Rev. Danielle K Bartz January 8, 2023
Matthew 2:1-12 “Shining a Light”
When I was a little girl, like most children, I was afraid of the dark and needed a night light. After I was tucked into bed, my parents would leave my bedroom door ajar and turn on the bathroom light, the bathroom being right next to my bedroom, so it cast just the right amount of light into my room. That light would be on until my parents went to bed, just long enough for me to fall asleep assured that the shadows in my bedroom were just that, and not a monster. Now, I can, and do, walk around my house in the dark, and I need complete darkness to sleep – I can’t even have a digital clock in my room because I think they are too bright. But, every once in a while, I will wake up in the night, see a shadowy shape that I know is the chair in the corner stacked with my throw pillows – but I still switch on the light to just be sure. And if I have to venture into my basement at night, every light gets turned on. It might be an office during the day, but I am quite sure it turns into something sinister in the middle of the night.
Turning on a light, both literally and metaphorically, is how we know what is before us. It is how we know that shadow is just a shadow, or that path ahead is clear of obstacles. Cartoonists have been drawing lightbulbs over people’s heads to symbolize ideas for decades, the symbol being so ubiquitous that we often ask someone who looks like they had a thought if they had a ‘lightbulb moment’. Literally turning on a light is how we see where we are going, and metaphorically turning on a light is how we plan on getting there.
But, we also know that sometimes the light illuminates things we don’t want to see. How often did we hear in 2020 that the death of George Floyd ‘shined a light’ on systemic racism in the United States, even though far too many people continue to shield their eyes from that light? Sometimes we shine a light down a path and realize it is filled with far more obstacles than we realized and instead turn around. And sometimes our fear of what lies ahead is so great, we intentionally keep the lights off. I remember, just a couple of years ago, I woke up from a nightmarish dream that left me unsettled. An odd shadow in the hallway caught my eye and, in my half-sleep, still reeling from the nightmare, I was convinced it was an intruder in my house. I stayed completely still, unfocused eyes trained on that shadow, holding my breath to hear if someone else was breathing. I was paralyzed with fear, until I was able to wake up more and feel brave enough to turn on a lamp. The odd shadow was cast by a vase I had placed on an upstairs windowsill the day before. As soon as the light was on, the danger was gone. But for a long time, I was too afraid to know what it was, so I stayed huddled in the dark, feeling frightened and vulnerable; an experience I know is not unique to me, and one I was reminded of when I noticed something in today’s very familiar scripture that I had not noticed before.
King Herod is the villain of much of the Gospel. A half-Jewish regional king, far more loyal to Rome than to his people, he is recorded in history as being ruthless and terrified of losing his power. So much so he had of his three sons killed and his wife, all because he perceived them, wrongly, as a threat.
In today’s text, in verse three when Herod hears from the magi about the appearance of a star that was prophesied to herald the coming of the Messiah, it says that he was frightened. For a man whose greatest fear was to lose his power, this is not surprising. But what I hadn’t noticed before, or at least never paid attention to, was that it also says all of Jerusalem was frightened with him. I checked, because I was curious, that the correct translation of the word is ‘with’ him, not ‘of’ him. It would make sense to me that the people of Jerusalem would be frightened of him and what he could do with this news. But, they were frightened with him – they were also afraid of this news and what it could mean. And that, at first, surprised me.
Because the people were waiting for the Messiah. The appearance of the star, a prophesy of the great prophet Balaam, should have been welcome news. People should have been rejoicing – their savior had arrived. And even though you and I know the rest of the story and that they had a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Messiah would do, that doesn’t mean they should not have been celebrating. But instead the scripture says they were frightened, along with Herod, about this development.
It is easy for us to look back and scoff at the fear of the people. The star is a key part of our Christmas story today. Stars are everywhere during the holiday season. In fact, we turn on our star here in the sanctuary during Christmas Eve – and I ask the person who does it to listen carefully to the scripture reader and turn on the star at the exact moment we hear “And she gave birth to her firstborn son…”. (I would have turned on the star again today, except I am worried about the lightbulb going out, which we can’t change, and I don’t want that to happen during my tenure here. I rarely kick the can down the road and let it be the next minister’s problem, but I am for that.)
For us today the star is a part of our celebrations. But for the people of Jesus’ time, the star signaled a change that was so massive and disruptive, that even though they were told to expect it, that it was a gift from God, it was still frightening. Even though the people were living in an occupied country, under the rule of a cruel client king whose loyalty laid with Rome and the continuation of his own power, they were frightened of what a fulfillment of God’s promise might bring. The star could shine a light on things they preferred to keep in the dark, even if it were the very things keeping them in captivity. The light for them did not bring relief or assurance, instead it brought fear.
Much of Christianity is like that today. We pray for God’s Kingdom to come, but we fear what that kingdom may do to our comfortable lives, so we do very little to make that prayer come true. The teachings of Jesus’ shine a light on the poor and outcast, but too often all we can see are the differences between us and them, so we prefer to look away instead. Our faith tells us that God will provide all that we need, and yet we continue to hoard riches, believing in scarcity instead of abundance. So, it is no surprise that the people feared the arrival of all that they had been praying for, because praying for it was one thing, but living it was, and is, quite another.
And yet. And yet that light continued to shine. It continued to shine into the places of the world sunk deep into shadow. It continues to shine today in moments of worship, and gratitude, and ministry, and mission. It continues to shine in hospital rooms and prison cells. It continues to shine in food pantries and childcare centers. It continues to shine in hushed moments of prayer and loud songs of praise. The fear of the light that ushered in the arrival of Christ did not overcome the light. Instead, the light continues to overcome the fear. The light continues to shine on places we would rather not see, but are encouraged to pay attention to. The light continues to shine on each of us, even if at times we would rather hide from it.
Epiphany means ‘manifestation’ – the sign of what we have been promised is coming true. So, as we begin this new year, let us work to step into the light of this epiphany and let it wash over us. Yes, it will shine on things in our own selves and in the world we would rather not see. But the light is not harsh, making us cringe. Instead the light takes away the shadows and allows us to see clearly. Because only when we can see things clearly can we begin to effect real change and real rejoicing.
In a few minutes you will be invited to take your Star Word for the year. A tradition that we have been doing since I arrived, the words written on the stars are not meant to be resolutions. They are meant to be guides, lights even, to go into this new year with an intention – to look for and see things in new ways. To take the promise of epiphany with you. I believe that the word chooses you, and not the other way around. They are meant to help us see the path God has laid out before us, because when we can see that path clearly, no matter how many obstacles may be in it, that path is the way to miracles. Amen.
God of light and love, you continue to shine on this world and each of us without fail. Your light is warm and comforting, even when we sometimes feel like it is too much. For this unfailing light in our lives, we give you great thanks. And it is in this gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
God, you are not afraid to know this world as it really is. Your light shines on all that is good as well as what is bad. You shine on those in pain just as brightly as you shine on those in privilege. Help us to see this world as you would have us. Help us to see things clearly, to see all that is good as well as all that is in need.
As we pray for this illumination, we also pray for ourselves, for those shadowed parts of our lives that feel distant from you. In these moments of silence let us notice once again that you are with us completely, and with all those we hold most dear…
Great and loving God, you have promised the light of your love in our world, and you have fulfilled that promise through the life and mission and teaching of Jesus Christ. We pray that we would be a light with him. And we pray all of this and so much more in his name and in the way he taught…Our Father…