The Epiphany of the Lord, Year C, 2016 – Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Arise, shine, for your light has come.
Epiphany is, like Christmas, the season of light. In a manger the light has shone at the dark time of the year, and in this church we have sung it, in this church that is alight with Christmas: the Christmas tree; the paper lanterns that the children have made; the red of these glorious poinsettas; the holy family in the crèche, and the first of the magi newly arrived…This beauty is our song, our thanksgiving to God for the gift he gives us in the child; it is a sign of the light in our hearts born from the light of Christ.
“And this is the promise which we have heard from the father and announce to you,” John says: “That God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.”
So we shine in this place at the dark time of the year, for we have seen his glory, glory as of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
This in itself would be enough. But there is more. For on this day the light that has come into the midst of us in the manger at Bethlehem—all the glory of God laid in the manger at Bethlehem—on Epiphany this light reaches out from the manger to the whole earth.
Isaiah spoke of this moment long ago:
Nations shall come to your light
And kings to the brightness of your dawn…
They shall bring gold and frankincense
And shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
Isaiah looks toward a time when the light of God’s glory and his grace will shine not just in Israel but from Israel out into the world. Not just in here, in the beauty of this church, but out there, in the city, in our world—even in its darkest times and places—the light of God’s grace will shine. Isaiah speaks hope for the world.
It is a hope fulfilled, Matthew’s gospel tells us, on this day, this Epiphany.
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, behold magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem saying, “Where is the child born king of the Jews?”
Here are the nations of the world, kings from the mysterious East, bringing the world’s glory to Jerusalem to lay it at the feet of Israel’s king, just as Isaiah prophesied long ago. Where is the child? the magi ask Herod. We have come to worship him.
Epiphany means joy to the world, because the world’s king has come. It means joy to the world, because the world’s hope has come.
For darkness still covers the earth, and thick darkness the peoples, and it is in and for the darkness that the child comes as light.
Matthew’s gospel, this Epiphany, sets death right up against birth. The first person the magi meet in their search for the Christ is Herod the king. Herod was a brutal ruler by all accounts, ruthless in the protection of his own power, about which he was insecure. He was an Edomite and not Jewish by ancestry, “King of the Jews” by Rome’s permission; Herod became so paranoid about plots against him that he murdered his own favourite wife and one of the two sons he had not yet killed, as he himself lay dying. Herod the Edomite puppet-king is not at all happy to hear of the child born king of the Jews. When you have found this king, Herod says to the magi, come and tell me so that I too may worship him. But the magi, warned by the angel, leave by another way and Joseph takes the child and his mother and flees into Egypt. Foiled by the magi, Herod sends his soldiers and slaughters the children of Bethlehem.
Herod the king, in his raging,
charged he hath this day
his men of might, in his own sight
all young children to slay.
Right up against the birth of the child who is joy to the world, the Gospel sets the story of Rachel’s weeping, the deaths of the innocent children of Bethlehem.
Because this is a good news that is real. Matthew sets death right up against birth because he knows—God knows—that Jesus comes to a world that needs to be saved. “You will call him Jesus,” the angel says to Joseph, “for he will save his people.” Jesus comes to a world that needs to be saved.
This was true in Jesus’ time: Matthew opens his gospel with a genealogy that culminates in exile; the great kingdom of David sputtering out in the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon and then again, just before Matthew writes his gospel, by Rome. Jesus comes to a people still living in exile, under the thumb of Herod; under the thumb of Rome. “You will call him Jesus, the one who saves, because he will save his people.” The promise of salvation given in the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem is concrete: it speaks to the real and continuing exile that the people of God suffer. It speaks to the tyranny under which they live and to the deaths of innocent children. It speaks to the agonized question, “Where is God in all this?”
This is our question too, this year as in so many years in the history of this world’s suffering, its violence and its pain. Exile is still real. How many Syrians now are displaced? How many children have died? Herod’s cruelty is not new. The suffering of children is real.
A voice is heard in Ramah,
Weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children.
This is Jeremiah in the sixth century BC, watching the children of Israel wrested from their own country, sent into a foreign land. This is Matthew in the first century AD, weeping for Herod’s violence and the children of Bethlehem. And it is our word too, as we grieve for the violence in Syria and throughout the world this year.
Into this real history our gospel speaks God’s word of hope.
A boy is born in Bethlehem. Alleluia.
Right in the midst of the suffering people, the child called Saviour is born. In the midst of the tyranny of Herod a different reign begins.
And you, Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
You are by no means least among the rulers of Judah
For from you shall come forth a ruler
Who is to shepherd my people Israel.
The magi find the child Jesus, the child born to be king, the king born to shepherds and not to harm; the king who brings not death to the people but hope.
And when they saw that the star had stopped they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
Jesus is born in the midst of Herod’s raging. And because of his birth the suffering of the people, the deaths of the children are not the final word. Joy shines from the place where the child is laid, light rising even in the darkness.
For the child named savior will die too, his death an offering for ours; his death with and for all the dying children God’s great word of love.
Lo, I am with you always. God with us in the child, Emmanuel. God with us, even in this, the world’s heart-ache. God with the children in their dying, God with his people in the midst of cruel tyranny; God with us in Christ, then and now and always. God with us, for hope.
For out of the death of this child, new life will spring. This death, like this birth, is a star, drawing us with the magi to the light. Let us this Epiphany proclaim our hope. He comes, our light in the darkness, that the children, all the children, may have life—the children of Bethlehem, the children of Syria, the children of Toronto.