January 6, 2019, Watch for the Light – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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My daughter-in-law Christina is a photographer. Nowadays, everybody can be a photographer because we have cell phones and smart phones that we carry with us at all times, and we snap pictures of anything and everything. But there is a big difference in being a real photographer, and you can see the difference when you look at Christina’s pictures. There is something special about them. She changes the way you look at things; she works with the light to make you see the beauty in things. She can take a picture of my granddaughters playing together, or a clump of grass, or fog on the river, and no matter what it is, there is something magical about it. And it begins with watching for the light.
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, when we remember the coming of the Magi from the East, bringing kingly gifts to the Christ Child. The word, Epiphany, has several meanings. It can mean the sudden appearance of a divine being, like an angel. Or it can mean a sudden perception of the nature or meaning of something, or a discovery. Aha! Now I see it! Epiphany has a range of meanings, but they all have to do with seeing; they all have to do with light – actual physical light, like the bright light of the star the Magi followed, or the sudden light of hope and joy that Isaiah was talking about when he said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” That is an epiphany, too.
The thing about epiphanies, the thing about sight in general, is that what you see has a lot to do, has everything to do, really, with how you look. There could be a dazzling angel standing right in front of you, but if you closed your eyes and refused to look at him there would be no epiphany. You wouldn’t see anything at all. You have to look in order to see. And the better you are at looking, the more and better you will see, in much the same way that Christina’s photographs are so much more beautiful than the ones I take, because she has learned so well how to look at things and how to work with the light to reveal the true nature of things.
And just so, in this wonderful story of the coming of the mysterious visitors from the East, we see how the different people in the story, coming to the same time, in the same place, under the same brilliant new star, looked, and saw entirely different things. The Magi, and King Herod, the priests and scribes, the people of Jerusalem, and humble Mary, with her child in her arms: each had an epiphany of sorts. But the way they looked made all the difference in what they saw.
First, there was Herod the Great. He was appointed by Rome to rule Judea, so he had to maintain his authority over a people that saw him as a traitor to his own people, and at the same time stay in favor with the Empire. His vision was continually occupied with the problem of holding on to his power and control, and he held on ruthlessly, murdering his own wife and several members of her family, as well as three of his own sons. He hadn’t paid any attention to the goings-on in Bethlehem when the shepherds were running around the town telling everyone about the angels, and the newborn child – even though Bethlehem was only about 5 or 6 miles away. That was all beneath his notice. A few nutty shepherds didn’t pose much of a threat.
When the wealthy and important strangers from the East showed up at his palace some time later, though – it might have been a year or more – Herod suddenly began to really pay attention. These were learned men, men of substance, and they were talking about a child born to be king of the Jews. All at once, Herod’s continual fear, of having his power threatened, was on Code Red. Matthew wrote that Herod was frightened and all Jerusalem with him. He called together the chief priests and the scribes, all the scholars who were supposed to know about prophecies and signs, and he questioned them to find out what it all meant. And then he carefully and politely called the Magi to the palace, asking them to please let him know when they had found this child, this future king, so that he could go and honor him as well. But through all of this, Herod could see one thing, and only one thing. Herod’s sudden epiphany was fear.
And all the poor people of Jerusalem were terrified along with Herod, because if Herod was afraid no one was safe. When they looked into the night sky and saw the strange new star, and heard the rumors about the strange men from the East, they must have known that it could only mean suffering of some kind for somebody. They knew the king as well as anyone. They certainly knew him well enough to see some major trouble coming. They must have been horrified when they heard about the murder of the baby boys of Bethlehem – horrified, but not really surprised. The people of Jerusalem could only share their king’s epiphany of fear.
The chief priests and scribes, though, saw things from a very different perspective. They weren’t afraid. They were important men, holy men, respected by all the people, and that put them in a little safer position with the king. They were useful to the king as advisors, these men who had studied the Scriptures for years and years. They knew right away what Herod was talking about. Oh yes, they told him, we know all about that. The prophet Micah wrote that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the one who would rule all of Israel. They knew it all, chapter and verse, but unlike the Magi they didn’t see any reason to go running off to Bethlehem. This was a matter for study, for the all-important work of knowledge and scholarship. Of all the people who should have understood how the light works, it should have been these men, the keepers of God’s word. But they didn’t look any farther than their dusty pages, and so they don’t seem to have had any epiphany at all.
And then there were the Magi, the wise men from foreign lands. It is amazing to think how the light of this epiphany had even reached them. It had all begun five hundred years earlier, when Jerusalem had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. And along with all the other captives there was a young Jew named Daniel who was carried off to Babylon, and who ended up distinguishing himself in the court of Nebuchadnezzar as a man of great wisdom and knowledge. In time, Daniel became the chief of the wise men in Babylon. The thing was, when Daniel had been carried off, he had carried with him scrolls of the holy writings of Moses and the prophets, to keep them safe. And so it was that the same writings that the chief priests and scribes had studied over the years, had been studied by the scholars of Babylon as well, and later, by the Persians who conquered Babylon. Centuries later, then, when the star appeared in the sky over Bethlehem, there were wise men who had studied under wise men before them, who had studied under wise man before them, all the way back to Daniel, the Israelite in exile. And those wise men were watching, and looking, and hoping, and expecting, so that when they saw the star they set out at once to behold what had been promised. It was a long and dangerous journey, hundreds of miles, and months of travel on poor roads with bandits and storms and nothing in the way of modern conveniences. Riding on the backs of camels, which can’t be comfortable. But they knew what they were looking for. Their epiphany was overwhelming joy, as they beheld the holy Child resting in the arms of his mother.
Finally, there was Mary. Matthew doesn’t tell us anything at all about what Mary was doing, or thinking, or feeling, when these exotic strangers showed up at her door. But we do know what she saw. She watched the Magi as they all knelt down in front of her little boy – and we don’t really know if there were three of them, or five, or twelve, or twenty, but they would all have been dressed in rich, brightly-colored clothing, and their accents would have sounded strange and unfamiliar. And they brought out gifts for her child, not toys, but gifts fit for a king: gold, and fragrant incense, and costly myrrh. We have no way of knowing what Mary was thinking, but we know what Luke wrote about Mary when the shepherds showed up on the night of Jesus’ birth, with their wild tales of angelic hosts and singing. Luke wrote that Mary “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Surely on the night of the Magi’s visit, Mary once again treasured up these wonderful happenings that she couldn’t yet even begin to understand. Surely she pondered in her heart what it might all mean. I believe that Mary’s epiphany must have been a sudden burst of wonder and awe. *
The wonderful star that the Magi followed was in the sky for anyone and everyone to see. The promises of the prophets were written in the Scriptures, handed down from generation to generation, read in the synagogue every Sabbath Day. Mary’s Child was living and growing up as quickly as all children do, right there in a house in Bethlehem.
But Herod was blinded by his need to protect his throne and hold onto his power – blinded by his continual fear. His people were blinded by the constant threat of Herod’s brutality and ruthlessness, blinded by the fear of victim-hood. And the Chief Priests and Scribes had just stopped looking beyond the four walls of their Temple and the dusty pages of their Law. They all failed to see the coming of God into the world, though it was right before their eyes all the time.
And what about us? On this Epiphany Sunday, as we read God’s word written to us, as we look at the world around us and see God at work now, just as surely as he did in Bethlehem all those years ago, are we looking with hope and expectation, or are we visually impaired, a little blinded with fear or anxiety or just preoccupation with the tyranny of the urgent – all those demands and stresses of everyday life? Are we anxiously caught up in protecting our own interests, or holding onto our rights, like King Herod? Do we see ourselves as helpless victims, like the people of Jerusalem? Have we stopped looking and expecting, safe and self-satisfied, just not really feeling a need to look for more, like the chief priests and scribes?
Or are we watching eagerly for the light, like the Magi who saw the star, ready to search, eager to follow, overwhelmed with joy in the finding? Or maybe we are just watching quietly, like the mother of Jesus, treasuring up in our hearts what we don’ t yet understand, pondering the goodness and mercy and beauty of God. John wrote, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” On Christmas we sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” And Jesus promised us, “I am not leaving you as orphans. I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
To see him at work in the world, in our lives, to have our own Epiphany of joy and wonder at the presence of God, we have to be looking. Because he is here. He is here, in our midst when we gather together. He speaks to us in the quiet of our minds and hearts. He is visible always in the glorious works of his creation all around us. Let us remember to be watching for the light.