Second Sunday after Epiphany
We are now in the season of Epiphany, a season of revelation and light. It’s probably is true of every era, but for many people, it seems we are entering a season of darkness, rather than light. Many feel like night has fallen, not that dawn has broken. We simply can’t see our way forward. Perhaps, like the magi and the holy family, we are awaiting angels to tell us what to do and where to go next, because we simply cannot see.
If you are among those people who feel like you are walking in deep darkness, I want you to hear this Good News right off the bat: into this darkness the servant of God steps—the one who reveals the glory of God. In Jesus, John reveals, the light shines in the darkness, and despite everything that ever came against him, the darkness did not and does not overcome him. In Jesus, we proclaim, God puts on human skin, embraces human feelings and thoughts, and dignifies and uplifts all that we are. Because Jesus calls us his own, we are part of his brilliant light as well.
During this season after Epiphany we are invited to look for the places where God is being revealed, so that we can see our way forward, and to shine that light for others.
Dr. Martin Luther King said in his last speech, the night before he was shot, that if God asked him during what time period he’d like to live, he’d answer this way:
“Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy. Now that’s a strange statement to make because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick, trouble is in the land, confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”
So let’s look at the stars. Let’s reflect the light of those stars as we contemplate where God, the Light of the World has shown up lately for us. Last Sunday we joined Jesus at his baptism, where we watched as the Holy Spirit descended upon him, and the voice from heaven declared him to be God’s beloved child. We were reminded that in our baptisms, God claims us as beloved children of God as well. Where else did you see God this week? Who helped you find it? In what moments did the light shine brightly for you?
Today John the Baptist indicates where we can look for light when he points to Jesus and calls him the Lamb of God, the Messiah. The prophet Isaiah speaks of a Servant of God who is the light to the nations. And a more recent prophet—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—illuminates what it means for all of us to live as children of the light.
All of these people were prophets. The Biblical definition of a prophet is someone who points to God and conveys the Word of God to the people, especially when they are determined not to hear it. Prophets jar their hearers out of complacency and into action, even if that action is scary or hard. Isaiah, St. Paul, John the Baptist, and Dr. King may not have wished to speak hard words to the people they loved and that God loves, but a prophet’s love urges them to call us to be accountable and responsible.
John the Baptist had been goading people into seeing the truth about themselves, repenting, and preparing for the arrival of Jesus. He called them to turn from darkness and to walk in a different direction, so that they would be ready for the Messiah when he appeared. When Jesus does come on the scene, John spends all of his time pointing toward him, sending his own disciples away from him to follow the true Light. This is also part of what it is to be a prophet—to be continually pointing away from yourself and toward the truth. It is a challenging and self-effacing way of life.
On the other hand, it is also somewhat liberating. Mark Twain is credited with saying, “We would not worry so much about what people think of us if we knew how seldom they do.” Perhaps one of the lessons we can take from our prophet guides is that it’s not all about us. Living a life of meaning and authenticity involves living for something and someone much bigger and brighter than we are. The first thing Jesus asks his new followers is, “What are you seeking?” I suggest he asks that of each of us too. Jesus wants us to pay attention to what it is that drives us. What gets you out of bed in the morning and keeps you awake at night? Where do you put your energy and your affection? What are you looking for? And will you know it if you find it?
John the Baptist and Isaiah and St. Paul and Dr. King all found what they were looking for by dedicating their lives to directing people’s eyes to God. They announced God’s dream that all creation have life and have it abundantly. They pointed out what stood in the way of abundant life in their own contexts and situations, and urged people to change.
Each of these prophets had his own difficulties, and struggles. Paul spoke of a thorn in his side that never let up. MLK was notoriously an adulterer. Lots of jail time was logged by that company, and lots of blood was shed. John the Baptist, Paul, and MLK were all imprisoned and executed for telling truth to powerful people who didn’t want to hear it. But while they lived, they did not let their own concerns or insecurities or flaws or talents be the centerpiece of their existence. They lived to reflect the shining light of God, and to encourage others to do the same. And of course, in living selflessly, they became unforgettable to those of us who have come after them.
I wonder if we’d be more effective beacons of light in the darkness if we worried less about doing it correctly. Following Jesus is not something we ever fully master, because how we do that will change as we change and as our circumstances change. Most of us are probably not called to go preach in the desert wearing animal skins and eating locusts (probably not doesn’t mean it isn’t the case for some, though, so don’t take my word for it. Listen to God for instructions!). Maybe some of us will find our calls lead us into trouble with authorities, and some will not. All of us are called to love God and our neighbors. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the church in Corinth whom Paul described as “those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.”
Called to be saints. That’s our job. But what does it mean? Does it mean we are to live perfectly? No, no. We aren’t called to be the Messiah, the Lamb of God. That’s Jesus’ job. But being called to be saints means we are
called to point to Christ. We care called to proclaim in word and in deed that God so loves this world, no matter how messed up it is. We are called to shine our own lights brightly, thereby glorifying the God in whose image we are made. It means looking for the stars on the darkest night, and helping other people walk by their light.
I’d like to conclude by reading one of my favorite passages from Dr. King on the subject living authentically and faithfully. Six months before he was assassinated he spoke to a group of students at Barrett Jr. High in Philadelphia. He urged the kids to embrace their individual callings with enthusiasm and abandon. King said,
“When you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”
God bless you, bright and shiny saints of God! Lift every voice and sing!
~Pastor Susan Schneider