A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Mt 2:1-12, Isaiah 60:1-6
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 God’s glory will appear over you. (Isaiah 60:1-2)
Did you know that darkness doesn’t actually exist by itself? I know it’s a technicality but it’s a good one. Darkness has no properties of its own. There is no way to measure darkness. There’s no dark-ometer. There are no levels of darkness. Darkness is actually non-existent. “But I close my eyes and see darkness,” you say. And, “at night in my room it’s dark.” The truth is that your room is not technically dark – it is merely lacking in light. When you close your eyes you don’t add darkness, you subtract light. Darkness is actually the word we give to an absence of light – but it only exists in terms of the light not being there. So really, darkness cannot ‘defeat’ light because darkness isn’t really a thing, and it has no power at all. The only thing darkness can do with light is be confused by it.
Darkness is said to be in people too – but similarly, they are really just lacking in light. Take King Herod for example. You may recall from Matthew’s gospel how after Jesus’ birth Herod is said to have had babies slaughtered out of fear and jealousy. Whether it’s literally true or not, it sure screams out ‘darkness’.
You also know the story about how the ‘Wise Men’ had seen a great star shining in the east and followed it to Judah. That picture of the wise men – or kings – following a star to a far off land is burned in our memories. It’s one of the great enduring images of Christmas. The wise men often get blurred into the nativity scene, but according to Matthew’s gospel they actually arrived later – some say a few days, some say a few weeks. Doesn’t really matter. What’s significant is that in the story, they came. They were not Jews – they were Gentiles – a term used for all non-Jews. Why would a group of Gentile kings want to come and see the one they called “King of the Jews”? (A phrase which drove Herod crazy, of course, because that was his title). Why would they want to come and pay homage to a foreign king? To bow down before him in submission? And the most important question – what compelled them to even begin their journey?
The answer is they saw a star – a holy light that heralded the arrival of a great king – and they recognized the significance of that light – and followed it. This is another one of those challenges in today’s readings. We always talk about this holy light – the light of the world – coming into our lives at Christmas. But here’s the question. Do we have the conviction, like those wise guys of lore, to allow it to lead us? Does seeing God’s light of love and life at Christmas compel us to rise up and journey toward it, or in it? If not, why?
All sorts of people get their knickers in knot trying to defend or explain away this star the wise men followed. If that turns your crank go ahead and fill your boots. But I’m more intrigued by the idea that nobody else seems to have seen it. Apparently, only these ‘astrologers’ who spent their lives seeking incredible signs saw this light. Only the ‘outsiders’ were open to the light. Only those with “eyes to see,” could see. Even though ‘the light’ may be plain and obvious to some – shining brilliantly in their eyes and hearts – others may be in the ‘darkness’ – absent light – without “eyes to see,” or “ears to hear,” or hearts that ‘know’.
It’s important to remember that we are never, ever without the light of God’s love, no matter how much we may feel like we’re in the darkness. Nothing we do can ever extinguish or completely block out the light because the light is not only found in the transcendent ‘otherness’ of God – the light is also found deep within each and every one of us – like an eternal pilot light. Star in the east, pilot light, it’s all the same light. It’s God’s immanence. It’s ‘incarnation’.
When we realize this we have an epiphany. That’s what this whole season of the church is called – Epiphany. It refers to an unveiling or a revealing – a manifestation of something newly discovered or known. Often we use the word to describe an “aha” moment we have. A new thought dawns on us and we see the world differently. In cartoons, the image of a light bulb turning on appears above the character’s head when they get a new idea. [bong!] This is both an excellent and a troublesome image. It’s good in that it really illustrates the in-breaking of a new thing with a flash of light. Aha!
But the trouble is this. If we think of a light bulb as our image of God’s light, we have big problems. A light bulb can be turned on or turned off at our whim. We are in total control. And light bulbs can burn out too. Maybe that’s the problem we are having in the mainline church in North America – we have limited God’s light to a bulb that we can switch on Sunday morning and switch off whenever we choose to. The problem isn’t that God’s light isn’t powerful enough – the problem is that our understanding of the light isn’t powerful enough.
I think that a better metaphor for the light of God than a lightbulb would be the sun – s-u-n. You cannot escape the power of the sun no matter where you go on earth. Its direct light might be partially shielded by clouds but even on the cloudiest days you can still tell it’s daytime. And in the night when it feels like ‘darkness’ has taken over we know that it’s just our own planet getting in the way of the light, and only for a few hours.
The light is too powerful to be blocked. You cannot block out its rays or its warmth unless you purposely create a human-made structure to do so – which is kinda like switching off a lightbulb. You can also take the light of God for granted and forget that it’s there, just like you might ignore the sun. Forget about the sun and you might get sunburned. Forgetting about God’s light won’t earn you any lightning bolts of punishment – that’s not a God of love – it will just make you feel like that ‘darkness’ stuff is gaining ground.
The big Epiphany isn’t just realizing that God’s light is all around, shining like a ‘star in the east’ – the big Epiphany is realizing that we have to actively do something to receive it. We need to remove our human-made barriers. We need to let down our guard. We need to allow, receive, and embrace that light.
Isaiah 60:4-5 Lift up your eyes and look around…Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.
Lift up your eyes and look around. God’s love, God’s light, God’s Presence, is everywhere. As you drink it in scripture says then you shall see and be radiant! It’s not just seeing, although that’s obviously the first step here. It goes beyond just seeing, just knowing, just understanding. The invitation and call is to SEE AND BE radiant. Be radiant! Be radiant!!! Radiating light and love like a furnace radiates heat.
Those wise guys didn’t just see some light and remark, “Oh, how lovely!” They let that light fill them, and move them into action, and they were drawn to its source, and they went and were radiant themselves. The greatest gifts they brought weren’t gold, frankincense and myrrh – it was themselves.
The shining star of God’s love is inviting you to follow. It is the light of Christ birthed into the world to reunite us with God’s love, to rekindle our fire, to refuel our radiance.
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 God’s glory will appear over, and around, and within you.
Lift up your eyes and look around…Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.