Epiphany of the Lord
Isaiah 60:1-6
Matthew 2:1-12

“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you … Lift up your eyes and look around; they shall all gather together, they come to you … Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice … They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”[1]

How do we hear these words on this first Sunday of a new year? How are they calling to us amid the challenges of our nation and world, the United Methodist Church and our own personal struggles and uncertainties?

“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” These words, first spoken by the prophet Isaiah, were told to a people displaced and wandering; a people living in chaos and despair; stripped of the life they once knew who had become mere shadows of their former selves. Their days were marked by struggle and their cries conveyed only what was before their eyes at the moment – which was darkness and evil, indifference and hostility everywhere.

But the messenger of God speaks to declare another word about a new day. A future not yet imaginable but a future nonetheless. Hearts that had been weighed down would rejoice once more. Blindness and despair would give way to new and clearer visions. And those who had felt lost and abandoned would find their way back home.

Can we live with this kind of hope in our day? And what are we to be doing with ourselves in the meantime? These words were spoken thousands of years before the birth of Christ and now we know what the light of Christ looks like and what it means.

In the liturgical year, we call today Epiphany Sunday. It marks the turn from the Christmas season to the start of a brand-new year and the time in which we get on with the business of living out what we have just celebrated. Epiphany is always associated with the story of the three kings and the baptism of our Lord which we will celebrate next Sunday.

The way Matthew tells it, there was chaos everywhere. First, there was the conflict between Herod, the political king, and Jesus, the divine King. Matthew paints Herod as a jealous, insecure, egotistical, narcissistic madman (Cathy’s words), whose reputation was one of ruthless power, even having murdered members of his own family. When he hears that strangers are asking about a new king, he responds with outrage and violence.

He calls forth his religious experts to find out who might be a potential threat. Then he summons the astrologers and demands they tell him exactly where the child was born. By the end of the lesson, Herod is so obsessed and so possessed; so threatened by the potential of another kind of king, even a little child (though we know that he was not just any little child) that he commands the slaughter of innocent children in order to strengthen his own power and resolve: all boy babies under age two are to be killed. Can you imagine? I mean, can you imagine this world into which Christ was born?

And then, there are the magi: foreign astrologers whose business it was to gaze at stars. It is not clear whether they had an organized agenda or if they all started out together at the same time or where they might have met up along the way. I’m guessing they probably did not start out at precisely the same day because they came from various places, countries, experiences, backgrounds, and traditions – much like we have. And there would have been no Instagram, Facebook, or emails to coordinate the journey.

Some say they were Balthazar from Arabia, Melchior of Persia and Caspar from India. But alas, like us, they found themselves on the same quest as we find ourselves – seekers looking for the light to shine in on us.

It is not clear how many of them there actually were. We assume three because there were three gifts mentioned, but it is most likely that there could have been a whole caravan of people.

What we do know is that these strange people set out in search of something; not knowing where they would find it or how things would turn out in the end or what they would have to endure along the way. But they set out anyhow. We know that they showed up one day in Jerusalem asking about the king of the Jewish people and where he was born.

They had been watching the stars and they knew that something cosmic had happened that might very well turn the world upside down and they wanted to be a part of it. Do you want to be part of the light that might turn the world upside down today and back on its axis? I know I do.

And I think that this is the way that faith works. We are the light of Christ and if we are to walk with God, we walk by faith. It seems to me that God never gives us the full picture; we are always short of details and have very few answers up front. We step out not knowing and yes, we make mistakes along the way. We seek and make do with whatever we find.  We are frightened and reluctant but fulfilled and inspired at the same time.

And so they abandoned everything and set out in search of something, unable to imagine that all these years later at the beginning of every year, the Church around the world would still be telling their story.

They came following the star and bearing their gifts that the prophet had foretold: gold, fitting for a king; frankincense – a sweet smelling incense used in worship; and myrrh, an embalming oil that already points to his death. But more than that – perhaps the very best gift was the gift of themselves fully engaged, curious, and adventurous; open to the astonishing thing waiting for them. The very best gift of mind and heart. Oh God, who can imagine the wonder of it all!

And after they had worshiped him, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

I like that: they went back by another road. I think that’s how it is: when we have seen the light, we cannot go back down the same road. Once we have truly had an epiphany, discovered a new truth, gained a fresh insight, stepped into a new world – we simply cannot and should not go back as we were.

That’s what I’m thinking about as I head into this New Year: how to be fully alive and present to whatever lies ahead – good and bad, pretty and ugly, knowing that there is salvific purpose in all of it. How might my light shine in this world and how can I be a full participant in the things I desire?

I’m not much on making resolutions but I do know that wherever there has been significant growth in my life, it was because I did something. I made some decisions and set some goals and priorities. It didn’t just happen. I had to take on the mantle of change and responsibility. Intentionality. Even things that seemed to have been plopped down at my feet required something. How about you? How about now?

Like the start of a new year, Epiphany draws the line in the sand and offers us an opportunity to look again and think about things in a different way. It allows us the opportunity to start fresh so that our light might shine.

Each of us has been given this light, my friends. Imagine the kind of world it would be if we just let it shine!

[1] Isaiah 60:1-2, 4a, 5a, 6b