EpiphanyC19: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
January 6, 2019, Pr. Scott Kramer
Yesterday I was in my office after the memorial service, sitting down to write my sermon for today, when Alan walked in. After washing the dishes from the reception, he had one more maintenance task before he left the church. “I came in to change a light bulb,” he said.
With that comment, the “light bulb” went on in my head; I knew I had my sermon for today!
When the “light bulb goes on” in our heads, we sometimes say we have an epiphany. Today, as it happens, is the Day of Epiphany, the beginning of a short season that takes us to Lent. Epiphany is called the “Season of Light,” appropriate for a time of the year in which we in the Northern Hemisphere begin returning to the light.
The familiar story of three “wise men” from a foreign land following a star is the central story of this season. But this Epiphany story might just as well be called, “Changing a Light Bulb.”
As our readings for today make clear, the world’s problems in Biblical times echo the problems in our own: Greed instead of generosity, oppression instead of protection, violence instead of peace. The problem extended from the height of power all the way to ordinary people. In other words, “the light had gone out.” Even God’s own people had failed to represent and witness to an alternative vision, a different way of being in relation to one another, and to the world.
When a light goes out, why do we usually change the light bulb? Because the wiring is faulty? Because of a power outage, as we had in the neighborhood last night? No, in those situations changing the light bulb will do no good. Think of God as the power source and the spiritual “wiring” as the Bible and Christian teaching. If these are solid, the problem must be with the light bulb.
Imagine the light bulb, then, as the habits and beliefs of God’s people. Although we like to think of our beliefs as fixed and permanent, the deeper truth is that eventually, all things come to the end of their useful life. A new “light bulb” is needed to see the new thing that God is doing in the world.
For example, in the Christmas season just ended, we find that God’s love and God’s power appeared not through wealthy, powerful kings, not through laws and established traditions, but through a teenager–a single mother named Mary and her baby; through lowly shepherds; through ancient Elizabeth and aged Zechariah, as well as their half-crazy son John. It’s as if God had replaced an incandescent bulb with a compact fluorescent bulb or an LED. It was strange, new, unfamiliar. People were slow to catch on.
In the Epiphany story, likewise, God uses foreigners—and astrologers, at that—to identify and proclaim the new thing that God was about in the world. These “wise men” were not people who suddenly converted to Christian faith. No, they simply did what God’s own people had failed to do, and that is to recognize and proclaim the powerful appearance of God’s love in human form. Again, it’s as if God had changed out the incandescent bulb for a compact fluorescent or an LED—strange, new…unfamiliar.
Now, just because a bulb burns out doesn’t mean it was worthless. It served its purpose, but every bulb eventually reaches the end of its useful life. More than that, replacing the light bulb means upgrading from something that just took too much energy! The 60 watt incandescent bulb, for example, is replaced by an LED bulb that uses only 11 watts.
Likewise, our understanding of God’s ways and God’s Word eventually outlive their usefulness. Although our familiar habits of belief may give us the comfort of familiarity, at some point they just take too much energy for too little light. Although it can be a challenge to learn new patterns of belief, it is just flat-out exhausting to prop up beliefs and habits that have outlived their usefulness. “Burned out” is the term we might use. But God, rich in grace, introduces something that offers to free us from the prison of beliefs and ideas in which we’ve been held.
It is St. Paul who maybe best exemplifies this, as we find in today’s reading. Paul was, literally, in prison. But in prison he realized that the real prison was the prison of his heart and mind; the smallness of his beliefs about the God he loved and worshiped. I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus, he proclaims, and then adds: for the sake of you Gentiles. Paul, a passionate, devout man of God, discovered that his ideas about God were far too small. He discovered that not only Jews but non-Jews were included in God’s wide embrace. God was changing the burned-out light bulb of Paul’s faith.
How many times since then has God been ready to change the light bulb? But how many times have God’s people preferred to sit in “thick darkness” (as Isaiah puts it in today’s reading), rather than allow a new light to illumine our world? How many times have God’s own people had to learn, and often relearn again and again, that it is not a tiresome, exclusive God we worship but One who is radically inclusive: Slave and free, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, male and female and every color and gender identity and nationality!
Paul calls himself the “very least of all the saints.” This is not some false humility but an indication that the light bulb has been changed. Burned-out ideas based on following strict rules and laws have been replaced in Paul by something greater. Through the church, he says, the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This is the same Paul who early in his career was out to destroy the church!
Which brings us back to the Magi. It is these strange, foreign stargazers—unlikely agents of God–who are described in the story as “wise.” The connection between wisdom and variety and that which is strangely new is affirmed.
Wherever the light bulb of faith has burned out, God stands ready to replace it with something better. Wherever small and exclusive ideas about God and faith and our fellow human beings have outlived their usefulness, an invitation is extended. As the prophet Isaiah puts it: Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!
In this new Season of Light, and at the beginning of a New Year, you and I are invited to explore where in our hearts and in our life together the light bulb has burned out–and, in what ways God stands ready to replace what is burned out…with the new light of Christ!