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Friday, January 10, 2014

Epiphany (Jan. 6):  Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
First Sunday after the Epiphany (Baptism of the Lord):  Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29:1-11, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

We’ve entered the Season of Epiphany in the calendar of the Church Year.  It runs from January 6th until Lent (which begins with Ash Wednesday on March 5th.

Technically, epiphany means “manifestation.”  It celebrates those moments in Jesus’ life when God’s light seems to shine through in a special way.  Some think of it as a season of “light.”  In the northern hemisphere it is literally a season when the amount of light available to us lengthens with each day.

In popular usage we associate “epiphanies” with “aha” moments---moments when things seem to come into special focus, when we find ourselves agape with wonder as little doors open onto the mysteries of life.  If the season is about “light,” perhaps epiphanies are times when we “see the light.”

I’d like to go further and suggest that we celebrate epiphany as a time when we do more “see the light.  We realize that we are the light.  It is not just that the light shines in and through Jesus; it shines in and through us.

When I was a child we used to sing a song in which we held up our first finger as if it were a candle, the words declaring, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”  We sang through stanzas which identified the places where we were going to let it shine, including “all around . . .,” adding the name of our town.  The theology of the church where I grew up made it perfectly logical to sing, “Don’t let Satan blow it out.”  On the word “blow,” we would all blow across the end of that upright finger as if we were blowing the candle out.

There’s a more contemporary version of the song in the United Church of Christ hymnal, right across the page from the older one.  We sang it last Sunday to kick off the season of Epiphany.  The hymnal includes three stanzas, including “Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine,” and “All through the night, I’m gonna let it shine.”

Our two sets of lectionary readings (for Epiphany Day and the First Sunday after The Epiphany) both contain passages, from Isaiah, which focus upon the light.  The first verse of Isaiah 60 celebrates the coming of light:  “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”  (Isaiah 60:1)  Notice even here that the appropriate response is to “shine.”  By verse five, we are told, “Then you shall see and be radiant.”

The other reading from Isaiah is from an earlier time, but both speak words of hope to the people of Israel.  The light in Isaiah 60 signals restoration to a people in exile.  Isaiah 42 speaks of the people as a “suffering servant” upon whom the spirit of God rests.  It is a promise of justice.  The early church began to apply these words to Jesus, the servant who “would not cry or lift up his voice,” a “bruised reed” which would not break or “be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.”  (Isaiah 42:1-4)

Without getting into the various debates and interpretations of the identity and nature of this “servant,” the move into the Epiphany Season draws my attention to God’s covenant with God’s people as a call to be “a light to the nations.”  (vs. 6)

I’d rather think of it as a universal call rather than a call to a particular nation.  Both Israel and the United States have at times arrogantly claimed it as a name applying uniquely to them.  If we take a more universal view, so that it applies to all of us, to all churches, to all who would seek to live “according to the light,” we might begin to ask what it means to be a light to others, to let our light shine, to be radiant with the spirit of God.

In Isaiah 42, clearly light and justice are linked.  In addition to the references to justice in the first part of the passage, those who are “a light to the nations” are “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”  (vs. 7)  An epiphany life style brings to light those who seem trapped in darkness.

While most of the other readings don’t speak directly of light, we find other references to the reign of justice.  In Psalm 72 is a prayer for a king:  “May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice . . . May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor . . . In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound . . . May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.  For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.  He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.  From oppression and violence he redeems their life . . .”  (Psalm 72:2, 4, 7, 11-14)  What if the politics of our nation, and other nations, had a sudden epiphany and led us through a season in which such a prayer were the focus?

The readings from Ephesians and Acts, if they are taken as addressing what it means to live in the light, highlight the inclusiveness of the message of God’s love.  In Ephesians, it is the Gentiles who are included.  They “have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”  (Ephesians 3:6)  In Acts, Peter proclaims the same truth:  “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  (Acts 10:34-35)  There is so much more in these two passages, but it is sufficient to note that God’s Light is the kind of light that spreads out encompassing everything that comes into its path.  To live according to the Light is to be as inclusive as that Light.

At some point in my life I was taught to use light as a visualizing tool in my prayer.  I would picture the situation I was concerned about and imagine a beam of light coming from above offering illumination.  Once I had that image in mind, I was just to let it develop on its own.  It was amazing how often the light spread out to show what was on the fringes, what I was excluding or not noticing.  Light has a way of doing that.

Before moving on to the Gospel lessons, note that the reading from Psalm 29 might be read as an invitation to celebrate God’s light at work in nature, ascribing “glory and strength” to him as we notice the “waters,” the “cedars,” the “calf,” etc.  (Psalm 29:1-3, 5-6)  The images are not all warm and fuzzy.  Living in God’s Light is not all calmness.  It may shake up things we’d rather leave in the dark.  Looking directly into the light can be painful.  Living in the light may have us wondering what is hovering just beyond the edge of the forest.

Certainly the story of the Wise Men contains threat.  They are guided by a great light.  While it leads them to the “house” where Jesus is, it also takes them into the seat of oppressive power where Herod plots to kill all children, making sure that he doesn’t miss this one who might threaten him.  There is much to consider in terms of these interesting men who bring gifts, what their gifts represent, etc.  (Note that, contrary to popular images, the wise men went to a “house,” not to a manger.  They probably came as much as two years later, since Herod’s decree was to kill all children two years of age and under.  See Matthew 2:16.  Note also that reading from Isaiah 60 references camels from Sheba coming bringing “gold and frankincense . . .” See Isaiah 60:6.)  It is sufficient as we enter this season of Epiphany to see them as men of light who help overcome the darkness.  Warned by a dream, they choose to have nothing more to do with Herod.  (Matthew 2:12)  Another dream leads Joseph and Mary to flee with this child of light to Egypt.  (vss. 15)  We are told that Herod had been “tricked.”  (vs. 16)  One version says “outwitted.”   Whenever abusive power is outwitted, it is a good thing.  That’s what light makes people, us, capable of doing.

The Gospel lesson specifically for the coming Sunday is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism.  It doesn’t actually mention light although the heavens open and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  (Matthew 3:17)  I have always imaged a beam of light shining upon Jesus in this moment, although there’s no mention of it in any of the Gospel accounts of his baptism.  More importantly, I believe this story can remind us that all of us are children of light.  Jesus, in John 12:36, says, “ . . . believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”  In Ephesians 5:8-9, we read, “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.”  (See also I Thessalonians 5:5)

We sometimes have such a high view of Jesus that we can’t imagine a voice from heaven speaking and saying, “You are my children, children of light.”  The Kairos congregation has a ritual for the renewing of our baptismal vows on the Sunday we celebrate the baptism of Jesus.  Perhaps it can be a ritual in which we declare and claim our identity as children of light.

Thinking about light got me to considering The Enlightenment, a time in history when reason took us beyond tradition in our philosophy and behavior.  Science was on the rise.  Enlightenment, however, is more than science.  Various religious traditions speak of the enlightenment of our spirits, a spiritual awakening, an “inner” light.  It need not be in contest with the values of The Enlightenment, but spiritual enlightenment is often left in the shadows when we think of ourselves as “enlightened.”

May the season of Epiphany be a season of deeper enlightenment, spiritual enlightenment which brings injustice and oppression out of the shadows, which arouses awe as we look to the stars of heaven and the streams and forests of earth, which calls us to a new identity and mission as children of light.


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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