Sunday, January 13, 2013

Light in Darkness

Light in Darkness
Ps. 72; Isa. 60; Matt 2:1-12[1]
We have just completed a season of waiting and preparing ourselves for the coming of God's light into the world.  Some might wonder why all the fuss.  For them, the world is already a place full of light and joy, full of all they could ever want or desire--family, career, success, prestige.  But for many people in our world--in our own communities and neighborhoods, their experience of life in this world is full of darkness.  Theirs has been a life of grief and loss, a life of broken dreams and shattered hopes, a life of failure and shame.  It is the time of year when there is more darkness than light during the day.  But the kind of darkness I’m talking about is a darkness that does not depend on the season of the year or the time of day.  It is a darkness that can and does come at any time.
The world into which Jesus was born was full of all kinds of this darkness.  Many lived out their lives as slaves of one kind or another.  Many lived a kind of virtual slavery, dependent for their daily bread on the arbitrary generosity of those who owned the majority of the land.  And the shadow of the Roman Empire was cast over the whole Mediterranean world--a shadow cast by ruthless conquerors who had no conscience about enforcing their will with the edge of a sword and the point of a spear.  For many in Jesus’ day, there was no hope of anything better.
The Jewish people at least had a hope to sustain them.  The prophets sustained that hope for generations.  It was the hope that God would bring light into the darkness.  It was the hope that God would throw off the yoke of every oppressor and set free all those who lived in unjust captivity.  It was the hope that God would restore the people to the land where they could once again thrive by the sweat of their own labor, eating the bread made from grain grown in their own fields and fruit grown on trees in their own groves. When that happened, old and young would live in safety, without fear of either famine or captivity.[2]
It was in Jesus that the early Christians saw the fulfillment of these hopes.  They believed that Jesus would be the one to bring the light they longed for.  They believed Jesus was the one who would “deliver the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper” (Ps. 72:12).[3] That is why today, the feast of Epiphany, is such an important day in the Christian calendar.  It is the day when we commemorate the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus.  That story was seen as a literal fulfillment of the prediction that “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa. 60:3).  For the early Christians, the visit of the magi was another sign that the light was dawning in the darkness.
But there is something more to the visit of the magi.  These men were all pagans, they were heathen gentiles.[4]  They had no connection with the Jewish people, their prophets, their hopes or their Messiah.  And yet, according to our Gospel lesson for today, they come from afar to “pay homage” to Mary’s child (Matt. 2:11).[5]  This is important, because from the very beginning, Jesus is worshipped by shepherds and angels, by commoners and royalty, and, perhaps more importantly, by Jews and Gentiles alike.[6]  From the very beginning, the light that dawned with the birth of Jesus was a light that shines for all people (Jn. 1:4). 
This is one of the reasons why Paul rejoiced so much in his gracious commission to bring to those in darkness “the news of the boundless riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). Elsewhere Paul could express the good news in this way: “The God who said, ‘Out of darkness the light shall shine!’ is the same God who made his light shine in our hearts, to bring us the knowledge of God's glory shining in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).  His vision of the revealing of God’s light was such that he looked forward to the day when every tongue would confess “Jesus is Lord” to the glory of God (Phil. 2:10-11).[7]
Though we really don’t know much what to make of the season of Epiphany, in a very real sense, everything about our faith is a part of the celebration of Epiphany.  Literally it means “revealing,” it is a taking away of the veil that covers something.  Epiphany is about unveiling what Advent promises: that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Lk. 3:6); that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:5).  During this time of year, we read stories from Jesus’ life that show how Jesus revealed that he truly was the light that was coming into the darkness.[8] That’s why we celebrate Epiphany--it’s a time to remind ourselves that in him a light has dawned that will never go out--a light of faith, and hope, and joy that shines in all the kinds of darkness that can afflict this world.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/6/13.
[2] Cf., for example, John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34-66, 867-68, where he talks about the restoration envisioned in Isaiah 60.  Cf. also Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 218-221, where he describes the adverse conditions that made it a challenge for the people to hold onto that hope.
[3] See. H.- J. Kraus, Psalm 60-150, 81: “The expectations of the prayer for blessing look forward to ‘God’s deliverer’ in whom the ‘reign of God’ on earth, in the people of God and at the same time among the nations, finds its fulfillment.” Cf. also James L. Mays, Psalms, 237: “Saving justice for the helpless is the definitive mark of the reign of God, the sign of the one who represents the lord of all the world.” Cf. differently, Marvin E. Tate, Psalm 51-100, 226.
[4] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 13.
[5] Cf. Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 27, 31.  Cf. also U. Luz, Matthew 1-7, 115, where although he earlier questions whether we are to see the worship of  the magi as a fulfillment of Isa. 60:3, he recognizes that the christological interpretation of the event as a sign that God is with us is prominent.
[6] cf. Luz, Matthew 1-7, 115, where he also points out that this is an important theme in this passage.
[7] cf. Hare, Matthew, 13, where he says, “When the visitors come into the presence of Mary’s child they do obeisance to him, unwittingly anticipating that day when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:10-11).”
[8] This is a theme in Jürgen Moltmann’s theology.  He says that when the glory of God is revealed over all the earth, all humankind and all creation will be drawn into “the life stream of the triune God,” where they experience “boundless freedom, exuberant joy, and inexhaustible love,” which is what God intended for creation in the first place. See Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 124, 126, 161, 178, 212, 222.  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 183-84;  Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 145.

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