(we are singing We 3 Kings...("guide us to thy perfect light")...and the choir is singing "True Light" which incorporates "this little light of mine"...that might help this sermon make a little more sense. It's more tied to the rest of the service than usual--picks up a lot of other language that I might not use in a different setting...)
Rev. Teri Peterson
let there be light
January 4 2009, Epiphany
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Well, another Christmas has come and gone—mostly. Contrary to popular belief, Christmas isn’t a day or even a month leading up to a day, but a 12 day season beginning on the 25th and ending on the eve of Epiphany…tomorrow night. Which would make today the 11th day of Christmas…I don’t know about you, but I’m looking for 11 pipers piping to make an appearance any minute now!
Well, okay, so for most people the decorations are down, the 11 pipers piping are not coming, and where would we put them anyway? The new stuff is put away, the wrapping paper recycled. But here in church we’re still celebrating! We’ve read the Epiphany story a couple of days early, all the better to get ready for Tuesday! If you’d like to worship and pray on the actual Epiphany day, you can come to Taize Tuesday night for more singing and celebrating the light that shines in the darkness. In the meantime, we read this story and contemplate, again, just what all this might mean. Strange stars, strange men, strange gifts.
I’m sure you’ve all heard the joke about the wise men—that if they’d been women they would have asked for directions, arrived on time, cleaned the stable, brought a casserole, and thought of practical gifts rather than those strange things the strange men brought. And those things are probably true—though they miss the point a little bit. There are already three wise women in the Christmas story—Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, who recognizes the mother of her Lord before he’s even born; Mary, mother of Jesus, God-bearer; and Anna, the prophetess in the Temple who proclaims who Jesus is going to be for his people. And there are already women who care for Jesus throughout his life in the story—women who provided for him out of their resources, women who opened their homes to him, fed him and his disciples, washed his feet, came to the tomb to anoint his body (probably with frankincense and myrrh, actually), and believed the angels who said he was risen. There are lots of wise women around.
I think the story of the wise men is different. It’s a story of following a star, wishing and hoping—of following light that leads to light. It’s a story of how God has made Godself known in the world. It’s a story of an epiphany—a revealing. God, who said “Let there be light” and there was light, has revealed the true light to the world in a small child. This is all part of one story—from before the creation, through all the shenanigans of the Israelites, to the birth of Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, all the way to us. Jesus, light of the world, wasn’t God’s “plan B”, something God decided after seeing that the first way didn’t work—the Son was there with the Creator and the Spirit when the words “let there be light” began the first day, and knew that he’d be coming to live with us to show us what real light looks like.
And so, the Epiphany—the revealing of light for the world. The wise men, however many there were, came from far away—they weren’t Jews, they weren’t people who’d been reading Isaiah and waiting for the Messiah, they were men who looked for light. Each night they looked at the sky, gazing at stars, hoping for a sign. And one night, there was a new light. What makes the wise men wise is that they knew that this new light was not the thing they were looking for—it was a map, a guidepost, a beacon. Following the star would guide them to perfect light, and so they went.
Why would they be looking for light? Why do any of us look for light? During these darkest days of the year, light is fleeting. During dark times in our lives, light can be almost painful. Sometimes dark is comfortable because light would show the unknown, the thing we fear. But then again, on a dark and stormy night or a foggy morning, a light can be a life-saver, hope made visible. And light is always stronger than darkness—no matter how small the light, it can’t be made darker just because of the surrounding darkness. A dark room doesn’t put the candle out—in fact, the darker the room, the brighter the candle appears. The same with the stars—the darker it is, the brighter the stars appear. Here in Crystal Lake it can be hard to see stars sometimes, but not as hard as it is down in the Loop! Out in the middle of nowhere—out on a farm in Montana or an island in the midst of the sea or up on a mountain—it’s so dark that you can see millions of stars, sometimes even the band of the Milky Way shining.
But the point isn’t the star, or the candle—it’s the true light that these smaller lights symbolize. The candles on the Advent wreath are not the light of the world, they’re a symbol of that light. The star the wise men followed was not the light, it was the guide to the light. The true splendor and glory were to be found in a child, a helpless wonder in a crib who was joy and peace and light for all the world.
So where is the star now? Where is the guide to the light? Where is the beacon shining in the night? How will we know our way to the manger when we are looking for the true light of the world, the deeper meaning of God’s words “let there be light”?
I suspect each of us could answer this question differently. Some might say we no longer need a star, now that the revelation of God’s light has been given to us already. Some might say the symbols of our faith—the cross, the table, the baptismal font—are the sign that points the way. Some might say the story of God’s work in the world, of God’s interaction with people, the story of Scripture, is the guiding star. And all of those are true and good and right.
There’s one more thing I want to think about though…I wonder if we might be the star? We, the community of God’s people, the body of Christ, the gathering of those who’ve heard the calling. Could we be the star, the candle that gives off even a feeble light, a sign that shows the way? I know the church has often gotten things wrong, done horrible deeds, perpetuated hate and darkness rather than love and light. But I still wonder—are we the beacon that points to the light of the world? And is that where our beacon points? Are we a symbol of hope, a guide to the perfect light? Is it possible that we are the ones we’ve been waiting and looking for?
God said “let there be light”—and there was light. The wise men followed a star, light leading to light. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.”
May it be so.