Light of the World
Maybe in my second or third Christmas at my first church appointment, I read about this great idea for a Christmas Eve service for children. I don’t remember where I read or heard the idea. But the gist was this: You take several warm Christmasy blankets and spread them all over the chancel area, and get a rocking chair to sit in, and then, during the Children’s Sermon, you read a book to the kids, while they’re all snuggled onto the cozy blankets. And the book serves as message for the adults as well. I just loved the idea. I bought several copies of a book I thought would be meaningful, and I had four people set up to stand with copies throughout the sanctuary, to turn the pages along with me as I read, so that the adults could follow along too – we didn’t have any big screens that I could project the images on in my first church.
Everything was planned, and I was so excited about it, and could just picture how awesome the service was going to be. And then Christmas Eve finally came, and it was a disaster! I got the kids all settled on the blankets, and started to read the story. But kids are so so wound up on Christmas Eve. They’re wearing these fancy outfits they’ve never worn before, and probably brand new shoes, and they’ve been eating Christmas cookies all day, and they just want to go home and go to bed so they can wake up and see what Santa has brought. It is not exactly, as it turns out, the best time to ask children to sit demurely in front of a congregation full of people and listen quietly to a lovely storybook. The kids were restless almost immediately, and a few pages in, they were bored and on the verge of revolt, I could tell. I started to panic. The book was taking much longer to read than I had planned, and I was losing what little attention from the kids I had. I started simply summarizing what was on each page, flipping through the story faster and faster. Of course, this left all of my helpers out in the congregation scrambling to figure out which page I was on. Everyone was confused, and no one seemed to be having this perfect experience I had in my head. Mercifully, eventually I made it through the book and sent the kids back to their seats. But I was devastated by how awfully everything had turned out. All my plans, ruined.
A bit later in the service, I made my way over to the choir loft to serve communion to the singers sitting there. My hands were literally shaking with stress and anxiety over my failed service. One woman, Dee, looked at me with concern in her eyes. She asked, “What’s wrong?” I said, sarcasm dripping in my tone, “Oh, everything is just going so well!” Wasn’t it clear to her why I was so upset? But no, she just looked confused by my response. After the service, her response was echoed by others. They had no idea why I was so upset. They’d experienced a meaningful Christmas Eve worship service, a celebration of the birth of Jesus, and apparently, I hadn’t ruined everything with a poorly received story for the kids. Apparently, I was the only one having a crisis. Apparently, I was the only one who had concluded that the service had been ruined. In reality, though, the only one whose experience was ruined was my own, and I had done that to myself. I had this picture in my head, these expectations of how everything was supposed to go, and when I didn’t find what I was looking for, when where things ended up on Christmas Eve didn’t match the plans I had, I let it overwhelm me with disappointment.
Have you ever experienced something like that? Have you ever had a vision or a plan or had a picture in your mind of some event – where you had it all mapped out in your head, how things would go, a journey, physical or metaphorical, where you set out with a clear aim, or goal, or purpose in mind, only to find when you reach your destination that what is waiting for you, what really happens, is not at all what you expected? How did you feel, when things unfolded so differently than you had in mind? Did you totally lose your cool like I did? Did you go with the flow?
Our scripture text for today is about a journey like this – plans all laid out, but nothing unfolding as anticipated. Today is Epiphany Sunday. The word Epiphany is from a Greek word that means literally “coming to light,” or “shining forth.” Epiphany is the day when we celebrate the Magi, Wisemen from the East, coming to see Jesus and bringing him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This is significant because it represents that Jesus is light to the whole world, celebrated even by these foreign strangers, not just the people of Israel, not just a chosen few. Jesus is the light of and for the whole world.
We really know very little about these wise men. They appear only in this passage from Matthew. Matthew describes them as men from the East, which maybe may have meant they were astrologers from Persia, interpreters of stars and dreams. The idea that they were kings comes from a verse of a Psalm that talks about kings bringing gifts to the Messiah – a loose connection at best. The number three was just layered onto tradition over time, perhaps because three gifts are named, along with traditional names for each of three wise men. But again, these ideas are not mentioned in the Bible. What the Bible does tell us is that these wise men came to the palace of King Herod looking for a newborn king, since they had seen a star that was significant to them.
We don’t even know why the Magi would be interested in seeing a new king of the Jewish people, since they themselves were not Jewish. But we do know that when they were looking for this new king, they expected to find him at the palace. That’s right where they went – straight to the palace, to have an audience with Herod. They expected, perhaps, that Herod had a new child who would eventually become king, or some other similar chain of events. Instead, they find a baffled and frightened Herod, who has no idea what they are talking about. They’re sent to find this new king by Herod, guided by additional details about the child’s likely place of birth, and eventually, finally, they find Jesus with his mother Mary. They have brought gifts for the child that would have been appropriate at the palace: gold, frankincense, myrrh. Costly gifts. And so they offer these gifts to this child, Jesus, who they find not in a palace, but in a normal home, in a small town, the child of a carpenter and his wife, totally normal by every visible clue.
Imagine if the Magi reacted like I did that Christmas Eve when my plans didn’t go as I wanted. The Magi could have decided they had gotten it all wrong and taken their gifts and gone back home, disappointed that they had come so far only to find that this so-called new king was just a regular baby born to no one special. But Matthew says they were overwhelmed, not with disappointment, but “overwhelmed with joy.” Nothing went as planned, but they simply changed their course as a new plan was laid out for them. They went where they were led. And they were thrilled with it all. They didn’t judge Mary and Joseph and Jesus by their outer wrappings. They recognized the Holy in the child Jesus. The Epiphany is the coming-to-light, the shining-forth of Jesus as light of the world. It wasn’t what the Wisemen set out to see. But what was revealed to them by the light was nonetheless exactly what they were seeking, overwhelming them with joy.
I’m wondering what we are expecting, as we journey with God. As we begin a new year, what destinations do we have in mind, what plans and schedules have we made, what results are we looking to see? What solution to our problems, what fix for our troubles, what cures for what ails us we are expecting to find at the end of the calendar year, at the end of our journey, at the completion of our plans? And then, what will we do when, inevitably, what we find as the days unfold is not what we were expecting. What will the light of Epiphany reveal to us?
One of my favorite authors is Mindy Kaling. She’s the writer and star of the TV show The Mindy Project. Or you might know her as a writer and actress on The Office – she played Kelly Kapoor. In her book Why Not Me? she spends one chapter of her book divulging, with great wit and sarcasm, all of her beauty secrets. One of them? Stay in the shadows! We look best, she insists, under the forgiving lighting of shadows, without the harsh brightness revealing every detail that we’d rather keep hidden. I think about this fact sometimes with my phone’s camera. On most smart phones, if you use it to take a “selfie,” the camera automatically switches to a setting called “beauty face.” I love it! It gives your skin a nice uniform glow, erases any imperfections, and subtracts about 5 years of wrinkles and lines from your skin. Selfies, after all, are pretty close-up pictures – and do we really want to see everything about ourselves that the camera might reveal?
Epiphany is a time when we celebrate that the light of the world is shining. But more than just acknowledging the light of Christ, our task is to look closely at just what the light of Christ is revealing in us. Our task is to let that light shine into our lives and bring all of the dark places out of the shadows. What would it mean if the light of Christ focused on your life and made visible everything that has been hidden? What unexpected things might we see, discover, when the Star of Bethlehem shines on us?
I’ve been thinking about this in two ways: First, I think letting in the light of Christ would make us deal with aspects of ourselves and our behaviors that we try to hide in the shadows, or cover up with “beauty face” mode. Do you struggle with envy or coveting what others have? Are you facing an addiction that you can’t control? Are you holding on to resentments or conflicts with others that you have been unwilling to resolve? God at work in us reveals all those things – uncovers them, not so that we can be judged and condemned, but so that we can be healed and redeemed and move forward. This is a time when so many of us are making New Year’s Resolutions, and I think that the reason that so many of us fail in our efforts is because we don’t really examine what’s behind our feelings – why aren’t we happy with what we have, always longing for what others have, for example? We start out to change our lives on our own, without the grounding, the source of our being. Jesus is the light, and we can’t shine without that source, God, empowering us.
What would it mean if the light of Christ focused on your life and made visible everything that has been hidden and unseen? Here’s the second way: In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” I think that may be our hearts’ desire – to be known fully, completely – and also our deepest fear – that someone will see us – flaws and imperfections and things we’d rather keep in the shadows. So often, we look at ourselves and see only our failures. We gloss right over the gifts we have, the way that God has created us, the strength we have, the ways that we have been formed and blessed and placed in this world so that we can serve and give and bless others. We don’t see in ourselves all that God sees in us. And so we let ourselves off easy, because we’re convinced that we can’t do what God knows we can do and do well. When the light of Christ brings everything in us into view, when we let that light shine in all the overshadowed places, then we start to see ourselves as we really are, as God created us, and as God is calling us to be. God sees us, all that the light of Christ reveals in us, and is overwhelmed with joy in us.
That’s the journey of Epiphany. We find at the end of the long road we travel what we didn’t plan or expect. Instead, we find the light of Christ, light of the world, shining back at us, dispelling the shadows, revealing who we really are. God isn’t disappointed in what’s revealed in us. God is full of hope at all that yet might be in us. And I believe we won’t be disappointed when we embrace God-revealed to us. May we, like the Wisemen, lay our very best gifts as an offering of thanksgiving at the feet of Christ, overwhelmed with joy. For we find there not-at-all what we expected, but instead, shining in the light, exactly what we’ve needed. Amen.