Epiphany: Love and Light for All – December 6, 2019
In the name of our all loving God, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier AMEN.
Through the Christmas season we read different accounts of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem and birthed the baby in a stable. It makes for a good Christmas pageant. John tells us that the Christ was from the beginning of time, that he is the eternal word of God. Matthew describes darker events, Herod’s rage at learning of the birth of Jesus and his massacre of the children in Bethlehem, the coming of wise men from the East with their gifts, and then their departure. And Mark leaves out any story of Jesus’ birth.
Today, we celebrate the coming of the Magi, or wise persons, and recognize God’s revelation of God’s self for all the people of the world. As Isaiah said, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” The Magi represent the gentiles who came to recognize who Jesus was. Epiphany comes from a Greek verb meaning “to reveal,” and celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ.
Epiphany reveals that even in his infancy Jesus Christ is for all humanity, not only for the chosen few. He is for the outsiders; he comes to draw people together: wise men from the East, Syrians from the north, Egyptians from the south, Romans from the west. The truth that grasps us in the moment of epiphany, the moment when Christ is revealed to the Gentiles, is that Jesus Christ is the very love of God incarnate, and that love cannot be confined to ethnic or national identity; it cannot be restricted by gender or claimed only by the powerful and privileged. Jesus Christ, as the new king of Israel, is in fact, Jesus Christ the sovereign ruler over all the earth.
Although we sing the well-known hymn as if these wise persons were kings – “We three kings of Orient are…” – actually they weren’t kings at all. They were probably philosophers and astrologers, perhaps even sorcerers. Some think they may have been Zoroastrian priests. Whoever they were, these wise persons were shrewd observers of the night sky, those who looked for signs of decisive events and clues to the future in the heavens. The great Biblical scholar Raymond Brown notes that the church has worked overtime in imagining the wise men strand. These “wise men” are Magi; from the same word we get “magician.” They were consummate Gentiles.
There is nothing in the text that says there were any particular number of Magi, and nothing that says they were all male. In fact, some scholars have suggested that the text clearly shows some of these Magi were women: they asked for directions.
So, Matthew tells us that just as Jesus was born, they saw this new star rising in the western sky over Judea, the land of the Jews. Using all their powers of analysis and interpretation and discernment, they determined that this star was a sign that a new king had been born; the Jews had been given a new king, and the lights of heaven proclaimed it. The arrival of the wise men from the East asking Herod about a new king of the Jews set off alarms all over the town of Jerusalem, because if there’s a new king of the Jews, then that means the old king is done. That obviously didn’t sit well.
When the Magi didn’t return to him, Herod’s blood-thirsty rage erupted, and he ordered every little baby boy in and around Bethlehem to be murdered. The child Jesus escaped only because his parents fled to Egypt.
Jesus and his parents were refugees, asylum seekers. Fleeing murderers at home, trying to escape death. Like the families who are fleeing disasters and threats in their own countries and seeking refuge in our land. There are other contemporary parallels to the Epiphany story: children being killed by war or disease or starvation, world leaders terrified of losing power and willing to do almost anything to hang on to it.
I think there are three important parts to the Epiphany story. First, the most important one, God’s Incarnation — God coming into the world in the person of Jesus – has everything to do with race, class, culture, gender, and orientation, and the truth that all people are equally under the light of Christ. That every person everywhere is made in God’s image and loved unconditionally.
Epiphany has everything to do with Brown v. Board of Education; Wounded Knee; the Edmund Pettis Bridge and the Stonewall Riots and wherever people have been demeaned and devalued. It has everything to do with the treatment of marginalized people. Epiphany has everything to do with dignity and inclusion and radical hospitality. The multicultural, multinational, multi-religious scene at the manger reminds us of God’s love and inclusion of all.
The second aspect of the Epiphany story has to do with competition that will follow Christ every place in the world. Whose possession is this world? Who is in charge? There is a Herod-like darkness deep inside all of us which cries out: “It’s mine! It’s mine!” Each of us wants to be king or queen over something, yet someone is born to reign, and it’s not us. That is the question being asked in one way or another in numerous countries around the world and in the shadows of every soul here as we struggle to hold on to the hard-won sovereignty we have over our lives. Christ is born to reign… will we let him?
The third dimension of the story is that a light begins to shine which will never be extinguished. The light comes from a life, a life lived in first century Palestine, but its light still warms us. That light which was buried just outside of Jerusalem and rose again, still burns here in Norwalk at 60 East Avenue and moves out from this place.
It is this third quality of the Epiphany story that I think we’re called to focus on. We have and continue to experience the darkness that Isaiah mentions, the darkness in our own lives, in the society, in the wider world. As we heard from John’s Gospel last week, What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. In other words, the light wins. The bottom line of the Christmas story, even with its dark scenes is that the goodness of God cannot be overcome. That God is still in charge. That we, no more than Herod “and all of Jerusalem,” do not have the final say in how the world, or even our lives, will run.
Jesus comes in love and mercy. He comes to save. He comes for all, leaving out no one who admits their need. And God’s consistently sides with the oppressed and saves those who are in need. God works through the Magi, God warns in dreams, God helps the family take flight, God provides shelter and sanctuary in Egypt. Very little of this is what the various characters in the story would have hoped for or planned, yet none of it is devoid of God’s presence.
God’s light still and always shines.
And God dispenses this divine love and light with profligate generosity. God never asks: “Where’s your passport?” or, “What’s your family heritage?” or, “What’s your culture, race, class, orientation?” The light of Christ anticipates that every household, every church, every community and every country be places of welcome, inclusion, safety, belonging, participation, justice, and respect.
Epiphany is about putting to work the light that was born in Bethlehem. It is the season to leave the manger and our own comfort zone and enter the places in our world which are messy, complex, and broken, to shine a light on that which is wrong, to illuminate that which hides in the dark, to bring healing and comfort to those who have been hurt by others. It is about speaking truth, acting justly, standing with the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, about loving God and our neighbors as ourselves. Today and every day.
It is our work as we go forward from here. As the last line of the bulletin reads each week, “The worship is over. The service begins.”