Sermon for January 6, 2008
Sermon for January 6, 2008
Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
Using a series of markers: stones, poles placed in the ground, and natural features, pre-historic humans in the northern hemisphere began to notice something very special at this time of the year.
For several months now, the earth has become colder as the days have become shorter. Eventually the landscape becomes white. The life giving warmth from the light has been slowly ebbing away.
But now, by means of ancient marking devices, about this time of year, ancient humans noticed that the days were no longer growing shorter. The days were in fact growing longer. To be sure some of the coldest days were yet to come. But those who were wise in the way of the world could now say with some certainty that the long slide into darkness had ended. The daylight was growing slowly at the end and the beginning of each day. And in that great conflict between light and darkness which defined the ancient mind in many ways, light was again expanding its influence. There would be a spring. The ground will thaw again. Life will go on.
These ancient humans in both Europe and North America genuinely celebrated this frozen new dawn. As the marking of the days became more precise, the calendars became more fixed and ceremonially significant. The movement of not only the sun but also the stars was used to predictably interpret the coming seasons. A winter solstice festival was centered on the return of light, hope, life, and renewal.
As Christianity emerged and spread, it often incorporated various customs into a developing Christian calendar, giving a new layer of meaning to the old ways and rhythms. Epiphany, the festival we remember this day, is such an event. Eventually the festival centered on the return of light, hope, life, and renewal evolved into what we know as Epiphany in historic Christian Europe.
Epiphany comes twelve days after Christmas. It has only been in the last few hundred years that Christmas was noted at all in the Christian calendar. Before the most recent centuries, the most important winter event in our Christian life was Epiphany.
Epiphany was a festival built around fires, light, lamps, and candles. Gifts were exchanged as a sign of joy. It was a time when the wisdom of the tribe and the village was honored, a wisdom that revealed that light was returning. It noticed the movement of the bodies in the heavens and the growing dawn.
Light is what allows us to see. It reveals. The word epiphany means to see, to have a revelation, to discover something new. The Christian epiphany has always been about insight, vision, seeing, seers and wisdom.
With the emergence of Christmas and American impatience, the gift-giving and the Christmas light have been moved forward into December. But the sense of new insight or wisdom has remained anchored in Epiphany.
In the Christian Epiphany legends, the wise sages from the east, astrologers and foreigners, are the central figures. We have the story of the wise sages in our gospel today. Their gifts figure prominently in the story. The sages speak of the birth of hope and the growing victory of light over the forces of darkness in the struggle between the child and the evil king.
They have seen the signs in the heavens and have come to worship. Through them we sense the foundation of a wisdom that transcends human tribal identity: attention to the rhythm of the stars, the ability to appreciate the amazing events in cultures other than our own, the capacity to understand and act on the dreams of one’s heart, and the ability to offer a humble gift. These are the elements of epiphany wisdom.
The other lessons selected for this day return us to these themes. In the more ancient words of Isaiah 60 we hear of the primitive connection of light and life struggling with darkness and despair.
The Ephesians passage is St. Paul’s recollection of his epiphany or revelation as he says in verse three. He refers to his insight, his wisdom, his guiding light, his revelation that Jesus lived, taught, died, and rose, not only for his own people, not only for the Hebrew nation, but for all people everywhere, for the Gentiles. Christ lived and died for the world, not just a few people. That was Paul’s central epiphany. It shaped his life as a missionary to the Gentiles, and it has shaped our faith ever since.
Although we are far removed from our prehistoric ancestors, from St. Paul, and Isaiah, as well as the Christian story of Epiphany, we may still find that this January is a time for connecting to the natural world, for warming to the growing light, for gift assessment, for seeking deeper wisdom and insight, and for grounding ourselves in God’s victory of light over darkness.
Over the season of Epiphany which now will be with us until February 6, Ash Wednesday, may these questions slowly illumine your life:
How are we modern people still connected to the natural rhythm of creation, and what responsibilities do we have?
In what ways do we see the light and the hope growing, gradually overcoming the darkness of sin and despair, in our lives, our community, and the world?
What gifts shall we give to God, to those we love, and to those in need as we lift up the treasures of our lives and hearts? What are your talents and gifts?
What revelation, deeper insight or new understanding is on the horizon for you?
Remember now Jesus: his simple birth and life, his ministry and teaching, his death and resurrection. How does this story of Jesus warm your heart and give you courage now to face the colder days?
Each day is getting longer. Soon enough, as Isaiah suggests, we will live with many different people eternally in the light.