Grace and peace from God our creator, hope in our redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
Today, the eleventh day of Christmas, is the Sunday on which we celebrate the holy day that teeechnically takes place tomorrow—the Epiphany of our Lord! Epiphany is about two things. Two small words with big consequences.
First, let’s talk about fear. Your fear can take you a lot of places you don’t want to go—or hold you back from great things. In the Christmas story, a few people are afraid—Mary, Joseph, the shepherds—but the story goes that angels come to them, proclaiming, “do not fear!” Wouldn’t that be helpful, if you got into a serious predicament and an angel would just hop in and remind you not to fear? Although, I’d probably be a little more like the shepherds and be afraid of the angels, on top of the fear I already had. So much for that.
King Herod, in our story this morning, is squarely in the fear category. He has heard through the grape vine that a baby has been born that may or may not be a king of some kind. This is confusing and surprising, so Herod called his favorite wise men for some assistance. They told him when and where this child had been born; Herod sent them to see this baby king and report back. Out of fear, Herod feels that his kingship, his power, his glory, is going to be usurped, some day, by a child who has just been born.
I’m not totally sure what the minimum age was for the King of Judea, but even if we wager conservatively that it’s 15 years old, Herod has about 14 years and 364 days to figure out how to keep his crown, and, frankly, he’ll probably die by some other force in that amount of time anyway, since he was almost 70 years old when Jesus was born. Spoiler alert: he dies of kidney failure like five years later.
But! When the wise men do not return—influenced by yet another angel in a dream, who tells them to go home by a different road, luckily—Herod is debilitated by fear, again. So afraid of his power being usurped a generation later, he has every child around Jesus’ age murdered, just to be safe.
I don’t think that you’ve ever decided, out of fear, to have your nation’s children murdered—I don’t think any of us in this room have Herod’s authority on that kind of thing. But what have we allowed ourselves to do out of fear? What rash decisions have we made that, upon further reflection, were far outside the scope of what was necessary? What accusations have we wildly thrown? When have we come to not even recognize ourselves? Fear is very real.
There’s a Presbyterian preacher named John Buchanan who deeply inspires me. My favorite thing he ever wrote has a lot to say about fear. He says that the reason the Bible talks so much about fear (the shepherds fear the angels; the disciples fear the consequences of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem; and in this morning’s Isaiah text, the prophet speaks of weak hands and feeble knees—his people are afraid) is because “fear is such an enemy of life. It’s hard to love when you’re afraid. It’s hard to care passionately about anything when you’re afraid. It’s impossible to be joyful about anything when you’re afraid. Fear limits life, constrains life, pollutes life.”
In last week’s Gospel, from the story according to John, we heard it proclaimed that a light has shined in the darkness! It hearkened back to when God’s voice moved over the waters, over the chaos of the deep, and when there, too, a light shined. But just before that light, and surrounding that light, there is, of course, darkness. We do not turn on a light in an already well-lit space. The light of Christ does not come into a world already saturated by brightness, but instead comes into an immeasurable darkness.
There is plenty to fear in the world around us, and we do a good job of living in fear, scarcity, and hopelessness. But the other small world with big consequences that shows up on this the Epiphany of our Lord is hope. We might think of hope as being passive—we say that we hope something for someone when the situation is beyond our control: hope you do well on that math test! Hope you like your new haircut! Hope it doesn’t rain on your beach day! But hope is not passive. Hope is living and breathing and working hard. Hope is what carries us through. This story of the hope of the life of a child is what carries us through.
There’s a movie out right now called Saving Mr. Banks—it’s the story of the complications that surrounded making of the film Mary Poppins. I won’t spoil anything for you, I don’t think, by mentioning this beautiful line said by Tom Hanks, who plays Walt Disney. He’s talking to PL Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, explaining what’s so important about telling her story. He says that his job is to create hope with imagination because, “That’s what we storytellers do. We instill hope again and again and again.” That’s why we tell this same story year after year—the story never gets old because our need for hope in the midst of our despair never ends.
Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany are seasons that pay particular attention to the relationship between darkness and light, despair and hope. Christmas proclaimed the presence of the light. Epiphany calls us to spread the light on the journey.
And how? The best way I have heard it said is through the words of the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, one of my favorite civil rights activists. He wrote a short, powerful poem called the Work of Christmas, and I’d just like to read it to you.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
That’s where we go from here. There’s something in this call for everyone. You have the gifts and skills required to either find the lost, or heal the broken, or feed the hungry, or release the prisoner, or rebuild the nations, or bring peace among brothers, or make music in the heart.
If you thought about it long enough, you probably already work toward more than one of those things. It is because you have been filled with the light of the Christ that you can go forward, hopeful, into a world full of people who feel defeated. Our ability to hold on to hope actually, physically, literally, deeply, fully shapes the options we have for the future.
If we do not have hope that our participation in the life of this world has any bearing on its improvement, why would we ever act? Why would we ever consider the consequences of our actions? It is our call to live in the hope of the birth of the child, the life of the man, Jesus, the death and resurrection and ascension of the Christ. “The future of humanity lies in the hands of those who are strong enough to provide coming generations with reasons for living and hoping.”
John Buchanan writes that, “to live hopefully is to work hard; to hope relentlessly is to throw yourself into the struggle for the realization of hope. To hope for justice and peace is to work for it. To hope for a time when all the children are fed is to do more than complain about the irony of hungry children in this land of abundance, it is to find some children to feed. Peace, we are regularly reminded, is hard work. Hope lives in the midst of darkness in every age. It will not be defeated, silenced, or extinguished. The light that is coming into the world shines in the darkness, after all, and the darkness has not and will not overcome it.”
Thanks be to God! Amen.