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Reinhold Niebuhr’s daughter has written a wonderful book entitled “The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Time of Peace and War.”[iii]

I’ve started rereading Niebuhr after reading Andrew Bacevich’s very important book “The Limits of Power.” Bacevich turns to Niebuhr to help understand America’s foreign and military policy these past decades.

One of Niebuhr’s books that Bacevich quotes several times is the book: “The Irony of American History.” One of the points Niebuhr makes is that the more we as Americans try to control the world, the more uncontrollable it becomes.

“If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue;” Niebuhr writes, “if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty [person] or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits – in all such cases, the situation is ironic.”[iv]

Reinhold Niebuhr warned that “our dreams of managing history,” meaning America’s dreams of managing global history, our dreams of managing history pose a potentially mortal threat to our nation.

Andrew Bacevich says we have slipped once again into the arrogance that Niebuhr warned against. This is what Bacevich writes:

“Americans ought to give up on the presumptuous notion that [we] are called upon to tutor Muslims in matters related to freedom and the proper relationship between politics and religion. The principle informing policy should be this: Let Islam be Islam. In the end, Muslims will have to discover for themselves the shortcomings of political Islam, much as Russians discovered the defects of Marxist-Leninism and Chinese came to appreciate the flaws of Maoism – perhaps even as we ourselves will one day begin to recognize the snares embedded in American exceptionalism.”[v]

The more we try to control history the more uncontrollable it will become. This is the irony of God.

I am amused by those who talk about “defending the church.” We have these groups in our denomination and others that have emerged who see it as their duty to defend the church. What are they defending the church against? People? You and me? Or are they defending the church against new ideas?

You can not control the church. You can not map the church’s future. Epiphany teaches us this. We can go where God takes us either faithfully or kicking and screaming, but we end up going where God takes us. You can’t defend the church.

The same is true in our personal lives. The more we push to get someone to love us, the less likely it is to happen. The more we focus on success rather than the mission to which we are called, the less likely we are to be successful.

Jesus told lots of ironic stories. One of the most ironic was about a farmer who was so successful that he tore down all his barns and built big new ones to hold all his crops, and he said to himself, “Now I can stop working and eat, drink, and be merry because I have enough stored up for the rest of my life.” And that very night his life was required of him. This is a very ironic story.

The point is to live a good rich meaningful life now, today, this very day, because we can’t control our futures, none of us.

This is what humility means. Humility isn’t putting ourselves down. It is simply knowing that we are finally not in charge. This is what prayer is – the acknowledgement that we are finally not in charge.

Faith is knowing that God is finally in charge, not us. Faith is trusting the One who is really in charge.

Join me in a prayer: You know, O God, how much difficulty we have trusting you. We want to be in control. We want to be you. Help us to trust you so that we might live well today and every day we are blessed with. Amen.










[iii] Elizabeth Sifton, The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Time of Peace and War (W.W. Norton and Company).

[iv] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (Scribner) cited by  Diana Butler Bass at

[v] Andrew J. Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (Metropolitan Books Henry Holt and Company), 177.