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The Mystery Revealed

Sunday, January 5, 2020. Rev. Dr. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12

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So Christmas break doesn’t always turn out the way you expect.  And things don’t always turn out the way you want.  This past week my family and I were visiting my parents in North Carolina, when my dad ended up in the hospital.  At first we worried that he might be having a heart attack, but in time the doctors said that his heart seemed fine. However, there was a mass on his pancreas that is now the subject of our great concern. Final results from the pathology tests of that mass are still coming – we expect them in the next day or two – but it seems possible, and maybe even likely, that pancreatic cancer, and treatment for that, is in our future. I share this with you this morning, because it seems pretty possible that I may be somewhat distracted in the coming weeks, I may be more weepy than usual, and especially as an only child, there may be some days when I’ll need to be in North Carolina with them.  Dad’s in good hands with his doctors, and I do not expect much interruption in my duties here, and I’ll be working closely with the other staff, the Session, and the Personnel Committee to be sure that things continue moving in a “decent and orderly” direction. But your prayers for our family are very much appreciated during this time, and I’ll keep you posted as we go along.

On a more global scale, the conflicted relationship between the United States and Iran has entered a new chapter, with assaults on an American airbase and the US Embassy in Baghdad, as the US killed a high-ranking Iranian general who was responsible for weapons and attacks that maimed and killed many American troops, and there are serious concerns about more retaliation.  Impeachment proceedings are very much in the air, and the conflict between our two major parties continues in its divisive slog, all in the context of a highly fraught presidential election.  Bushfires burning in Australia are currently covering over 23,000 square miles, roughly the size of West Virginia.  Our friends in the United Methodist Church are poised for a significant split over disagreements about LGBT clergy and same-sex weddings, and while church splits can be a way to resolve deeply held differences, they are always painful.  There’s a lot going on, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

On Epiphany Sunday, as we approach the 12th day of Christmas, the church celebrates the revelation of the light of God in Jesus Christ.  This is the day when we particularly remember the revelation of the light of Christ to the magi from the East, Gentile astrologers who did not even share the same religious framework as Mary and Joseph through the star that arose over the place where the child Jesus was born.  What the texts of Epiphany want us to remember is that the light does not shine in a vacuum; it shines in darkness.  And the child was not born into a plush and padded environment; the child was born into a context of threat, as King Herod was threatening violent death to all the children who might threaten his grip on power.

When Isaiah 60 speaks of darkness covering the earth and gloom covering the nations, it doesn’t feel like that’s just poetic exaggeration. Whether we are talking about crises or difficulties in our personal lives, or conflicts and warfare and disasters in the lives of nations, biblical words about darkness can hit pretty close to home.  Biblical texts tend to be quite clear-eyed and grounded in reality.

But our texts do not only speak of darkness, because the gospel does not only speak about darkness, nor only about brokenness, nor only about illness, nor only about sin.  Our texts – and the gospel – speak of the light that shines in the darkness.  And because of the light, the darkness is made bearable.  It is not quite so fearsome.  It is no longer quite so dreadful.  For your light has already come, Isaiah 60 says.  The glory of the Lord has risen upon you.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  Let us note that the reason the darkness is bearable for Isaiah is not because Isaiah is brave.  The reason the darkness does not ruin the church is not because the church is really smart or strong or successful or able to take care of itself.  The reason the darkness is no longer dreadful is because we live in the midst of, and under the power of, the glory of the Lord.

What we may see in these texts and poems and stories is that the light comes to us, and the light goes before us.  The light comes to us, and the light goes before us.

Surely a big part of what makes the gospel good news is that the light of God is not something we have to do for ourselves.  The light of God comes to us, from outside of us.  It gets inside of you, but it does not come from inside of you.  You do not have to generate the light that will lead you into life.  For everyone who feels the heavy burden of assuming that it is up to us to save the world, or the church, or our families, this is an important piece of news.  We cannot and do not control our future; we participate deeply in it, but we cannot control it.  And for everyone who is inclined to despair over the situation of your personal life or the situation of our common life together, this is an important piece of news.  There is no darkness so deep that the light of Christ is not present.  That is the promise of Epiphany.

But the light is not just within us, it goes before us, as the star went before the magi. It goes before us to show us the way to go.  And because it is the light of Jesus Christ, it is not just some beautiful bright star meant to make us feel warm and fuzzy.  It is the light of justice, and it is the light of peace.  Both of these aspects of the light of Christ are crucial, because the world characteristically wants to split them apart.  On the one hand, the world wants justice, and is far too ready to use manipulative and violent means to pursue it, and to accept any collateral damage as the price of doing justice.  Or, on the other hand, the world wants peace, and is far too willing to tolerate and turn a blind eye to wicked, terrible behavior on the part of others, as the price of doing peace.  Jesus holds the light of justice and the light of peace together, which means that we can as well. When we do so, it will likely mean that the justice-only people and the peace-only people will be mad at us, but that may be the price of doing discipleship.

The mystery of the gospel of Jesus Christ, revealed in his life, death, and resurrection, is that “death is the seedbed of life.”[1] Our society wants uninterrupted power and security and control, and entire industries of fear and commerce have grown up around our desire to avoid loss and death.  But Jesus teaches us that death, though it be hard and awful, is not the final end of us.  Death is the seedbed of new life.  Easter Sunday only comes out of Good Friday.  The light shines in the darkness.  God’s power is revealed in weakness.  The first will be last, and the last will be first.  Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed.  But when it dies, it bears much fruit.  And on and on and on.  The news of Epiphany – the resilient news by which we live – is that the light of God is at work, in every situation, in every loss, in every death, in every darkness, bringing forth our future.  To God be all the glory.  AMEN.

[1] Walter Brueggemann and Clover Beal, An On-Going Imagination: A Conversation about Scripture, Faith, and the Thickness of Relationship (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019) Kindle location 1096.