TEXTS: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of God has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples,
but God will arise upon you, and God’s glory will appear over you. Isaiah 60:1-2.
Long before Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Isaiah proclaimed the prophetic truth of God’s Light coming into the world. It is a Light fully realized in Jesus Christ.
In Isaiah’s time, in Jesus’ time, and in our time, much darkness covers the earth. This darkness does not mean that we live in a place with the longest nights at Christmas time. It means that we live in a world where darkness prevails – the darkness of suffering and despair, the darkness of violence and domination, the darkness of materialism and militarism that corrupt the Spirit and corrode the Truth of God in our lives and world.
Into this darkness comes God’s Light first known as a baby born in a Bethlehem barn. This epiphany of light as a new manifestation of God shining through the darkness is what we see and celebrate today.
“There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in,” as we have heard Leonard Cohen sing true for this messy world and our lives during this season. While Leonard Cohen reminds us “There is a crack in everything” — we can take comfort in that — he sings on reminding us that brokenness is not justification for causing brokenness. The crack becomes the place light breaks through not the reason to increase the brokenness or darkness.
As we have heard in Advent, before Jesus’ birth, John the Baptist and Mary the mother of Jesus become the crack letting the light into the darkened world. After Jesus’ birth the shepherds and now the wise men are the crack letting the light in. They see and reflect the light of Christ come into the world because they are willing to “go and search diligently” for the light in a dark world.
“Go and search diligently” Matthew 2:1-12
Matthew, like Luke, tells the gospel story in the darkness of the real world of the Roman Empire.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,
wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking,
‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?
For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’
The wise ones see the crack in the world letting a new light in and search diligently for the source of the light. Along the way in the imperial outpost of Jerusalem, they encounter empire’s ruler Herod. Guided by starlight, they inquire about a child-born-to-be-king. Not words a king wants to hear.
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea’ and they quote the prophet Isaiah.
Then Herod sent them to Bethlehem, saying,
‘Go and search diligently for the child;
and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’
The wise men set out again and followed the star to Bethlehem and found baby Jesus where they knelt down and paid him honor and gave him gifts.
Then having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they left for their own country by another road.
Herod issued the right challenge for the wrong reason.
‘Go and search diligently for the child’ was precisely what they were doing.
Searching diligently for the light now appearing as a child – the one who would grow into the light of God come into the world was the wise men’s mission. It is our challenge and charge today: Go and search diligently for the light of God in a darkened world.
Herod rightly named the choice and the task. But Herod had no intention of paying honor to the light. For all the power of empire backing him up Herod was afraid and threatened by the light of Christ come into the world. When the wise men did not return to tell him about the child Herod revealed his true intention by sending homeland security on a search and destroy mission killing baby boys under 2 years old.
Go and search diligently for the Christ child….the light of the world; And when you have found the light of the world give honor to the light.
It is as true this very day, Epiphany Sunday, January 1, 2012, as it was in the wise men’s day.
It is as hard to see the light today as it was in the first century world. I want to share two brief illustrations of those who “go and search diligently” for the Light in a dark world and conclude with a report of the Gospel for our day.
One illustration is inspired by this scaffolding in our sanctuary. This week Andy and Casey have been working on our sound system. Soon we should have an improved sound system.
This scaffolding takes me to another church in another time and place to a congregation searching diligently for the light. At the height of the Cold War in August 1988, a group of 21 of us were in the Soviet Union on a biblical storytelling mission for peace. We were sharing stories of Jesus that transcend boundaries and enmity. One Sunday we worshipped with the congregation of the Lutheran Cathedral in Riga, Latvia, a Soviet bloc state. It was a very large old cathedral and the sanctuary was surrounded by scaffolding for a very long repair project. The church was filled with faithful members who would not let scaffolding keep them from worship. Their biggest was challenge was not the inconvenience of scaffolding in the sanctuary. It was the presence of KGB agents. This was a bold and prophetic congregation with a bold and prophetic pastor who was often under surveillance by the KGB. One of our biblical storytellers told Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in that worship. We knew that they knew something about the Sermon on the Mount that we had not faced. They were staking their lives on Jesus’ life and teachings under great threat. They searched diligently and saw the Light of Christ come into their dark world.
Another illustration of those who “Go and search diligently” occurred in mid-December when I participated in an Advent webinar led by Ched Myers and Elaine Enns and over a hundred others from around the world. Ched and Elaine told about a regular worship and communion that takes place on the US Mexican border with worshippers on both sides of the fence that separates our two countries. Here songs, scripture, prayers, and even bread and wine of communion with Christ cannot be stopped by a fence that separates the gathered body of Christ.
Recognizing the powers of darkness building walls between peoples, Ched’s challenge to us was to “Refuse to let the walls be internalized in our hearts. This is the Christmas story then and now. We Christians need to get the story right” as the wise men did in the face of Herod’s demands.
Also from Ched and Elaine, I received a “report” of Matthew’s gospel heard today. Mary and Joseph could not even get from Nazareth to Bethlehem due Israel’s wall and homeland security.
Hear this report of today’s gospel.
Three wise men were arrested today attempting to enter the country. The Iraqi nationals were carrying massive amounts of flammable substances known as “frankincense” and “myrrh.” While not explosives themselves, experts revealed that these two substances could be used as a fuse to detonate a larger bomb. The three alleged terrorists were also carrying gold, presumably to finance the rest of their mission.
Also implicated in the plot were two Palestinians named Joseph and Mary. An anonymous source close to the family overheard Mary bragging that her son would “bring down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly.” In what appears to be a call to anarchy, the couple claims their son will someday “help prisoners escape captivity.”
“These people match our terrorist profile perfectly,” an official source reported.
A somber White House press secretary announced that it might be prudent to cancel Christmas until others in the plot are rounded up. “I assure you that this measure is temporary. The president loves Christmas as much as anyone. People can still shop and give expensive gifts, but we’re asking them not to think about world peace until after we have rid the world of evil people. For Americans to sing, ‘Peace on earth, good will to all,’ is just the wrong message to send to our enemies at this time.”
There has been no word on where the suspects are being kept, or when their trial might be held. Authorities are asking citizens who see other foreigners resembling nativity scene figures to contact the Office of Homeland Security.*
This gospel on this Epiphany Sunday speaks to us not only of the personal nature of birth but especially of the “politics of birth” — the reality of the Christ light in a dark world. Next Sunday the gospel speaks to us of the “politics of baptism” as we jump ahead 30 years to Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his ministry as the light of the world.
In the meantime and always “Go and search diligently” for the light of Christ has come into the world. Thanks be to God.
* Office of Homeland Security Cancels Christmas by Jim Rigby
Note: Jim Rigby wrote the following piece at the start of the second Gulf War, as he explains at http://theragblog.blogspot.com/2011/12/jim-rigby-christmas-cancelled-as.html. Thanks to Gary Kohls of Every Church a Peace Church for drawing this to our attention. For related reflections by Ched on the theme of the Magi in Matthew’s gospel, see his “Epiphany Under Empire” article at http://www.ChedMyers.org, as well as last year’s blogs for Nov 24-Dec 29. The above image is a well-known image that ironically expresses the bitter reality of the Israeli security wall that surrounds modern day Bethlehem.Reprinted in BCM Partner’s Circle E-News, Dec 2011, page 1.