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Arise, Your Light Is Come!

Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
January 8, 2017

“Arise, your light is come!” Jesus is the light of the world! What does it mean to follow him?

Over the next few weeks we will explore the prophetic voice of Jesus and what it means to follow that voice. In this dark time of the year when the sun is just beginning to stay longer in the daytime sky, the ancient church established a liturgical calendar that allows us to celebrate Christmas and the birth of Jesus just as the light begins to increase.

Today is Epiphany Sunday. January 6, the 12th day of Christmas, was Friday. As we enter the Epiphany season we are invited to celebrate the coming of the wise men, the story found only in Matthew’s gospel but a brilliant reminder to us that “wise ones still seek him!”

Matthew’s Gospel is unique. It is sometimes called the Jewish gospel as it references Hebrew scriptures more than any of the others. It makes the case for Jesus coming to fulfill messianic prophesies more clearly than anywhere else. Scholars have seen a strong connection between the story as it unfolds in this gospel and the stories of Moses. Like Moses, Jesus and his family must escape into Egypt and then return from there.

Like Moses, there is a terrible slaughter of the innocents although in Moses case it is God’s destruction of the first born sons of the Egyptians while in Matthew’s version the slaughter is done at Herod’s command.

Like Moses, Jesus ultimately brings the law, a new law, the challenging law of love that does not replace the Ten commandments but puts them in perspective.

Like Moses, Jesus encounters God directly, just as Moses did in the burning bush; and like Moses, Jesus performs dramatic miracles of feeding many thousands and doing many healings. And finally, like Moses, Jesus set his people, all people free!

I don’t often think of Moses as a prophet, but whenever I ask my Jewish friends who they consider the greatest prophet of their faith, they choose Moses.

Historically we don’t know if the stories of Moses are true. There is no archeological evidence of the Exodus. The early history of Israel is shrouded in mystery. But we don’t have much historical verification of Jesus’ life either. The only independent reference to the historical Jesus tells us that he died under Pontius Pilate, as reported by the historian Josephus. The story of Jesus, and the story of Moses, are mythic in power. This doesn’t mean they didn’t happen, but rather that their meaning is bigger than historic literalism.

Epiphany speaks of revelation in the night sky, of following a star. That star in the night led the first non-Jewish followers of Jesus to his place of birth in Bethlehem. That star shown a light on a baby born to a humble mother sheltered by a loving father in the city of David. But the story for us today is not about an astronomical anomaly. Nor is it about those particular wise men who may have traveled miles to bring gifts to a baby. It is not about historical accuracy or religious myth. Today we are asked to consider whether this baby born some 2000 years ago still has significance in our lives, not as a perfect son of God to save us from our sins by simply believing the stories. Jesus asked his friends ultimately not to worship him, but to go and do as he did -- to follow him.

We don’t get to give presents one day and return to our old comfortable lives the next as those iconic wise men may have done. We have to face the challenge of believing the teachings of the grown-up Jesus. We need to discover what he asks of us today.

Epiphany means the divine has been seen, realized, and experienced in the world in a moment in time. Jesus is recognized by the wise ones as a manifestation of “God with us” (Emmanuel), an Epiphany of God.

When we think of having an epiphany we usually think more mundanely of a light bulb going off in our heads, a realization of meaning, an ‘aha!’ moment. Those moments in our lives when we experience God’s presence and guidance may be rare, but perhaps they can become as common as a moment of silence, a moment of prayer, a moment of presence.

Perhaps we are invited to realize that God abides with us (as John’s gospel would say) and in that abiding, every moment can be an epiphany, a realization of God with us!

Have you had any epiphanies this season of Christ’s birth? Has the Christ spirit become more real, more alive within you? Have you experienced any mental or emotional clicks that shifted how you see yourself, your world, or your relationship to it?
Most of us grow by incremental steps. Sometimes they seem like “Mouse steps” they are so small. But as we look back on our lives, not dwelling there, but noticing how we have experienced life’s challenges, the choices we have made, we see how far we have come. And the patterns remind us we still have far to go!

Growth is cyclical. We come back to the same place again and again, but see it in a slightly new way, handle it slightly differently. And then there are the moments that take our breath away, that shine a light of clarity and meaning on everything that has come before, that change us in ways that last forever.

“Arise, your light is come!” We are challenged to open our hearts and minds to the light that resides within us, the light of the spirit, symbolized by a baby, a perfect child, a child that grew up to teach us how to live. That light is shining within you. Have you noticed? Have you made time in your days to listen to that still voice within that longs to guide you to wholeness? Have you dared to put your hopes and dreams and fears and doubts into the care of that loving spirit residing in your heart?

Matthew saw Moses in Jesus, as a prophet and fulfillment of prophesy. Jesus’ followers first saw him as a prophet and a teacher before he was ever called the Son of God. (And it should be noted that King David was also called the Son of God.) Jesus told his friends that they (and we) are all children of God. He did not denounce his role as prophet.

We are called to walk with Jesus in prophetic witness as well. As the prophet Micah said, “to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly…” As Moses did, to liberate ourselves and all people…As Rev. Rebecca Parker, author, activist, and United Methodist minister says,
“Our times ask us to exercise our capacity for prophetic witness. By prophetic witness I mean our capacity to see what is happening, to say what is happening and to act in accordance with what we know…. Prophetic witness is the ability to name those places where we resist knowing what needs to be known.”

This poem by Clinton Lee Scott names the challenge:
Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets than to
 heed the direction of their vision.
                  It is easier blindly to venerate the saints than to learn the human
 quality of their sainthood.
                  It is easier to glorify the heroes of the race…
than to give weight to their examples.
                  To worship the wise is much easier than to profit by their
                  Great leaders are honored, not by adulation, but by sharing their
                           insights and values.
                  Grandchildren of those who stoned the prophets sometimes
 gather up the stones to build the prophet’s monuments.
                  Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets than to heed the
 direction of their vision.

Jesus calls us to feed the hungry, care for the sick, visit the prisoner, set the captive free! We begin by remembering to take good care of ourselves, to feed our own spirits, to care for our wounds, and begin to heal. Then we can recognize the Christ spirit within, that grows with purity of innocence and calls us to be courageous, to live from our hearts, to serve the deep needs of the world.

This is what it means to be the Body of Christ, as Paul termed it. We must be a prophetic witness in this wounded world. We can trust the Christ spirit within us to renew us, to guide us, and to give us the strength we need to act.

Arise! Your light is come! You are shining! May you know that sacred spirit shines within you! I see it in your eyes. May you feel it in your hearts! And live with prophetic courage in these challenging times!