Isaiah 60:1-6 | Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 | Ephesians 3:1-12 | Matthew 2:1-12
This Sunday marks a new season in the Church Calendar. Advent and Christmas have given way to the season of Epiphany. The season of Epiphany focuses on two themes: the identity of Jesus as the Messiah (or Christ) and the inclusion of the Gentiles in the story of Israel. Or, to put the two together: Jesus’ fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures and prophecies, and that fulfillment including an invitation to all peoples, not just Israel.
Epiphany is a further exploration of Simeon’s prophecy from last week as he held the 8 day old baby Jesus, “…my eyes have seen [God’s] salvation, which [God] prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to [God’s] people Israel.” Simeon saw, first and foremost, the identity of Jesus, who was God’s salvation made flesh, and secondly he saw that vital to that salvation was its universal scope – to “all peoples,” Jews and Gentiles alike.
From now until the beginning of Lent, culminating in Transfiguration Sunday, our Scriptures will primarily focus on either Jesus’ identity or the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God (or both).
In our readings from today, we see both of these themes. In Isaiah 60, the prophet sees Israel being restored by the Almighty, and he sees that restoration drawing all peoples to Israel and their God. Isaiah says, speaking to Israel, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and [the Lord’s] glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
In our Gospel reading from Matthew, we read of the first Gentiles to recognize Jesus for who he is: the Magi. The interesting thing is that they recognize Jesus as “The King of the Jews” (v. 2), yet when they meet him they bow down and worship him, despite the fact that they aren’t Jewish. Somehow they understand that Jesus’ identity is deeply Jewish, and yet it’s implications reach beyond just Israel to include even them, these foreignors from the East.
This is the mystery Paul speaks of in our reading from Ephesians, when he says, “[The] mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” Once again, we see both the themes of Epiphany present. The promises of God are extended to the Gentiles, we become “heirs together with Israel,” but these promises are found in who Jesus is: the Christ, the salvation Simeon spoke of while holding Jesus as a newborn baby.
As most of you know, I grew up outside a small town in Idaho. Here, in the city, it’s often hard to really see the stars, because there’s so much light pollution. But back in New Meadows, where I grew up, you can see the night sky so much better. I remember one night I was back home for Thanksgiving break, and my dad and I drove down Rainy Road, one of my families favorite places to go on walks, until we were out in the open fields and pasture lands of Meadows Valley.
The night sky was filled with stars, bordered on all side by the mountains that surround the valley. There was already snow on the ground and the temperature was well below freezing. And it was quiet, so quiet. I remember looking up, realizing that the darkness around me made it possible to see the stars in all their brilliance. Seeing the night sky like that filled me with wonder.
I wonder if that’s how it felt for the Magi as they travelled by night, if they were following a star, they must have always been travelling at night. What were those nights like?
Were they magical? Were they filled with wonder? Or were they scary, and dark, the way difficult to make out in front of them as they tried to follow the star high above them? Or was the star so bright that it was always as if there was a full moon? Was the star a distant speck, or did it fully illuminate the way forward?
What did they talk about on that long journey? How long was the journey? How far East did these Magi from the East come from? Were there three, like we the song says? Or were there two? Or were there 12? Scripture doesn’t say, it just says they had three different gifts.
What was it like to leave everything to follow a star, to commit to a journey that could only happen in darkness, that would be impossible without darkness?
How long had these Magi been in darkness? Had they been in darkness their whole lives? Were they in darkness before they set out on this trip? Before they met Jesus, they didn’t know the God of Israel: Yahweh.
Their parents didn’t tell them the stories the Israelites’ parents told them. They know nothing of God’s forming Adam and Eve with God’s own hand, breathing the very life of God into their lungs, creating them in God’s own image. They don’t know about God calling Abraham and Sarah. They don’t know about God hearing the cries of enslaved Israel, and God’s rescuing them from the Egyptians. They don’t know any of this. In the words of Isaiah, “darkness has covered them, a thick darkness is over them.”
But that’s alright.
We often associate darkness with evil, and often in Scripture light does represent God’s presence and darkness God’s absence, but in other passages, God is found in darkness. In Exodus 20 God’s presence descends upon Mount Sinai as a cloud of lighting and thunder and darkness. Exodus 20:21 says, “The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.” In Exodus 20 God is in the darkness.
While the Magi, the Gentiles – us – while we were living in darkness, the words of Isaiah came true, God rose above us, and a light appeared over us, and God’s glory appeared ahead of us. In the darkness, a star appeared to lead the Magi to the infant King of the Jews, to lead us to the God of Israel, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger – the King of Israel who would become our King as well.
I love the darkness. As weird as it may be to some of you, I love the short days in the winter. I love the warm light of our apartment all the more when I look outside and see that thick darkness has descended on the city, checkered with other warm lights, shining out of the windows of homes around me.
When I worked at the coffee shop, I loved the opening shift during the Christmas season. I would show up at 5:30 AM, while it was still cold and dark outside. If you’ve been to Coava, it’s a giant warehouse that hosts the coffee shop and a bamboo wood working shop in the same building. At 5:30 in the morning, I would only turn on the lights in the corner of the warehouse where the coffee shop is, and I would turn on the Christmas lights on the giant Christmas tree that stood in the middle of the room, and I would leave everything else dark. Then I’d turn on whatever music I liked, and I would dial in the coffees and set up the café, and if I had time, I’d sit on the back counter, sipping my first coffee of the day, enjoying my little patch of light in a world that was still dark all around me.
The darkness makes me appreciate what little light I have all the more.
In the last month or so, I’ve met with a number of people who are, in one sense or another, experiencing a period of darkness. I’ve met with people going through divorces or breakups, people nearing middle age wondering where there life is headed and why they don’t have it all figured out yet, people with grandchildren who are, maybe for the first time, beginning to question the faith they’ve believe in for 50 or 60 years. Maybe some of us are currently experiencing some form of darkness today. Maybe some of us feel lost and alone.
These periods of darkness can cause us to wonder if God’s really there, and if God is there, if God really cares for us. They can make us wonder if we’ve done something wrong.
But Exodus reminds us that God dwells in the “thick darkness” as well as the light. The story of the Magi assures us that while there may be darkness all around us, there is a star that shines ahead of us, leading us to a fuller knowledge of who God is.
These times of darkness, times of uncertainty and doubt, are good, because they call us out of our comfortable home in the East, into a new place. The Magi travel, night after night, into a questionable future, into landscapes that are new and perhaps frightening, but when they find Jesus everything changes.
They had been travelling at night, but then, after they see Jesus, they “return home by a different route.” After they meet Jesus, they no longer have to travel at night, following a pinprick of light ahead of them, but they can return to their homes in the light of a new day.
But this will not be the last time the Magi travel at night. The life of faith is a series of long, dark nights, fiery sunrises, grueling, hot afternoons, and peaceful sunsets. There will be times when we feel the presence of God like the sun hot on our back, and there will be times we cannot find God among the drizzly, gray, winter days.
The ups and downs, nights and days, are indicators that we are moving, stretching, growing.
In this story from Matthew, there are some who don’t want that kind of unpredictability. When the Magi arrive at King Herod’s palace, Herod calls the “chief priests and teachers of the law” to find out where the Messiah would be born. The chief priests and teachers of the law seem to know the answer right off the top of their heads, “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they say, and quote Micah 5. They know where the Messiah will be born, but they don’t want to travel there themselves.
These chief priests and teachers of the law knew the stories of Yahweh that the Magi hadn’t heard, about who God is and what God is like. The law and the prophets had given them a certain amount of light, like morning light weakly forcing its way through drawn blinds. They’d lived their whole lives with this pale light, and they’d become content with it.
When the Magi come and tell them that a star has appeared to them, the chief priests and the teachers of the law could go with the Magi to find the Messiah, but to do so they would have to enter the darkness, they would have to travel by night. They would have to trust a single star in the midst of that thick darkness. They decide not to risk it. They’re content with the light they have.
But the Magi press on, and when they find Jesus they find the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Finding Jesus was like ripping open the blinds and staring into the Sun. Their journey in the darkness led them to the brightness of God’s glorious dawn. They didn’t just learn the stories about God, they met God.
The story of the Magi assures us that God is present, even in times of uncertainty and doubt and pain, even when thick darkness has descended upon us. And if we will continue to search for God in the midst of that darkness, though God may only appear to be a small pinprick of light, God will lead us through the night. And ultimately – it may take months or years or even decades – we’ll arrive one day at a fuller revelation of who God is.
In the words of Isaiah, God’s presence will rise upon us, and God’s glory will appear over us, and we will see the brightness of God’s glorious dawn.
And we’ll be glad we travelled into the darkness.