Welcome to Epiphany. The season of illumination – where we announce God’s light as revealed and radiated throughout all of creation. It is fitting that we have a reading from the Gospel of Matthew, which has a particularly infatuation with light in its first 6 chapters, beginning right here in our story for today. This story that almost reads like the plot of a movie if you take the time to imagine. In my mind, the trailer goes something like this:
In his time, appointed by the Roman Empire, he was called Herod the Great. A tyrant with magnificent power and the blood on his hands to show it. Ruler of Galilee. King of the Jews. Until one day, when everything was threatened. Can you hear the drama and tension swelling up in the story? Magicians and sorcerers come knocking on King Herod’s door, saying, “Have you heard? A child has been born! A light in the sky is leading us to him. Their calling him the King of the Jews!” Immediately, the blood drains from King Herod’s face as he realizes this sudden and unexpected attack on his power, his legacy. He thinks to himself, “This can’t happen. I won’t let this happen! I am King of the Jews!” Calling together his counsel of advisors, Herod asks where this child was born and what they ought to do. Once discovered that the child was born in Bethlehem, Herod slithers back to the magicians and sorcerers where he hisses his lies to them. “Go and find this child. And once you do, please let me know, for I too would liked to brings gifts and give my respect to this special little one.”
Once again the magicians and sorcerers were off following this light in the sky, desperately trying to keep their eye on it so as to not lose track. And then suddenly, the star stops. And joy radiates across their body like goose bumps, for they know the child is near. Upon entering the house to which this divine light points, they find the child, swaddled up in his mother’s arms and immediately they kneel before him and offered him gifts for royalty. Gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, for they knew they were in the presence of their new king. That evening one of the sorcerers had a dream, telling of Herod’s plot to kill all infants in the town of Bethlehem in order to prevent this rumored newborn king from taking his throne. In the morning, they took a different path back to their country; they could not return to King Herod and his leadership.
Two paths. One of darkness and death; one of light and life. Kingdom of Herod and the Kingdom of God. Two kings, one light -this divine star which points to God’s universal desire for the best possible future for God’s people. And to where does this star lead these magicians and sorcerers, these non-Jewish spiritual leaders of a different faith? It does not lead to the kingdom of Herod. No, that is the kingdom of darkness and death. Herod, like Pharoah, is a tyrant. Lord of oppression and bondage. So hungry for power and wealth, so self-serving that he takes play from Pharaoh’s handbook, and orders the murder of all infants in Bethlehem. No, this is not God’s intension for the world. Instead, this light of God moves throughout the sky and stops over the house of Mary and Joseph, shining a light upon baby Jesus, as if to say, “Over here. This is the way. Let him be your knew king. Follow him and you will see God’s desire for this world.”
So what is that desire of God? God’s future hopes for creation? If we look ahead a couple chapters, I think we catch a glimpse through what this new King of the Jews has to say.
This star in the sky comes and shines a light down on Jesus. But it is three chapters later where Jesus climbs a mountain with many gathered around him. And on this mountain he does not say, “Blessed is me”…..but he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…. Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the meek….Blessed are those who hunger and thirst…Blessed are the merciful…Blessed are the pure in heart…Blessed are the peacemakers…” And then, in case that was not clear enough, he makes his point crystal clear. “You are the light of the world.” You are the one through whom the world will encounter God.
When I hear this, I cannot help but think about one of my favorite musicians, Eddie Vedder, the lead singer of the band Pearl Jam. He has always struggled to keep himself and his personal life out of the media, avoiding the celebrity spotlight. Instead of basking in the light of stardom, he and the band have spent their energy speaking out about social justice issues, political awareness and responsibility, as well as concern for our environment. But recently Eddie Vedder has started doing some unusual with the light that is shined on him. During their concerts, when a spotlight is almost always shined on him, he takes his guitar, which has a shiny metal plate, and holds it above his head. And what happens is the spotlight that is shining upon him instead hits the surface of his guitar and is refracted onto the crowd. Taking his time he slowly moves his guitar to make sure that the light shines on all areas of the crowd. It’s as if he is saying, “Not me, you. It’s not about me, it’s about you.” The reason I bring this up is because, the way I see it, this is exactly what Jesus does with the divine light that is shine upon him.
So often we want this light that is shined upon Jesus to stop there. But Jesus does not let that happen. The magicians and sorcerers point to the star, the star points to Jesus, and then Jesus points…to you. You are the light of the world. The question then becomes, what are you going to do with the divine light that shines upon you and within you. You can let the light stop at you, as King Herod did, which leads to the path of power through oppression and bondage, to the path of darkness and death. Or you can refract the light onto others, which leads to path of love and compassion, peacemaking and blessing, to the path of light and life.
You are the light of the world. Not because of your religious affiliation. Not because of your nationality. Not because of your social class. But because of your humanity. As a child of God, as part of creation, you were created in God’s image and declared good. You are the light of the world. You are God’s deepest desire. God’s hope for the future of creation. What will you do with that light? Will you love those beside you, even when they infuriate you? Will you keep working to fight homelessness in Elliot Park and Minneapolis? Will you start a music lessons program for kids who can’t afford them? Will cry out when you see injustice? When you encounter someone different from you, whether it is her hijab head covering, the tattoos crawling down his arm, or the business suit that she wears, will you whisper to them, “You are the light of the world.”
Our very own Dick May likes to say, “You may be the only Bible someone hears today.” If I may alter it just a bit – You may be the only light someone sees today. When everything else is darkness, you might be the only light they see.
You are the light of the world. What will you do with that light? Do not hide it under a bushel basket, but let your light shine before others, that they may see you. And as one theologian puts it (Barbara Brown Taylor), in seeing you, they might look down to see their own bodies leaking light. AMEN