SERMON: For Epiphany

Arise, Shine, for our Light has come ….a sermon preached by Graham Low on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January 2019

By far the most useful tool I have in my tool box is a small LED light attached to a simple harness which fits on my head. This light allows me to see, with my hands free, inside dark cupboards, and under the sink, and in all kinds of places where I need more light to see what is what. I have to admit that sometimes I am shocked by how light energyreveals the disorder or decay of what was hidden in darkness. And sometimes that light does not reveal what I hope to see. Light reveals in equal measure what is there, what we may wish to see, what we would prefer not to see, and also what is not there at all.

In recent days light has revealed to us some amazing pictures of the back of the moon, never seen before, and of Ultima Thule, a body, shaped, we are told, like a snowman, and located beyond Pluto. In Classical and medieval literature the expression ultima thule has had a meaning, both literal and metaphorical, as beyond the borders of the known world. Light has now shone on things previously hidden to reveal more of the nature of creation and of its origins. Through light we are gaining new insights and maybe some answers to the abiding and profound human questions of where we come from.

The season of Christmas is full of imagery about light of God, in the person of Jesus Christ, which comes to a world of darkness, and in a most unusual way. Matthew’s account of this is strikingly different from Luke’s. Matthew tells us about kings and royal courts. There are no shepherds on the horizon at all. But the deep message of the two accounts is much the same: the one who will shepherd the people of Israel will be utterly unlike any king that the world has ever known. And surprisingly, this king and the light he will bring, will not be seen in the places where kings might be expected to be found.

We have just heard about the surprising visit of the wise men from the east. Strikingly, they are neither local nor Jewish. We understand that they are guided in wisdom by what light revealed to them of the planets and the stars. As often, God is acting in a very unexpected way here. It is interesting to see how artists have depicted the arrival of the wise men. For instance, the famous painting by Francisco Henriques and Vasco Fernandez, in the cathedral of Viseu in Portugal, shows three exotically dressed visitors. Perhaps their dress is a sign that they expected to call on Herod before coming to see Jesus. By sharp contrast Jesus is completely naked, while Mary is dressed in simple black clothes, and her hair is in girl-like plaits. She sits outside a primitive temporary and decaying home. The gifts in gold and ebony containers are completely out of place, and Mary seems very reluctant to receive one of them, perhaps knowing what it symbolises of her son’s future. Nevertheless, Jesus and Mary are very clearly the central figures of authority. The visitors are equally clearly in awe of the child. They look slightly awkward, unlike the young Mary and the innocent Jesus. Thewise men have entered a new world, as the first witnesses to a mother and child who are at home in this environment. The wise men have come from a world of darkness into the light of an infant king. Overwhelmed with joy, they have arrived with gifts marking their wealth, resources, knowledge and skills. They have been led by light to come to follow and to submit to an entirely new ruler.

In today’s passage from the Letter to the Ephesians we encounter the contrast between darkness and light in quite a different context. Here we are shown striking paradoxes of the Christian faith: death can bring about life and light is only fully grasped when there is darkness. We are told that Paul is in prison, where it must be cold, dark and lonely. We may ask how this time in prison can possibly further Paul’s missionary task. But for Paul this is a time when he reflects upon the mysterious ways in which God’s activity can occur. What was previously hidden now comes to light. Thus he finds that God’s purpose is now known through Christ Jesus our Lord, who was also a prisoner before his crucifixion. Hesees that weakness and suffering are agents that God uses, in God’s wisdom, to teach and challenge the earthly powers. 

Amazingly, he seems not to lose heart. He goes on thanking God for his great goodness as he endures his sufferings. By dwelling on the extraordinary goodness and generosity of God towards ourselves, we too are given the means of serving other people in whatever way we can. 

Our first and magisterial reading gives us a wonderful vision for the future. Here a great light comes into a dark world. It shines from the Jews, newly confident in Jerusalem. This great light shines also on gentiles who are in darkness and so they become drawn to God’s people, shining in light, bearing gifts of gold and frankincense. God’s plan for humanity has always included far more than the Jews. About five centuries later, Jesus’ family must have become aware of this when the wise men arrived, following a star and bearing two of the same gifts as the visitors in Isaiah’s time did.

Isaiah provides us with an astonishing pre-echo of Jesus’ commissioning his followers. In Matthew’s gospel we find Jesus saying “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven”. 

We have seen that the light that shone upon the Jews in Isaiah’s time drew others who were in darkness into the same light. That same light shone in the life and witness of Jesus. In turn, Jesus has passed that light on to billions of people down the ages and now it has reached you and me here this morning. Let us remember that in part this is a light to illuminate our own inner world. This is always necessary, and may also often be uncomfortable. But it is also a light enabling us to reflect God’s love to the world around us. As Isaiah wrote, let us now give thanks for the gift of God’s light. Our moment has come. Whatever this new yearwill bring us, let us be thankful and let us echo the words of Isaiah: Arise, shine; for our light has come. Amen.