Sermon for Sunday, January 6, 2019 || Feast of the Epiphany || Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
The twelve days of Christmas have come and gone bringing us to an often overlooked feast day of the church. Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, the coming of the Wise Men, the Magi, to the Christ child. Then we have a long stretch of Sundays between now and Ash Wednesday in which we hear the stories of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. And at the end of the season of the church year that follows today, we find ourselves standing on the mountain with the disciples Peter, James, and John.
Countless stars shine in the deep blue sky above, and we find ourselves staring up at those stars in wonder and awe. But then a new light – one that outshines the stars themselves – grows in front of us. It’s so bright that we can barely look at it, yet it commands our vision. Jesus is at the center of the light. It’s not shining on him, but forth from him. He is the light. As we gaze at him, a thought stirs in our guts: this is what Jesus looks like all the time. But in this moment, we are given the gift of seeing him as God sees him: as a luminous being that outshines the sun. We are given the gift of revelation, a sudden and surprising knowledge that we can attribute only to God. We are given the gift of epiphany.
Working backward from this event known as the Transfiguration, we read in the Gospel the Sermon on the Plain, in which Jesus teaches any who would listen how to be his follower. We meet the disciples as they leave their boats and follow Jesus. We hear him announce his ministry of reconciliation during his first sermon in his hometown. We stand on the shores of the river Jordan as Jesus comes up from the baptismal waters, and we watch the heavenly dove descend on God’s Beloved Son. And thus we backtrack to this morning, in which we hear the official story of the magi’s journey to Bethlehem.
Most often we conflate this story in the Christmas pageant, of course, but it should and does stand on its own. This is a story very much like the Transfiguration, a story of people seeing in a way that doesn’t seem normal. This group of wise people from a distant land is in tune with God’s movement throughout creation. They take upon themselves an arduous trek through the desert to Jerusalem and then to nearby Bethlehem. They find the Christ child: so humble, so vulnerable. He’s not adorned as a king. He lives in a house, not a palace. Hils parents are poor. And yet, these wise people see beyond such mundane details.
They look into the heart of this situation, and they see the holy in their midst. Like Peter, James, and John witnessing their illuminated Lord on the mountain, so the magi see and celebrate the sovereignty before them. They look at the child Jesus and see the king he is.
The gift of the magi is not in their gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Those are mere tokens. Their gift is the ability to see beyond, to perceive the deeper, holier level of existence that most of us are blind to most of the time. They practice the ability to have epiphanies, to resonate with revelation.
You don’t have to be a wise person, a magi, to develop this spiritual resonance. Who knows how often the disciples would have seen Jesus as the luminous being he obviously was if they had trained themselves to see with the eyes of the heart? Who knows exactly what the magi saw when they looked at the young messiah?
There is so much more to see than the merely visible. There is so much that God is revealing to us each day of our lives that we miss because we are looking in the wrong direction or because we are wearing the wrong set of lenses. This is what the Feast of the Epiphany is all about – following the magi’s example, we can train ourselves to see into the heart of things, to see what God is always revealing.
This is hard work. God knows we often miss what’s right in front of us, let alone what’s deep within. And so God has given us the Light of the World to help us see. The disciples notice the glory of this light on the mountain. The magi adore this light in the humble abode in Bethlehem. And each of us has this light shining both on us and forth from us. This is important, so I will say it again: Each of us has this light shining on us and forth from us. You and I are luminous beings* in the eyes of God, like Jesus created to be bearers of God’s light to every place we go and to everyone we meet. We ourselves are epiphanies. We ourselves are surprising vessels of God’s revelation.
When we take up this mantle – to be vessels of God’s revelation – we carry with us the joy of the magi as they adore the young messiah. We carry with us the wonder of the disciples as they witness the transfigured Jesus. And we carry with us the Light of the World, which shines forth from the divine spark that God planted within each of us.
The Prophet Isaiah knows this. Notice how he begins today’s reading: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Isaiah invites us both to bask in the radiance of the Lord, but also to shine ourselves. In this we are like the moon, which shines by reflecting the light of the sun.
The best way to keep our eyes open for God’s movement in this world is to shine out as a light of that same movement. The more we shine, the more our light will illuminate those things that God yearns for us to see.
As we enter the season after this Feast of the Epiphany, the light will continue to grow. This is a blessing of living in the northern hemisphere. The lengthening of days will serve as a reminder that the Light of the World is growing within you, as well. This world of ours has a way of diminishing us, and the truth we bear can fade away. But the good news is this: even just the hint of flame can keep the darkness at bay. So glow. Let your light shine through. Show the way that God sees you, as a luminous being whose light is a revelation, an epiphany, to others.
* Even when I’m not trying to quote Star Wars, I still quote Star Wars. “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter,” says Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. (Note: Banner is from The Last Jedi, when Yoda is in his more luminous, Force ghost form.)