Rise and Shine: An Epiphany Sermon

My younger brothers were very happy last month when the most recent Star Wars movie came out. They have been devoted fans since the release of the first move in 1977–forty years ago. I have pictures of them at Christmas 1978 with their first Star Wars toys—12 inch figures of Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, and Han Solo.

starwars

I wasn’t caught up in the craze. I didn’t see the first two until they came out on videotape. I thought Star Wars a kids’ movie, made to sell kids’ toys. I turned sixteen in 1977–too mature for kids’ stuff, I thought.

If you talked to me about a 40 year old movie in 1977, I would have said, that’s ancient. 1937, a year before my mother was born. The most popular movie of 1937 was the first feature-length cartoon, Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” The stars of the other popular movies that year included 9 year-old Shirley Temple, Fred Astaire, Laurel and Hardy, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, and Humphrey Bogart.

Something about Star Wars has resonated in our culture, and given it staying power.

In each of the Star Wars movies the heroes are trying to do the same thing, “bring balance to the Force.” The Force being an energy field produced by all living things, which can be controlled by skilled people. George Lucas gave the world a dualistic vision of reality, in which good and evil, light and dark, always exist, always are in tension, always are seeking balance.

A mass murderer, a cold-hearted killer like Darth Vader or Kylo Ren, is not seen as totally evil. Just out of balance. “I sense there is still good in you,” a loved one pleads. Just balance out all those horrible things you’ve done with some good, and you’ll be OK.

The Bible tells a different story.

The story of a world not simply “out of balance,” but locked in conflict—the Great Controversy between Christ and Satan. It’s the story of a perfect universe, and perfect beings, one of whom turned inward and away from God and exalted himself, and led others astray through lies and treachery, and brought sin and death and destruction to the world. It’s a story in which the goal is not mere “balance” between the opponents, but the eradication of sin, death, and the devil, and the restoration of God’s perfect kingdom of love and light.

In this Christmas season which is now ending, we hear of the inbreaking of God’s light into our world of darkness. Of the birth of the one who would defeat the enemy.

700 years earlier, Isaiah prophesied his appearing in the passage we just read from Isaiah 60:1-6.

But let’s look back to the previous chapter. Isaiah 59. Here Isaiah tells the problem. Here he describes the tragic reality of our fallen world. Starting with verse 2.

 … your iniquities have made a separation
 between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
 so that he does not hear.
3 For your hands are defiled with blood
 and your fingers with iniquity;
your lips have spoken lies;
 your tongue mutters wickedness.
4 No one enters suit justly;
 no one goes to law honestly;
 they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
 they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity.
5 They hatch adders’ eggs;
 they weave the spider’s web;
he who eats their eggs dies,
 and from one that is crushed a viper is hatched.
6 Their webs will not serve as clothing;
 men will not cover themselves with what they make.
 Their works are works of iniquity,
 and deeds of violence are in their hands.
7 Their feet run to evil,
    and they are swift to shed innocent blood;
their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity;
    desolation and destruction are in their highways.
8 The way of peace they do not know,
 and there is no justice in their paths;
they have made their roads crooked;
 no one who treads on them knows peace.
9 Therefore justice is far from us,
 and righteousness does not overtake us;
we hope for light, and behold, darkness,
 and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
10 We grope for the wall like the blind;
 we grope like those who have no eyes;
we stumble at noon as in the twilight,
 among those in full vigor we are like dead men.
11 We all growl like bears;
 we moan and moan like doves;
we hope for justice, but there is none;
 for salvation, but it is far from us.
12 For our transgressions are multiplied before you,
 and our sins testify against us;
for our transgressions are with us,
 and we know our iniquities:
13 transgressing, and denying the Lord,
 and turning back from following our God,
speaking oppression and revolt,
 conceiving and uttering from the heart lying words.

That’s our world – full of sin, not merely out of balance. 

The Reformers used the term, “total depravity.” By this they did not mean there was no good in the world–they meant, rather, that every part of our being is affected, is infected, is twisted, corrupted, enslaved to sin.

Paul says in Ephesians 2 that we “were dead in trespasses and sins.”

In Romans 3:10-12, Paul quotes the Psalmist,

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”

And in Romans 3:23, Paul says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

That’s what Isaiah is talking about in chapter 59. But then, after rattling off that litany of despair, he holds out a promise of hope. Verse 20 of Isaiah 59: “A Redeemer will come to Zion”

And that’s whose coming he announces in Isaiah 60, starting with verse 1.

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
 and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
 and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
 and his glory will be seen upon you.
3 And nations shall come to your light,
 and kings to the brightness of your rising.

4 Lift up your eyes all around, and see;
 they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from afar,
 and your daughters shall be carried on the hip.
5 Then you shall see and be radiant;
 your heart shall thrill and exult,[a]
because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you,
 the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
6 A multitude of camels shall cover you,
 the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
 all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
 and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord.

I heard a sermon last week in which the preacher was saying this is eschatological. It is in the future. It’s the last generation.

But that’s not how the Bible explains it. A light seen from afar that draws the kings of the earth, riding on camels, to the land of Israel, bringing gifts of gold and frankincense …

That’s the story that Matthew tells us. Matthew chapter 2, starting with verse 1.

1Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

Matthew calls them “wise men,” or “magi,” from the East. Where do we get the idea they were kings, riding on camels? From Isaiah. Where did we get the idea that there were three visitors? From the gifts Matthew says they bring: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Matthew says they were from the East, and he uses the term, “magi,” which originally referred to the priests of the religion of Persia, Zoroastrianism. And that makes sense. Zoroastrians believed in one God—and they still do. They believed in good and evil, and a struggle between God and Satan. They believed in prophets who spoke God’s word. They believed that the dead would sleep until the last day, when they would be raised to eternal life. So if any Gentiles were to come to Israel seeking the Messiah, it makes sense that it would be these men of the East.

From Matthew’s account, it is clear that they knew something of Jewish prophecy. That shouldn’t surprise us either, as Jews had been living in Persia for 500 years; the prophet Nehemiah was a Persian king’s cupbearer; Esther was a Persian king’s wife. They saw a new star in the night sky, and they put 2 and 2 together and connected that new star with the prophecies of the Messiah, and made their way to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”

Verse 3 of Matthew 2.

 3When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

5And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, 6And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

7Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.

8And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

Note that the wise men were told by Herod that Bethlehem was the place they should go. They didn’t know it. They saw the star and they traveled to Jerusalem. Herod had to get his Bible scholars together to name the place: Bethlehem.

 9When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

Up to this point, we might have imagined that the star was an ordinary star—or even a conjunction of planets, as some astronomers suggest. But this star is different. This star that they saw in the east now reappears. And now it moves. It guides them. It takes its time hovering in the sky and stops directly over the place where the child is. It’s a beacon telling them, This is the place!

 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.

Keep in mind the imagery from Isaiah 60: “the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” That’s what’s happening here. The king of Israel doesn’t come to worship the baby. The religious scholars don’t come. The Jewish priests don’t come. The ordinary people in the street don’t come. But these Gentiles do. And that tells us that while Jesus is indeed the son of David, and the hoped-for messiah of Israel, he is more. He is the savior of the whole world. His light is to shine upon all people.

In the historic Christian calendar, the 12 days of Christmas ended yesterday, bringing us to January 6, celebrated as the Epiphany of Our Lord, Epiphany meaning appearance or manifestation. It’s also known as Three Kings Day.

Starting today all along the Gulf Coast, but especially in Louisiana, you’ll get to buy King Cake, decorated in royal colors, with a plastic baby hidden within, symbolizing the search of the magi for the infant Jesus. Or, in Spanish speaking countries, it’s called Rosca de Reyes.

Yes, the world buries the story of Jesus under the trappings of lots of traditions, and twists the season into a time of excess, but beneath the clutter of torn wrappings and broken presents and forgettable parties, beneath the symbol of giving of gifts and the wishing of good cheer, the light of Christ still shines. And the promise is still heard. And that fills our hearts with hope.

We need that hope. For though the light has risen, we still live in a fallen world. Our lives are a mix of darkness and light, joy and sadness. There are times when the darkness envelops us and we seem to see no way out.

But even in those dark times, de see the light of Christ shining. And we gather here in faith that that light will continue to shine, and that it will one day overcome the darkness, and will be all in all.

A world in which good and evil, darkness and light, are merely in balance would be a world of despair and futility. But we know that Jesus came to conquer. We know that he will be the victor. We know that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

And one day, standing on a golden street in a city that needs no sun by day, we shall sing the song of Moses and the Lamb. We will sing the song of victory, and will be able to look back to a time long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, when there was such a thing as sin.

Ellen White speaks of that day in her book, “The Great Controversy.” This is the final paragraph:

“The great controversy is ended. Sin and sinners are no more. The entire universe is clean. One pulse of harmony and gladness beats through the vast creation. From Him who created all, flow life and light and gladness, throughout the realms of illimitable space. From the minutest atom to the greatest world, all things, animate and inanimate, in their unshadowed beauty and perfect joy, declare that God is love.”

That’s the future that was made possible by the birth of Jesus, whose light heralded the dawning of that kingdom.

That’s the story we now are sent to tell.

Don’t be lazy. Don’t let this season pass as just another Christmas gone. Don’t let the hope you have now fade away. Rise and shine! And give God the glory. And tell others of this good news. Jesus has come. The darkness is fading. The light is breaking. And soon, very soon, we will be with him in that eternal day.