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Sermons

EPIPHANY = FROM DARKNESS TO LIGHT

John 2:1-11; Luke 3:21-22 Isaiah 60:1-6:

I know that most of you have not been kept up nights wondering about Epiphany. A large number of people have never heard of Epiphany, and although I had heard of it, it never really dawned on me that anyone might actually celebrate it until a Seminary class assignment.

Epiphany falls on January 6, on the 12th day of Christmas–the day you’re supposed to get 12 drummers drumming and the day we commonly remember the arrival of the Wise Men in Bethlehem. In Germany and a number of other countries, this is a big event. Children dress up as kings and travel from door to door–much as we do on Halloween–only instead of collecting for themselves, they collect for the poor, remembering that the wise men brought gifts to the poor Christ child.

Reading about those children out in their costumes was the first thought I had regarding anybody actually celebrating Epiphany, and it started me wondering if we weren’t missing something.

The more we look into church history, the more we realize that we are missing a lot of things. Epiphany in the early church was one of the great feast days–second only to Easter in its importance. The third great feast was Pentecost, another day that has drifted into religious backwaters. And even Easter is greatly watered down today.

Easter used to be celebrated with an all-night vigil the night before and then the celebration continued on for what was called the “Great 50 Days” ending with a huge blowout on Pentecost. Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost were the focus of the church. Nobody even thought about celebrating Christmas until the fourth century.

So what’s the deal? “How come nothing epiphs on Epiphany anymore?” Why was Epiphany so important and why is it so unimportant now?

For those few who might have heard of Epiphany, chances are that you will know it as the supposed day the Wise Men came. And that is partially right. The word Epiphany means “manifestation” or “revelation.” So the Wise Men are celebrated on Epiphany because they represented the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles. But it used to be that Epiphany celebrated more than the Wise Men.

In the days when Epiphany was a great Church feast, it also celebrated the revelation of Jesus in His first miracle–changing water into wine at Cana, and the manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God at His baptism. Those three things–the Wise Men, Cana, and the Baptism were all lumped together to symbolize the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and such revelation was cause for great celebration.

That a baby was born in a manger was relatively unimportant, compared with the events that proved to the world who that baby was. The authority of Jesus was validated by the signs He performed, like changing water into wine, by the voice of God and the descending dove at His baptism, and through signs in the heavens that could be interpreted by the Gentiles. Those signs were God’s way of saying, “Pssst...this is the guy!” and Epiphany was the Church’s way of saying, “And we can never be the same again.”

So why doesn’t anything epiph on Epiphany anymore? There may be several answers, but I think one of them is that, for the most part, we no longer expect it. We no more expect God to be revealed in our midst than we expect stores to start giving away merchandise. And because we don’t expect it, we get what we expect. The early church was a church full of excitement and expectation. They anticipated the return of Jesus at any time, and the persecutions which they endured forced them to be aware of their faith and sometimes to die for their faith.

Many of us today have lost that sense of excitement and expectation. In the early church, the point of Epiphany was not to remember history, but to be reminded that God appears miraculously to us in places and in ways that we don’t expect. If we keep remembering that God seems to thrive on unexpected appearances and if we keep expecting to see God everywhere we turn, we are not too likely to miss it when it happens again.

The wedding at Cana was crowded, but only a few were aware that Jesus had worked a miracle in their midst. Most weren’t paying attention, except to realize that the wine was flowing again. They weren’t watching and missed an event that people have talked about for two thousand years.

Bethlehem was so full of people that Mary and Joseph couldn’t even find a room to spend the night, but there is no indication that more than a handful paid any notice to the new life that changed all of history, bright stars and shepherd’s stories notwithstanding.

If we want anything to epiph in our lives, we had better begin by expecting it and watching for it. If we are expecting company in our home, we are not going to miss their arrival unless they are purposely sneaking up on us. We have made preparations for their coming, fully expect to see them, and always keep an ear out for the doorbell and an eye out the window. Yet how many of us expect God in that way? Do we prepare for God to come? For that matter, have we even issued an invitation?

In Isaiah 60 we read Arise shine for the light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee and His glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.

The early church fathers wanted to clearly represent the importance of Jesus as the “Light.” No one knew exactly when Jesus was born, so they decided to set his birth to correspond with the winter solstice; that time in December when in an infinitesimal moment light and darkness change places.

The birth of Jesus represents that infinitesimal moment, and so we celebrate the fact that the light of Christ has come into our dark world and the darkness has never been able to put it out. So, “Arise, shine; for your light has come”!

Imagine living in the little town of Barrow, Alaska. It’s located on the farthest northern tip of the state of Alaska, above the Arctic Circle. In Barrow Alaska, the sun sets in the afternoon on November 18, and it doesn’t rise again until January 24. 65 days of darkness. 65 days when the sun doesn’t shine.

But when the sun does rise for a moment on January 24, the whole town comes out to celebrate, because finally, there is light again.

The prophet Isaiah isn’t speaking to the people of Barrow, Alaska, when he writes in our text: “Arise, shine, for your light has come!”? What God’s Word talks about here is a different kind of light, and a different kind of darkness.

And when this special light that God speaks about begins to shine through that ugly darkness, the results are much more spectacular and joyful than anything we could experience in northern Alaska.

In the Christian church year, the celebration of the birth of Christ goes on for two Sundays after Christmas. January sixth is the official beginning of the Epiphany season of the church year.

In the church year, the Epiphany season is when The Son of God reveals His glory for everyone to see. For the next two months, we will be in the Epiphany season, and most everything that we will experience as we worship will serve one purpose, and that is to reveal to us, the glory of our Savior Jesus Christ.

We can sum up the festival of Epiphany with one phrase, and that one phrase is the theme for our message: FROM DARKNESS TO LIGHT. “Arise,” God says to you, “Shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.”

The Bible pictures you and me and the rest of the world as a group of people living in darkness, people who have been waiting and waiting and waiting for the Son to rise: “See,” God says, “darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples.”

God pictures our world as a very dark place, Spiritually dark. We can see evidence of spiritual darkness by looking around us; as an example a Muslim extremist killed some Christian doctors working at a mission in Yemen. The Muslim said that he did this because he was trying to “cleanse his religion.” There you see evidence of spiritual darkness.

We’ve also heard about the possibility of human cloning. A spokesman for this project said that this was a very important thing, because this is how a human can attain eternal life. If we are able to reproduce a clone of ourselves, then we are, in a sense, able to live forever.

Once again, this is evidence of spiritual darkness. Look around us, watch people, listen to them talk, see what they do, and it will become very clear to us that our world is a very dark place spiritually.

But the most frightening place to look, is within ourselves. TV celebrities will tell us that there is an incredible amount of good, and an incredible amount of strength inside ourselves: “If you would only reach deep within yourself, you would see how good you really are!”

But this has not proven to be the case. Over and over again, people look within themselves for strength to bear up under trying circumstances, and that strength is not there.

People look within themselves for something good, but the more closely we look within ourselves, the more clear it becomes that there is nothing there but selfishness and materialism and selfishness and materialism. God sees our soul as a very dark place, a place full of sin.

Yes, “thick darkness is over the peoples, but…” God says, “…but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.”

The birth of the Lord, Jesus Christ, is described in the Bible as the rising of the sun on a very dark place. The sun rises, and the darkness disappears.

What happens to the darkness of our sin and guilt when Jesus rises in our life? It disappears! Jesus shines His forgiveness and grace into our life, and the darkness in our soul disappears.

If we feel guilt in our life, guilt from committing sin after sin, guilt from trying to make things right with God, even though we know we can never do enough, then we are someone who is trapped in darkness.

But then we learn that Jesus Christ was born into the world. We learn that He came for the sole purpose of doing what we could not do – making everything right between us and God.

We learn that our sins are freely forgiven because Jesus has died for all of our sins on the cross. We can feel our guilt melt away. It is as though the sun has risen in Barrow Alaska for us.

Finally we can see that, because of Christ, everything is good between us and God. We have gone from darkness to light.

This is Epiphany – when someone trapped in the darkness of sin sees and believes in the glory of Jesus Christ. When someone finally stops trusting in himself for salvation, and starts trusting in Christ.

This is what happened to the wise men from the East. Every year, these Gentiles from a far away land are the focal point of the Epiphany season.

They came from a place where no one knew about the Christ. No one knew about the true God who was sending a Savior. But somehow, they knew. And when they saw His star, somehow they knew that the Messiah had come.

And so these men left their land of spiritual darkness because they wanted to see and worship the Christ. They made the long trip to Jerusalem, and they were probably surprised to see that this city was just as spiritually dark as the land they had come from.

But finally, they found the Messiah. Isaiah talks about the wise men in verse 3: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Later in verse 6 he says, “… all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord."

There, in the form of a little child, the wise men saw the light of the world. There they saw the Glory of God, and this is what filled them with a spirit of awe and worship. They had gone from darkness to light, and they rejoiced, and gave this child who was their God their gifts from afar.

Many people call Epiphany the “Gentile Christmas,” because one of the main themes of the Epiphany season is that Christ is a light, not just for a select group of people like the Jews, but for all people, all over the world.

Epiphany is when anyone living in the darkness of sin, people like you and me and those wise men from the east – anyone can come and see the glory of God, as He reveals it through the person of Jesus Christ.

Just as the sun rises on every nation, on every kind of people, no matter who we are or what our background is, just as the sun, every morning, rises on us, so it is with Christ. His grace, His forgiveness, His salvation, rises and shines on the Jews in Bethlehem, but also on the wise men from the east.

His grace and forgiveness rises and shines on every person on this earth – every person is invited to believe in this child, to worship Him, to find their salvation in Him. No matter who we are, we too, can go from darkness to light.

And no matter how dark the world becomes, the light of Jesus Christ will never stop shining for us.

Now don’t feel too sorry for the people of Barrow, Alaska. While it is true that right now, the sun never rises there, that’s not how it is during the summer.

Six months from now, the earth will tilt a different way, and then, in Barrow, Alaska, the sun will never set. From May 10 until August 2, for almost three months, the sun will not stop shining. People call that place “the land of the midnight sun.”

And so it is with our soul. Once the grace and mercy and forgiveness of Jesus Christ rises in our life, it will never stop shining. No matter how dark the world gets around us, Christ’s love will always shine in our life.

The story of the Magi is the story of Epiphany. It is about us, it’s about our emptiness, our journey, and our search for God.

Life doesn’t make much sense until we can discover who we are and begin to grow into that person. Despite all of their wealth and power, the Magi wanted to find out who they really were and the star led them to a point of discovery.

That star can lead us as well to the Christ child, where we can discover our reason for being. It is there, after the long journey, that we find inner meaning for our lives. The only proper response is to fall on our knees and offer our gifts.

Let us set forth on a journey seeking the Christ, realizing that as we each make our way closer to God, we are also drawing closer to one another.

If we follow the signs God gives us, we will find the presence of the living Christ. We need to keep in mind that anything could be a sign if we could learn to relax our gaze, be open to any possibility, and be willing to be led to new, unusual, even dangerous places.

The fact is, not all who surveyed the starry sky that night saw what those astrologers from the East saw. But they followed that star until it led them to the place where they felt they now knew who they were and what the purpose was for their life.

There, in the presence of God, they knelt and offered their gifts. Today, you are invited to come into the presence of Christ. Bring with you the gift of your life and you will know the experience of the Magi who, after encountering the Christ child, returned to their home a different way.

The message of Epiphany is that God is not dead, dried out, and stuffed into your Bibles somewhere around the Psalms. God is alive and epiphing here there and everywhere in the hopes that somebody will tune in to the right frequency.

The God who was made manifest in Jesus of Nazareth lives and is manifesting somewhere, somehow in your home. The God that was calling to you in your last thoughts is the God that will be revealed in your on-going life. The message of Epiphany is, “Keep watch” For you don’t know the day or the hour when God will appear.

I can’t force you to encounter God. You have to have a willing spirit, and you have to be looking with a loving spirit. But God is here to be encountered.

As we wind our way from Epiphany through the Lenten season to Easter, let God epiph in your life. Make space in your life to have a real encounter with God. It might be here; it might be anywhere but expect that it will happen. Get up in the morning wondering where it will come and go to sleep listening for God’s voice. Read your Bible expecting to hear God, God will epiph. I promise.

May this Epiphany season be for you a time when you see ever more clearly the glory of your Savior, Jesus Christ.

“Arise, shine, for your light has come. And the glory of the Lord rises upon you.” Amen.