January 5, 2020, The Eve of the Feast of the Epiphany

January 5, 2020, The Eve of the Feast of the Epiphany
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

From Isaiah, “Arise, shine, for your light has come. And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     Today, Christians gather to celebrate the revelation that the “holy infant so tender and mild” of whom we sang about on Christmas Eve is none other than the promised Messiah. And with that revelation of who this Jesus of Nazareth truly is, we celebrate God’s faithfulness in fulfilling every promise of redemption for all: The light of the world, God’s light, has come to dwell among us. We understand now what St. Paul spoke about in today’s Epistle lesson: That which was a mystery to our forebears – those prophets and people of faith in ages past – now by God’s grace (and God’s grace alone) has been revealed. And with the story of the coming of the Three Wise Men –the Magi - men of other faiths and creeds – our scripture lessons affirm that God’s grace revealed in the person of Jesus Christ is available to both Jew and Gentile alike because all who believe and call upon the Name of the Lord are welcome in God’s kingdom. This is the moment foretold by Isaiah who shouted “Arise! Shine!” For your light has come! The Light of Christ is in our very midst.

     And yet, what I find amazing about today’s gospel reading is that with all this glorious news of the birth of the Christ and now the adoration of the Three Kings – the Epiphany – Matthew is careful to  remind us that the coming of the Christ took place in the shadow of darkness: a darkness of human creation. See, in today’s reading, Matthew points us to King Herod. And in so doing he demonstrates how often evil lurks in this world forever waiting to step forward, to pounce, and exert its own way.

     History tells us that Herod, whom the Romans called “the king of the Jews”, was a tyrant who would stop at nothing to keep control of his title and power including slaughtering innocent children in hopes that in so doing, he would kill Jesus. And his actions are actually understandable. See, Matthew tells us that Herod, upon being asked by the three Magi “where is the child who has been born king of the Jews”, was terrified because if the prophets were right, such a birth would mean the end of his dynasty. The newborn Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, was a threat to political authorities like Herod, but as the gospels will later tell us, he was a threat to the religious authorities as well. And when people feel threatened, fear takes hold. And where fear takes hold, hatred abounds, and where hatred abounds, violence is not far behind. So it was with Herod and his court, and Matthew tells us, all Jerusalem.

    Like many of you, when I read scripture I often ask myself, “how or where does this story fit with, or fit into, my life?” Or “where do I fit into this particular story?” As I wrestled with today’s scripture readings in light of the news of increased incidents of anti-Semitism across the nation; incidents such as the killing last month of four people at a kosher grocery store in New Jersey, and the stabbing last week of five people at a Hanukkah celebration in New York, and then the discovery of Neo-Nazi flyers distributed throughout an Atlanta neighborhood decrying the increase in the number of orthodox Jewish residents in that particular community, I kept thinking about Herod. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the “other” in one’s midst can have disastrous results. And so it was with Herod for the truth is, all of his scheming meant that this particular King Herod never met the Christ; he never came to understand the joy and relief that comes from embracing God’s mercy and grace; he never experienced for himself the transforming power of forgiveness that the light of Christ brings into human hearts and minds.

Herod’s fear and his attempt to cling to control and assert his own way stands as an icon for every person soaked in fear and often overwhelmed by those who hoard power; by those who desire to control God and say who is worthy of, and welcome in God’s kingdom. And yet, this story of the arrival of the Three Wise Men and the revelation – the Epiphany – that Jesus is the light of world; God with us – offers incredible hope for us. The Wise Men, having looked into the eyes of Herod and seen for themselves his hatred and his fear, still came to Bethlehem. They had heard the words of Isaiah “Arise, Shine, for your light has come”: and so they continued their pilgrimage to seek and find the Christ. And there is the challenge for us today just as it has been for all Christians these past two thousand years.

     See, our scripture readings this morning remind us that darkness is always present in this world, especially where fear and power tries to control our lives. But our lessons also tell us and tell us boldly that darkness – no matter how overwhelming it may seem – no matter how that darkness comes into being whether it comes from past hurts, death and grief, hate crimes, sadness, or sin – even if it touches our very souls, it can never overcome God’s light! Matthew shows us that Herod, for all his power and scheming, could not overcome God made flesh in our midst. The Magi knowing the risks still continued their journey and came face to face with the Christ; they encountered the light of the world and they were forever changed and we, too, can be changed.

    The Epiphany: the reality and promise that God’s light can never be overcome offers an invitation to know and embrace an Epiphany in our own hearts and minds. It offers us the faith, the hope, and the strength to persevere and continue to seek and find the Christ in our hearts and in the faces of those we meet. It invites us, it urges us, to continue our walk of faith; to “arise and shine” as Isaiah proclaimed; to see this world in the light of Christ that St. Paul says reveals “the mystery … of God who created all things” and who still offers grace, hope, light and life to allwho believe.

     Beloved, we who are called as Christ’s own in baptism are invited to join the Magi on their journey in seeking and serving Christ not just at Bethlehem, but every moment of our lives. And when we do find the Christ, we are again invited to offer not only our gifts and abilities, but our very selves: our lives. In so doing, we take up that Light of Christ: we arise and shine. And whenever and wherever God’s people choose to arise and shine and shine means to carry forth that redemptive Light of Christ into our communities, our families, and nations, all that darkness around us – that darkness fueled by hate and fear – that darkness of sin - loses yet another shadow: one precious soul at a time. In so doing, the world is changed once more.

    And in thanksgiving for that promise of world-changing light, friends - that gift of God’s grace - let us arise and shine, and choose through our daily lives to demonstrate the glory of the Lord that has risen upon us, and offers to rise upon all who believe not only today, but forever. Amen.