A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church, Boise, Idaho
January 6, 2013
Here is the video with which we began worship:
Today we are celebrating Epiphany. This is an ancient Christian celebration, dating at least as far back as the 300’s. And it is the day we celebrate the arrival of the magi, or the Eastern Wise men who came to visit Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Today is the actual feast day of Epiphany, which is also, if you count it up, the 12th Day of Christmas.
This word comes to us almost directly from the Greek.
“Epi”, meaning ‘on’ or ‘upon’, and “phaneros”, which means ‘visible’, ‘apparent’ or ‘manifest’.
So, an epiphany is more than just a “lightbulb” moment, or an “aha!” moment. An epiphany is something that is revealed to you. Something where light shines and makes something clear and manifest. The magi received the epiphany for all of us. They saw God made flesh and saw salvation for all people.
“Lift up your eyes and look around”, Isaiah tells the people. Isaiah gives a promise to people who have been defeated, exiled and forced to pay homage to other kings—he gives them a vision of kings coming to pay homage to them.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
If we didn’t know this passage from Isaiah, we might be wondering about the suitability of gold, frankincense and myrrh as gifts for a toddler. Right?
Where are the Tonka trucks or the age appropriate books?
If we didn’t know this passage from Isaiah, we might shake our heads at the magi and say under our breaths, “this is what you get when you send 3 men to buy presents for a baby.”
But we know of Isaiah. And so we hear the resonance through the years. Words of comfort and hope for people in exile are recognized in new ways.
For people in Israel who grew up hearing Isaiah’s promises, people who were living under occupation themselves, the image of men from the east, offering gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the child Jesus must have given them great hope, it must have been an epiphany for them, helping them see Isaiah’s prophecy with new eyes, with new clarity.
Arise! shine! for your light has come,
the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
Perhaps that was the greatest gift the magi offered—hope. Their very presence reminded the people of long held promises and invited them to see the world in new ways.
Because surely the world looks different to you after you’ve stepped out on faith to follow a star and have discovered God at the end of the journey. Especially when the King of the Jews that Herod was so afraid of turns out to be a toddler.
The epiphany was only the beginning of the changes for the magi, for all of us. And not all of the changes are easy. The epiphany of a child born as king in Bethlehem turned the world upside down and shook the palace in Jerusalem.
The world responds when God breaks into the world—and it isn’t always peaceful. I invite you to read ahead in Matthew this week and see how the powers of the world responded to the epiphany. Epiphany is about God coming to us in ways we would never have predicted on our own.
Somehow the Magi knew that this star was different, that this child was a king, and they followed the call and began the journey.
What if the magi had said, “the star looks interesting, but it isn’t a good time for me to leave. I’ve got deadlines coming up and the kids have soccer practice. And my camel’s in the shop. Plus fuel is so expensive right now.”
What if they had decided it wasn’t worth the effort to follow the star, saying “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
Your light has come!
Isaiah’s prophecy in this section is full of imperatives. It is full of exclamation points!
Lift up your eyes!
He isn’t inviting the hearers to join in. He’s commanding it.
It’s a good reminder to us in the darkness of winter. We can’t just sit around, waiting for the darkness of the world to change.
And Isaiah’s audience knew all about the darkness of the world. They knew the despair of exile. They knew what it was like to look around and say “the problems are so big. What can one person do?”
And we get like that too, don’t we?
We hate the fact that violence plagues our streets, but we don’t know what we can do to stop it.
We hate the fact that loved ones battle addiction and disease, but what can we do in the face of alcohol or cancer?
We want to follow the star, to see what God is doing in the world, but what difference can it make if we see it?
Isaiah calls us from despair to action, with exclamation points!
Lift up your eyes!
I love that Epiphany happens at the New Year. I love this reminder from Isaiah to live with exclamation points. Not in a New Year’s Resolution sort of way, necessarily. But there is value in seeing things differently, in having an epiphany, at the start of a new year.
There is value of being reminded that what we do, individually, can matter to all of us, corporately.
If we “Arise!” and “Shine!”, it will shed light on those around us too.
This last week, someone shared with me Shane Claiborne’s New Year’s Resolutions. Shane is a Christian activist.
Here’s the list:
1. Do for one person what I wish that I could do for everyone, but can’t.
2. Practice resurrection. Make ugly things beautiful and bring dead things back to life. Paint a new mural in our neighborhood. And make some cool stuff out of trash. Look for God in the unlikely places.
3. Interrupt death. Do something regularly to interrupt the patterns of violence, bullying, war, capital punishment and other mean and ugly things. Maybe we can see another few states in the US abolish the death penalty in 2013.
4. Give more money away than I keep. And do it in a way that takes away the power of money and celebrates the power of love.
5. Write letters and notes to people, letting them know I am thankful for them. Write a note asking for forgiveness from someone I need to ask to forgive me.
6. Do something really nice – that no one sees or knows about.
7. Compliment someone I have a hard time complimenting… and mean it.
8. Pause before every potential crisis and ask: “Will this matter in 5 years?”
9. Get outdoors often. And enjoy things like fireflies and shooting stars. Take someone to the beach or the mountains for their first time. And regularly get my hands into the garden… so when I type on the computer I can see dirt under my fingernails.
10. . Learn a skill – like welding – and use it for something redemptive, like turning a machine gun into a farm tool.
11. Rather than emphasizing the best of myself and finding the worst in others – let me work on the worst in myself and look for the best in others.
12. Be aware – and beware — of blessings. Do something to abstain, fast, or delay gratification. And do something to indulge in a gift of God. Then do something to end inequality and move the world toward God’s dream for every person to have “this day our daily bread”.
13. Believe in miracles. And live in a way that might necessitate one.
I read these and I understand Isaiah’s exclamation point living. Because each of these resolutions are simple. But they have far reaching impact.
And that is what light does. It doesn’t just shine for us.
Arise! Shine! Your light has come!
What the wise men recognized in the star was the confirmation of Isaiah’s promise that God’s light would shine on the world. And so they sought the light of the star. They testified to the light.
And then they returned home, by another way, to share the light they had seen.
Last year, you might recall, we passed out stars to you, inviting you to take a star and to let it be a reminder to you that God’s light does shine in the darkness.
We are going to do it again this year.
(People were invited to take one of the stars when they came forward for communion. I told them not to over think this. Just grab a star. If you would like me to pick a star for you, leave me a comment, and I will get you a star too.)
Each star has a word on it. I invite you to consider how that word might speak to your life in this new year. Perhaps you could use it to lead your prayers this year. Perhaps you could tape your star to your refrigerator or bathroom mirror and when you see it, remember that you need to look up, look to God and follow the star that is guiding you.
Perhaps it can be your reminder that what you do with the light that has shined in your life does matter. There are people in the world living in the shadows of darkness. So, Arise! Shine! For your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.