An Epiphany Sermon
preached on January 6, 2019
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Arise, shine, your light has come!
Yes, it is winter.
Yes, it is dark.
Yes, we suffer. Every day we are alive we must mourn all that we have lost: our innocence, our dignity; our loved one; the life we carefully chose for ourselves somehow turned asunder. It is always darkest before the dawn…
And your light has come.
Yes, there is hate.
Yes, there is debilitating illness and death and starving children.
Yes, there is rage and outrage.
Yes, there is division and dehumanization. Yes, there is war. And mass shootings. And climate change. And racism and ethnocentricism. And greed. And poverty.
And still out of this darkness, your light has come.
Look around this room! God’s light has come in the form of human flesh. Beautiful beloved human flesh of all shapes and all sizes, of all colors and ages and walks of life. God’s light is in YOU: in all races and classes and ethnicities and genders and sexualities and political and religious beliefs.
Arise and shine! Your light has come.
The light has come from those who feed hundreds of people at community lunches in the parish hall on Saturdays. The light has come from the hugs offered during the passing of the peace. The light has come from those quietly knitting prayer shawls for our folks who need to feel God’s arms wrapped around their shoulders. The light has come from the La Romana mission team planning once again to visit a remote village in the Dominican Republic to offer medical care and clean water to Haitian workers there. The light is baked into the cookies lovingly made each week for coffee hour. The light has come in the hands and feet and eyes and heart of the person in the pew next to you. The light has come in the heart of every stranger who is just a piece of us we do not yet know.
Our advent scriptures promised us that all flesh shall see the glory of the Lord TOGETHER. Look around! We can’t see God’s glory if we can’t see one another. This is our epiphany. Your light has come.
The story of Epiphany is a story about the light of Love emanating from human flesh in a time of impossible darkness:
King Herod—a puppet leader inserted by the Roman empire—heard about a baby born in Bethlehem who was to become king of the Jews. And he erupted into a vengeful, murderous jealousy. No one could be king but him! He raged and he sputtered. He ruminated and he intimidated. Too gutless and powerless to do anything on his own, Herod looked around for those loyal to him and fearful of his power to do his dirty work. He called on some gentile scientists--Wise Men and astrologers--to follow the star to where this tiny baby lay, sleeping in heavenly peace. He wanted these men to reveal the powerful baby’s location, just so that Herod could destroy him.
The wise men set out to follow the brightest star they had ever seen out of the darkness, journeying for days with no map or direction, not knowing the final destination. They just kept doing the next right thing until they got to Bethlehem.
The Wise Men do, in fact, find the baby, and they are filled with joy. They offer him gifts of gold fit for royalty, frankincense in honor of religious leadership and myrrh, foreshadowing his death on the cross and his resurrection. There’s a joke that goes if wise women were the ones going to visit Mary and the baby, they’d bring a casserole, diapers and a mess of chocolate, Lanisoh cream, and wine for Mary.
After visiting the baby Jesus and bowing down before him, the wise astrologers intuitively knew that the gifts he would give the world were far more precious than the gifts they had brought. The light of his truth invaded their consciousness so much that they dreamt about it.
And the next day, they chose another path home. Rather than give up the location of the baby to Herod as they were ordered to do, they went another way. They knew he was a dangerously narcissistic King Baby who feared being unseated by this lowly and humble baby King.
An epiphany is often described as a moment of great realization that causes you to change in some way. The magi became wise in this encounter with God’s light. They chose the path of Love over their orders to comply. They chose the path of Love over following a dangerously unfit ruler. They chose the path of Love over the Law of the land.
And so it is with you and I. We can notice the light encased in human flesh all around us. We can choose to be dazzled by it. The light, if we let it, can permeate our consciousness and change who we are. And we, too, can choose a different path. We too, can choose Love over power. Love over division and cruelty. We, too, can choose Love even over the law of this land.
Richard Rohr says that Christ is a name for the immense spaciousness of all true Love.
We can choose Christ.
This is our epiphany. Arise, shine, the light of all true love has come down to earth. Love has come to live among us! Love has MOVED INTO THE NEIGHBORHOOD. The word made flesh. Love made flesh. LIGHT made flesh. We gather in the spirit of a child who would unseat corrupt, hateful, murderous human rulers with a LOVE so profound, so pure, so penetrating, that the whole world lit up with it. We have followed the light to this place, and found God encased in human flesh.
We have no choice but to bow down.
My interfaith colleagues were heartened about the fact that the new congress was sworn in this week on a plethora of sacred texts, from the Bible to the Buddhist sutras to the Koran to the Torah, to the constitution of the United States. It was indicative that the diversity of this country had finally coalesced together into the halls of power. God speaks through so many mediums. God’s truth is written into so many books.
Someone asked this of my colleagues: What text would you be sworn in on?
And one of them answered this: I would be sworn in on a newborn baby.
At first I rolled my eyes and was like, “man, my UU colleagues say some weird stuff.” But then I thought, wait. That’s the Gospel.
I mean, imagine that. Imagine congress putting their hands upon the fragrant head of a squirming, wide eyed, impossibly soft and fragile young human, to make their promises to uphold all that is true and good.
Imagine if every member of our government was sworn in not on a book full of words and laws—but on the hope of the whole world. A newborn baby. The word of God made flesh.
Perhaps the powerful would choose a different path.
Perhaps the government wouldn’t shut down, but build up.
Perhaps our country would be re-built on the Good News of the Gospel and our laws would be shaped by the interests of the poor and marginalized rather than the interests of the rich and powerful.
Imagine if we were all made to swear an oath before God and each other, on human flesh. Imagine if our words had to be backed up by putting some skin in the game.
If before we swore to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, we placed our hand on our own children’s flesh.
If before we pledged to serve this country faithfully, we put our hands on the flesh of an American soldier.
If before we swore to serve God before all else, we put our hands on the flesh of a refugee child.
If before we swore to love God, we put our hands in each other’s hands.
Perhaps we would make haste to Love our neighbor.
Perhaps we wouldn’t be so quick to use our words as weapons.
Perhaps we would be less cavalier about sending soldiers off to war.
Perhaps we would be more willing to welcome the stranger, to re-humanize those we have cast aside.
Perhaps we would choose a different path home.
Perhaps we would become the light of the world.
This comes from the writings of the desert fathers:
“Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, 'Abba as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?'
Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, 'If you will, you can become all flame.”
As William Blake said, “We are here but a little while to learn to bear the beams of love.” Beloved, this is epiphany. There is a burning bush in each one of us—a bush that burns but is not consumed. The light of God is ENFLESHED in us. That’s the truth of the Gospel. That’s the truth of Christ. We can use our bodies, our flesh, to do the work of Love in the here and now. We can become all flame.
This year, like the wise men, let us resolve to choose new paths. Let us resolve to choose the path of love rather than the well-worn paths of divisiveness found in internet comment sections and twitter feeds. Let us choose God over Law. Let us choose Love over empire. Let us choose Jesus over petulant, raging politics and hate-inciting rhetoric that harms those on the margins.
And then, let us light the path for others. You, beloved, are the word made flesh, love made flesh, light made flesh. So learn to bear the beams of love. That is the only gift we can offer to the Christ child worthy of his kingdom. There is no time but now, no people but us, and no way forward without turning toward each other. Become all flame. Arise and shine!
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.