Epiphany - Living an Epiphany life

A sermon preached in the United Benefice by Margaret Houston, 5 January 2014

I have a good friend who is South African.  Once, as we were talking about our families’ Christmas traditions, she said, “you know, I never really understood Christmas until I moved to the northern hemisphere.”  I can’t conceive of Christmas in summer, when the light is evident and obvious.  And it's not just because the idea of singing “In the Bleak Midwinter” in 40-degree heat strikes me as incongruous but just because the imagery doesn’t work.  And I’m not talking about the imagery of Santa and snow and sledding, but the imagery of the scripture we use in Advent, Christmas and, today, in Epiphany.

Our ancestors who developed the liturgical calendar had a great sense of drama.  The year begins in Advent, as the skies darken, the life-giving warmth of the sun disappears into cold and gloom, and the fruits of the earth, on which we depend for our own life, die around us.  Imagine the lights of a theatre going down into darkness.   Silence.  And in this darkness, a single flame is lit.  Can you imagine how you would lean towards it? That single point of light in darkness? 

Arise, shine, for your light has come.

Throughout December, as we moved to the shortest day of the year, we added more light to our Advent wreath. We hung lights in our windows and on our Christmas trees.  We raged against the dying of the light, the dying of the year, and we waited – against all sense, against all hope, as the darkness seemed to triumph over the light – for the promised Saviour.  And then, only a few days after the shortest day, the light burst forth in a blaze of joy – the church was filled with light and music even at midnight in the darkest time of year.  How ridiculous. How bizarre.  How completely counter-intuitive.

And today’s reading, as we celebrate Epiphany, reminds us that the end of Christmas is not just a reversion to the way it was before – Christmas wasn’t a one-off that ended when we stopped celebrating.  A fundamental change has been brought about.  The light has come. 

We take down our trees, yes, and we take down the lights, and we go back to eating ordinary food instead of stuffing our faces twenty four hours a day, and we no longer have an excuse to drink port at ten o’clock in the morning, but in our spiritual lives, we do not – we cannot – just go back to the way things were.

At Epiphany, we cannot just say “well, Christmas is over now” and go back to business as usual.  That’s what Isaiah is telling us.  The light has come, and everything is different.

We are no longer waiting as captives for our release . We are no longer the bride scanning the horizon for our bridegroom.  We are no longer in exile.

Those three images – the captive waiting for release, the bride waiting for her groom, and the people in exile – are all static. They are images of waiting. with hope and with fear – will the promise be fulfilled?  Will the bridegroom come?  Will I ever be set free?  Will I ever get to go home again?  They are images of a life on hold.

Very often, our lives feel caught in a perpetual Advent, or even Lent.  It feels like we are stuck, waiting and wondering – will everything be all right?  Will the promise be fulfilled?  Will I get to go home again?  Will the cancer come back? Will I ever find someone to spend my life with?  Will any of these dozens of job applications turn into an offer?  Will I ever get pregnant?  Will my depression ever go away?  Will my broken family relationships ever be healed?  Often, our lives can feel like the exile of Advent or the soul-churning slog of Lent, not the joyful freedom of Christmas and Epiphany.

The coming of Jesus doesn’t mean that everything will magically be all right.  Isaiah tells us that even though the light has come, “darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples.”  And in Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi, there are undercurrents of dark, dangerous politics.  The world that Jesus was born to save is still – as it always was, as it probably always will be – filled with war, violence, estrangement, disease, random horrible accidents of fate, cruelty, waste, sorrow, poverty, oppression, injustice, and danger.

What it does mean, however, is that if God is really here, really with us – if the light really has come, then we don’t need to be afraid any more.  The story of our waiting, our exile, doesn’t end in futility, waste, and loss – it ends in abundance and grace, more than we dared dream of:

Lift up your eyes and look about you:
    All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
    and your daughters are carried on the hip.
Then you will look and be radiant,
    your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
    to you the riches of the nations will come.

Perhaps this abundance and grace doesn’t look the way we expected it to.  I don’t think the Kings expected their journey to end in a dirty stable, with the poor child of a persecuted religious minority.   That is not how they expected God to be revealed to them, not how they expected God’s promise to be fulfilled.  God’s grace, the answer to our prayers, may not take the form we expect it to.  But the promise is fulfilled nonetheless, the light comes out of darkness, and we are set free.

What would it look like if we started living like this, right here, right now?  What would it look like if we acted as though the light has come, even if we can’t see it in our own lives right now?  What would it look like if we stopped being afraid and started living an Epiphany life?

When James and John left their livelihoods and families behind to follow Jesus, they were living Epiphany lives.

When those at the back of the crowd at the feeding of the five thousand, seeing that those at the front got fed and they couldn’t see enough to go around, decided to trust instead of fight over perceived scarcity – and there did turn out to be enough and more than enough – they were living Epiphany lives.

When the first disciples put their faith above their own lives and proclaimed their faith even in the face of oppression from Rome, they were living Epiphany lives.

When, during the Civil Rights Struggle, the Southern cops turned their dogs and their hoses on teenagers protesting segregation, when they beat them and locked them in prison and those children started singing freedom hymns in jail – those kids were living Epiphany lives.

When we fight hate with love, when we put our own fear to the side for the sake of love, when we give those we perceive as our enemies the benefit of the doubt, when we take a leap of faith even though we are scared, when we see the face of Jesus in someone we usually wouldn’t look twice at and act accordingly – when we act as though Jesus is right here, right now, in everyone around us, the whole system of hatred and greed and oppression and violence and fear comes crashing down around our ears.  Whether that hatred and fear is small and personal, or large and systemic, the result is the same.  When we act as though the light is already here, the darkness flees before us.

Christmas is over.  But we do not, we cannot just go back to the way things were.  Let us act as though Christmas has changed everything – as though the bridegroom has come, the exile has ended, and we have been set free from prison.  Even in the dark times, let us live lives of faith and freedom.  Let us live Epiphany lives.
Holland Park Benefice