The magi, three magicians, astronomers, scholars from the east saw a bright light and followed it. It led them from the places of their own comfort zone into a foreign land. A place where their clothing, their language, their culture, their preoccupation with the heavens made them suspect. What was their real purpose for their trip? Was it simply a scientific expedition? Was it to pay homage to a foreign king? I always wondered what political reality might have been at work for the easterners to come bearing gifts. What was the hidden agenda behind their gifts? Were they simply benevolent or was there something or some force telling them that they needed to get on the good side of the people across the desert? Was it just a star in the heaven? Did it really point the way to the holy family, like some sort of cosmic road map? If so, why can’t we have a road map like that? Wouldn’t it save a whole lot of heartache and trouble if God would simply shine the light for everyone to see?
Think about it. We could know the right way that we should go. We could know the things that make for peace, for justice, for reconciliation for hope and joy. We could tell others to follow that light and we could live into the belief that the light is here and it is always good.
A light can be an attractive thing. But is every light good? While cutting down our family Christmas tree a few weeks ago, I got a pine needle poked right into my left eye. I didn’t think much of it until about four days later when the burning brought me in to see a doctor who diagnosed a nasty infection. The worst part about it was that I was incredibly sensitive to light. I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t enjoy the Christmas lights, I couldn’t watch TV. I was a helpless mess. The light was not my friend. Bugs are attracted to lights only to be zapped each summer in Minnesota. That’s how I felt.
What seems like great light for a while might upon further notice cause us to be blinded by its radiance and we might not see the wider picture. I think of the people who invested their money in the promise of light-filled wealth only to find that the Bernie Madoffs and Tom Petters of the world had used their attraction to the light to blind them.
And yet, here we are, in this season where we celebrate the increasing light, the Epiphany, where we see things a bit more clearly with each passing day. We remember the track of the magi and we wonder with them what will happen in the future.
A week from today, ten of us will be in Leon Nicaragua.
We will be experiencing the light of our sister church.
We will worship alongside them, sing with them, eat, minister and rest with them.
We will also bring them a lot of material gifts, like these 20+bags that are gathered here.
We will share a bit of our knowledge as we tell them a bit about how we do education here in the states. Who knows what they will absorb, how much they will find useful, how much they can translate into their own lives.
Here’s the thing I know, though. Going to visit our sister church is not about us bringing them our light. Sure, we’ll bring our gifts and our presence. But what we will all get is light from the encounter. We will get inspiration. We will get a wider view of the world. And together we might find a way to experience the God in a new way as we experience each other and ourselves outside of our comfort zones. That’s the real light. We are not there to bring the light. We are there to experience the light, to bear witness to the light.
When five members of our sister church came to Minnesota in September of 2008, they went on our church retreat. We had been together in a week and they finally worked up the courage to ask us the elephant in the room question. They asked us about our stance with the GLBT community. We had always wondered how they felt about that aspect of our life and we were really hoping that talking about it put up a wall that might impede the work we do together. People from UBC spoke about how the welcome and inclusion is at the heart of how we know Jesus and how we interpret the gospel. We spoke about being a safe haven and a place of radical grace and acceptance for all people. They then spoke about how much they admired our inclusion and wondered how they could be as inclusive as us in a culture where machismo keeps gay folk in the closet and a welcome word to this community is seldom spoken in the church. We then launched into a long discussion of our different cultures and our compassion for people who had not felt welcome in the church. It was a discussion that brought light to all of us.
When the Magi came to the land, they were met by Herod. He wined and dined them and told them good things. He showered them with praise and tried to impress them with his honoring of them. All he asked in return was a little bit of insider knowledge. He wanted their light. He wanted to know what they knew. He wanted to use their light, not to bring light to the world, but to help his light shine brighter.
If we learn anything from this story, we should learn that the light of God doesn’t work if we use it to make ourselves shine brighter. We only shine brighter as we give ourselves away. As we give ourselves in service. That’s when God’s light shines in us.
You know, the truth be told, the true miracle of Epiphany is not that the magi saw a star at Bethlehem and gave Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It wasn’t the visit to Herod. It was the fact that they heard the voice in the night telling them to not return to Herod. That voice—call it conscience, call it insight, call it light, was the voice of God. And it illumined them. It told them what to do. And (this is the key) they listened to the voice because it had the integrity of light—the real light. And they went home a different way. It was not just a different route back to Persia. It was that they went home with an attitude that was different. They went home knowing that they could and would never be the same. They came to Bethlehem lead by a light, but went home lead by an intensified light and it made their lives different.
When I was in Cleveland last week, we spent time talking about the important events in our lives. My sister and I talked about our high school youth group’s backpacking trip to Montana. She called it a life-changing experience. Just yesterday when we went around the room with our Nicaragua team, several people spoke of mission trips in general but mission trips to Nicaragua in particular as being life-changing experiences. Being one of those people who speaks like this, I know that part of it is the light that comes from God as a result of being in a place and a situation where you are shaken to the core, where your assumptions are challenged, where you see the larger canvas upon which God paints our lives. And you never see yourself quite the same again.
In a couple of weeks we will come home again to the frozen tundra. We will come with stories, and experiences and messages from our sister church and others we meet along the way. And I guarantee that if we are attentive enough to the light, we will come home a different way.
Now, you don’t have to do something as dramatic as visit a foreign country. The light is always here. It is always beckoning you to recognize it. It is always there to provide inspiration, illumination and direction even in the darkest of nights. The key is to latch on to that light. Let it surround you. Let it illumine you. Let it engulf you with its loving presence.
For inspired by the light, we might have the courage to tell the truth to those in power.
We might just say that everyone ought to be paid a living wage.
We might just say that everyone deserves access to decent health care.
We might just say that the ethnic targeting of individuals in the guise of cutting down on illegal immigration is nothing more than racial harassment.
We might just say that marriage rights ought to be available to all people.
We might just say that Jesus in fact has an opinion issues of poverty and race and sex and discrimination, and that the one who shines as that light always, always, ALWAYS sided with the poor and the outcast.
We just might remember the light and get behind the movements that will make a difference in then world.
We just might remember the light and tell the hard truth to those who need to hear it, even if it is a truth we need to tell ourselves.
Sisters and brothers, on Epiphany, we remember the light. We remember our moments of inspiration and those clear moments when we knew the right thing to do.
On Epiphany, in this New Year, you can be one of the ones who lights the way. We can all be that bearer of light, because each and every one of us has that light in our very hearts.
The light is the gift from God that gives us life-giving direction. And you know it’s the true light because it gives life-giving direction to others, too.
Sisters and brothers, this epiphany, embrace the light. It’s your gift from God. And don’t go home the same way. That’s your gift back to God and to God’s people.