January 5, 2020 Series: Lectionary
Topic: Biblical Verse: Isaiah 60:1–60:6, Matthew 2:1–2:12
The Epiphany of Our Lord (Observed)[i]
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
So this is the weekend when we take down our Christmas decorations: the tree, the garlands and wreaths, all packed up and stowed away until next December. Epiphany (January 6, officially) marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas. I like to keep our festive things up at home as a reminder that Christmas is, in fact, a season, even though it seems as if the world around us largely moves on come December 26. And while it’s nice to have the Christmas tree standing out as a reminder of the gift of grace that God gave our world on the first Christmas, I think what I’ll miss the most when we put away our decorations will be the lights. At home, we’ve got lights in our tree and lights hanging outside along the roofline of our house. Such lights are an element of the season, especially here in the northern hemisphere where it’s the darkest time of the year. Once these lights have all been packed away, well, it’s going to seem that much darker at night, inside and outside.
It might not be so bad if we could really see the night sky. In urban areas, you may only be able to look up at nighttime and see a small percentage of the stars that blanket the heavens. Due to light (or photo) pollution – the presence of man-made or artificial light in the night environment – you’ll probably need to drive an hour or two away into a rural region to escape the effect of skyglow. That’s the sort of glowing dome you’ll see in the night sky around bigger cities as the light from our buildings and streetlights and cars gets bounced around in the atmosphere and partially reflected back down to the earth. Putting it another way: there’s so much going on that we can’t see through the haze.
Life can be like that, too. It’s not just light pollution that keeps us from seeing clearly. We have overcrowded schedules. We’re bombarded by 24/7 news alerts and social media updates. We have familial, professional, and social responsibilities. These all build up into a thick cloudiness, a muddle keeps you from seeing life beyond what’s right in front of you.
Even with all the light pollution in our region, certain heavenly bodies still break through the skyglow to light up the world. How much difference does a bright moon make on a dark night? And the thing about the moon? It doesn’t produce light. That’s the sun’s job. The moon reflects the sun’s light, illuminating our dark nights.
The light breaks through. That’s what the day – and season – of Epiphany are all about.
Today we remember the visit of the Magi to see the true King of the Jews. They saw the star in the sky that marked his birth and journeyed from afar to show reverence to him. But Epiphany isn’t so much about the Magi as it is about the light that’s breaking through: the Son shines through the thick cloudiness of our broken world. God reveals the Savior He has sent. The glory of the Lord dawns upon the whole of the human race.
The word of prophecy that we hear through Isaiah today pointed ahead to that day of dawning. “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” This is the encouraging urging that God gives to His city of Zion (Isaiah 60:14). God’s people are redeemed, rescued from being lost in darkness. They have reason to arise and shine because the Lord’s Messiah has come. The Christ is born. For the people that God has made to be His own, then and now alike.
God’s call through Isaiah rings in our ears today: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” The light of Christ has dawned and is now shining on you. His light can and does cut through the muddled, hazy cloudiness of this world. Jesus has already overcome everything that wants to keep you from seeing life beyond what’s right in front of you. Because of him, you don’t need to wander through the darkness trying to find your own way. He’s here. The light breaks through.
“For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” The light of Christ continues to break through everything that would keep people from seeing God’s love through His Son. And that happens through you. The light of the Lord’s grace shines onto you, bringing you life and rescue from the darkness that would swallow you up. The child born in Bethlehem would go to the cross at Calvary so that you’d be delivered from death. But Jesus didn’t dawn into our world simply to see to it that you’d be forgiven. He also came so that you would be illuminated.
Like the moon lighting up a dark night, you reflect the light of God’s grace into your world. His light for your life, and for the cloudy world around you. When God says, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you,” that same declarative word of power that said “Let there be light” is at work. God makes the shining happen. The Holy Spirit illuminates you as a baptized child of your heavenly Father, a brother or sister of the Son. As you follow Jesus, you reflect his dawning into the darkness. You are a part of His Zion, pointing all people to the King for all nations. You are a beacon. God draws souls to Bethlehem so that they might experience His salvation.
The Magi went seeking a great king. They didn’t find him in Jerusalem, where King Herod lived in his palace. When he heard their message, Matthew tells us, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Herod was famously jealous of his power. He’d murdered one of his wives, at least a couple of his sons, and yet other relatives. No wonder that his citizens feared what he’d do if a prophesied king had come to challenge his authority! But God had not sent a king like one Herod – or anyone else – was expecting. What’s more, they couldn’t have even found him without divine intervention!
As we see throughout this episode of the Magi’s visit, it’s God who does the revealing, time and again. The Magi weren’t “wise” people, really – in fact, they’re some of the most unlikely candidates for coming to see the promised Messiah. They were outsiders They went to Jerusalem, where the king of the Jews should have been. It was God’s Word that redirected them to Bethlehem, the star that He sent that guided them to the house where Jesus would be found. And while they would have gone and reported back to Herod, God illuminated their way again and sent them home in a different direction.
(The gifts that the Magi brought to Jesus were expensive, fit for a king, but not uncommon for honoring royalty. They were simply gifts. Over the years, those gifts have come to be seen by the Church as reminders of the kind of king that Jesus was born to be. Gold is a sign of his royal authority. Frankincense, the incense used in prayer at the altar in the tabernacle and the temple, points to this king’s divine identity. Myrrh, the final named gift, looks ahead to Jesus’ sacrificial death.)
The light breaks through. Epiphany remembers and celebrates that Jesus came for all people, not only the insiders. As we go through this new season of Epiphany, we’ll explore some specific examples of how God is at work to reveal His grace in Christ, time and again. God leads the way. Through uncertainty. Through the hazy cloudiness of life. Look to His light and see clearly.
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” This Epiphany, will you hide your face, or arise and shine forth? Your King is here. The light breaks through. May you be illuminated by Jesus’ love and reflect his grace into the lives of all around you.
[i] Passage for memory:
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. – Isaiah 60:1