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Sunday, January 6, 2013

We Have Seen His Star

The celebration of the Epiphany leads us to see the light of the star which points to God’s love for us known in our Lord Jesus, a light which is ours for guidance and help, should we remember to look for it and know what to do with it.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, The Epiphany of Our Lord; texts: Matthew 2:1-12, Ephesians 3:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-6

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

I used to lock up the building each night at St. John’s, my previous parish.  It was a separate job we hired out, but traditionally one of the staff had it.  It got so that I knew the building so well I could and would walk through it without a flashlight and check all the doors, even in pitch darkness.  One night Hannah, probably a junior in high school at the time, was locking up with me, and we were heading through the social hall.  Now someone had moved some of the chairs around, and one was where it shouldn’t have been, and I smashed my shin against it, hard.  I might have said something I didn’t want my teenage daughter to hear.  I straightened up, walked on, and not two steps later I hit another chair that wasn’t supposed to be there, even harder.  Remarkably, for any of you who have come to think I possess a modicum of intelligence, I repeated this event a third time.  Each time, it was harder to hold back not only language, but anger and irritation at whoever hadn't put the chairs back.  As I stood there in pain, rubbing my shin, wondering at the coincidence that it was the same shin all three times, my very intelligent daughter said quietly, “Um, Daddy, maybe we could turn a light on.”

I thought of this last week when I read Isaiah’s powerful promise we just heard.  “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.”  If you are walking in thick darkness, “gross” darkness, as the King James version has it, it is good news that light is coming, and if the darkness is the darkness of a world without God’s love and grace, then light from God arising is also very good news.

Unless you persist in walking in darkness and banging your shins against the evils of this world.  On Epiphany we celebrate the bringing of the light of God in Jesus to people who were not of the chosen people of God, broadening the Good News of Jesus’ birth beyond just one race of people.  Magi from the east, outsiders, foreigners, see a star and follow it to the place where Jesus and his family are.  And they see the gift of God to the world in that little child.

The only problem is, too often we don’t emulate the Magi, and so we miss the star that leads us to our Lord Jesus.  Even though Epiphany is about the light of God shining into our darkness, we end up wandering in the darkness of our lives without the benefit of God’s light.

The gift of light into darkness is an important image of the seasons of Advent and Christmas, but it becomes the main focus of the season of Epiphany.

The image of light in darkness is so powerful.  Think of absolute darkness.  Then think of lighting a single candle.  Isn’t it amazing how the darkness dissipates?  How when you open a door in a room that is pitch black and there is light on the other side of the door, the light removes the darkness, not the other way around?  Little wonder that John’s Gospel speaks so hopefully about the Light which the darkness cannot comprehend or overcome.

The promise we’ve been celebrating is that God has come into the thick darkness of the world and brought the light of Jesus:  a Prince of Peace to lead us away from violence and war; a Great Physician to heal our pain and suffering; a Savior to free us from our sinful ways and make us new; a risen Lord to give us life eternal in the face of ever-present death.

There is no question that we know darkness in our lives, that the world seems often shrouded in darkness.  And no question as well that we want the light of God to dispel that darkness.  But somehow we still miss out on it.

We so often live our lives from moment to moment, without a clear purpose or direction, or desire to change.  Our lives get busy and complicated, so we just take things as they are, and as they come, even though light is available should we want it.

We allow ourselves to fall into bad habits of not praying regularly and seeking God’s will and wisdom.  We don’t stay connected deeply to God’s Word and try to learn how it can and should shape and guide our lives.

We seem to run after all sorts of things in this world that don’t satisfy us, and don’t take the time to stop and look for God’s direction or light.  We too easily fence God off from the bulk of our lives, our decisions, our planning, our introspection, even our resolutions for a New Year, as if we can live most of our lives without God.

And then we wonder why the darkness confuses us, harms us or others, pervades our world.  But we don’t change our daily existence very often.  It’s sort of like we just keep banging our shins and hoping it won’t happen next time.

If things are going well, we might not notice that this is a problem.  But when darkness comes, we can find that we’re unprepared, and lost.  When a loved one falls ill, people don’t know what to do, don’t know where God is, don’t know where hope is.  When our bad choices lead us to problems, individually or collectively, we blame others, or God in our fear.  When a job is taken away, or a house is foreclosed, people are terrified and confused.  When tragedy strikes close to home, and in our modern world, even when it strikes folks far away, people are angry and lost.  Where is God in all this darkness? we wonder.

So we have this disjunction between what we know and what we do, between this reality of the modern world and our proclamation today that God has come into our world to bring light to our darkness.

We say we believe that this light brings hope in every place of darkness in our world.  Hope in the face of all the difficulty and tragedy that fills the world, that God has come to transform that and heal it.  Hope also that this light of Jesus shines on our pathways of life and leads us to a new way of living, a way that is the way of God, re-directing us and guiding us to a life of meaning and purpose and direction.

The distressing thing is, the Church has known this for 2,000 years, and we have more Christian people lost than ever before it seems.

It might be worth our while to look at the Magi today, since they’re the main actors in our story.  It turns out they’re very important to us, because they remind us to look for the star.  To turn on the lights instead of stumbling in darkness.

What the Magi teach us is to look for the light and know what it means.

They say to Herod:  “We have seen his star in the East, at its rising, and have come to worship him.”  Remember this: there were lots of people who saw that star who didn’t know what it meant.  The Magi studied the stars and believed they gave signs and direction to people on earth.  When they saw the star, they knew what it meant: a king for the world was born to the Jewish people.  Many others who saw that star didn’t know what it was about.

You see, all the light in the world isn’t going to help us if we don’t know where it shines, and don’t know what it means for us.  The headlights on our cars are most useful when we know they are intended to light up the road in front of us, instead of leaving them off, or thinking they’re decorative lights to be used to brighten up our garages.  This means knowing where our light, our star is, and knowing what to do with it.

There are several stars, several lights which God gives us to shine in our darkness, and all are powerful if we only know to look for them.  We are given the Word of God, the Sacraments, the gift of each other, the Body of Christ, and all shine God’s light in our lives.  But let’s just consider the one of these three which teaches us about the others, the light to our path that is the written Word of God.

The Magi teach us today to know our light.  Study it, so we know what it is telling us.  So they would say, study God’s Word.  Read it regularly.  Worship regularly also, so we hear it (a key way Martin Luther believed the Good News comes to us).

Will it always enlighten our lives?  Not in obvious ways every time.  But study and learning takes time.  The Magi studied the stars for years before finding one which led them to God’s life and light.  And so it is with God’s written Word.  There are passages that made little sense to me ten years, twenty years ago that now seem very clear and helpful.  And I hope in another 10 years, or 20 years, the Word will be even more clear to me.

And the more we are immersed in God’s Word, the more we meet the Living Word of God to which it points, our Lord Jesus, and the more we are shaped.  It becomes less a proof text kind of thing where we’re looking for a direct answer to a specific problem, and more a shaper of our lives, a light for our path, as Psalm 119 says, a direction for us to follow, and the voice of Jesus our Lord.  And since the Magi studied stars all their lives, we can expect the learning of God’s Word will take us at least that long.

But the Magi also teach us another, very important thing, the message my daughter gave me in the dark: if you know where the light is, then do something, follow it.

The Magi said, “we have seen his star in the East, at its rising, and have come to worship him.”  The second half of that sentence teaches us this second thing we learn from the Magi.  Once you see the light, you follow it.  There were probably other astrologers in Persia, or wherever the Magi came from, who understood what the star might mean.  But it’s doubtful they all came.  And only the ones who came saw the light of God in that little child.

So, too, it is with us.  There are plenty of Christians who have heard the truth about God, and own Bibles, who come to worship, but who are lost in the darkness of the world.  Ourselves included, sometimes.  So the challenge of the Magi is that once we have begun to be immersed in the study of God’s Word, we then must learn how it can and will change us, lead us somewhere, lead us to see the true face of God for us.  The Magi call us to let God’s Word truly guide us to change how we live, how we walk in this world, how we know God.

This is the mark of a Christian who knows where the light of God is: that person lives in the light.  Their lives are different, shaped by God.  They make choices based on the Triune God’s will for their lives and based on what is good and right in God’s eyes, not based on spur-of-the-moment thinking, or selfishness and greed, or anything else.  They don’t stumble aimlessly through life, but live always seeking God’s light to brighten the path ahead.  Which means that though they still might stumble from time to time, because they can see they’ll know where to walk to get out of the mess.

And they live in the presence of the God the star-revealed Child now reveals to us all, in the love of a God who loves us beyond death.

Our hope on Epiphany is that we have the chance to let God’s written Word do what God wants it to: lead us to the Lord of life, and to a life of following the Lord.  A life lived in God’s light, even in a world of darkness and pain.  A life which shows us God’s grace in all things.

It’s a miraculous gift that God brings light into our lives.

Epiphany, the season of light, always reminds us and recalls us to that gift.  If we ignore and neglect the gift of God’s light, we will stumble in darkness.  And there is no need for us to do that.

So today, let us ask God to make us like the Magi of old: people who each day learn more and more about God’s Word and plan for us, and so know God’s light in our darkness; but also people who then follow that light and are changed by it.

We have seen his star.  Let’s follow it and worship him, and walk as children of light.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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