January 7, 2024

The Feast of the Epiphany

January 7, 2024

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, we gather with Christians throughout the world 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 testify to the faithfulness of God 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 reading from his letter to the Ephesians: 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 Kings, the Three Wise Men – the Magi – these men who professed a different faith and creed – 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; all who call upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved. This is the moment foretold by Isaiah who shouted “Arise! Shine!” For your light has come! The Light of Christ now abides in our very midst.

     And yet, what I find even more amazing and intriguing about today’s gospel reading is that with all this glorious news of the birth of the Christ now enhanced by the adoration of the Magi, Matthew is careful to remind us that the coming of the Christ took place in the shadow of darkness: a darkness of human creation. A darkness soaked in deep fear not unlike the fear which possessed Pharoah in Egypt – a fear that urged him to slay the newly born male children of Israel when Moses was born long ago. With that history in mind, Matthew now points us to King Herod- a King terrified of losing power. And in so doing he affirms how often throughout human history evil has lurked and continues to lurk 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 hoping that in so doing, he would kill Jesus. His actions, while horrific, are understandable because the truth is, that is what fear can do and so often does do within men’s hearts. See, Matthew tells us that when the Magi asked, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews,” Herod was absolutely 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, and as the gospels will later tell us, he was a threat to 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, so it was throughout all Jerusalem.

    Now, like many of you, when I read scripture, I often ask myself, “how or where does this story fit with, or into, my life today?” Or “where do I fit into this particular story?” As I wrestled with today’s scripture readings, I was cognizant of how fear continues its’ strangle hold on the hearts and minds of men and women alike still today. Blatant acts of anti-Semitism are spreading across our nation; the war in the Ukraine continues to escalate; as does the devastating loss of innocent life in Gaza and throughout the Middle East. And as I pondered the realities of our world today, I kept thinking about Herod.

See, fear of the unknown, fear of the “other” in one’s midst can have disastrous results. And so it was with Herod. And you know, the truth is, the result of all his scheming meant that he never did meet the Christ; he never came to understand the joy and relief that comes from embracing and upholding God’s mercy and grace; he never experienced the transforming and redemptive power of forgiveness that the light of Christ can bring into every human heart and mind. And there is a lesson here because Herod’s fear and his attempt to cling to control and assert his own way stands as an icon for those who hoard power still today; by those who desire to control God and decide who is worthy of, and welcome in God’s kingdom.

And yet, the arrival of these Three Wise Men and the revelation – the Epiphany – that Jesus is the light of world; God with us – offered hope, peace, and encouragement then, and still offers it today. See, these men, having looked into the eyes of Herod and seen for themselves his hatred and his fear, still came to Bethlehem. They had heard of Isaiah’s words, “Arise, Shine, for your light has come” and in spite of the hatred and fear around them, they continued their pilgrimage to seek and find the Christ. And therein lies the challenge that has confronted all people of faith for over two thousand years.

     See, our scripture readings this morning affirm that darkness is always present in this world. But our scriptures also affirm and affirm boldly that darkness – no matter how overwhelming it may seem in the moment – no matter how that darkness came into being, whether it is the result of past hurts, death and grief, lust for power, sadness, or sin – even if that darkness touches our very souls, it can never overcome God’s light! Matthew shows us that for all his power and scheming, Herod 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 by it and we, too, must continue our journey to seek and find the Christ, and be changed as well.

    The Epiphany: the reality and promise that God’s light is available to all people and can never be overcome invites us to know and embrace that 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 every person 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 all who believe.

     Beloved, we who are called as Christ’s own in baptism are invited to join the Magi on their journey in seeking and finding the Christ not just at Bethlehem, but in every moment of our lives so that we continue to be changed by him. For when we do find the Christ, like the Magi, we are encouraged to offer and share not only our gifts and abilities, but our very selves: our lives. In so doing, we take up and hold forth that Light of Christ: we arise and shine. And whenever and wherever God’s people choose to arise and carry forth the redemptive Light of Christ – that light immersed in the love, mercy, forgiveness and grace of God - all that darkness around us – a darkness so often fueled by hate and fear – the very darkness of sin - loses yet another shadow: one precious soul at a time. And the world, our world, is changed once more.

     So I invite you this morning to join me in giving thanks for the manifestation, that realized promise of a world-changing light - that gift of God’s grace - that offers to abide and grow within our hearts and minds. And then, together, arise, go forth, and choose through our daily lives to demonstrate and shine with this glory of the Lord that has risen upon us, and offers to rise upon and shine forth from within all who will believe on, and seek the Christ not just today, but always. Amen.