"Seeking the Light"
Scripture - Matthew 2:1-12
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, January 5, 2014
Who stayed up on New Year's Eve to watch the ball drop in Times Square? Look around at those who have their hands raised. We have now identified the Westminster party animals! Those of you who have a dull, Puritan background need to get to know a few of these folks!
All around the world, people ushered in 2014 in a variety of ways. Millions watched the big ball descend or witnessed dazzling fireworks displays. While most of us Presbyterians were apparently snuggled in bed when the clock struck midnight, sometime during the first day of the year many of us ate black-eyed peas or sauerkraut or attended a New Year's Day party or called family and friends to wish them "Happy New Year."
When the calendar flips from December 31st to January 1st, most engage in some ritual that signifies closing the door on the old and saying "Welcome!" to the new. It is a way that people all over the world mark time. The past twelve months have come to a close and for those for whom 2013 was a mean year, they say, "Thanks be to God that year is behind us." We hope they will also raise a glass to toast the new year and say, "Here's to better days."
Many measure time by the school year and graduations. Some are keenly aware of the seasons of the year. Many delineate time by noting the decades of their lives. Although there is only one day difference between the last day you are 49 and the first day you are 50, for many people it is a traumatic experience to say sayonara to their 40s.
Some mark time by the death of a loved one. There was a special quality of life when she was alive and you were together, but now that she is gone, life has taken on a different character.
We mark time in a variety of ways, but there is something special about the beginning of a new year. We wish one another and even perfect strangers, "Happy New Year."
January 1st is a good deal more than simply the day after December 31st. It is a time of hope. Consciously or unconsciously, the new year holds promise of better days ahead. The next 12 months may bring some wonderful surprises. You may kick a bad habit or accomplish your dream. The world may become a more compassionate, just and peaceful place. The beginning of a year holds great prospects for better things to come. It is fitting, and perhaps no coincidence, that the church celebrates Epiphany at the beginning of a new year and we read the text of the magi observing a star at its rising. A brilliant star in the night sky is an obvious symbol of hope and a sign of new things to come.
The Day of Epiphany is January 6th and while for most Americans it means back to school and back to work, Christians in the Eastern part of the world will hold special celebrations tomorrow. Most Christians in the West know little about Epiphany even though Christians began celebrating this occasion more than 100 years before they began celebrating Christmas.
The word Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means "manifestation" or "appearance" or "revelation." In English, we often use the word epiphany to mean a sudden insight we gain into the meaning of something - an "ah ha" moment when we see something in a new light.
The Church denotes the Day of Epiphany by reading Matthew's story of the wise men being led by the star to Jesus, because this represents Christ being revealed to the Gentiles as the Light of the World. The passage is packed with symbolism. The identity of the wise men is vague, but it is clear they are not Jews; they represent Gentiles. Herod, a diabolical tyrant, symbolizes darkness and all that is awry with the world. The star is not simply a sign in the sky marking the place of Jesus' birth so the wise men can find the new born babe. It points to a new age in which a light will arise that will not be quenched by the darkness. This light will initiate the spreading of God's reign on earth where justice and peace will prevail.
Yet, as we celebrate Epiphany 2014, it is all too obvious that the darkness we witness throughout the earth is far from being quenched. Too many Herods score too many victories. However, followers of Christ never acquiesce to the triumph of evil nor surrender to a cynical view of the world. Neither do we give in to the temptation to scale down our hopes to something personal and more manageable. We dare to hope that the light of Christ will continue to illumine the dark places on our planet.
Peter Storey, former Bishop of the Methodist Church of South Africa said that one of the crucial jobs of the church in overcoming apartheid was to help people envision what they found unimaginable: a South Africa where black and white lived in peace. The church had to embody that dream so they could say to an unwilling nation, "There! That is what we mean when we talk about God's future for South Africa!"
Bishop Storey tells of the time he received a call early one morning informing him that one of the black clergy under his jurisdiction had been arrested by the secret police. The bishop drove to the prison and demanded to see the pastor. A large white Afrikaner guard took the bishop to a small room where he found Ike Moloabi sitting on a bench wearing a sweatsuit and looking terrified. He had been pulled out of bed in the early hours of a freezing winter morning and dragged off to jail. Bishop Storey chatted with Ike briefly and then announced to the guard, "We are going to have Communion."
The bishop pulled from his pocket a small chalice, a tiny bottle of Communion wine and a plastic case containing bread. He spread his handkerchief on the bench to serve as a Communion cloth and began the liturgy. When he read the Invitation to the Table, he said to the guard, "This table is open to all, so if you would like to share with us, please feel free to do so." It must have touched a place in the guard's soul, because he took the line of least resistance and nodded rather curtly.
The bishop consecrated the bread and wine and noticed that Ike was beginning to perk up. He handed the bread and the cup to Ike, who ate and drank. Then, the bishop offered the bread and cup to the guard. You do not need to know much about South Africa to understand how a white Afrikaner felt about letting his lips touch the cup from which a black person had just sipped. The guard was in crisis: he could either overcome his prejudice or refuse the sacrament. There was a long pause, then he took the cup and sipped from it, and for the first time there was a glimmer of a smile on Ike's face. Then the bishop took a smidgen of liberty with the truth and said, "In the Methodist liturgy, we always hold hands when we say the grace."
Very stiffly, the guard reached out his hand and took Ike's hand, and then the hand of the bishop. There they were in a close circle holding each other's hands, while the bishop prayed, and at that moment the power equation between the guard and Ike was changed forever.1 God's light had pierced the darkness.
As the wise men were lured by the star to find the Christ child, we too seek the light that shines in the dark corners of our world. God beckons us to seek the light, to embrace the light and to let it shine through us.
Where are the dark places you can spread light? Calling someone who is lonely or visiting someone who is ill? Turning down the temperature in a heated conflict? Serving a meal to people who have no roof over their heads? Mentoring a child? Writing a check? Forgiving someone? Patiently listening to someone who needs to unload?
Rather than dodging the dark places, let the light of Christ shine through you. It will change your life and draw you closer to God.
The Great Prayer ~ The Rev. Thomas R. Stout
O Lord our God, your glory shines
as far as the east is from west, the north from the south,
so that all people may see and be radiant,
so that every heart might thrill and rejoice.
On our journey of faith and service, overwhelm us with the joy
of your presence.
May we enter your house and pay homage to him
whose infant arms were already reaching out
to the ends of the earth that all might be gathered in.
Remembering your gracious acts in Jesus Christ,
we take from your creation this bread and this cup
and joyfully celebrate his dying and rising
as we await the day of his coming.
Illumine our hearts, O God, with the radiance of Christ's presence
that our lives may show forth his love in this weary world.
Teach us to befriend the lost, to serve the poor,
and to love our neighbors.
Stretch us, O God; expand the horizons of our lives,
so that we are able to comprehend the mysterious and
wonderful ways you are at work in the world,
joining you with joy and thanksgiving.
Together we pray now the prayer of Jesus' followers:
Our Father ... Amen.
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