(Isaiah 60: 1-6; Matthew 2: 1-12)
I wonder, on this first Sunday of 2020, if you have heard the story of Alexander Papaderos? Papaderos was a Greek Army Officer in the early 20th century who later established an institute for peace on the island of Crete. This institute was located right next to mass graves of Germans and Cretans who fought each other in the second World War.
Papaderos tells a story about what it was that inspired him to create the memorial in the first place:
When I was a small child,’ he writes, ‘during the war we were poor and lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked there, and this large piece came from its sideview mirror. By scratching it on a stone, I made the edges soft so it wouldn’t cut my hands when I held it. I began to play with this little piece of glass, and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never be able to shine – in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me, to get light into the most inaccessible place I could find.
As I grew up, I would take that little mirror out in idle moments and continue the challenge of shining light in dark places. Eventually I grew to understand that this was a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I was not the light or the source of light. But light, truth, understanding, knowledge – it’s all there, and with our help it can shine into the darkest of places.
Today is January 5th, the first Sunday of not just a new year, but a new decade. It is also one day before the first holiday of the new church year, known as Epiphany. Coming from the Greek word for “manifestation” or “appearance,” Epiphany acknowledges the recognition of God made manifest in human form A little like Papaderos’ little mirror, don’t you think? Shining God’s light into dark places, where that light would not otherwise shine.
Epiphany is a sort of second chapter to the Christmas story, specifically celebrating the arrival of the Magi – more commonly called the Wise Men or three kings. And it seems a little odd, does it not, talking about these three kings so far removed from Christmas. It doesn’t quite fit our manger scenes, where baby Jesus, Joseph and Mary are in the company of barnyard animals, shepherds, and the Wise Men – all there together under one roof. Truth is, that trio didn’t arrive until a few weeks after Jesus was born. Which makes sense, if you think about it, given the distance they had to travel to get there.
The real intrigue of their story, though, is not when they arrived but what it was that brought them there in the first place – the words of a prophet from centuries before, and the light of a bright star in the night sky. These three kings followed that star, all the way to the tiny city of Bethlehem in Israel. It took them weeks to get there. And when they arrived, not knowing the lay of the land, they sought out the one who had Roman jurisdiction there, a proconsul named Herod; and they asked Herod where this newborn king was so that they might worship him.
They of course had no idea about the political realities of this region. Nor would they have known how Herod would receive this news of a newborn king – not as a messiah to be worshipped but as a potential rival to be eliminated.
And the way Matthew tells it, the contrast between the three kings and Herod could not have been any more pronounced. The wise men are in tune with what God is doing; Herod is clueless. The wise men are excited about these events and want to worship this newborn king. Herod can only see a threat to his authority. The wise men are empowered by their belief; Herod is blinded by his ambition and fear. And what makes this all the more fascinating is that the three kings are foreigners; non-Jews from a distant land. Herod, although a puppet of the Roman Empire, Herod is a Jew – raised in the faith that had talked for centuries about a promised messiah.
And so the contrast: the three kings illuminated by God’s light; Herod imprisoned in the darkness.
And it makes you wonder, as you read this story, if there’s a greater reason for it being here in the first place: more than just recounting history, more than a little drama. It makes you wonder if this story is here to reveal to us two very different ways of seeing the world, and two very different ways of responding to light and darkness.
Scripture, after all, is full of allusions to light and darkness; these polar opposites, these symbols of much more than just the presence or absence of electromagnetic radiation visible to the human eye. That’s the textbook definition of light, in case you were wondering. Light and Darkness are about good and evil; but even more, they’re about hope and it’s polar opposite, fear.
You remember what scriptures say Herod’s first reaction was when the wise men told him about the newborn king they had come to see? He was afraid. Both hope and fear were present when Jesus was born; both were present on the island of Crete during World War II. And both are still very much with us today; and all it takes is the first five minutes of your favorite news broadcast or a quick scroll through your Twitter feed to see it. The light and the darkness are all around us, constantly clamoring for our attention. And usually, it seems, the darkness wins out.
And then suddenly, in the midst of this never-ending, all-consuming darkness, something changes:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
And thick darkness the peoples,
But the Lord will arise upon you,
And his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
And kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Suddenly, God’s people can see again! They can see because of this wonderful light – a light that is certainly bright, but not in a blinding way. No, this light is more like a dimmer in reverse: you turn it on and it’s a soft glow at first, but with each passing moment the light gets a little brighter and a little brighter, until the light shines in full and you can see everything as it’s meant to be seen.
And when this happens, this light does more than just show us what is there: it gives us hope. Hope because we know that the darkness is not permanent; hope because we have eyes that can see all that God is doing in and through us. Hope because we have a future.
That’s what Isaiah’s words communicated to the Israelites in Babylon some 2500 years ago, despite the darkness of their captivity. That’s what three kings felt as they made their way to Bethlehem and eventually encountered in flesh and blood, despite the darkness of Herod’s murderous plans. A glimpse of light – that is our Epiphany story. that moment when we realize that this light is not just exposing the darkness, but looking through it, through the way things are, to the way things can be, are becoming, right here and right now.
So that’s the joy of this Epiphany thing. Here’s the catch: we still don’t know what to do with it. Epiphany winds up being like that weird uncle in the family that no one ever does much with and everyone sort of tolerates. I mean, let’s be honest: after Christmas and New Years in the span of a week, how many of us are inclined to go celebrate something else? Show of hands of those who have Epiphany parties planned tomorrow night.
No, it’s like we say to ourselves, The light has come, so let’s just get on with it! And so what do we do? We literally un-light everything: we take lights off our Christmas trees and out of our windows; we pack up all those ornaments and trinkets and shove them in the far corners of the attic, we assimilate all those glorious Christmas gifts we got into the mass of “stuff” we already have. And eventually we open the December VISA bill, from which very little light shines.
And yet, still – still, there is the prophet, stubbornly proclaiming: Arise, shine, for your light has come! Three foreign kings leave all they have in the single pursuit of this light; even with the darkness breathing down their necks; even with a Herod on their heels. You and I, we spend all this time in Advent talking about the coming Christ, Come Immanuel come; come, please just come – and now he’s here! Now God is with us!
So now what? What in the world do we do with a glimpse of light?
Last fall, your ministerial team – British, Jodi, Chris and I – embarked on a ministerial staff retreat, something we had never done before, to look specifically at the year 2020 and all the promise and challenge it’s set to bring – bring our church, bring our city and nation, and bring our world. In particular we talked about the fact that, despite living in a society with so much technology designed to connect us, we are perhaps more disconnected than ever before. Studies routinely show that people feel lonelier, more isolated, and more detached. Divisions in our nation and among the human race run deep. Some have said this disconnect and divide are at the root of some of the greatest challenges our society and the church are facing.
And so we thought about the new year prayerfully and pondered ways that our congregation might intentionally build on a theme of “CONNECT” that involved three primary connections:
Connecting with God
Connecting with our church family
Connecting with our neighbor
And we also acknowledged a very important truth that a lot of us fail to see; that these connections do not automatically happen simply because we are here. Sitting in this sanctuary right now does not automatically connect us with God; just as being in close proximity with other Trinity people does not automatically connect us with our church family; just as filling out a Sign-Up Genius to volunteer in mission does not automatically connect us with our neighbor. These connections must involved intentional, thoughtful acts on our part. It takes work. And especially in these divisive times we are living in – a divisiveness that is bound to get worse in the coming year before it gets better – we all need to intentionally connect in these three specific ways.
This past week you received an email from the four of us, announcing our ConnectTPC theme for 2020. Throughout the year, you’ll undoubtedly hear us refer to this theme in various ways; you’ll begin seeing the #ConnectTPC hashtag out and about. And we’ll be asking you to hold three questions close in everything we do as a congregation:
How is this better connecting me with God?
How is this better connecting me with my fellow church family members?
How is this better connecting me with my neighbor?
Honestly, it kind of reminds me of Papaderos’ mirror, actually. Because there comes a time when we cannot afford to lurk in the darkness anymore – we just cannot. We cannot live life like Herod – always afraid, always fearful. Epiphany is here, this odd little holiday on the heels of Christmas and New Years. And its arrival beckons us to listen to the words of the prophet and follow the footsteps of the three kings.
And so we choose light over darkness. We choose hope over fear. We choose discipleship and faithfulness over following our own agenda. We choose to take that little shard of mirror and relish in shining God’s light into dark places.
So, Trinity Presbyterian, I ask you: how will you intentionally connect with God, connect with church family, and connect with neighbor in this new year? And what light will we, collectively, shine?
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 As told by author Robert Fulghum in It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It.
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