God’s people have often lived in deep darkness, in the time of Herod, so our hope is their promise: God’s light still shines, and now in and through us.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Epiphany of Our Lord
Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“In the time of King Herod.” That’s all Matthew needs to say.
His telling of the visit of eastern strangers to the Christ child begins with something everyone would understand: it happened “in the time of King Herod”. A tyrannical, paranoid despot who saw threats everywhere, and ruled by violence and fear. A king who killed his wife and several sons to eliminate perceived threats.
This story happened in the time of King Herod. Oh, Matthew’s readers say. So, this isn’t likely a happy story.
It seems to end well. The magi are warned in dream to take another road home, to avoid the unpredictable, violent king. Soon after, Joseph is warned in a dream, too, and he and Mary flee to Egypt with this two year old child. Magi are safe. Child is safe.
But this is the time of King Herod. Vulnerable, weak, powerless people are never safe when Herod is in charge. And the little town of Bethlehem weeps at the death of children, their mothers and fathers inconsolable.
Darkness shall cover the earth, Isaiah says, and thick darkness the peoples. It’s reality. There will be times of kings like Herod.
So as we face a time of darkness for so many who are vulnerable, weak, powerless in our country, as we look ahead grimly, having already seen signs of what is to come in these past weeks, we know at least this much. We are not the only ones to live in the time of King Herod.
Scripture’s story is that darkness always threatens.
Nothing Isaiah says here is new. Our ancestors in faith lived under unjust governments, threatened by people who abused power and worshipped violence. The story of the Hebrew people leads to the story of the early Church, and none had lengthy times where they didn’t have to look over their shoulder or account for what the powerful were up to.
Our own nation is defined by this truth. Today’s threats to immigrants and people of other faiths, disdain for those who speak truth about what is happening, organized attempts to disenfranchise, outright and open attacks of hate on people who are different, are deeply embedded in our history. Ask the Cherokee nation whether King Herod can be trusted. The president whose face stares out from our twenty dollar bill authorized the removal of nearly 46,000 Native Americans from their homes. 17,000 Cherokee were forced to march from the east coast to west of the Mississippi, and at least 4,000, probably more, died on that Trail of Tears. Ask our African-American sisters and brothers, who for most of our nation’s history have had to be leery of what King Herod might be up to, from slavery to lynching to redlining to Jim Crow to disenfranchisement.
Read any good history and it appears that darkness covering this nation is more the norm than the exception. Some of us have been privileged enough that we weren’t taught about much of what has been done to Bethlehem’s children in our own country. We have been privileged enough to believe that even if it happened, such times are past. We can no longer assume that or expect that.
Darkness will cover the earth, Isaiah warns, and thick darkness the peoples. Expect this, our Scriptures tell us.
Yet Isaiah declares: Arise, shine, for your light has come.
We gather tonight to celebrate God entering this gross darkness in person, and bringing light through this Christ to enlighten all peoples and end the darkness. This is our hope.
But remember how this light shines. It shines in darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it, John tells us. But it shines in darkness still.
We can only understand the light of Christ if we remember that though Jesus escaped Herod, the children of his village did not. We can only understand the light of Christ if we remember that this light doesn’t magically end all darkness. King Herod lived at least a few more years after this, and Christ Jesus didn’t end his life.
Lift up your eyes and look around, Isaiah says. God’s light shines, even in the darkness. But it shines in darkness, and often doesn’t look powerful enough to do much. This child escaped King Herod only to run into the power of Rome and a Roman cross. This child fled Israel for Egypt only to be turned over by his own people for death.
Yet we declare that this Christ, this light, still shines. Even in persistent darkness.
That paradox is our hope. Otherwise we declare tonight there is light from God in the darkness of the world, and either have to leave and pretend that we don’t see the darkness rising around us, or leave and wonder if we just celebrated a lie.
This is what we seek on Epiphany: an understanding of how God’s light actually is good news, in spite of the darkness, in spite of its weakness.
This has always been the Christian struggle. God chooses the way of the weak to come to us, Paul says, shaming the way of power. God’s true power is revealed in that very cross, in that vulnerable refugee family fleeing Herod. God’s light is seen not as a day of sunshine but as a lone candle shining in a vast room of darkness.
But that’s how it’s going to finally bring about full daylight. That one light is enough to see by. When you’re walking on a path in the dark with a candle or a flashlight, how much can’t you see? 90%? 95%? But you can see the two steps in front of you, and can take those steps. And if someone joins you with their candle, there’s a little more light, and more wisdom about which steps to take.
And if you are joined by more and more and more, eventually the darkness has no chance.
This is the way God is bringing light into the darkness of this world. And from the beginning of his life, this is the only way Jesus operates, under constant threat of the Herods, but being light. And when Jesus is finally caught and killed, God stuns death by breaking free of its hold. The light cannot be extinguished by darkness, not even by death.
And now here is our truth: we are also that light.
Isaiah says “See and be radiant.”
See God’s light in the darkness. And be radiant. Shine yourself.
You are the light of the world, Jesus told us. It is who we are. So we leave here and when we see the darkness, we don’t pretend the darkness isn’t real, and we don’t despair that there is no light from God.
We leave here as light. Maybe tiny, weak, trembling, but that’s the way God’s light works. We might shine just enough to illuminate the next step.
But even a tiny candle can be seen from a long distance in the dark. We may only see the next step ahead, but for a long way someone else can see us. And like those strangers from the east, they now have a light to follow in the darkness.
What a grace, that each of us is a light someone else might see, and be drawn to. Might come and say, “We have seen this light from a distance, and have come.” To find God. To find hope. To find light.
And imagine what others could see when we join all our little lights together.
Arise, shine, for your light has come. See, and be radiant.
It’s all there already in Isaiah. Darkness, gross darkness, shall cover the earth and peoples. But God’s light has come. Let us look and see and find hope.
And now we are God’s light. Let us radiate who we are and join all others who bear God’s light in the darkness.
We may not see the end of darkness in our days. But we witness that it cannot overcome God’s light, its days are numbered. It’s a slow, often frightening, often confusing way. But it was good enough for the Son of God, who apparently thought we were up to this.
So let’s assume it’s good enough for us, too, that we can do this. Be the light of the world we are.
Lift up your eyes and look around. It’s already happening.
In the name of Jesus. Amen