Something dark happened yesterday. A shooter walked into a Safeway in Arizona and let loose a barrage of bullets that killed six people, including a federal judge, a former social worker turned Congressional aid, and a nine year old girl. The target of the shooting was Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
Every week when we assemble in worship, someone in this room brings something dark with them. During prayers of the people, we pray for people going through divorces, people living with addiction, nations and peoples torn apart by strife and war. We pray for people living with cancer. We lift up the names of families living with tragedy upon tragedy: suicides, deaths, financial ruin. The world is not short of dark times.
January 6 was Epiphany. Twelve days after Christmas Day, the Church celebrates the arrival of the magi or the Wise Men at the house of Mary and Joseph where they bring gifts to the Christ-child. Herod, who was the King of the Jews, was frightened by the news that a new “king” may be born. He called the Magi to him and commanded them to collaborate with him in eliminating this threat. Just a few verses later (16-18), Herod, in an attempt to quell his competition, sends his men to kill all boys of Jesus’ approximate age. This passage is often called the Slaughter (or Massacre) of the Innocents.
This political setting is important if we are to grasp the truly amazing nature of Epiphany. We cannot hope to experience the power of the light, the power of the revelation, the faith of the Magi, or the love of Jesus’ parents without fully grasping the peril in which they find themselves. Unlike Luke’s Christmas story, which is filled with angels singing, shepherds proclaiming, and cloths swaddling, Matthew gives us a grim tale of Jesus’ birth. Matthew begins with 17 verses of family lineage and then a few short sentences of verbal contortion to show how Jesus could be both the son of the Holy Spirit and Joseph. Joseph then has a dream that tells him not to put Mary away from him even though she is pregnant and then the birth, as such, which goes like this: “24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” That is the entire Christmas story. No inn. No wrapping him in swaddling clothes. No census. No manger. Stark and dark.
Into this walk the magi. The only thing we know about them is that they came from the east, they interacted with Herod, they brought gifts, and they fled. However, the lack of detail about them does not diminish the power of their witness. The story of the magi is filled with meaning: what they mean - what Epiphany itself means - is that by the power of God’s light the Word of God is revealed to all the world. Epiphany, the word, comes from the Greek word “epiphaneia,” which means “manifestation” or “revelation.” Epiphany is the celebration of God’s revelation or manifestation in Jesus the Christ to all the earth. God’s light splits the darkness of the world, and by its power, draws us near to the divine - even if we must walk through perilous places to get there, even if we must confront and be confronted by the powers and principalities of this life in dangerous and threatening ways. The magi, after giving Jesus their gifts, went home by another way, knowing that Herod sought them for no good end. Gregory the Great believed that this story meant that once we have come to know Jesus, we are forbidden to return the way we came to him. This story is about finding a new path in life - a path directed by God’s light, filled with God’s revelation, and known by our gifts.
God’s light does not ask for us to pretend that dark forces are not at work. The magi understood Herod’s nefarious intentions and responded to them. But, as the forces of this world try to keep us living in death and in fear, God’s light leads us by another way.
Whether one watches FOX News or MSNBC or listens to NPR, we are hearing spin on yesterday’s tragedy. This is tragedy upon tragedy. More than anything, what is happening in our public sphere causes me deep sorrow because in the midst of the darkness of our world, I see glimmers of God’s light at work in the world, desperately trying to lead us by another way. Is there not a less vilifying way to engage in public discourse? Is there not another way to discuss health care, immigration, abortion, taxation, trade agreements, government funding, homosexuality, and other difficult issues than to evoke mental images of Communism, Naziism, or Anarchy? Has the church no role in standing up and crying out for us to go by another way, and, by our own witness and example, show that God’s manifestation changes how we live in the world? People are hurting and our public discourse does nothing more than heap salt into wounds. We are not pursuing a common good. We are not lifting one another up in love and comfort. We are fighting like children, using grown up language and grown up tools. This is a dangerous combination.
Every day I receive articles - in magazines, online, and in periodicals - that talk about the demise of mainline Christian Protestantism. We live in a time and place that is suspicious about organized religion, that sees the hypocrisy in denominationalism, that shrinks away from choosing one “brand” of Christianity - or even religion - over another. But I know that the church is needed more than ever to bear witness to God’s manifestation among us. Our voice is needed to stand outside of partisan politics and to declare that there is another politics that claims our lives - God’s politics - and that this organization of public life relies upon personal and social holiness and leads to radical transformation. It is our holy and sacred duty to be strong in our Gospel proclamations and yet also humble, that we not fall into the hubris of believing we own this Gospel. We do not. It is something at work in our lives and in our congregations, changing us, leading us by God’s light onto paths down which we have not yet tread or mapped. This light leads us to confront governments that oppress and slaughter the innocents. It leads us to give the best of what we have and all that we are to the service of God’s holy and blessed word known and manifest in the weak and fragile bodies all around us. God’s light illumines our path and sends us into life by a different way, unable to return down the same path by which we came or even to remain the same people who first began our journey. The church is needed to be a place where soul conversation can rise above the partisan conversations that frame too much of our public discourse. The church is needed - the real church - the one that will repent when it is wrong, that seeks unity in God’s holy light, and that moves forward without apology to God’s holy dwelling place.
Something dark happened yesterday. And it will happen again. Today, tomorrow, and every day after that. But something light is also happening. And by this light, all the earth might be changed. We celebrate this light as we celebrate Epiphany, which begins a season filled with stories about call, transformation, and holy vocation. Walk this path with me. I would love to walk it with you. And, maybe at the end of it, we will wonder at God’s work in the world. Amen.