Sunday, January 6, 2019. Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
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“Arise, shine; for your light has come.” With these words, the prophet Isaiah addressed the Jewish exiles who had returned home – wondrously – from their captivity in Babylon, only to encounter the challenges of rebuilding their community in Jerusalem. Our Jewish ancestors had been earlier deported by the Babylonian Empire, and had gone through humiliation, defeat, and discouragement. When there was a change in imperial administrations, however, when the Persian Empire became the new superpower, those Jewish exiles were allowed to return home, which was thrilling. But when they got home, they had to do the work of rebuilding their community. It did not happen automatically. And it turned out that different people had different ideas of how to do it; there were intense arguments within the faith community.
Can you imagine a congregation or a faith community having intense disagreements with each other about the right way to do something? When they came home from exile, they thought it was going to be so awesome to have a new start, but they found that new starts were harder than they expected. There was pain and difficulty and conflict that they had not anticipated. And so, a whole different kind of discouragement began to set in. It was to these folks that Isaiah says, “Arise, shine. For your light has come.” They were to touch the pain of their lives and their community with the light of God.
The day of Epiphany is a day of light. It is a day that celebrates the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. The Greek word for Epiphany means manifestation or appearance, so that what we are here to celebrate this morning is that God’s light has been revealed, has shined upon the world in Jesus. Into our world of darkness, into our world of violence, into our world of conflict and government shutdown and oppression and loneliness and heartbreak, God’s light has come.
The coming of the light brings guidance and healing for our own lives, and it gives us our vocation as a church in this community at this time in history. Like the Israelites in Isaiah 60, we are called to touch the pain of our community with the light of God.
We do this in our own individual lives, where we are honest about the difficulties we are facing while we place those difficulties into the mercy of God.
And we do it as a congregation. We do it through our relationships with Christ House, 2nd Story-Alternative House, and the Falls Church/McLean Children’s Center; we do it through Boost the Troops and visiting folks at Lewinsville Retirement Residence and Chesterbrook. We are doing it through becoming an Earth Care congregation of the Presbyterian Church. This past week a group of college students from Lewinsville did this by going to Staunton, Virginia, to do construction work with Habitat for Humanity. In the midst of the government shutdown, there may be opportunities for Lewinsville to support those who are not working and not being paid. Given the intense conflicts around the U.S.-Mexico border, there could be an opportunity to spend a week with one of the Presbyterian Church Border Ministry sites, like the one that my seminary classmate Mark Adams leads in Douglas, Arizona. Given the opioid crisis, there could be an opportunity to partner with our friends at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia to imagine creative ways to respond. Given the huge numbers of people in Tysons, and the lack of a spiritual community there, there could be an opportunity to reach out and discover the soul of that community. These are concrete ways to respond to the biblical invitation to touch the pain of the world with the light of God.
And as we do this, we may notice two things from our gospel reading this morning. First, we should anticipate having some curious and unconventional partners along the way. Matthew 2 tells of the visit of the magi. As far as we can tell, the magi were ancient astrologers. They were non-Jews, Gentiles from some land in the East, perhaps Babylon or Persia. Matthew is telling us that the first people outside of Jesus’ family who have an encounter with Jesus are religious outsiders, people who do not come from a long-pedigree of Sunday school education and religious credentials. The magi may have had religious practices that would have been strange and unorthodox to Mary and Joseph, but they can perceive that there is something special and royal about Jesus.
Just so, as we go forth to touch the pain of the world with the light of God, we must keep our eyes open for partners and neighbors who do not necessarily share our worldview, do not necessarily share our religious practices or our musical tastes or any of our tribal affiliations, but who are also seeking the light and are seeking to touch the pain of the world. You do not need to agree with someone on everything to work together with them on things that are important for the healing and well-being of the world.
And secondly, we notice that not everyone will welcome the coming of the light. There are those who are threatened by the light, who resist the coming of justice, who try to undermine the presence of peace. Herod could not tolerate the light of a different kind of king, the text tells us; he was frightened. The light had come for Herod, too, but he was not open to it. The light draws forth opposition, even as it seeks to bless those who oppose it. This is delicate work, and it is very easy to become self-righteous in it. Which is why we must ground our work in prayer, and keep moving towards the pain.
Friends, we are all on our way home. But the way home will not be the way we came. We are going home by another way, a way filled with unexpected companions and unanticipated dangers, a way that is led by Jesus, whose light will show us the way to go. Arise and shine; for your light has come. To God be the glory. Amen.