Friday, January 6, 2012

Epiphany Time--Light in Darkness

This is the second Sunday after Christmas. Most of us have taken down the tree, vacuumed up the needles, hauled the boxes down from the attic and filled them up and lugged them all back up again. Out of sight and out of mind. We have rearranged the furniture and then sat down and held our breath as we opened our January Visa statement. Sometime soon IRS forms will arrive. Since the fourth century the church has called these days Epiphany. Once upon a time the season of Epiphany was one of the three great seasons of the church year—Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost. Advent would become popular later. But this little known season we are in begins at the end of Christmas and extends all the way until Ash Wednesday.

I have been wondering why Epiphany was so popular and why the church loved this season. Two images mark these days—darkness and light. Darkness? Yes. In Isaiah, which is one of the readings for today, the chosen people had been attacked and dragged away into exile. The attackers destroyed everything—cities, their Temple in Jerusalem. They dragged off the best and the brightest. Not just once—there were at least three different deportations. Those exiles lived in cursed Babylon, against their will, for seventy long years. And then word came that they would be set free and could return home. But it was not all joy that homecoming. They hobbled back to a wasteland much like Iraq and Afghanistan must look today. Everything needed attention and work. So they set about the hard task of rebuilding but the work was slow and tedious. They grew discouraged and picked at one another, their leader, and even shook their fists at God Almighty. “You have brought us back to this desolate place of rocks and scorpions and absolute devastation. What kind of a God are you?” Was this the answer to their prayers? They had been promised restoration. We know the words well: “Comfort ye…comfort ye…speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” And then those wonderful words we have grown to love: “Every valley shall be lifted up…and every mountain will be made low…the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places smoothed out.” That was the promise. But everywhere they looked all they could see was dust and work and chaos and misery. Sorting through the rubble day after day it was hard. No wonder they called it the dark. This was the setting of our Isaiah scripture.

Move now to our second reading. We know it well. Matthew 2—and in the middle of that wonderful Christmas story we find the darkness there too. Darkness? Yes. Oh, I know the baby was born—finally. He was all right. He had all the parts including a very healthy pair of lungs. Yes, the Shepherds, those outsiders, listened to an angel and came to see for themselves. And there under that starry, starry night they stood open-mouthed and filled with wonder. No darkness there. Just Silent Night where all was calm…and all was bright.

But way off in Persia Wise men saw that same star. And those outsiders crossed trackless desert lands to find King Herod and this is where the darkness began. The King did not let them know what was up his sleeve. Kings rarely do. But this new baby-king was a threat to all he had worked for. And so Herod was determined to kill the baby whatever the cost. Every male child under the age of two was murdered. And that first Christmas, blood ran like a river through their streets. And in their sadness they quoted Jeremiah: “Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.” But even with all that murder the King’s men could not find the newborn king. Joseph took Mary and the baby and under cover of darkness fled like refugees and finally found safety far away in Egypt. You see, the darkness is everywhere even in this Christmas story.

And here it is in January and with Christmas gone--the old darkness returns. William Styron, the great writer was stricken with a depression so severe he called it Darkness Visible. You can see it, he said, you can feel it, and you can almost taste it—the darkness. Some of us here wonder about many things. The economy. The church. The future. The Republican primaries seem simply to reflect our time and our mood. No candidate excites. And that includes how many people feel about our President. This year we seem to be stuck in hopelessness and confusion. We are acquainted with the dark.

And Epiphany came in the middle of a deep despair and Herod’s bloody destruction. And Isaiah wrote to those returning depressed exiles: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Israel, he said, the darkness is real but the light is realer. You will have to rebuild and work hard but your efforts will not be in vain. God will be with you.

And this is where our text from Matthew comes in. Blood and despair and confusion really did run through their streets. The child was at great risk. But they couldn’t stay stuck in their own September 11th. Everything changed. There was this star shining in the darkness. First it came to outsiders—Gentile kings that came from the East. But then it just keeps shining over everything and everyone. Rich and poor and strong and weak and old and young and fundamentalists and liberals and unbelievers and snake handlers and Muslims—all of us. And old John, in his gospel, brushed away the tears as he wrote with crooked fingers on a papyrus scroll what he had discovered pondering that first Christmas. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out.” Not yesterday or the day before—the light shines today. And this is Epiphany. Despite the darkness—very real darkness there is also this incredible light. It is the presence of God that keeps calling all of us and each of us forward. And nothing can stop its power.

So here we are: you and me. It is January and it gets dark too quickly in the evening and most of us have friends very sick and very tired. I told my wife when the Christmas letters came I had never read of much sickness and hard times as those letters revealed. I asked her: Is it just because many of the people we know are older? And Epiphany comes and says the strangest thing: we have a choice as God’s people always have. We can give in to the darkness or we can opt for the light. Is it any wonder we called those that followed the star Wise men.

William Inge was a great American playwright. And one of his great plays was The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. It is a drama about Cora and Rubin and their children. Everyone in the play has his or her own darkness and they are scared and don’t know where to turn. In one scene Cora, the mother, tells her boy, Sonny to go on to bed. He says: “Mom.” Cora says: “I told you to go upstairs.” (She can see he is scared.) And so she sighs, “Sonny, why are you afraid of the dark? And he says: “Because you can’t see in front of you and it might be something awful.” Tenderly the mother says: “Sonny, you are the man of the house. You mustn’t be afraid.” And he says: “I’m not afraid if someone’s with me.” And she moves toward her son and takes his hand and says: “Come boy, we’ll go up together…”

There is darkness and there is light. They are both here. Side by side. And we must choose and we must decide. Epiphany says the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out. God is here with us. Even in the hard times. Especially in the hard times. This is a brand new year and it is fraught with incredible possibilities despite what the pundits and commentators say. Thanks be to God.


  1. Welcome back, Roger and Gail!

  2. Because you can't see in front of you and it might be something awful.... out of the mouths of babes... thanks for reminding us always of the light