My daughters love to learn about constellations. Over the last few years, they’ve enjoyed seeing how the stars form pictures of dippers and scales and bears and people. Every time they are outside at night they want to look up in the darkened sky to find a picture of something bigger and more brilliant than themselves. My girls often help me take out the garbage and recycling to the big bins in the alley. One winter night, I pointed out Orion and the three-star outline of his belt and told how Orion’s presence in the sky reveals that a new season has dawned and another year is drawing to a close. Just as my girls go looking for the light of the stars in the night sky, I find myself needing to look for the ways God is shining in my life, in this church, and in the world. I’m glad today is Epiphany, because I’m looking for the light.
Epiphany is the beginning of the season when we celebrate the revelation of Jesus, the manifestation of God in human flesh. Just as the Magi came to Bethlehem because of the light of the star, so we have gathered here, in church, in this place to celebrate God’s epiphany among us in Christ. The word ‘epiphany’ simply means to show or shine forth. The divine light has been born into the world and the light of life beams forth from the baby. And the light is not something only we can see. No, the light of God is part of all life. The light of God is at the heart of everything. Just like at the beginning of creation, where darkness spanned the universe, without light we would not have been created, we would not exist. And so, this story about Jesus is a story about life, the life that lights up our lives and the entire world.
And that’s why we are here today, we see the light of God with everyone sitting around us. Maybe it feels as if the light is hidden in deep confusion and hurt and pain; that light is muffled by the threat of war; that light is snuffed out by fear. But the light of life wants to break forth from you, from us, and shine peace and goodwill to all people. And we must start here, in this place. I know that we see the light in this room and the light of life in the people gathered here. I have seen the light in each of you. The light of God IS in you. But we aren’t here to bask in the warm glow of our privilege, power, and position. No, the Light of Life and the Prince of Peace came to illuminate the world. We must not only see the light here, but we must go looking for the light. That is the true story of Epiphany.
And so, we can’t have Epiphany without the Magi. You may have heard about the three little boys who were playing the wise men in their church Christmas program. As they came up to Mary and Joseph at the stable, the first one handed over his present and said, “Gold.” The second presented his gift and said, “Myrrh.” The third one then gave them his treasure and said, “And Frank sent this.”
But who were the magi? Was one of them named Frank? We might understand the Holy One they were looking for if we know a little bit more about these foreign travelers. Historians compare the Magi to the Levites in Israel. They were originally a tribe, known as the Medes. And the Medes at one point tried to overthrow the Persians, a larger and more powerful people, but failed. And so, instead of war and retaliation, the Medes took a different path. They ceased to want anything to do with power and became a tribe of religious followers, priests in Persia. They soon rose in the ranks and became the teachers and instructors of the Persian king. Like the priests in Israel, no sacrifice could be offered in their holy temple unless one of the Magi was present. They became known far and wide for their holiness and their wisdom and their nonviolence.
According to scholars the Magi were men who were skilled in philosophy, medicine, and natural science. They were soothsayers and interpreters of dreams. Many of us might have a different and more negative view of Magi as it is a word that closely resembles “magician.” And it’s true that in later times, the word Magus developed a much lower meaning, as people thought they were fortune-tellers, magicians, and sorcerers. We see two instances in the book of Acts where people were called magicians in denigrating ways.
But, in the time of Jesus, the Magi were seen as good and holy men, seekers always looking for the truth. And also, in Jesus’ day, many folks believed in astrology: that people could foretell the future from the stars in the sky and that someone’s destiny was determined by the star under which that person was born. And it’s easy to see how this type of belief in astrology came about. The stars reveal the good order of the universe and travel a determined and divine course. So, if a brilliant and luminous star appeared in the sky, a celestial body that had not been there before, it is not difficult to assume that God was breaking into the old order and was announcing something special and new.
Now, we don’t really know what supernaturally happened on that night and what heavenly glow the Magi saw. People have made many guesses though. About 11 BCE, Halley’s comet was visible in the night sky and recorded by historians. In 7 BCE, Saturn and Jupiter fell into the same orbit and shone brightly together. In the years, 5 – 2 BCE, there was an unusual phenomenon when on the first day of the Egyptian month of Mesori, Sirius, the dog star, rose at sunrise and shone with spectacular brilliance. The name, Mesori, means “the birth of a prince” and to trained astrologers, that unique star rising would signify the birth of a king. But, ultimately, we can’t know for sure. We can’t tell what miraculous light the Magi saw. But we do know that it was their job to watch the heavens and to look for the ways that God would make God’s presence known to the world.
And so, the anticipation of a king to save all the hurting people was arising. The world during the time of Jesus was in turmoil. The Roman empire was growing strong and the emperor, Augustus, was being hailed as the Savior of the World. The time was tense and the moment was right for the coming of God to earth, to bring peace where there was no peace, joy where there was no joy, and hope where there was no hope. And we can’t know for sure how the star shone in the sky and how the Magi learned of the baby born in Bethlehem. But what we do know, what we can conclude from historical writings, is that people were looking for the light. People were suffocating under the darkness of tyranny, poverty, slavery, hopelessness, and war. Even people who were not astrologers were scanning the heavens, looking, hoping, praying that God would bring a new light, a new hope, that would vanquish the darkness. The Magi, the ones who were outsiders, foreigners, of another religion, seekers who saw the hurt and desperation in the world, these Magi were looking for the light of God to burst forth into creation and change things for the better. It’s amazing how we, today, are still looking for the light.
You see, this story of the Magi looking for the light of life, the Christ child, comes immediately before the massacre of the innocents that we explored last week. Sometimes when we go searching for the light of God, goodness and love in the world, the empire wants to keep us from seeing the light in others. Often those in power, those afraid to lose that power, will demonize another people group in order to distract us from our mission to find the light. We must be like the Magi and look for the light, look for the hope in the midst of despair and healing in the midst of pain. We must be those who choose, despite all odds, to look for the light and notice where God is being born in the world, where God is growing and changing this world.
And when we look for the light, when we truly look deeply for the light, we will see it. We will see it when we look around at all living things. The creation of the world began when light was sparked in the darkness. We must notice the vibrancy in nature and power of goodwill shining forth from God’s creation. And we too are God’s creation, you and I. We must look for the light deep within our hearts. If we look for the presence of God in our hearts, we might just find it.
I am reminded of how one rabbi looks at the story of the burning bush in the Hebrew Scriptures in which Moses saw a bush on fire, but the bush was not consumed. That rabbi says the important thing about this story is not that the bush was burning, but that Moses noticed the light, because every bush is burning, every bush is on fire with the divine presence, everything in the universe shines because God is at the heart of it. That is our epiphany story. That is the story that invites us to open our eyes to the light that is everywhere. We are reminded, just like in the story of Moses and the burning bush, that God asks us to open our eyes, to see the light of life and the fire of peace that will spark justice in this world, the light that surrounds and envelops all people and all creation.
But we will never find the presence of God in the world unless we seek to move beyond the boundaries of our lives and risk going into the places of loneliness, pain, and separation. We might ask: “How can the light be outside of our comfort zones? How can anyone have light besides us?” Because light is in the dirty and smelly mangers where God is sweetly snuggled down. Because light is in our bedtime prayers at home and in our colleagues at work. Because light is in the flicker of a Christmas Eve candle but also in the fire of a burning bush. Because light is in the woman driving an expensive car and in a man sleeping in a tent on a freeway exit. Because light was revealed to Magi from the far east and burns brightly among our friends of other faiths. We all need each other to bring light to this world.
You see, we don’t solely possess the light. Do you remember just two weeks ago when we lit candles in this room on Christmas Eve to symbolize our hope to punch holes in the darkness and courageously shine lights of peace? Do you remember how I lit my candle from the Christ Candle and then the light spread throughout the room, illuminating the darkness in a way that when all of our lights were shining together, the room was brighter and warmer and more vibrant? That’s because we need each other. You see, light is meant to grow. Light is meant to spread from one place to the next, from one person to the next, and to all people everywhere. The Gospel of Jesus Christ points us to the fact that all people have light within them and that if we but go beyond our inherited boundaries, not only do we bring the light of life to others, but we will realize they have light we need as well. Our light shouldn’t compete with other lights, we need the light of others to complete the divine light we have received. We need each other in this church, in this city, and in this world. We need each other as nations, religions, and communities to fuel the fires of peace, passion, and love. We need our lights to join together and grow together and make our world whole.
Mary Oliver, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, in her poem ‘Six Recognitions of our Lord’ writes of such a moment. ‘Then,’ she says, ‘I go back to ... my own house, my own life, which has now become brighter and simpler, somewhere I have never been before.’ I think the Magi in returning home saw everything more brightly. The Light they had found in a distant land with foreign people and in a backwoods town, turned out to be the light at the heart of their own land, their own hearts, and their own lives. But now, they see it as if for the first time. We must recognize the light, have an epiphany, that God’s light is within all life, we just have to go look for it.
And so, as I said at the beginning of the service, we have gathered here to experience the light of God, the hope of a Savior. Yet, gathering together in the light of this church isn’t enough. Having looked for the light together today in worship, we are called to go, to go forth to share with others the light we have seen. We are to bear witness to the light, to look for the light together out in the world, to go outside in the winter of our discontent and depression and in the fog of war and realize the constellation of God’s love is beaming hope for us and for all people.
And so, as the Magi did when they saw the good news of the light of life, let us share that light with others. That’s the point and the power of Epiphany. We have received the gospel of Christ, the good news of peace that shatters the powers of this world, that shines through the darkness of this world, that sparks the fire of goodwill and love. And like the prophet Isaiah who said, “Arise! Shine! For your light has come and the glory of God rises upon you,” may we use today as a day that sparks a new dawning in our lives and in our land. For it is not enough to simply go looking for the light. We have indeed found it and we must share it, this day and every day.