Sunday, January 3, 2016

Barbara Moyer Lehman: Christ as a light, illumine and guide us

Epiphany Sunday
Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

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Many preachers find good stories and sermon illustrations from two reliable
sources: cartoons and grandchildren. Or if you are a young preacher, it may even be your children! But it does get a bit tricky when the kids are in your congregation or audience. Therefore I will stick with the cartoon.
In the DNR for December 26, day after Christmas, we find this Classic Peanuts cartoon strip.
Linus is outside working on his snowman. Charlie Brown comes up behind him and says, “Well, Linus, did you have a good Christmas?” Linus replies, “What do you mean by ‘good’? Do you mean did I get a lot of presents? Or do you mean did I give a lot of presents? Are you referring to the weather or the Christmas dinner we had? Do you mean was my Christmas good in a spiritual sense? Do you mean was my Christmas good in that I saw new meaning in old things? Or do you mean.....”
Charlie Brown turns, walks away and leaves out a big, “sigh”.

I can understand that Linus was trying to clarify what Charlie Brown meant by a “good” Christmas. It is all relative. We have different expectations. What are we comparing? It is a little like when parishioners leave the sanctuary after worship and say, “Pastor, thank you for that really good sermon!” And so we leave, scratching our heads and wondering, “Now what did he mean by ‘good’? Did he mean that it was well- crafted, clearly outlined? Did she mean that it was intellectually challenging or that it spoke to her present need and situation? Did he mean it was “good” because it was entertaining or honest or that it was inspiring, heartfelt, deeply moving? Was it “good” because it was short and easy to understand?

So did you have a ‘good Christmas’? Truth is....Christmas is not over. It is not over on the evening of Dec. 25 when the gifts are opened, the food is consumed, the house is tidied up after the relatives have gone home. Christmas is more than a day. It is a season...and we are still in it!. But I must confess that I look forward to what happens after the 12 days of Christmas, when we celebrate the Feast of Epiphany on Jan.6, and enter what we call the season of Epiphany, or season after Epiphany, that takes us to Ash Wednesday (Feb. 10 this year) and the beginning of Lent.
I am guessing that many of you grew up in similar circumstances as I did in that we knew little or nothing about Epiphany! We could be described as ‘liturgically challenged’! Christmas and Easter were the big deals and maybe, Palm Sunday and Pentecost, were known, but Epiphany, probably not. When I became ‘enlightened’ about Epiphany, I began to look forward to this time of the year, even more so than Advent and Christmas.

Epiphany means ‘shining’ or ‘showing forth’, an appearance or manifestation of the divine. January 6, the feast day of Epiphany commemorates the coming of the Magi and the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles (Matthew 2:1-12). Many of us probably have used the word ‘epiphany’, (small letter e) when we have had a sudden , illuminating moment or discovery (a-ha), but Epiphany is really this feast day followed by a season where we seek, search, discover and proclaim how God is being revealed to us in Christ, in the here and now, in the every dayness of our lives. And it includes how we experience and respond to those encounters.
The feast of Epiphany was first celebrated in the 4th century. This season recalls 3 events in which Jesus was made known. The lectionary texts during this time of year always include: 1.) the story of the Magi and how Jesus’ birth was made known to them, these wise men/astrologers from the east, representing the Gentiles (found only in Matt. ), 2.) the announcement of Jesus’ identity at his baptism, found in all 3 of the synoptic gospels, where the ‘voice from heaven announces, “You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased”, 3.) Jesus’ miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, where Jesus turned the water into wine, and the text records that what Jesus did at Cana was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory... his nature, his character. Who Jesus was is now being made known, revealed for the purpose of illuminating the minds of people and bringing them to faith! Up to that time, his ‘glory’, his nature had remained concealed, now it was revealed/illuminated.

In 412, Augustine (church father and philosopher) delivered a sermon on this Matthew text of the Magi and their journey to Bethlehem. He described Epiphany as a ‘noteworthy celebration...throughout the world...and added that “the whole Church of the Gentiles has adopted this day as a feast worthy of most devout celebration.” His sermon on this text, even 1600 years later reminds us of 3 Epiphany truths relevant for today.

1.) God continues to be present in our world - always, even though we may feel abandoned and cry out in our suffering, our pain, our anger, our disappointment, “Where are you God?” God is always present, even when he seems hidden.
Our experience of God is not easy to discern. But God leaves hints, signs, a trail, to be discovered by those who seek to pursue the Holy in the midst of life. Too often we want quick answers, clear, immediate responses flashing across our computer. Too often we are too busy to pause and reflect on what we see and hear as we listen to the pain in our friend’s story, or child’s experience of daily activities. God’s presence is sometimes made known and illuminated to us through a nudge, a whisper, an interruption in your work day, a stranger at your door. God’s presence doesn’t always come as a shout, or logo or brand flashed across a billboard or TV screen. Those who hear or see the Holy One, who see the Christ light do so because they are seeking. The Magi scanned the stars, studied the skies, discussed together what they saw and then took a risk as they set out on a journey.
Christ as a light illumine and guide us...

2.) The gospel is for everyone, not just a few. Jesus was made known to the Gentiles. He is for those serving in the royal courts and the shepherds in the fields. He is for East as well as West, global as well as local. Rich and poor, educated and uneducated. The season of Epiphany reminds us to move out of our provincialism, to move beyond what is familiar to us, and to get rid of our tunnel vision! Jesus is Lord of all, not just a few.
Christ as a light illumine and guide us...

3.) Epiphany reinforces that meeting Jesus leaves us altered, changed, different persons. (Augustine knew this well..His life up to the time of his conversion at age 33 was often in shambles. He was not a model of faithfulness and fidelity, for sure, but his conversion changed him and the course of his life.) The Magi saw the child, bowed down before him, paid him homage, presented him precious gifts. It most likely changed the course of their lives. They could not return by the same route. They had to find another way!
One person wrote, “Epiphany reminds us that Jesus, the light of the world, has arrived in all his rule-breaking, table-turning glory, helping us to see all things, and even ourselves, in new ways.
Augustine, and many others in the Biblical narrative, (Abraham, Moses, Jacob, Paul..) learned that an encounter with God changes one’s life forever.
Christ as a light illumine and guide us...

In this season of Epiphany can we STOP - LOOK - LISTEN - PAY ATTENTION , in order to see how Jesus continues to reveal himself to us now, in the 21st century?
1.) Where is God ‘showing up’ in our lives, in the trials and tragedies of daily living? Even in the midst of what feels like dark and depressing times in the world, and maybe in our personal lives, where is a flicker of hope being revealed?
2.) Are there tiny sparks of the Divine that keep us going, that prevent us from walking away when things get tough, or walking out on a difficult relationship or work situation? Are there tiny sparks of the Divine that help us find the energy and courage to stand up, to speak out, when our voice is needed and injustices need to be made right? Are there tiny sparks of the Divine that are revealed to us so that we don’t give up or give in when pressured by peers, friends, society to live in ways that compromise our values and beliefs?
3.) How is Christ as light of the world illuminating a new path, a new way for us, for our congregation, for our church, as we enter a new year?

At the beginning of every week day, our pastoral and office staff meet for morning prayers at 9am. Others are always invited to join us in the conference room. It is a time of scripture reading, silence, prayers. As part of that ritual we say these words together:
Christ as a light illumine and guide me.
Christ under me; Christ over me;
Christ beside my on my left and my right.
This day be within me and without,
lowly and meek, yet all powerful.
Be in the heart of each to whom I speak;
in the mouth of each who speaks unto me.
Christ under me; Christ over me;
Christ beside me on my left and my right.

In 2016, may we seek together and search diligently for how the Christ light is being made known and revealed to us.

Epiphany (poem/prayer) by Walter Brueggemann
On Epiphany day,
we are still the people walking.
We are still people in the dark,
and the darkness looms large around us,
beset as we are by fear, anxiety, brutality, violence, loss–
a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.
Lord, we are—we could be— people of your light.
So we pray for the light of your glorious presence
as we wait for your appearing;
we pray for the light of your wondrous grace
as we exhaust our coping capacity;
we pray for your gift of newness
that will override our weariness;
we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust
in your good rule.
That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact
your rule through the demands of this day and season.
We submit ourselves in this season to you and to your rule
with deep joy and high hope.
(Prayers for a Privileged People, Brueggmann, Nashville:Abingdon, 2008, p. 163)

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