by Rev. Randy L. Johnson
Today is a special Sunday! Not only is it the first Sunday of a new year, but around the world Christians are celebrating what’s known as the Feast of the Epiphany Sunday. Traditionally, as part of the Epiphany season, on January 6th children across the globe look forward to what they know as Three Kings Day just as much as children in America look forward to Christmas Day. In fact, during our four years serving an international congregation in San Juan, Puerto Rico, there was more build up and excitement around Three Kings Day than there was around Christmas Day.
We might ask “why?” Why do families around the world gather for worship, feasting and gift-giving at this season of Epiphany after many of us have already completed our celebrations and are taking down our decorations of the holiday season? Why does the story of the star guiding the magi on their journey to see Jesus spark this Epiphany season of light and hope, of celebration and joy across the earth still today?
First, this story of the magi from the East joyfully affirms God’s love for all people from all nations. The prophet Isaiah declared: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” The star of Bethlehem, the light of Christ, shines over all people. The inclusion of the magi reveals God’s intention in sending Christ to be the Savior and Light of the whole world.
Tradition has it that the names of the magi were Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar and that each was of a different race and culture. This tradition affirms the richness of cultural diversity and the reach of God’s love for people of all ethnicities and nationalities.
Certainly in America today we are experiencing more and more the richness of living in a world and a community where people come from diverse cultures and nations. Yet, while most Americans may recognize that the light of God’s love shines just as brightly over the rest of the world as it shines in America, we still struggle as a nation with how to embrace all people and live in harmony as children of the same God.
Two thousand years after the first Epiphany many of our neighbors still live in the shadows of prejudice and fear. Two Sundays ago Pastor Leah and I had the opportunity to tour the Islamic Center near the St. Cloud State University campus. We were invited to join with other Christian clergy to see the vandalism against the worship center that had occurred on four recent occasions. It is one thing to read in the newspaper about such acts of violence. It is another thing to actually see the broken windows, the holes in the walls and to hear the stories of men, women and children who simply want the freedom to worship in safety.
As I walked around the building the vandalism was apparent and the messages it sent were, to me, clear and ugly: “you are NOT welcome here;” “we hate you;” “go away or you may be next.” These messages cast a shadow not only over the Islamic Center and the people who worship there, but a shadow over our whole community. As Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, “we are all part of a single garment of destiny.”
The story of Epiphany affirms that we are all to live together in the light of God’s love. No one, from any nation or culture, is to live under the shadow of hatred, fear and violence. It is our role as a community of faith to shine God’s light everywhere we go throughout this world, starting right here in the greater Saint Cloud region. It is up to us as people of faith to take up the journey of the wise men who were not afraid to cross the boundaries of culture, race, religion and nationality in order to follow God’s light.
But joyfully affirming God’s love for all people is not the only reason for the celebration of Epiphany throughout the world. Epiphany celebrates not only that God’s light shines for all the world’s people, but also that God’s light shines over and through all the world’s darkness.
On this Sunday of the Feast of the Epiphany it might at first seem unfitting for us on this joyous day to partake in the communion meal which commemorates the death of Jesus. Yet, lurking in the shadows of the Epiphany story are reminders that life is not all light and peace. Our Scripture lessons today give voice to ever-present realities of human fears and threats of violence and death. As the first lesson put it, “We look for light but find darkness.” And the gospel lesson sets the light of the star over against the darkness of King Herod and his plot to kill the child, Jesus.
Perhaps one of the most vivid examples of the light of Christ shining amidst the darkness was experienced 100 years ago on Christmas Eve at the beginning of the First World War. Many of you have heard of the Christmas Truce of 1914 when two great armies faced each other across a front that extended across the French-Belgian border. Troops crouched in trenches cut into the soggy soil with only candles, lanterns and flashlights to give them light.
On December 24 the shooting began to quiet down and then stopped altogether. As darkness fell, the British troops were startled to see Christmas trees with lighted candles on the parapets of the German trenches. In one spot a German voice cried out, “A gift is now coming!” The British dove for cover, expecting a grenade. What came across was a boot filled with German sausages. The British troops responded by sending across a plum pudding and a greeting card from the king.
Then singing started: patriotic and military songs at first, followed by applause from the opposite trench. Then breaking an eerie silence, the Germans sang, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht,” and the British joined in, all up and down the front, singing “Silent Night, Holy Night.” On Christmas Day, opposing troops ventured out to extend Christmas greetings, awkward handshakes, and small gifts. In several places soccer games were played. After a week or so, the shooting resumed and once again the darkness of war cast its deathly shadow.
Holding forth the light of Christ in a world of such darkness is what several churches in Indonesia are doing this new year season. Rather than New Year’s Eve celebrations people of faith came together for candlelight vigils for the victims of the AirAsia flight that tragically vanished with 162 people on board. As the first bodies were being recovered, about 100 family members gathered for a prayer service at the airport where the pastor of one church which lost 41 of its members in the crash urged the people to hold onto their faith despite their pain. He shared these words: “Some things do not make sense to us, but God is bigger than all this. Our God is not evil…help us God to move forward even though we are surrounded by darkness.”
The tension we find in the Scriptures between the light and the darkness is familiar to us all. We live in a world of shadows. I am confident that many of us here today could tell of times in our lives when, like the magi, we encountered darkness that would keep us from coming closer to God. As one writer put it, “today I am happy and tomorrow I have a stroke. Today I am smiling and tomorrow my child is hit by a car. Today I am financially secure and tomorrow I am laid off.“
I know that I have been living within the shadows of life these past few months while experiencing the darkness of having people I deeply care about suffer physical pain, emotional trauma and death. At such times our lives can feel like a battle between darkness and light. The darkness can color our mood each day when we wake in the morning with feelings of anxiety, grief and despair. But, as another writer put it, “There isn’t enough darkness in all the world to snuff out the light of one little candle.”
Your prayers for me and for my family have once again affirmed that faith conquers despair and that God’s light shines bright even in the midst of the shadows of life. We see this in today’s gospel lesson as God’s light leads the magi to continue on their journey to meet Jesus and to return home safely by another road in order to dispel the dark shadow cast by King Herod. Applying this gospel lesson to our own lives, author Ann Weems writes: “The Christmas spirit is that hope which tenaciously clings to the hearts of the faithful and announces in the face of any Herod the world can produce and all the inn doors slammed in our faces and all the dark nights of our souls that with God all things are possible, that even now unto us a Child is born!”
Yes, people of faith across the world are joined in songs of hope and joy this Epiphany Sunday because the light of God’s love shines bright even in the midst of the shadows of our lives. This is the story of the Bible; this is the story of our lives. When we share in communion at the table of Christ we proclaim our Christian faith that God’s love was demonstrated for all the world to see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Light of the World.
It is this light that has come for all the world’s people and that sustains us all amidst the shadows of our lives. And, like with the magi, it is this light that will one day lead us to see Jesus face to face, brought safely by God to our eternal home where no more shadows darken our paths. Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen!