Sermon For January 4, 2015 ~ Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-5 & Matthew 2:1-12

“Surprised By The Light”

 

A Season Of Surprises: The God Of Wow!

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

To watch a video of this sermon, go online to: http://youtu.be/zPvf-PUlNUE

 

EpiphanyThe liturgical season – that is, the church holiday – that technically begins this next Tuesday, January 6th, is Epiphany. If anyone is counting you’ve figured out that it will be the first day after the twelve days of Christmas. The word “epiphany” means “manifestation” and the season highlights the “manifestation” of Christ as the Messiah. More exciting words can be found for “manifestation” (imagine that?!!!) such as “Eureka!!!,” “Gadzooks!!!,” and my favorite, “Duh!!!” And the first Sunday of Epiphany (in this case we’re tweaking things a bit and celebrating it slightly early) we commemorate the arrival of the magi to pay homage to the Christ Child.

 

You may have noticed in the bulletin that I am using a theme for the season (again, imagine that?!), developed by my good friend and once-visiting-preacher here at Franklin Circle Church, Marc Blakesley. Marc took the essence of the season and translated it delightfully as “A Season Of Surprises: The God Of Wow!” I like that framework, as it really gets at what I think those who shaped Epiphany were trying to portray: this innocent babe born in Bethlehem was no ordinary child, but the promised one who had come to save not just his own people, but to bring salvation to us all. “Wow!” is right!

 

The gospel writer Matthew, from whom comes the only account of the magi traveling to visit the baby Jesus, places this story very strategically in his account. The book of Matthew begins like no other gospel: “This is the family record of Jesus the Christ, descendent of David, descendent of Abraham…” and then proceeds to offer a list of “begets” intended to prove Jesus’ rightful place in the God-ordained history of his people. Professor Russell Pregeant makes an intriguing observation about this introduction:

“To say that Jesus is Son of Abraham is to say that he belongs to God’s covenant people; to say that he is the Son of David is to attest that he has the proper lineage to qualify for the title of Messiah. But a subtler note is also present in the reference to Abraham, because according to [the book of] Genesis 12:3 the promise God gave to Abraham would ultimately extend to all humankind.” (1)

 

scripturescrollAnd this will serve as the lens for Matthew’s entire take on the story of Jesus: he is thoroughly rooted in his own people’s tradition, and yet he has come to save all humanity, the world. And the story of the attentive astrologers from the east bringing gifts and paying homage to the child fits perfectly within that framework. You see, they had been scouring scripture – perhaps sacred scripture from many different faith traditions – and had come upon several passages in the holy writings of the Hebrew people that foretold the arrival of an anointed one whose birth would be revealed by a star in the sky. In the book of Micah 5:2 they read “’As for you, Bethlehem in Ephrathah,’ says YHWH, ‘small as you are among Judah’s clans, from you will come a ruler for me over Israel, one whose goings out are from times long past, from ancient days.’” From the book of Numbers 24:17 they gleaned “I behold it – but not close at hand: a star arises from Leah and Rachel and Jacob; a scepter arises from the nation of Israel;” So Jesus’ birth was seen as being prophesied in scripture, and yet the very ones to respond to these predictions are those far beyond that very faith!

 

Andrea Mantegna  Italian, about 1495 - 1505  Distemper on linen  Getty Museum Of Art

Andrea Mantegna
Italian, about 1495 – 1505
Distemper on linen
Getty Museum Of Art

And, of course, those who actually responded are far more fascinating in their gussied up modern incarnations than they were in scripture itself. Matthew only says “astrologers from the east.” No specific numbers, no reference to being kings themselves nor even wise men. Actually, no indication as to whether they were men or women! There is no mention from whence they came. And certainly we do not find the names of these astrologers in the Bible. What is crystal clear is that they came to worship the child, who, through the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they saw as nothing less than royalty. This becomes poignant given the murderous and deceitful response of the reigning king, Herod, following the magi’s elusive departure. This will set up the conflict that will take the story of the baby Jesus all the way through his crucifixion some thirty plus years later.

 

Christmas pageant starAnd so they beheld a star. They were surprised by the light. Now, when you see this moment recreated in Christmas pageants and nativity scenes on church lawns, you always see one clear star hanging above the stable (we won’t even go into the condensing of gospel stories and of time and place that happens at Christmas celebrations!) and that star consistently shines directly over where Jesus was. As I thought about that image I realized that what I typically have in mind about the star was more like my experience in so many fun houses at amusement parks. You know, you are in the electric car being taken around twists and turns and things pop out at you and noises blast to scare you… and then it gets really dark and quiet… when suddenly a huge bright light shines directly in your face and a truck horn blares while you scream for your life. That’s how I usually see the star of Bethlehem!

 

The Milky Way - CC By 2.0 Flickr

The Milky Way – CC By 2.0 Flickr

But if ever you have been outside on a clear night, and far enough away from the city lights that you can actually see most of the night sky, you know that even the brightest star in the sky, the North Star or Polaris is sometimes hard to find. And no mention is made of this being a particularly bright nor colorful star. Rather than that singular differently shaped well-defined star in the sky, I suspect these astrologers who had been examining the sky for years, simply noticed one new star out of the ordinary pattern of hundreds of thousands of stars. One pinprick of light in the midst of the dark night sky. (2)

 

Isn’t that more familiar to life. Oh, we want God’s light to shine so brightly in our face – and maybe even sometimes with a horn blaring so we really notice God’s presence! But, in fact, we so often have to be paying total attention to life in order to notice the little pinpricks of the divine light shining through.

 

And then they followed that little light. They didn’t just notice the light, they acted upon it’s meaning in their lives. Can you imagine packing up your belongings to travel afar with some of the most expensive hospitality gifts you could imagine – all based on a little dot of light. I can just imagine the conversation with their family before leaving home: “Yes, I will be gone for about a year, maybe more, because I feel compelled to follow that little dot of light right there. No over a bit… no, you’ve gone too far! Now up a bit… a bit more… there! Yes, I’m following that amazing, awesome, world-changing, history-shaping speck of light. Love you, see you next year!”

 

candle-in-the-darknessBut, you must understand, sometimes it’s not about the smallness of the light. Most of the time it’s about the overwhelming nature of the darkness, the shadows, the night. Now, let’s be clear, darkness is not always to be equated with bad things. In fact, it is in the dark of the womb that our bodies are formed, it is in the dark of the night that most of us get the best rest, and it is in the rich, dark earth that the seed has the necessary nourishment to sprout. But there is no doubting the power of light, especially when it shines in dark.

 

And these were dark and difficult times for the people from whom Mary, Joseph, and Jesus came. Their land had been overtaken by foreign invaders who were ruthless in their governance, unrelenting in their taxation, and violent in their supervision of the indigenous people. The books of the Bible that are called the Apocrypha, honored as holy scripture by our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers in the faith, tell stories of the uprisings against the totalitarian rule of the Roman Empire. They were desperate for liberation. And while we cannot say what the situation was for the magi, for we do not know their countries of origin, we might assume from their zeal to follow the pinprick spot of light that they, too, were struggling under oppression. At least after meeting mad Herod, perhaps they had a hint at the gloom and terror that burdened the land to which they arrived bearing gifts and looking for a messiah.

 

These times were not unlike others in the history of the people of Israel. From famine and slavery in Egypt, to domination and exile at the hands of the Babylonians, the ancestors of Jesus were no strangers to shadows and were frequent followers of the light. The prophet Isaiah pronounced one such moment of hope when singing:

“Arise, shine, for your light has come! The glory of YWHW is rising upon you! Though darkness still covers the earth and dense clouds enshroud the peoples, upon you YHWH now dawns, and God’s glory will be seen among you! The nations will come to your light and the leaders to your bright dawn!” (Isaiah 60:1-3)

 

What was so different about this dot of light was it wasn’t meant just for some people. This hope, this possibility for liberation, redemption, and salvation was intended for all people. And it would not come in the common ways of humanity, though an opposing force susceptible to similar patterns of domination, retribution, and violence. It would come through a wayfaring prophet who would teach and preach and heal and eventually offer his very own life as the means of confronting the principalities and powers of the world. This was no normal pinprick of light. This was pure light, the light of love. “In the Word was life, and that life was humanity’s light – a Light that shines in the darkness, a Light that the darkness has never overtaken.” (John 1:4-5)

 

My beloved, we all go through seasons of light, seasons of dark, and seasons of the shadows in between. As the earth spins on its axis, and as the twirling earth revolves around the sun, so our lives move from darkness, to gray shadows, to light, and back again. We have seasons of famine and death, and seasons of plenty and new birth. Throughout it all let us scour our world for the pinpricks of pure light that are God’s love shining through. Jesus has already come, so we are not so much awaiting a savior to be revealed to us, but we are searching for signs of that savior living and breathing and loving amongst us.

 

I vow to spend very little time giving my heart and soul over to those who want to spin their webs of negativity, suspicion, hatefulness, and division. The Herods of this world get far too much airtime for my comfort. I find no light in folks who are bound up by their own insistence that the sky is falling and there are enemies all around us. Instead, I want to live life like a magi. I desire toFindingLight spend my dark nights searching for goodness and truth and beauty and grace and pure love, even if I can only see it in the pinpricks of small stars around me, and then spend my days following those people who reflect the light of Christ in what they say, what they think, and what they do most especially. I want to look for, and then be joyfully surprised by the light, and then share these epiphanies with all whom I meet.

 

In invite you along this journey anticipating the surprises God has in store for us, in Christ’s name and by Christ’s grace… and through Christ’s light.

 

Amen.

 

(1) Russel Pregeant, Matthew: Chalice Commentaries For Today (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), p. 16

 

(2) For an interesting new movement to creation International Dark Sky Parks, go online to: http://www.treehugger.com/natural-sciences/new-international-dark-sky-park-opens-in-michigan-only-nine-others-in-the-world.html

 

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