It was Frederick Buechner – theologian, author and long-time “Vermonter” – who said it, and the words have always resonated for me: “Morning is a time for Epiphanies.” It’s a time to see visions and to hear voices, an “in-between” time between darkness and the dawning of light; and not just sunlight, mind you, but also God’s light shining on a new day as with “the light of the first morning, creation’s dawn,” opening up an infinite array of possibilities and revealing all that is real, and true, and good about our lives.
I remember one such morning just after my oldest son Jake was born; doing “the new daddy thing” in trying to rock him back to sleep in the wee hours of the morning, just barely twilight. And of course, Jake was resisting the effort, but that didn’t matter; because there we were, just my son and me, watching the morning sun pour into the room where we were rocking, with the only sounds to be heard the ticking of the clock on the wall and the first, tentative chirping of birds outside. Twenty-five years later, I still remember every bit of it: my utter amazement in this miracle that had come into our lives, the palpable sense of God’s presence that had warmed me in that precise moment; and how I was suddenly awakened – both literally and figuratively – to this profoundly good realization that my life had changed forever, simply by virtue of this tiny little child! As the sun rose early on that May morning, light had come into my world, revealing something heretofore unexpected and unimagined, and setting me forth along a brand new pathway.
It had truly been an epiphany.
Light also provides the central image for this day of Epiphany. On the Christian calendar, it’s the 12th day of Christmas: and today we mark the occasion not with twelve drummers drumming (!), but rather with the light that heralded the Christmas gospel; yes, in the light of the star that drew three magi across hard desert terrain that they might pay homage to a child who had “been born king of the Jews,” but moreover in the light of God that shone forth in Christ, a light that revealed to all of humanity its need for reconciliation with the divine. On Christmas, we tell the story of how a child was born; on Epiphany, we tell the story of how that child changes us and the world. Or, as John Westerhoff has explained it, “On Christmas we celebrate God’s coming to us. On Epiphany we celebrate our going to God.”
So basically, Epiphany – the day and the experience – comes down to this: we have been given this gift of Light in the Christ Child, a gift freely given of God that illuminates our very lives. But friends, it’s a gift that elicits a response. And now that Christmas and our time at the manger is past, the question becomes what we will do with this gift; because, friends, this light that has come challenges us to live and to walk in its illumination.
It’s interesting to note that the prophecy we heard from Isaiah this morning is of light shining in “darkness [that] shall cover the earth, and thick darkness [that covers] the peoples.” Historically, this was addressed to the people of Israel, who after years of exile in Babylon, were about to return home to the ruins of Jerusalem, which was home, and yet now a strange place where nothing was as they had remembered it, or in any way how “it used to be.” So their homecoming was at best a mixed blessing, with the prospect of rebuilding their lives feeling pretty much dark and foreboding; this kind of overwhelming sadness is what Isaiah is talking about when he speaks of “thick darkness.”
But it’s precisely into this thick darkness that light comes! “The LORD will arise upon you,” says Isaiah, “and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” This is the promise of radiance, friends; the kind of illumination that makes the heart thrill and rejoice, with families reunited, livelihoods restored, wealth regained and life returned! This was, simply put, the Messianic hope that found its fulfillment in the Christ; and did you notice the first instruction given to the people in the face of such radiance?
It’s to arise! “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.”
In other words, get up! Wake up and drag yourselves out of the bed of your despair and do something about this light which has come shining into your world! It’s no accident that the Hebrew words translated here as “light” are related to words that translate to life, salvation and joy; just as it’s also no accident that the word for darkness is related to death. “The glory of the Lord” represents the light of life, an epiphany given unto God’s people Israel, and through Christ, unto you and me. But will we, as we used to sing in Sunday School, “rise and shine and give God the glory” in return? That’s the challenge that’s before us, friends: do we walk in the light, or continue to dwell in darkness?
It’s a valid question, friends; because actually, there are those who prefer the darkness.
You know, as I turned one more time this week to Matthew and the story of the three Wise Men, it occurred to me that throughout the story of the nativity, it turns out that of all the characters who fill out this narrative, the only one whose life isn’t profoundly changed by the birth of this child in the manger is… Herod. From Mary and Joseph, certainly, and the shepherds abiding in the field on the night of his birth, to others such as Simeon, and the elderly prophet Anna who met the holy family at the temple of Jerusalem; all of them, and others besides, were truly illumined by the light of this child.
But for King Herod, it was different; no “light of the world” for him, just another star in the sky; no “new born king,” but rather an affront to his power and rule. Matthew records that when Herod hears of this child, he’s “frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” And that’s because Herod could not conceive that this was royalty of another kind, and could only assume that this king would be as cruel, despotic and bloodthirsty as himself, and thus a threat that had to be immediately destroyed.
So that’s why in and through the familiar story of the magi and their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, there’s also this creeping darkness that’s seeking to overcome the light; and indeed, historically we know that not only did Herod seek to use the magi in an effort to get to the child himself, so to destroy him; but then later also ordered the slaughter of all the young children in and around Bethlehem to assure that the job got done.
It doesn’t work, of course; as Fred Craddock has written, the good news here is that “these events are providentially guided… [and] that [Jesus’] life is not only divinely begun, but announced with extraordinary signs and preserved providentially from the threats of a jealous tyrant.” By God’s grace and intent, Herod does not succeed: in the words of John’s Gospel, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” But we’re left here with the hard knowledge that not only will there always be the threat of darkness in this world, there will always always be Herods in the world who prefer to dwell there.
Because make no mistake, even now, King Herod lives.
There are those in this life who don’t get or understand or accept this epiphany of light that God brings into the world, and by their words and actions will seek to reject it and cast it out. Yes, they may well be the so-called agents of terror, the latter day versions of Herod and his minions; those whose extremist view of religion and politics lead them to heinous and horrific ways of life; but, lest we think of this too globally, they also might simply be the people we know who have become so angry and embittered over the darkness that sometimes settles over human life that they can’t (or won’t) see any light to begin with, unable to perceive the profound radical realities of love, grace and forgiveness which the light of Christ reveals as anything other than some sentimental ideal, and so they live out their days overwhelmed with the deep darkness that envelops them.
But this is the nature of this light that has come into the world; this is the light of Jesus Christ our Lord that pierces the darkness. You know, somewhere in her poetry, Ann Weems writes that Jesus was into life in such a way that you either had to follow him or resent his efforts to bring change. And you see, that’s the thing about brilliant light; it illumines all, it shows us all, and it will inevitably bring change to everything we know and assume we know to be true. The thing is that this light that has come into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, which is no less than the light of God’s own glory, cannot help but change us: as persons, as a people, as a church. And what comes to us in the midst of such an epiphany is the question of how we’ll respond in the face of what it reveals – something to reflect upon as we come to the Lord’s table this morning…
…perchance to find in the broken bread and shared cup the inspiration to arise and shine in the glory of Christ’s light, that we might live and walk along a new pathway, seeking God’s blessing as we do.
Thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry