Have you had
enough of Christmas yet? Can
you ever have enough of Christmas?
We’ve made it to the New Year but the liturgical calendar says
it is the second Sunday of Christmas.
And so our Christmas decorations are still up not because we
could not find anyone to take them down last week, but as a reminder to
us that we are still in the Christmas season, that the church’s
calendar is different from the shopping calendar, that the news of the
Christmas message cannot be confined to one day.
there are indeed 12 days of Christmas, then we still have maids to be
milking, lords to be leaping and drummers to be drumming before the
Christmas season is over! So
the decorations and the carols on this first Sunday of the new year
remind us that God’s time will not be rushed.
is one more reason why we haven’t removed our decorations yet and that
is because Epiphany does not begin until January 6.
Epiphany is the season of the star, when we celebrate the
manifestation of God’s coming as the light of the world through the
child of Mary and Joseph as told in the Gospel of Matthew.
this is properly the Sunday when the magi join the animals and shepherds
in the manger. Actually, there are no animals or shepherds and there is no
manger in the magi story. For
that matter, there is no baby either.
As Matthew tells the story, Jesus is already a young child of one
or two when the ambassadors from the East follow that star to a house in
Bethlehem. Putting the magi
off a Sunday or two gives us a chance to consider the significance of
their story in its own right.
know the story. This royal
entourage comes to the palace as protocol dictates, seeking the new King
of the Jews. This of course comes as a bit of a shock to King Herod who
was under the impression that he was the King of the Jews.
Shortly thereafter, he orders the execution of all male children
under the age of two while Mary and Joseph take their little treasure to
this disturbing story Matthew both establishes Jesus as the true King of
Israel in contrast to Herod. At
the same time he portrays Herod as a pharaoh of old who does not
hesitate to execute infants to maintain his power. In contrast Jesus
appears as the new Moses who comes out of Egypt to lead his people to a
new life in the promised land of God.
here, in Matthew’s birth story, before Jesus is weaned from his
mother’s breast, we are given a choice between the system of
domination and power as exercised by the world, what John Dominic
Crossan calls the “normalcy of civilization”, or a life, that from
the beginning, is in opposition to such normalcy.
Take note of the tension already present here between these two
ways of living in this world, one that takes life and the other that
gives life. The two will
collide with deadly results upon a hillside outside the holy city at the
end of the story, another earthly king at last succeeding where the
first failed. But his
victory will be but an illusion eternally shattered by the dawn’s new
light on the empty grave.
see Epiphany is the connection of the good news of Christmas to the good
news of Easter, the morning star that precedes the dawn. How many of you found under your Christmas tree the expanded
version of “Return of the King”, the third volume in the Lord of the
Rings series? Like
thousands of other families in the country, Santa delivered that great
Tolkien epic to us and we watched it on New Year’s Eve.
But of course you just can’t watch the third movie without the
first two, so we had about 12 hours of Lord of the Rings on Friday!
In the expanded version there is a wonderful scene when Frodo and
Sam are in Mordor, the source of all evil in Middle Earth, and the
burden of their journey has become too great to continue.
Sam looks up to see a break in the dark clouds overhead and a
single star shining through. The
beauty of that star gives him the courage and hope to continue their
journey. That’s Epiphany.
talk about the light of that star which guides us through the night in
various ways but it is John’s gospel which gives us the most thorough
and revealing theological interpretation of it.
John skips any mention of angels singing to shepherds and wise
men bearing gifts. He even
avoids the controversy of the miraculous birth.
In fact, he completely reinterprets it, as we will see in a
John, the origin of the Christian proclamation, the good news of both
Christmas and Easter, lies not in human history but in the proclamation
of God that brought the world into being.
Listen to his prologue to the Gospel story:
In the beginning was the Word, and the
Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He
was in the beginning with God. 3All
things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came
into being. What has come into being 4in
him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6There
was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He
came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe
through him. 8He himself was
not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The
true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10He
was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the
world did not know him. 11He
came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But
to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to
become children of God, 13who
were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of
man, but of God. 14And the
Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the
glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
beginning when darkness covered the face of the deep, God spoke and
brought light to the world. There
begins the Good News, says John, for in that beginning was the Word
which is the light of the world, the Word which would become flesh and
dwell among us to enlighten everyone. That
Word comes to us as a light that pierces the darkest night, a sign in
the heavens for the wise to discern, a rising star inviting believers to
follow, a new dawn separating day from night.
there is a clear marcation between darkness and light which is a major
theme running through his gospel. Just
two chapters after this introduction to the Light, Nicodemus comes to
Jesus, by night, to confess his infant faith in Jesus and Jesus
responds, “no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from
Just as Mary
was confused on how she could conceive a child, Nicodemus is confused on
how anyone could be born a second time.
And just as the angel answers Mary that this will be the work of
the Spirit, so too Jesus tells Nicodemus.
Thus for John, listen carefully, the miraculous birth is not what
happened to Jesus, the miraculous birth is what happens to us!
But that is another sermon for another time.
Just thought I’d throw that in there today as a freebie.
Back to the
Epiphany theme for this morning, listen to the conclusion John gives to
this dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus:
who believe in the Son are not condemned; but those who do not believe
are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of
the only Son of God. And this
is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people
loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the
light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.
But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may
be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. (John
on John tells us that Jesus says “I am the light of the world.
Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the
light of life.” (John
Apostle Paul finds this contrast between darkness and light useful in
describing the Christian calling. In
his letter to the Romans he writes, “Let us lay aside the works of
darkness and put on the armor of light.” (Romans 13:12)
To the Ephesians he says, “For once you were darkness, but now
in the Lord you are light. Live
as children of light--for the fruit of the light is found in all that is
good and right and true.” (Ephesians
This image of
light vs. darkness is a useful one in helping us to interpret the world
around us and the struggles we face in our own lives.
Marcus Borg notes that, “Darkness is associated with blindness,
night, sleep, cold, gloom, despair, lostness, chaos, death, danger and
yearning for the dawn. It
is a striking image of the human condition.”
so dark we cannot see a way out;
so bleak that hope remains a faint twilight;
so near that dawn is but a memory;
so heavy daylight cannot lift it.
is the night in which fear and lost souls tread without end.
It is the night we hope and yet cannot avoid.
In contrast to this darkness, says Borg, “Light is seen as the
antidote to the above, and is thus an image of salvation.
In the light, one is awake, able to see and find one’s way; it
is associated with relief and rejoicing that the night is over; in the
light one is safe and warm. In the light there is life.”[i]
is the light we seek, the way, the truth and the life, but too often it
is the darkness we find. Whether
it is our own inability to gain control over the destructive forces in
our lives or our collective failure to keep that light shining for the
common good, we find ourselves in one way or another caught in the
struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.
because Christ is the Light of the World which illumines our lives we
are made all the more aware of the inner recesses of our lives still in
the dark: past deeds or
experiences we wish to keep hidden, deep desires of illicit acts or
wrongful things, private liaisons and secret loves, paralyzing fears and
reality our lives are a mixture of light and dark, hope and fear, love
and hate, peace and war, grace and judgment.
We may be successful some of the time in driving the dark away,
but it remains an unavoidable part of the human experience. We do our best to avoid it, we spend a lifetime running from
death and fortunes denying our mortality, we saturate our bodies with
every conceivable drug to avoid pain, we consume every available
resource to maximize our comfort and prolong our existence, but the
darkness remains in the ever-present horizon of our lives.
may be distant, it may be near, but it is there, ready at any time to
swallow us like Jonah and the whale or last week’s tsunami.
A vacation in a Pacific paradise turned into an unimaginable
nightmare with no warning. Entire communities washed away with little
evidence of the lives once lived there.
How do we fathom such darkness?
How do we comprehend 120,000 lives and counting wiped out by a
single wave or two?
never know when the night will come. A wrong turn and the lights go out.
A phone call and the world goes dark.
Through it all we hang on to the promise of our Epiphany star,
that though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, there is
still a light to guide our way.
elder of the church went to the home of a member whose wife, just 34
years old, had just been killed. The
elder found the distraught husband stretched out on his bed staring at
the ceiling, numb. Saying
nothing, he pulled up a rocking chair and sat down by the bed.
As night fell, the husband eventually fell asleep.
When in the middle of the night he reached out for her and then
in horror awoke to the realization she was gone for good, the pain of
the overwhelming darkness and silence would have been unbearable were it
not for the steady creaking of the rocking chair that told him he was
you know that feeling?
do you know that you are not alone in the dark?
William Wordsworth sees the dark and the light as part of one nature:
unfettered clouds and region of the heavens,
and peace, the darkness and the light--
all like workings of one mind, the features
the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
of the great Apocalypse,
types and symbols of Eternity.
first, and last, and midst, and without end.
Mathew Fox speaks of our need to befriend the dark, for without it
salvation is meaningless. “By
refusing to cover up the cosmic despair and the cosmic anguish that life
rains on us we make healing possible.... By letting pain be pain we
allow healing to be healing, and instead of healing our projections or
our imaginary darknesses we heal what is truly in pain, what is deeply
and irretrievably dark.”[ii]
prophets remind us that dawn follows the night and joy comes through
mourning. Isaiah proclaims:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,
those who lived in a land of deep darkness--on them has light shined.”
(Isaiah 9:2) And Jeremiah says that “I will turn their mourning
into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”
a young boy Robert Louis Stevenson stood by his window, watching a
lamplighter walking down the street, lighting the gas streets lights.
His nanny asked him what he was doing.
The young Stevenson replied, “I’m watching a man poke holes
in the darkness.”
our family we have a favorite story about young Patrick that my mother
loved to tell, now it has become as much a favorite story about Mom
recalled once again this past Christmas when all of us were together
(five siblings, six grandchildren, spouses and now one
great-grandchild—I don’t know how that happened because I am not old
enough to have a great grandfather for a father!), the first time
we’ve all been together since Mom’s memorial service.
story, recalled by my oldest sister, the Reverend Katherine Graves:
We were camping when Patrick was three or four.
Mom and Dad came to join us at the small lake in the Cascades.
It was late in the evening when Mom decided to take a swim. Patrick did not think it a good idea. “Why not?” asked Mother.
“Because,” replied Patrick, “the light is dissipating.” And so
Mom loved to tell of the dissipating light perceived by her youngest
darkness, how can we perceive the light, whether dissipating or dawning?
Without death, how can we know resurrection, whether Christ’s
or our own? Christ, the
true light of the world, offers us salvation precisely because Christ is
a light IN the dark. Until
we accept the dark, we will never see the light nor find God in the
midst of either.
you remember the crucifixion scene, when the whole world turned dark?
John tells us that “while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene
came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed...”
Before the dawn, while the world is still dark, Christ comes,
poking holes in the darkness until at last, we have nothing to fear for
it is not the light but the dark that is dissipating.
is Epiphany, punching holes in the dark with God’s light born in
Jesus, borne by Christ. Arise,
shine, your light has come.
Christian Century, 12/16/1998, p. 1219
[ii] Matthew Fox, Original
Blessing, Bear & Company, 1983.