Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
As a fairly recent graduate of seminary, I have many memories of school still clearly etched into my mind: sitting in lectures, discussions about theology over lunch, going to chapel services during the week. Those are the better memories. And then there are those other, darker memories of staying up all night in the library, desperately trying to finish papers that were way too long for anyone’s good, hoping I would be able to turn them in on time. Those nights always dragged on forever, as I would wait for an epiphany to strike me, maybe a stroke of insight, or even just any sort of motivation to at least write something that made some kind of sense. I would go to the library, watch the sun go down, and it would then be dark forever, and I would always wonder at some point if I would even make it through the night. I was always waiting for daylight because that would mean the long night would be over, I could turn in my paper and be done with it.
And then even more recently, I remember the nights where I was the chaplain on-call at one of the largest hospitals in NC. Occasionally I would have a slow night, but more often than not, I would be up all night, being called from the ER to the ICU to a patient’s room where someone would just need to talk. The hospital could be a dark place at night. While the hallways were much quieter than during the day, death would still come, families would be faced with grief in the wee hours of the morning, or a patient, unable to sleep, would open up about the despair they were feeling. It was a blessing to be able to be with people in the midst of crisis, but I was always still waiting for daylight to come, so I could leave the hospital behind, go home and get the rest I needed.
Waiting for daylight. That’s what the world was doing as it waited for Christ to come. Today, we celebrate the day traditionally called Epiphany, the day that marks the three wise men following the bright star to the place where Jesus lay. While we usually associate this story directly with Christmas, it has its own unique message to proclaim: one that deserves special attention. The story of God’s salvation up to this point had only really been given to Israel. They were marked as God’s special chosen people. While from the beginning Israel was to be a light to the nations, pointing to the future promise that salvation would be available to all, it was not until Jesus came that God’s covenant promises to Israel were opened up to the whole world. The world sat in the darkness of sin and death, waiting for daylight, waiting for the moment when the darkness would be overcome by light.
The visit of the three wise men is the first sign that salvation is now for the whole world. The world that lived in darkness now meets the true light of Christ. The three wise men were from a distant land, they knew very little, if anything at all about the religion of Israel, but they were guided to the Christ child, to bow down before him. They recognized that there was something very special about this child that would change the life of the world. The story of the magi is not meant to be a sentimental story about the birth of Jesus. Instead it is a story about the gospel being opened up to the Gentiles. It is a story about the way Christ affects the whole world, not just Israel. It is a story about God’s plan, which is always greater than we can conceive.
On this day of Epiphany, we are celebrating that God’s promise of salvation is for all of us. The word Epiphany literally means appearance or manifestation. The star that guides the three wise men to the infant Jesus is meant to be a sign of light entering into darkness. When we look around at the world, we do see darkness. We don’t need to look any further than a newspaper to see that the world is full of evil things that are happening. We don’t need to look any further than our own families and friends to know that there are broken relationships. We don’t need to look any further than inside ourselves to know that sin exists and that it holds a power over us. Darkness both surrounds us and is in us, and we, by ourselves, can’t really change that.
Today’s Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah starts out with these words: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” While these words were written centuries before the three wise men showed up, they capture the weight of the gospel story. For truly as the wise men come to Jesus by following the star, representing the nations, the Gentiles, they are literally coming to the light. They, in many ways, recognized what others could not. Herod himself, who was a Jewish king and should have been able to recognize Jesus, saw him only as a threat, not as a Savior. Instead, it was the ones who had never been a part of Israel’s story in the Old Testament who were brought in. The opening up of salvations to the rest of the world in no way negates the covenant that God had already established with Israel. Instead, it broadens the horizons, and expands God’s promises. God’s promises would now save the whole world from the darkness of sin and death, not just Israel. On the flipside, the light of Christ revealed to the world that it needed salvation.
Sometimes light reveals just how dark darkness can be. Have you ever gotten up in the middle of the night, but you can’t see where you are going so you turn on the light? It can be blinding, and you have to squint your eyes until they can adjust. Then when you turn the light back off, the darkness can seem even darker than before. Sometimes it takes a light to recognize darkness for what it is.
When I worked at a United Methodist camp in Maryland, we used to take our campers on a late night hike on the trail through the forest and the marsh. On a small part of the trail, the trees were so thick that you could not see anything at all. You couldn’t even see your hand if you held it right in front of your face. For that small part of the trail, we all grabbed one another’s hand, following the person in front through touch. But then we would always step out of that dark part of the forest. On night that we were doing this, there was a full moon. As we stepped out of the pitch black forest, there shone the moon. It illuminated the sky and the path before our feet. Seeing how bright the moonlight seemed reminded us of how dark the forest had been.
Like the moon revealing the darkness of the forest, Jesus is the light that reveals the truth about the state of the world: that it is fallen, broken, and unable to change itself. Yet the light of Jesus does much more than just make us more aware of the darkness around us. He is much brighter than that moon at summer camp. He is the more like the sun that overcomes night as we wait for daylight. When we come before Jesus, he is the light that changes us in three ways. He illuminates the darkness of our own lives, he overcomes that darkness by living in us, and we become lights ourselves that reflect him to the world. This is what Epiphany is about: the light of Christ that changes us, and the whole world.
Yet as we look at this story about the three magi coming to Jesus as an infant, recognizing that he is the light of the world, this story also speaks a message that is more specific to this congregation at this time and place in our life. These three men are able to see the value of Jesus as a child! They didn’t wait to come to him until he was an adult. They came when he was a baby. They could see Jesus for who he was, as a child! This story reminds us of the kids we have here at Dunbar. It is obvious that this is a congregation that values its children and takes delight in them. And yet, we are not meeting our full potential in helping them become disciples of Christ.
Children too, are prophets of God, and teaching them, guiding them, walking with them as they begin their own faith journeys is central to our life as a church. This past summer I had the pleasure of meeting a boy of about 10 years old at Ichthus, and I have never heard a child so plainly speak the words of God. The youth and adults who were there for the service portion of the trip no doubt remember him. But this boy said something in particular one night that has stuck with me. After we had all finished washing one another’s feet using bottles of water as an example of Jesus’ service to his disciples, this child said, “Don’t think of this just as pouring bottles of water on feet. Think of it more like a river of glory washing down on you.” I was floored and my eyes teared up. This kid got it. He understood that Christ was truly in the midst of us, and he was reflecting that light to all of us there.
The three wise men came to see the Christ child, not Christ the adult. They were able to recognize that a child was doing the work of God in the world, that a child was God in the flesh! Here at Dunbar we are blessed with many children and youth in our midst. They are an integral part of our congregation and they are the future of the church, but the rest of us have to recognize them for what they are now: dearly loved children of God who need those around them to guide them and help them establish a firm spiritual foundation. We have a number of committed adults to the children and youth of this congregation, who work with Wonderful Wednesdays and Children’s Church, or who help out with special summer activities like VBS and Sports Camp, but with the number of children we have the and the desire to help them become disciples of Christ, we need more. We, as a congregation, must, like the three wise men, see the way that God’s character may be seen through the face of a child, and we must value that, treasure it, and cultivate it. I’ll say it bluntly. We are a congregation blessed with children, and we cannot miss out on the opportunity to be a part of their discipleship process. And those of us who do spend time in ministry with the kids can tell you, we need more people to become more involved. We need more people to help with Children’s Church and Nursery Church. Not only are we currently not adhering to the Safe Sanctuary practice of always having two adults present, the teaching itself is sometimes not as effective because there is one adult trying to fill the dual role of teacher and helper, and that takes away from our kids’ spiritual formation. We want to expand our Wonderful Wednesdays program in the future so that the church can become even more of a home for our kids: a place where they can come after school to do homework, share in a meal, music class, and bible teaching, but that vision can’t become a reality until we have people who will make a commitment to it. Maybe you have been looking for a way to become more involved in the life of the church. Maybe you are feeling called to something but you don’t know what. Could this be it? For myself, I can say that some of my most valued time has come from spending time and building relationships with the kids and youth of this church, from youth group, to from Terrific Tuesdays this summer, and Wonderful Wednesdays, I have been blessed in those relationships. If you feel like this message is speaking to you or you have a vision for the young people here at Dunbar, come see me, see Carolyn, see someone who is already involved in ministry with children here.
The three wise men saw the Christ child for who he was. Do you see these children and youth in our midst for who they are, and who they will become? May we come to Christ today, asking him to illumine our darkness and guide us forward as we seek to reflect his light not only to the world around us, but also to the children in our midst, so that they too can be a part of God’s great plan of salvation for the world. Amen.