Dr. Steve Lindsley
Isaiah 60: 1-6, Matthew 2: 1-12
In his book It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It, author Robert Fulghum recounts the story told by a man who founded an institute for peace on the Mediterranean island of Crete, next to the mass graves of Germans and Cretans who fought bitterly in World War II. He shares that, when he was young and growing up during the war, he and his family lived in a remote village on the island. One day, while walking on a road not too far from home, he found pieces of a mirror from a Germann motorcycle. He took the largest piece home where, by scratching it on a stone, he was able to smooth out the rough edges. It became a toy of sorts; something to occupy his time in the dismal fog of wartime.
One thing that particularly caught his fancy was how he could reflect the sun’s light with it – and not just reflect it, but actually control where it reflected. And he made a game of it, reflecting light into dark places where the sun wouldn’t otherwise shine. He’d reflect light in deep holes in the ground, in crevices and dark closets, the most inaccessible places he could find. He held onto that mirror well into his adult years, where from time to time he’d pull it out and play his little light reflecting game all over again.
And over time he realized something – he realized that this “game” that had stayed with him over the years was not merely a game but a metaphor for how he’d chosen to live his life – shining light into dark places. Now the light was not his own – he was not the source of the light. But light, truth, understanding – its full potential can be realized if we’re willing to reflect it ourselves.
Light is all around us as we begin a new year. This coming Thursday is Epiphany in the church liturgical year. Granted, it’s certainly not a holiday along the lines of a Christmas or Easter. Most years it probably passes by without us even noticing. The truth, though, is that Epiphany bears a strong resemblance to that little mirror. Coming from a Greek word that means “appearance” or “manifestation,” Epiphany is a Christian holiday that celebrates the “shining forth” or revelation of God in the person of Jesus. Shining God’s light into dark places, where that light wouldn’t otherwise shine.
Some might say that we already had a day for that a little over a week ago, and it’s true that Christmas is a day of light. But Epiphany acknowledges that this revelation, this “light” shines to those outside of the immediate world of the Israelite nation, the family of Jesus and the Shepherds. In our passage from Matthew today, it is a literal light – a star – that shines beyond Israel to three Magi in modern-day Iran and Iraq and compels them to make the long journey to see baby Jesus. Now this timetable, of course, runs contrary to the typical image we have in our heads with baby Jesus, Joseph and Mary in the company of barnyard animals, wayward shepherds, and those three gift-bearing wise men. Our manger scenes and Christmas pageants tend to have them all lumped together like some massive extended family gathering. Thing is, the Magi didn’t arrive until Epiphany – some two weeks after the birth of Jesus. Long after the shepherds had returned to their fields.
And it was more than just the star’s light that brought the Magi there. It was also the words of a prophet – words they were familiar with as non-Jewish learned men – speaking about a king that would one day be born, a very special king. And they just had to see this king. So they follow the star all the way to the tiny city of Bethlehem. They pay a visit to the man who had Roman jurisdiction over Bethlehem, a proconsul named Herod, and they ask him where this newborn king might be so they can worship him. They had no idea, of course, that Herod would not welcome this news – not a king to be celebrated, but a rival to be destroyed.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how the story plays out? The contrast is striking between the three kings and Herod. The wise men are clued in to what God is doing, even though they are foreigners and don’t worship this God. Herod, although a man of the faith, is clueless. The wise men are excited about what has happened and want to worship this newborn king. Herod can only see these events as a threat to his power that must be eliminated. The wise men are empowered by their belief; Herod, a puppet of the Roman empire domination system, is blinded by ambition and selfishness. The wise men, in short, were illuminated by God’s light; Herod remained imprisoned in the darkness.
This is the stark contrast that the writer of Matthew lays out for us here, and it is intentional. And the thing is, it is a contrast that extends far beyond some foreign kings and a ruler, far beyond even the bounds of a gospel story. In a larger sense, this is a contrast between different ways of seeing the world, and a different way of responding to both the light and the darkness.
The scriptures are full of allusions to light and darkness. And we’d be wise to entertain these allusions carefully, as in our current context where we are hyper aware of issues of race, any presumptions of light being “good” and dark being “bad” can prove to be a little problematic if we’re not careful. So we have to go deeper – and when we go deeper, we see that light and darkness in scripture are about more than just good and bad – they’re about hope and hopelessness. Both of which were there when Jesus was born; both of which were there when the prophet Isaiah spoke his words some 500 years before the Magi made their journey. It was a difficult time for God’s people in Babylonian captivity. A few verses before, the prophet laments just how dark the darkness is:
We wait for light, and lo! There is darkness;
We wait for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
We grope like the blind along a wall,
Groping like those who have no eyes.
We wait for justice, but there is none;
We wait for salvation, but it is far from us.
There’s a lot going on here, none of which is good. There is darkness, the absence of light. Because of this darkness, the people can’t see what’s around them – in fact, it’s so bad that it’s as if the people lack eyes altogether. And not only is there darkness, but there’s a feeling that comes with being in the darkness too long: and that feeling is hopelessness. There’s an absence of justice and salvation; nothing seems right with the world. And to make matters worse, there is this agonizing waiting for something to change – agonizing because, when you’re stuck in the darkness, change seems to be totally out of reach.
And then, in the midst of their darkness, at the height of their injustice, Isaiah switches things up and offers this:
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.
James Thurber, who used to work as a cartoonist with The New Yorker, once observed that “there are two kinds of light: the glow that illumines and the glare that obscures.” And while I really like that understanding and can see where he’s coming from, I’m inclined to think that the prophet Isaiah would disagree. Because the light he speaks of in the opening verses of his 60th chapter is not a glaring light that blinds you, like the insensitive soul in the oncoming lane who leaves his brights on as he comes over the crest of the hill, and for a few nerve-racking seconds you can’t see where you’re going. That’s not the kind of light Isaiah talks about.
Nor is the light he’s talking about a light that “illumines”; a light that just shows you what’s there. Simply seeing the injustice, simply feeling the gloom doesn’t automatically mean change happens, does it? We all take in our surroundings and see the state of our world, and yet we still feel as hopeless and powerless as we did when we were in the darkness – maybe even moreso. Just seeing the truth doesn’t make things better.
No, the light Isaiah talks about, thankfully, is neither of these. This light is certainly bright, but it doesn’t blind us. And while this light reveals to us what’s there, it doesn’t stop there. It gives God’s people hope. Hope because they know that the darkness is not a permanent state. Hope because there’s a future in front of them where their captivity will come to an end, and waiting for them on the other side of that darkness will be the freedom and justice they’re ready to help bring to fruition.
That’s what Isaiah’s words said to the Israelites in Babylon some 2500 years ago, despite the surrounding darkness of their captivity. That’s what the three kings felt as they made their way to Bethlehem and eventually encountered that light in flesh and blood, despite the surrounding darkness of Herod’s scheming. And that, my friends, is our Epiphany – that moment when we realize that this light is not just exposing the darkness but looking through the darkness, through the way things are to the way things can be, are becoming, right here and now. God revealed to us, God in action, God coming into our midst – not symbolically or halfway, but fully and completely. God in the flesh.
The tricky thing about Epiphany, of course – other than being a holiday we don’t celebrate all that much – is that the world writ large fails to see this light; or at least chooses not to see it for what it is. The darkness has a way, don’t you think, of fooling us into thinking that this light is something else entirely. Rather than letting this light shine anew in our lives, we are more prone to focus on the lights on our Christmas tree or in our windows or others of this season. Lights, of course, that eventually come down and get packed in boxes along with other ornaments and trinkets and stored in the far corners of our attic for another year. And we enter the first few days of January with the post-holiday season “blahs” that come from gifts that assimilate into our collection of things and the unwelcome arrival of the December VISA bill.
Our task in this new year – our “new years resolution,” of sorts – is to lean into the words of Isaiah and the actions of the Magi and never forget that you and I are witnesses to this light and called to let this light shine in and through us: Arise, shine, for your light has come.
You know, I’m reminded once again of the contrast between those three Magi and Herod – that Magi, who were foreigners, were illuminated while Herod, a man of faith, was not. I wonder if there’s a parable somewhere in there for you and me – that sometimes it takes the ideas and perspectives of those from the outside to reflect God’s light most clearly to those of us already here. I’m thinking about the fact that this year is shaping up to be a critical year for our congregation as we emerge from a two-year pandemic (hopefully), as we take stock of where we are and resist the urge to simply replicate what we were doing as a church before the pandemic and instead look to see what might actually be.
I’ve used the phrase before and will be using it quite frequently going forward: that our church will be casting a new vision for a new Trinity – looking deeply at who Trinity is and who we are called to be in the coming decades. What that looks like exactly, I have no idea. But I’m convinced as your pastor that this will be essential work for us in the year and years ahead. I’ll be talking more about this in the coming months, but for now know this: a critical component of this work will be acknowledging that the light does not just come internally but externally as well – that we’ll need to look and listen outside ourselves and hear from those who are seeing what we might not so readily see, to learn from their journey to Jesus and ponder how we might better worship and serve Jesus ourselves.
So perhaps it’s appropriate that our church begins our year-long celebration on Epiphany. Because we choose, as our predecessors did, to follow the words of the prophet, follow the lead of the three kings. We choose light over darkness. We choose hope over hopelessness. We choose love over hate. We choose peace over war. We choose discipleship over our own agendas. We choose to take that little shard of mirror and relish in shining God’s light into the dark places. We choose the light.
In the name of 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.