Day of Epiphany – transferred
3 January 2016
Ashland UCC Canticle: Third Song of Isaiah
The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett Matthew 2:1-12

In the name of God who created the Light; in the name of the Beloved who was the Light; in the name of the Spirit, who is ever bringing the Light. Amen.

And so today we tell the story of the wise ones who came to Bethlehem to worship the Holy Child for whom the whole world had been waiting. It’s a story most of us know very well, have known since our childhoods probably, perhaps have even had the chance to dress up as one of the Kings in a long-ago Christmas pageant, crowns upon our heads, carrying gifts representing gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Perhaps we had learned in Sunday School that the gifts were highly symbolic (and we no doubt wondered what symbolic meant!) – gold for a king, incense for worship, myrrh the spice put in the ointment that was used to prepare a body for burial. Perhaps our Sunday School teachers didn’t tell us that part.
The truth is there are parts of the Christmas Story that are not told in children’s pageants, never put on cheery Christmas cards, and rarely sung in carols. The biblical Christmas story includes deep darkness as well as Light. The dark side of the story is woven into the tale from the very beginning and which shows up today in the story of the wise ones, who traveled from a faraway land but who unfortunately stopped at King Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, only five miles from Bethlehem, to ask directions. So now King Herod knew about the baby’s birth, and within days he had ordered his solider-goons to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem under two years of age, out of his paranoid fear that his own kingship might be threatened one day. We rarely tell that part of the story, the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents, though of course it is still going on, the killing of innocent children, in our own violent world.
Here’s the thing: Our Judeo-Christian story faces reality head-on, the reality that there was and is evil in our world, this side of the Kingdom.
But our biblical faith insists also on this: the darkness does not have the last word. The last word is God’s, and it is a Word of Life, it is a Word of Love, a Word of Light that the darkness will never overcome.
How fitting that the Wise Ones who traveled so far were guided by the light of a star. This beautiful season of Epiphany – which will last until Ash Wednesday– this season of Epiphany is all about the Light that came into the world. We begin in starlight, but this year, pay attention, notice how the gospel readings in Epiphany will show how the Light of Christ grows and spreads, illumining, enlightening all who come near Jesus until, on the last Sunday of the Epiphany season, we will have traveled from this morning’s gentle starlight in a stable to a mountain top and the blazingly-bright, white light of the Transfiguration, radiating Jesus from within, revealing him to be the Christ, the Beloved of God, very Light from very Light.
Now begins season of Light: light in our darkness, the Light of Christ that still comes into the world. I love the song by the great songwriter-poet Leonard Cohen, the one he called Anthem, the one with the line, There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the Light gets in. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the Light gets in.
The whole Christmas story – the whole Holy Week and Easter story – the whole Gospel story – is about the Light coming into the world through the cracks in the darkness. And – if we are child-like enough – the story can still take our breath away.
We so often speak of our spiritual life as a journey, and so it is. Like those wise ones of so long ago, we too set off at some point in our lives to seek God, though we might not have known at the time that was what we were doing. All we may have known was that our hearts were restless, or that we sensed there might be a deeper meaning and purpose to our lives than merely surviving, or we were disturbed by a dream that we had that we couldn’t explain but couldn’t forget. And one day, somehow, early in our seeking or after many years, we were led here, to this little church, though we might not be able to put into words just how that happened. But it did happen, for here we all are. How I came to be here this morning is a different tale than how you came to be here, but here we are, brought together by the yearnings of our hearts to worship and adore the Divine Mystery, though we may not say it out loud quite like that. We might say instead, “oh, it’s just where I go on Sunday mornings,” or “it feels like family,” or whatever it is we may say, but way down deep, we admit there is something about this Holy Child, this man Jesus from so long ago, this bread and wine we stretch out our hands to receive, this communion, this community of faith that heals us and re-orients us, and makes us better persons than we might otherwise be and that being here seems for us to be the way Home.
And like those first wise ones who traveled so far and no doubt made a number of detours up dead-end roads and asked the wrong people for directions, like them we, too, are welcomed here, odd ducks though we all are. And we bring our own strange gifts, perhaps are as impractical in the moment as the gifts of the ones who first made the journey to worship Him, but because we bring our gifts to offer to God, we discover they are acceptable in God’s sight. As are we. We are acceptable in God’s sight. No, it’s more than that: we discover to our amazement that we are God’s beloved children. That knowledge should make us jump up in the air, whirl around, and dive under the sofa cushions.
I’d like to end with a blessing-poem by the wondrous author-artist, Jan Richardson. It’s from her new book Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons. This is one is titled “For Those Who Have Far to Travel,” based on the Scripture we heard this morning: And there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising. (Matthew 2:9)
If you could see
the journey whole,
you might never
undertake it,
might never dare
the first step
that propels you
from the place
you have known
toward the place
you know not.

Call it
one of the mercies
of the road:
that we see it
only by stages
as it opens
before us,
as it comes into
our keeping,
step by
single step.

There is nothing
for it
but to go,
and by our going
take the vows
the pilgrim takes:

to be faithful to
the next step;
to rely on more
than the map;
to heed the signposts
of intuition and dream;
to follow the star
that only you
will recognize;

to keep an open eye
for the wonders that
attend the path;
to press on
beyond distractions
beyond fatigue,
beyond what would
tempt you
from the way.

There are vows
that only you
will know:
the secret promises
for your particular path
and the new ones
you will need to make
when the road
is revealed
by turns
you could not
have foreseen.

Keep them, break them,
make them again;
each promise becomes
part of the path,
each choice creates
the road
that will take you
to the place
where at last
you will kneel

to offer the gift
most needed –
the gift that only you
can give —
before turning to go
home by
another way.