Year C — The Epiphany of the Lord

Commentary for January 6, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Isaiah 60:1-6
Epiphany is, of course, all about the light. 

We have just celebrated Christmas with candles and twinkling bulbs and stars shining through the night. The longest night of the year has begun giving way to more daylight each day. “Bleak mid-winter” may not quite be done yet, but we have hints all around that the world will not be cold and dark forever.

Isaiah’s admonition to “lift up your eyes and look” around is a call to see with spiritual eyes just how much God really is doing, even in the midst of a world that still lives primarily in the dark. A little light goes a very long way on a dark night; on this day, our prayers are for God’s light to shine on us and through us.

The world could use some of that ” little light of mine!” (An uncredited, but stirring, track of the familiar song here on Youtube.)

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Wow, oh wow…a great reminder of just “why” the child of light has come into the world here in vv.4 and 12: “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor…. For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.” 

Not popular preaching these days, especially in the good old US of A. But, as those called to bear the light of God for the world, do we really have an excuse for not acting as our Lord did?

I am not responsible for Mr. Obama or Mr. Boehner or their colleagues or their choices — I am responsible for what I do with the “light” and the blessing of the gospel. 

Ephesians 3:1-12
The apostle reminds us that, as well as we know the story and as often as we have been down this trail, preaching these texts — the working of God in the hearts and lives of God’s people is still a considerable mystery. (Note that Paul uses that word four times in these five sentences.)

Take a little time to dwell on the mystery — after all these years of studying and preaching the gospel, what is it that still mystifies you? What stirs a bit of wonder in your own heart? What puzzles you as you think about it? What is it that you do not yet know about God?

Matthew 2:1-12
Fear. Joy.

Two fairly strongly contrasting emotions that dwell together in this text. Herod is “frightened” by the news of the Magi who come in search of a king. By all accounts, he was a fairly nervous fellow when it came to threats to his sovereignty. He “axed” several of his own family members when he thought they might be after his seat of power. He later orders the “Slaughter of the Inocents” in order to root out what was, in his mind, a pretender to his throne.

Okay, so much for fear; now we know why not only Herod, but “all Jerusalem with him,” were frightened.

The “wise men” from the East, despite Herod’s best efforts, do find their way to the child, Jesus, and discover great joy. Overwhelming joy, in fact. (That’s another interesting sensation to think about — when are the times you can remember being so happy that you were nearly overcome with the emotion of it?)

These guys aren’t Jewish…and they probably don’t fit anyone’s definition of a Christian, either, at least not at this point in the story. But their response is instructive. They came a very long way to find this child, and when they met him — they knelt and they offered him gifts.

Like the bumper sticker I remember placing on our old family station wagon (in my youthful evangelistic desire) — “Wise Men Still Seek Him!”

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

I was once deep in the stacks of the graduate library at UNC-Chapel Hill during a power outage. I was surrounded by total darkness. And I was not only in the dark; I was also lost, with no idea of where I was or how to get out.

At first, when I thought it would be over in a few minutes, it was interesting. Hmm, so this is what total lack of light is like. Then it got a little funny as I heard people trying to move around followed by loud bumps and crashes and muffled curses. But as time went on it got very annoying and not a little frightening.

Finally I spotted a small beam of light. I yelled out, “Stay still, I’ll come to you,” for I knew it was easier for me to go to the light than it was for the person with the light to search for me, especially when no one even knew I was there.

I found my way to the library assistant by following the beams of his little keychain penlight. Together we found the staircase and worked our way out of the darkness into the light.

Afterward, I kept thinking “It’s amazing how little light we need sometimes.” Like the magi, who only needed the pinpoint of a new star to find their way to Jesus.

The world can seem an awful dark place sometimes. Things like the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary and the ongoing wars, rebellions and oppression in the Middle East burden us with doubts about the reality of God or the goodness of humanity.

Personal lives can also be dark. Strained relationships, economic troubles, loved ones sick or dying or both; marriages or careers or children haven’t worked out quite the way we’d planned.

We do what we can to push back the darkness.

Some people give in to addictions, numbing their pain with their addiction of choice. Others embrace philosophy or practice politics, believing and hoping that by thinking right or doing right they can cure their sickness unto death; that by saving the snail-darter they can somehow save their souls.

Still others go for material success, as if by surrounding themselves with enough stuff they can insulate themselves from decay and despair.

Some try to turn back the clock, struggling to resurrect “traditional values,” as if time could be reversed and the days of Ozzie and Harriet, the Beaver Clan and Mayberry can be brought back to save us from ourselves.

A few years ago I was in line in the Post Office when the clerk turned and yelled back to his supervisor, “Hey Jim, lady here wants to trade some religious for some traditional.”
It occurred to me that that is what many of us have done without thinking too deeply about is trade the truly religious for the merely traditional.

In our search for meaning, have we tried the safe route of attempting to recreate happy times and safe places in our lives by following “the way we’ve always done it,” instead of taking the risk of following the star into new times and new places.

The world needs is the light of the gospel, but the gospel is not a garish, neon light. The light of Christ has always been a little hard to see, something of a “dimly burning wick.”

The Magi have much to teach us here. They were people who made a little light go a long way. Indeed a very little light led them to go a long way. It is surprising how little light we need sometimes, if we have the faith to go with it.

They didn’t have the scriptures or the religious traditions to prepare them for a messiah. They did not grow up in a culture that expected a savior to come and rescue them.

The only light they had was the light of the stars, and this new star, this new light, this new thing in the sky. What did it mean? Where might it lead? They didn’t know, but they followed.

God sent us the light in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a light that can pierce the darkness of our lives.

But it is a small and somewhat unobtrusive light.

And it is at times encrusted with 2000 years of traditionalism.

And it is a light that must compete with brighter and more insistent lights in order to be seen.

But it is amazing how little light one needs sometimes in order to find one’s way.

We have been called to follow the light and to be the light for others.

We have been called to gently shine the patient and never ending love of God into the midst of all the world’s dark and scary places.

We have been called to invite all God’s beloved children into the light.

Don’t worry; you don’t have to shine that brightly.

It is amazing how little light you need sometimes to find your way.

Amen and amen.   

6 thoughts on “Year C — The Epiphany of the Lord

  1. How "Christian" did the magi ever become? How much do we need to know about Jesus (vs. just knowing Jesus or being known by Jesus). Is the faith of the wise man (or woman), the insight of the OT sage a saving faith? Can it save others?

  2. One of the most fascinating parts of the story, to me, is that the "wise men" are apparently not Jewish OR Christian…and yet come in an acknowledgement of the child. Something about those who have ears to hear, eyes to see, perhaps?As for just how much faith can save…I suppose Joel, Peter, and Paul all affirm that "whosoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; and Romans 10:13)

  3. Thank you, Bubbas, for the commentary and the sermon, illuminating as always. (I must point out, however, that for those living BELOW the equator, the longest night comes in June!)The idea from the sermon that only a little light can be very helpful is comforting, telling me I don't need to try to shine as brightly as a bonfire, merely as a little candle.The challenge to be ready to follow a new star, a new way, instead of clinging to the comfort of the past is very appropriate to me personally and to my church.I'm excited about listening to your podcasts! Thank you both for all that you do for us out here in the http://www.Eva in Nova Scotia

  4. Eva, your comments are always a delight. And thanks for reminding us that there is "another half" of the world that experiences time and the seasons differently than we do here in North America!Would love to have you consider appearing on one of our podcasts in the future — if interested, send me an email (john.fairless@gmail.com) and we could talk about making the connection!

  5. We have two children living in the Southern Hemisphere as well as other family (going to the beach for Christmas, etc) so it is not hard to remember. My husband is from New Zealand and we lived there many years. Living back in Nova Scotia now, I am glad that our hours of daylight are increasing and that the 'longest night' is behind us.Thank you for the invite to consider being on one of your podcasts. I will start listening first! (once I figure out how to put them on my MP3 player) Eva

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