Epiphany of the Lord
A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on January 9, 2011.
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthe2 2:1-12
Today is not the actual date for observing Epiphany. That date was January 6. However, in light of current events and the entire sweep of human experience, it seems appropriate to ponder darkness, light, and our relationship with God.
As we gather people in Arizona are coping with shock, anger, grief, confusion, and profound sadness surrounding the shootings in Tucson that took five lives yesterday, including a 9 year-old girl who simply wanted to meet Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. There are people in dark places in Arizona today.
The world continues to struggle under the darkness of unstable economic times, wars in Afghanistan, Sudan, threat of war in the Ivory Coast and Korea, the plight of Palestinians, and so much more. Haiti remains the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and still struggles to obtain relief after the devastating earthquake of last year. People are living in dark places around the world.
Although politicians and business people say there are encouraging signs on the economic front in the United States, far too many people are living in darkness economically. Too many people have no work. Others are working too hard and earning too little. Meanwhile prices for food and fuel (from heating oil to gasoline) are steadily climbing. People are living in darkness.
Throughout human history prophets, poets, philosophers, politicians, pundits, and people of every other walk have understood darkness to mean the absence or deficiency of light or brightness. Darkness is associated with hopelessness, dreadfulness, foreboding, sorrow, and gloominess. Darkness is sometimes used to describe a brooding kind of anger that clouds moral judgment. Sin and guilt are also associated with darkness in Scripture.
So when Isaiah’s prophecy declares that “darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the people,” we have a sense for what is meant even without understanding the historical, cultural, religious, political, and other contexts from which those words arose. Even without knowing the details about what was happening in the lives of the people to whom Isaiah’s words were first proclaimed, we know they were not doing well.
Isaiah’s people had been exiled in Babylon. Their exile was ended by Cyrus the Great, the ruler of Persia (now known as Iran) in 539 BC. Cyrus helped more than 40,000 of the Hebrew exiles return to their homeland and then funded the rebuilding of their Temple in Jerusalem. The end of exile meant the Hebrew people could return to their homeland, rebuild their lives, re-kindle their religious faith, and work to re-establish a sense of nationality.
But the returning exiles found life difficult. They were surrounded by other nations with more wealth, military power, and political influence. Yes, they had been freed from exile status, but they faced the challenges of rebuilding their lives and sense of community.
We can identify with them. People coming out of bad relationships know what it means to be happy to get out, yet fearful about the future. War veterans are glad to not be shot at, yet struggle with dark memories, dark questions about the senselessness of war, and doubts about the future. It is good to see bad situations change, but the changes come with challenges. When African slaves left the plantations they had no money, no education, no land, no sponsors, and dim prospects for political and social acceptance among people who had treated them like livestock for centuries. We can identify with the kind of personal, social, political, and religious darkness Isaiah had in mind.
And it is good that this passage is linked today to Matthew’s gospel account about the magi who visited Jesus. The magi followed a light to the land where Jesus was born and then to the place where Jesus lived with his parents in Bethlehem. The magi were Gentiles. The light that led them to Jesus came from God.
Just as darkness has profound meaning for preachers, politicians, poets, philosophers, pundits, and people of all backgrounds, the same is true about light. Light connotes illumination, insight, knowledge, truth, energy, encouragement, hopefulness, and freedom from anxiety (as in a light-hearted mood).
Isaiah’s prophecy carries a call to discouraged people. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.” God’s light is proclaimed to a people surrounded by darkness. God’s glory is proclaimed to people who are doubtful, afraid, anxious, discouraged, and pessimistic about their future.
In Isaiah’s prophecy and in Matthew’s account about the magi, we should notice that God’s light attracts and guides people living in darkness. We are not presented an image of light that blinds, but light that illuminates and guides. The light of God’s glory is promised for Isaiah’s people to encourage, cheer, and inspire. In that sense it is very much like the light the magi followed. God’s glory is our guide to God’s grace and truth. God’s glory draws us to know and better understand God.
A good test of any religion is whether it draws people to better know and understand God, themselves, other persons, and the rest of Creation. Religion that does not illuminate us is not likely to inspire us to live with hope, joy, strength, peace, and grace. However, religion has often been used to intimidate rather than illuminate. Sadly, people often find the darkness of their lives compounded by religion and religious people.
Another bit of good news is that God’s glory invites us to become part of God’s glory. The light of God’s goodness that illuminates and guides us also calls us to become one with God. We are called and guided to become one with God in holiness, one with God in truth, one with God in justice, one with God in healing, and one with God in hope and peace.
God’s glory also enlightens us to distinguish us. The magi who followed the light to Bethlehem are different from Herod the Great and his court in Jerusalem. They were inspired so much by the glory of God they found revealed in Jesus that they wanted nothing more to do with Herod. When we become illuminated by God’s glory, we are also distinguished by it, and distinct from those who prefer living in darkness.
Lastly, God’s glory illumines us so that we may be agents of God’s glory to others who live in darkness. We’ve been touched by God’s glory to rise and shine! We’ve been touched by God’s truth to speak truth to power. We’ve been touched by God’s power to be agents of deliverance and freedom to people living in the darkness of oppression and fear. God’s glory does all this in us and for us so that we may become vessels of glory to other people living in dark places.
And it’s amazing how much difference even a little light can make to a dark place. Just a little light in a dark forest can guide a lost person from danger. A little lighthouse on a dark shoreline can guide wandering sailors. A little light in a dark house can signal that is there. There’s something about light that makes a little light more powerful than darkness. There’s something about light that darkness cannot hide, can’t hold, and can’t conquer.
In Jesus Christ, God’s light has come to our dark places. God’s glory is with us to illumine, guide, encourage, and inspire us. God’s glory has come to be with us in Christ so that we may become agents of God’s glory. God is light, and in God there is no darkness. Because God’s glory dares to shine in dark places, people who live in dark places can see the light. They can know there is more to life than their darkness. They can follow the light to God, life, freedom, truth, peace, and hope.
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.