The Sunday Sermon: Epiphany of the Lord – January 6, 2018
Scripture: Isaiah 60:1-6
Epiphany. The twelfth day of Christmas. This is it. After today it is officially over for another eleven months. We’ll clean up the dried greens in the windows. We’ll take down the wreaths and garlands that have welcomed us into this room for the past six Sundays. And we’ll pack up our decorations – the Advent wreath, the Christmas tree, the candles in the windows, and our crèche – shepherd and all. We’ll pack up everything and hope that we remember where we put it when we look for it late next November. We’ll put away everything. Or almost everything … One thing should remain out. One thing must remain out, unpacked, un-put-away. I wonder if you can imagine what that one thing is. Our scripture may help us.
The reading this morning, on Epiphany, is from Isaiah 60, not from Matthew 2. You’ll recognize several instructions and impressions associated with Matthew’s Gospel, but that were around long before Matthew in the words of the prophet of old. As you prepare to listen, consider this:
The prophet (Isaiah, is challenging) the people of Israel – in crisp, staccato syllables – to move out of the darkness and march into the brilliance of God’s new day. The prophet’s syllables reverberate across the centuries to the people of the new Israel, as the church has long thought itself. They challenge us (today) to move out of the waiting of Advent darkness and the mystery of Christmas dawning, and march into the brilliance of Epiphany’s bright day. (Karen Pidcock Lester, Feasting on the Word, Year c, vol. 1. 194.)
Pray with me … And listen for the Word of God through the prophet’s voice. Read Isaiah 60:1-6 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
This is my job this morning – every Sunday morning, really, but there’s a special urgency this morning as the Christmas season officially ends and we “pack it all (almost all) away. This is my job this morning: I must get you all to notice the presence of the mystery we call God – it’s here. It’s here because you are here. I must get you to notice it, and then I must get you to join in the shining, in the sparkling, in the sharing of your own light.
That’s a tough job. You are tough. It’s tough enough to get you to notice the reality of God-with-you. It’s even harder to get you to trust in the reality of God-in-you. And it’s this latter experience that is the most crucial. It’s the step that Jesus of Nazareth took, the reality that he accepted, the decision he made that set him apart from other teachers and prophets and leaders, from others “period,” of his time. It’s a tough job for me, and others in my role in communities like this one, because you’re packing it all away again and moving on to the next distraction.
This is why I chose to read from Isaiah this morning and not Matthew. Matthew allows you to focus on someone else again, the Magi, the Wisemen, the Kings. But Isaiah speaks directly to you. The operative words in this scripture reading for you (for me, too, but I’ve heard them and I’ve already gotten on board), the operative words for this congregation, and every Christian community around the world on this Sunday, are “Arise, shine … Lift up your eyes and look around.” My job as the preacher, as your Pastor, this morning is to get you to notice God’s rising glory and to get you to join in being a part of the Light. Everything else will be packed away after the service this morning, but the one thing that must not be put away is the light, your light. Not your light in Jesus. That’s his light. His light guides us and sustains us when we grow “dim,” but Jesus didn’t’ say you are a reflection of the Light. He said you are the Light.
My job this morning is to not only get you to notice that, but to get you to believe that, or at least to begin to believe that. How will I do it? I really don’t know.
I’ll keep saying it. I’ll keep preaching it as I’ve done all this past season: You are the Word incarnate. You are the ones who give birth to Love itself. You are the shepherds who proclaim and glorify this Love. You are the Beloved, baptized in the Spirit, anointed by God, Christ in the world. I’ll keep saying it. How can I get you to believe it? I really don’t know. And that saddens me because I know what life could like if you did.
I don’t know if you noticed that I’ve been saying “you” a lot in my message this morning. I’m going to continue doing that, though it’s different from my usual approach. I go to great pains in my sermon messages to say “you and me.” To use “us” and “we.” To get “us” to notice. To be sure that “we” believe. But I realized something this week: I do notice it. And I do believe it. And it doesn’t help me in this particular task to try to keep “us” in the same place, moving forward together. I’m already there. I’m waiting for you. How do I help you get here?
Epiphany: “A usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.” Let me share my most recent with you.
I walked into this sanctuary last Wednesday. The offices were closed on Monday and Tuesday, but when I came in on Wednesday I walked over here to check on the poinsettas and see how many more needles dropped off our window greens. (One more Sunday!) I walked to the back of the sanctuary to clean out any old bulletins and I noticed that the wooden Advent candle holder was still on the one cabinet. It made it through last Sunday’s worship service. It was placed there before the early Christmas Eve service to hold the Christ candle that Gabe processed in with as the youth-led Candlelight Communion service began. Nick Clark and Matt were playing It Came Upon a Midnight Clear as a processional, as a transition, really, between the Carol Sing and the Youth-led service. I was standing back there with Gabe that evening as he took the candle out and stepped to the aisle. As I turned with that holder in my hand and looked over the pews last Wednesday, I had an epiphany. I was filled by overwhelming memories.
As I stood there in Wednesday morning’s light, the pews filled up with people, the light outside got dark. The light inside became mostly candlelight. Nick and Matt were playing again. Gabe was walking down the aisle with his unlit candle. Katie Clark and Lucas and Oscar were sitting in the choir loft with Nick Metry and Emma and Ethan and Annie. And the Communion table was set.
That service moved quickly through my mind and transformed into the late service here that began at eleven o’clock. These folks (the Chancel Choir) were in the choir loft, then, singing carols to the Lessons I read from our Old and New Testaments. From the back of the sanctuary I saw myself standing here in the pulpit. I heard myself stretching the service with the words of my Homily. I watched myself lighting my candle from the Christ candle and then lighting the ushers candles from mine. As they began lighting everyone else’s candles, Matt started playing Silent Night for the second time that evening. I saw the faces of the over one hundred men and women gathered.
I closed my eyes and listened to the music in my head. I finish both of those Christmas Eve services in the spot I was standing last Wednesday, in the back of the Sanctuary, behind everyone gathered. I speak similar words at both gatherings: “When you feel the light before your eyes enter your heart, extinguish your flame and let your Light so shine …” With my eyes closed, I heard those words, I heard our church bell pealing through the night, and I heard the chords of Joy to the World ring out.
I had to sit down. Interestingly for me, I didn’t tear up. Instead I felt kind of queasy. My stomach had those familiar butterflies and knots at the same time. I felt dizzy in the way you feel dizzy when you think you’ve both forgotten something you were supposed to do and done something others had forgotten you’d done. I remained seated back there (where the Gardiners are now) for a while longer, and I started thinking about all of you. And wondering how in the world I was supposed to get you to notice what happened … again … and believe in it. Believe that the Light of Christ is not a Christmas occurrence in someone else, but an everyday event in you. And it’s not in us as an end in itself, but as the means to an end that is nothing less than the Kin-dom of God on earth.
Arise and Shine … Lift up your eyes and look around.
In “crisp, staccato syllables, we are challenged to move out of the darkness of Advent waiting and the mystery of Christmas dawning, into the brilliance of Epiphany’s bright day.” This is my Epiphany this year: The healing and solace we find here in this room and this church, our community of faith, are not the primary reason we exist as a church. We are restored to wholeness here, assured that God is “with us” and convinced that God is “in us,” so that we can take our place, like Jesus before us, as the Light of the world.
How can I help you notice that? Believe that? Remember that? How did Jesus do it? (Notice the Communion Table set.) Let’s prepare ourselves for another epiphany, let us perceive the essential nature and meaning of our Christian life.
Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / January 6, 2018