January 4, 2015 (Epiphany)
We are entering the post-Christmas season of Epiphany. It is a season of light, a season of revelation. A season in which we read the story of the star whose light reveals the location of the Christ child; the story of Jesus’ baptism, when the voice from heaven reveals his divine nature. We read these beautiful words from Isaiah: “Arise, shine; for your light has come.”
Those of us who pay attention to the church year often consider Epiphany as a bit of a lull between the “higher” liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent. But in the early church, Epiphany, along with Easter and Pentecost, was one of the three major feasts of the church. It was not an interlude—a lull—it was an event.
And why not? The light of revelation is surely something to note and celebrate. “Arise, shine; for your light has come!” Surely this is a proclamation of an event—not a mere interlude.
As Christians, the heart of Epiphany is the revelation of the Divine in the person of Jesus Christ. For the writer of Isaiah 60, this light is about the revelation of God within the beleaguered nation of Israel. It is about how this impoverished, conquered nation will be a means of revealing God’s glory.
The general scholarly consensus is that the book we now have as “Isaiah” was not written by one prolific prophet, but by a number of writers who shared a similar world-view, a similar theology.
These writers did not, however, all write at the same time. There are at least three distinct periods in which the book of Isaiah was written, and our text for this morning comes from what scholars call “third Isaiah”–the latest of the Isaiah writings.
You might remember that the nation of ancient Israel had a short-lived period of political power and stability, followed by internal struggles that led to a divided kingdom and made the Israelites vulnerable to external threats. One of which was, of course, the Babylonians who conquered Israel and took its most prominent citizens into captivity in a foreign land.
Third Isaiah was written in the period when many captives had returned home to Israel. Far from the triumphant and joyous return many anticipated, the returning Israelites found their homeland in shambles, the temple in ruins. And tensions arose between those returning—who no doubt expected to step back into the positions of wealth and prominence they had held prior to their capture—and those who had remained in Israel—who had surely stepped into the leadership roles vacated by those who were taken.
Third Isaiah was addressing people living in deep disappointment, in disorientation, in fear for the future. One might say that it was written during a dark time in Israel’s history:
“For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.”
This line resonates with me when I think of the state of our own country over this past year. Now I don’t want to overstate the point or be melodramatic about the whole thing. Certainly our nation was not conquered by a foreign power and our leaders taken as captives. Certainly any period of time can be considered “dark” if we focus on the negative.
Still, last year I felt it. The thick darkness.
The overwhelming darkness of gun violence with shootings on the news every time I time I turned around. Statistics show 13 school shootings in January of 2014; for the entire year, 278 mass shootings—4 or more people shot in one location or spree. And of course the shooting in April at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park—which isn’t even counted in the mass shooting statistics because only three people were shot. The gun situation in this country is out of control; there is a thick darkness.
The darkness of personal pain carried by those with mental illness and addictions—a darkness many of us feel in our day-to-day lives, and a darkness that weighed on us collectively with the deaths of Robin Williams from suicide and Philip Seymour Hoffman from a drug overdose. Thick. Darkness.
The darkness of domestic violence highlighted by prominent cases of professional football players beating their girlfriends, their children. The darkness of sexual violence, with news stories that revealed disturbing instances of rape and a lack of accountability for perpetrators—particularly on college campuses, including KU. And very public discussions of sexual abuse committed by a Mennonite icon, John Howard Yoder, and a national icon, Bill Cosby. Such thick darkness.
The darkness of fear and violence in general that feeds the darkness of police violence that is tied up with the darkness of racism—this past year felt like a bombardment of story after story of black men killed by police; I know this isn’t the first year it has happened, but a lot of us white folks just weren’t paying attention before. But this year: Michael Brown, John Crawford III, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Darrien Hunt, Tamir Rice . . . thick darkness.
And that’s just the darkness I felt in our own nation. Not even considering world events. Not even considering events in my personal life, my family life.
The darkness weighed heavily for the first readers of third Isaiah, and it weighs heavily on us.
“Arise, shine,” says the prophet, “for your light has come!”
Please, God, yes. Give us epiphany. Give us the shining star, the voice from heaven, the glory of the Lord. Epiphany as event—not mere interlude.
I imagine the captured Israelites expected their return home to be an epiphany—an immediate burst of light to drive out all the darkness of captivity and exile. They must have dreamed for years about a glorious and triumphant return to their home country. The jubilant parades and the “welcome home” banners stretched across gleaming cobblestone streets. Their old houses ready and waiting; their old jobs available for the re-taking; their old friends sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for them to come back. Once they returned to their homeland, everything would be wonderful and perfect–just like that. A spectacular event. An epiphany!
That’s the kind of epiphany we all want, I think. The immediate, all-illuminating light. We seem particularly prone to these fantasies at the beginning of the new year, when we imagine the radical changes we will make to drastically improve our lives. We’ll get healthy and wealthy and spiritual and organized—just like that.
We want the shining star, the voice from heaven, the glory of the Lord. We want immediate light and definitive revelation. We want our loved ones (or ourselves) to be healed, our bodies to be toned, our jobs to be fulfilling, our bank accounts to be large, our children to behave, our relationships to be whole—just like that.
I can think of one relationship in particular that I wanted to be made whole. I would venture to say that most of you have experienced some challenging relationships, some people that you’ve had to interact with that were not always pleasant, that strained your reserves of patience and good humor. Pastors, let me tell you, also face challenges in relationships. (A potential difference being the degree of guilt we feel when we screw up and act in non-pastoral ways.)
This one relationship in particular I really struggled with, practically and spiritually. And I prayed and I processed and I wanted everything to just magically be better. Truth be told, I wanted the other person to quit being difficult. And if that wasn’t going to happen, I wanted to be able to just deal; to be calm, cool, and collected at all times.
As you might imagine, I didn’t get either of my preferred scenarios. What I did get, with the help of my spiritual director and my prayers, was a mental picture. A triangle with God at the top and me and the other person below. And love flowing from God down to both of us. And love flowing from me to the other person. And a sense that all that love was enough for the relationship. The triangle was complete. If the other person had no love to offer, that was OK.
The came the inevitable day when I didn’t have the love to offer either, and bands of love from God still held and shifted in until the connection between the other person and me was there even without my piece of the triangle.
This image was a little “e” epiphany that led to a season of Epiphany. A season in which dealing with this other person was not easy, but was manageable; a season in which the relationship was not life-giving, but slowly ceased to be quite so energy-draining. This image allowed for a few deep breaths when I needed them; a kind word in place of a harsh one from time to time; the image was a glimmer of light on the horizon.
That’s how the light usually comes—as a glimmer rather than a bright explosion. Because people—individually and as a society—we rarely change quickly; circumstances rarely alter immediately for the better. Deep darknesses of inequality and injustice and violence won’t disappear in a sudden burst of light. It didn’t happen for the ancient Israelites, and it won’t happen for us.
True, Epiphany is more than an interlude, but it is also more than an event. The shining star, the voice from heaven, the glory of the Lord—these are events, yes; but they are events that mark the beginning—that suggest the possibility—of a season of Epiphany; a journey toward revelation; a gradual brightening of the light.
One of the blessed, beautiful things about light is that it doesn’t take much of it to make a big difference. (I’m probably not the only one who has been irritated by the glow of a cell phone screen in an otherwise darkened auditorium.)
Despite the dilapidated buildings, the social unrest, the temple in ruins, a prophet declared to the people of Israel: “Arise, shine; for your light has come.”
Turns out that our light does not come from us or depend on us. Our light is the light of God; the Divine light that shines for all people. It is a light that draws people—and camels, apparently–to it—maybe sometimes because it is so bright; but I think, most often, people are drawn to the light no matter how dim it is; simply because it is there, promising to dispel the thick darkness, promising to reveal, slowly, in hazy glimpses, a better way.
So may we truly live into this season of Epiphany. May we arise and shine knowing that our light has come; that our light is here; that our light—which is God’s light–will always be shining no matter how thick the darkness. Amen.