Pastor Ingrid’s sermon for Epiphany. Listen along here.
The gospel according to Matthew, the second chapter:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.
Our neighbors across the street had a menorah in their front window this Chanukkah, the Jewish holiday also known as the Festival of Lights. On the eight nights between December 6 and December 14, I paused in the dark street in front of their house on my way home from work and peered into their home. [Don’t worry; it wasn’t as weird as it sounds.] Each night—moving from right to left, just like Hebrew script—I would witness another candle burning.
At the same time as I was peeping into my neighbors’ window, a rabbi by the name of Michael Adam Latz in Minneapolis introduced me to the idea of illuminators. Illuminators, he said, are people who create light in the night, who amplify the call for justice, who make our world more whole, who have—in his words—the chutzpah to light the first candle when reality tells us there is not enough oil. Illuminators know they cannot make the world right all at once, but they have the courage to keep trying—candle by candle. In short, illuminators seek to grow the light.[i]
Epiphany, the day of the church year we celebrate today, is the church’s day of illumination. Epiphany’s alternative name in Greek is τα Φώτα, which means “The Lights.” It’s the day when we tell the story of those wise guy stargazers who were sent on a mission to follow a star in the sky. It’s the day we consider the moment they laid their eyes on that fleshy little baby and his oh so tired parents. It’s the day we consider what it must have been like for them to recognize—really against all odds—that the little child was real bad news for Herod and real good news for those society didn’t have much time for—people with broken pieces, people who practice peace, and people who choose mercy-even when it comes at their own expense.
Usually we leave our Epiphany reflection there—in the warmth of the miracle of the dudes actually finding the Christ Child. But the passage we’re given takes us back on the road where the light is more difficult to see. One Mennonite theologian says that “when we think of epiphanies, we tend to idealize the sudden revelation, the moment of knowing, the one thing that launches us confidently on our journey: “Arise, shine,” says the writer of Third Isaiah, “For your light has come.” This is the kind of epiphany we want—the shining light, the voice from heaven, the glory of the Lord, the gleaming star. But I’m convinced the magi’s star is a fainter light than that. It’s trickier to notice. It’s harder to follow.”[ii] It is more like a single candle on 45th Avenue pressing back on a cold winter’s night.
As we turn the calendar to 2016, it is easy to shut the books on 2015 and say “see you later” to a year in which political rhetoric went off the rails [even more than usual], guns killed unarmed kids in American streets, horrifying conflicts in places like Syria forced millions from their homes, and the Earth continued to warm. It would be easy to collapse into cynicism, to say that nothing will change regardless of how many songs we sing or how many letters we write or how many marches we join or how many prayers we offer or how many candles we light. We’re not the first to be tempted to fall into the ease of cynicism. With the power of Herod and his cronies on their minds, I have to believe the wise men must have thought throwing their hands up, too, heading right back to the land from which they had come, and leaving the struggle to someone else. But they didn’t take the easy route.
We need not either. As we step out of Advent and Christmas and we turn the calendar to 2016, I think part of our call as Christians is to also to look back on the lights that shone in 2015. The New York Times editorial board, in a piece entitled “Moments of Grace in a Grim Year” published a handful of days ago on Christmas Day, pointed to so many of the year’s illuminators, including: the unprecedented promises made by 195 countries’ leaders at the Paris Climate Conference; the humble swagger of a Pope who is consistently challenging the wealthy; the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of committed love between two people; the lowest use of the death penalty in two decades; and the Black Lives Matter movement that spread a message of peaceable resistance.[iii] From where I sit, these were indeed bright public lights. I’m sure there were also illuminators who flipped switches, so to speak, in your own life that you could add to this ever-expanding list.
This year’s symposium speaker, Wil Gafney, recently reminded me of something Howard Thurman, who was widely considered to be one of the greatest African American preachers in the 20th-century, wrote in the 1960s—another period in history that knew hardship. Thurman said that somewhere between the light and the darkness, between shadow and the glory, there is a space called the luminous darkness. Others have called it radiant blackness. Think of it as the night sky spangled with stars.[iv] I think Thurman’s words are helpful for us today. I think we find ourselves living in the luminous darkness. We won’t know it, though, unless we remind each other to look up and see the night sky spangled with stars. Or unless we remember to pause long enough to catch sight of the lone candle flickering in our neighbor’s window.
When the wise stargazers made it back to their hometowns, I like to think they started in on the work of the gospel. They didn’t need to wait for Jesus to grow in age and wisdom. The truth was that they were already having visions and dreaming dreams. They began to position themselves near to those with broken pieces and to listen to the cries for justice and to practice peace and to hold fast to God’s promise that mercy and life have the last word. Not only in some distant future, but right now. They had seen a star in the sky, yes. More importantly, however, they had seen true light emanating from a fleshy little baby that offered them an opening to believe, if for a moment, that what they saw around them—the abuse of power, the economic disparity, the violence, the complacency—wasn’t all there was. This light allowed them to believe the good news that God’s grace and joy were more powerful than any cynicism the Empire attempted to sling around their shoulders.
They had become illuminators—people who create light in the luminous darkness, who amplify the call for justice, who make the world more whole, who have the chutzpah to light the first candle when reality tells us there is not enough oil. Oh, of course, they knew they couldn’t make the world right all at once, but they had the courage to keep trying—candle by candle. Thereafter, their lives were devoted to one thing: Growing the light.
May it be so with us.
[i] These are the words of Michael Adam Latz.
[ii] Joanna Harader in The Christian Century.
[iii] To read more, go to http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/25/opinion/moments-of-grace-in-a-grim-year.html.