Sunday, January 8, 2012

Epiphany 2012-B: Giving ourselves to the Light

Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

Lectionary: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

I was watching the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” again yesterday and was reminded that, in Italian, the phrase ‘to give birth’ translates literally as ‘to give to the light.’ The same is true in Spanish: ‘para dar a luz”… to give to the light. It’s a powerful phrase – in any language, really. To give birth is to give life. If there’s any time we know we are co-creators with God it’s when we participate in or witness the birth of a child.

In the process of giving birth, there is that moment when the baby passes from the dark, protective environment of the womb, into the light of the delivery room. The baby stretches out its little body in a startle response.

But then the baby takes its first breath in, and breathes back that breath in a cry, activating it’s whole little body as it tries to come to terms with all of the new sounds, smells, and stimulation it’s confronting. Once placed in its mother’s arms, the baby relaxes, soothed by the familiarity of her voice and her heartbeat, and the comfort of her loving embrace.

It’s a powerful experience, the birth of a new life.

Likewise, when we baptize a child of God, and we hear the priest proclaim to them “receive the light of Christ” as we light their baptismal candle from the Paschal candle, we remember the power of the light we are giving them. It isn’t just a candle – it’s the light of Christ. We give them the light of Christ. We give them to the Light.

Today is the feast of the Epiphany (transferred from last Friday). Epiphany marks the end of the season of Christmas. For Episcopalians, Epiphany is the day we take down our Christmas decorations and live into the exciting reality of what Christmas means for us and for the world.

I hope one day we can add to our list of “new traditions” at Redeemer, a celebration of Holy Eucharist on the day of Epiphany followed by a burning of the greens. It’s beautiful symbolism – and besides, who doesn’t love a good bonfire?! (And in case you’re wondering, there’s nothing that says we can’t have s’mores at our Epiphany bonfire.)

Think about it - to stand in the presence of the great light of an Epiphany fire, a tall pillar of light (as most bonfires are) is to make truly manifest the message of this day. It connects us to our forbears who followed the light throughout their exile, until they arrived at the promised land. And it points us toward our future – a future as uncertain for us as it was for our forbears; a future that requires us to go forward relying totally on the Light to guide us.

Standing in the presence of the great light of an Epiphany fire connects us to the experience of the wise men (or magi), who, as the gospel writer tells us, came to visit the newborn Messiah. Being star-gazers by profession, the magi saw a strange thing, an unusual light in the sky, and this new light was so compelling to them that they packed up their camels and traveled great a distance to find where it led.

Although the hymn tells us there were three wise men, we don’t actually know how many people followed that star to Jesus’ house. Scripture tells us they brought three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh, but doesn’t tell us how many magi there were, or if they came alone or with their people.

It isn’t unusual - in our Scriptures, the numbers of men present was often reported because it was customary to tell a story that way. But that doesn’t mean that’s all who were there. In the story of the miracle of loaves and fishes, for example, the gospel writers report the number of men present but only Matthew mentions that an unspecified number of women and children were also present.

What matters in this gospel story, though, is that these Gentile people (however many there were), would have been outsiders, considered unclean and unwelcome by the people they were going to see. Yet, they were compelled to go anyway.

Matthew tells us that the wise men knew of the prophesy about this newborn king of the Jews, but they didn’t come seeking a Savior. They came ready to show respect for and shower gifts upon an unknown king whose light in the heavens meant he was worth seeing.

When they saw that the start had stopped, these visitors, like the shepherds who also saw a great light, were overwhelmed with joy. When Mary and Joseph welcomed them into their house, and the visitors saw the baby Jesus, they knelt before him and paid him homage – a gesture of servitude.

Then they gave freely from their opened treasure chests, expensive gifts – fit for a king. They gave to the Light.

Matthew ends the story telling us that these visiting Gentiles heard in a dream that they should not return to Herod, so they went home a different way. God guided even these non-believers in the way they should go – and remarkably, they listened… AND obeyed!

If only more believers would do the same.

As we celebrate our thanks on this Feast of the Epiphany, we might ask ourselves: what light compels us as much as the wise men were compelled? Does being in the presence of God bring us to our knees to pay homage? How many of us, in the presence of our Savior, will open our treasure chests and freely give gifts that reflect what we’ve been given? If we heard the voice of God in a dream, would we believe it? Would we obey it?

This feast day calls us to remember that the light of Christ continues to break into the darkness of the world and compels us to follow wherever it leads. It calls us to remember that that light now breaks into the world through us.

Though the path may be unfamiliar at times, we can trust the one who leads us, and so we can go on – together – a community of people who are followers of the light of Christ and bearers of that great Light. When outsiders show up, drawn by that same Light, we welcome them into our community and accept the gifts they bring.

Today, we give ourselves again to the light, with boldness and confidence borne of our faith, compelled by the light of Christ that calls us to love and serve in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

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