Light and Gifts
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

January 6, 2013
Epiphany Sunday

Isaiah 60:1-6
Matthew 2:1-12

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

It has been said that the lectionary, the three year cycle of readings used in the church, was put together in order to provide us with safe scripture passages for Sunday mornings. Safe as in familiar; safe as in not too challenging of our assumptions or the status quo.

This morning’s Gospel reading is a safe passage. The story of the magi coming with royal tribute is a safe story. They bring gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh (which Garrison Keillor believes to be some kind of noodle casserole dish, served hot). We all know this one. We know at least one verse and two parodies of “We Three Kings.”

And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they departed to their own country by another way.

Seems pleasant enough. Next week we will jump forward to Jesus’ baptism, skipping the unsafe readings a few verses later that tells us why Herod is not to be trusted. He will search out this child. He will kill many others in hopes of getting this one, who by then has been spirited away to Egypt.

The problem with having safe scriptures is that scripture is not supposed to be safe. It is supposed to be good news, it is supposed to be liberating, it is supposed to transform lives, it is supposed to be about life as it really is and the power of God to make all things new, none of which qualifies as “safe.”

Sometimes the text is safe because we only get what is on the surface. We miss what is going on underneath. We miss the inside jokes.

The first of which is that Herod, set up as king of Judea by Rome, has no clue that there is supposed to be a Messiah. On the one hand, people on the throne get very leery of such talk, because a messiah’s job description tends to be raising up the lowly and bringing down the mighty. The mighty don’t want to hear such things.

But it is also a not so subtle dig at Herod because it says the one who claims to be the king has no clue about scripture, no clue about Torah, no clue about covenant, and is therefore unworthy of being in charge. He has no idea such a thing is possible much less happening.

There are no historical records of the killing of all the children of that age in and around Bethlehem, but there is plenty of evidence that Herod would not be above such actions. He did the same to several members of his own family who posed threats to his power and authority.

So on the one hand, we have Herod as the historical king, a puppet of Rome, a tyrant and a dictator. But Herod is also in the Gospel as an allegory: he represents the rulers of this world, he stands in as the embodiment of the powers of death. He is a symbol for that which would destroy what God is trying to do. He represents what Walter Wink calls the myth of redemptive violence. Kill off all the bad guys, and the good guys win, right?

All of this is stood up in contrast with who Jesus is and what he says and does. Where Herod would wipe out a village to destroy any threat, Jesus tells his followers that shaking the dust off their sandals and moving along is enough. Where Herod relies on his network of scribes and priests and counselors, Jesus teaches people to rely on God. Where Herod builds up the Temple mound, builds up the palace, builds up the public works making Jerusalem look like a little Rome, Jesus builds up fishermen and tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners and makes a ragtag picnic in the wilderness look like the kingdom of heaven.

Where Herod’s descendants would kill Jesus for bringing a message that there is one in charge, and it is not Herod or Pilate or Caesar, Jesus trusts God’s love so much that he holds faithfully to his path, even to a cross, even to a tomb, and on through to resurrection.

Isaiah, like the Gospel, seeks to provide good news in the midst of a kingdom not unlike that of Herod.

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.

Imagine, if you will, that each and every person we know carries with them a candle and a mirror. You can light a path in the darkness with a candle and a mirror. But if the candle is all the light you have, it isn’t much. If you huddle over your candle so that it does not get blown out, it will not cast light but shadows.

Get a whole bunch of people with candles and mirrors, and you might get enough light to see one another. But candles burn down. People burn out.

Isaiah doesn’t deny the difficulties and darknesses of the world. Isaiah does not deny the burnout that people feel when we rely too much only on our own candles.

But what Isaiah does say is that there is a light that does not burn out. In this light we can stop huddling over our own candles. This light we can reflect, that we might see others, that others might see as well.

In this light we can bring our gifts, perhaps royal tribute, perhaps our skills, our time, our compassion, or simply our attention, giving them to God and to our neighbors. This light we can offer to those around us, because giving it away does not diminish it.

To borrow from John’s Gospel: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Or to paraphrase the slogan of the United Church of Christ: Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey: Arise, shine, for your light has come.

Thanks be to God.