Sermons That Work

Celebrating the Birth…, Feast of the Epiphany – 2008

January 06, 2008

Celebrating the birth of Jesus is an incredible opportunity for all Christians to begin again – be born again – to a life of transformation, first of ourselves and then as instruments of transformation in the world. Our scripture readings today mark the feast of the Epiphany, a word that Webster defines as “to show forth, manifest” and “the revealing of Jesus as Christ to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi” and also “a moment of sudden intuitive understanding; flash of insight.” The definition of “epiphany” is apparent in our readings today. We are invited through the feast and its meaning to understand what it means to be a Christian and what God seeks to reveal to us and through us.

Since the early third century, the Eastern church celebrated the feast of the Epiphany honoring the baptism of Jesus. Together, the feasts of Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost brought together water and light as imagery representing new life. But during the fourth century, the Western church disassociated the baptism from the feast of the Epiphany, emphasizing instead the manifestation of the Good News to the Gentiles through the figure of the Magi. But the symbolism of light and baptism come to life as we consider our readings today along side the season of the year.

Only weeks ago we experienced the shortest day of the year, winter solstice; and now more light, more day comes with each new dawn. Considering that it is much more difficult to see even the most obvious things in the dark, this season invites us to travel toward the light so that we might see what it reveals. But it also compels us to bring all our gifts, no matter how humble, to honor Jesus and all that Jesus stands for in our lives and the world.

A star both announces and guides the wise men as they travel to be witnesses to the birth of Jesus. They bring to him gifts that represent the best of what they can give yet humbly pale in comparison to the great gift Jesus promises to be for the world. They logically seek their “king” first coming through Jerusalem. But as the story tells us, they are met with fear.

Their encounter with Herod illuminates how fear can prevent us from seeing what might bring us closer to God and living out our call to be followers of Jesus. Of course we want to know what might prevent us from our call, but our other readings, and especially the Psalm, guides our path for understanding.

Jesus as a light to the world put the spotlight on injustices suffered by the poor and needy. Jesus gave us the hope for peace in abundance and a life free of violence, oppression, poverty and injustice. The writer of the Psalm described it as “rain upon the mown field, like showers that water the earth.” The poetic nature of the words might seem almost dream-like, but they are very much a reality if we are living life as God intended.

The Psalm is reminiscent of the Millennium Development Goals adopted as a way to reconcile ourselves to God and to live out our mission in the Episcopal Church. They include:

Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
Achieve universal primary education.
Promote gender equality and empower women.
Reduce child mortality.
Improve maternal health.
Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.
Ensure environmental sustainability.
Develop a global partnership for development.

Isaiah calls us to “Arise, shine; for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. … Lift up your eyes and look around.” Indeed we are called to look around us, to be enlightened by what we see, and to offer all our gifts humbly honoring every part of creation. The Millennium Development Goals highlight poverty as the root cause to all eight goals obvious to those who lift their eyes and look around. But Isaiah did not stop there. Isaiah demands that we rise up and shine so that God may come in glory.

Isaiah also said, “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday … you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

The Episcopal Church has pledged seven-tenths of a percent of its budget to accomplish these goals by 2010. It is a small and humble offer when we consider the proportion of the challenge. But most importantly, the pledge shines as a beacon to each other and to the world. The pledge is an essential testimony to our Christian faith. As the Episcopal Church Center website says, it is a struggle that leads to true liberation for “more than one billion people – one-sixth of the world’s population – who live each day under the weight of extreme poverty. While income poverty is part of the problem, the dimensions of human poverty are much greater. Pandemic disease, widespread conflict, environmental degradation, chronic hunger, and a lack of access to education are all both causes and effects of human poverty.”

Light is a symbol commonly used in ceremonies and liturgies to signify a light in God’s world. But it can only shine brightly through us and our actions. Light makes things more visible, and our scripture reading demands that we acknowledge the needs of the poor and come out from the dark places that represent complacency and false peace.

This prayer is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Most high, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me, Lord, a right faith, a certain hope, a perfect charity. Give me, Lord, wisdom and discernment, so that I may carry out your true and holy will. Amen.”

Rather than allowing fear to dampen our spirit or darken the day, we have an opportunity to see the light that is directing our path toward the promised kingdom, revealed to us when we see the face of Christ in each other. This new season in the church along with the season of the year on God’s earth is an invitation to be a light in the world.

As we live into these seasons and recall our baptismal covenant, may we arise and shine to see the glory of God possible and do what is needed. May they know us, as Christians, by our works.

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Christopher Sikkema