Sermon: "Epiphany as Movement from Darkness to Light"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry V. Ort
Jeremiah 31.7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1.3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2.13-15, 19-23
We have celebrated Christmas and the New Year! Considering recent events, I suspect that many of us are wondering what the New Year and the new decade will bring. In addition to climate change and the border situation, we have seen a significant increase in hate crimes directed toward Jewish, Muslim, and Latino communities. Last week a deranged person wounded five in a machete attack during a Hasidic service in Monsey, New York. Such attacks are fueled by extremist rhetoric from the Alt-right. Meanwhile, it becomes increasingly harder to distinguish between fake news and real news.
On New Year’s Eve a former high-school classmate posted a meme with a picture of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with the following headline: “Ilhan Omar Spits on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” (tatersgonnatate.com). I am sure that most of you are aware that Ilhan Omar is a congressional representative from Minneapolis and the surrounding region; she is one of the first two Muslim women elected to congress. I was suspicious, so I checked the hosting website, tatersgonnatate.com, where I found the following statement: “Everything on this website is fiction. It is not a lie and it is not fake news because it is not real. If you believe that it is real, you should have your head examined. Any similarities between this site’s pure fantasy and actual people, places, and events are purely coincidental and all images should be considered altered and satirical.” Christopher Blair developed this site; he is commonly referred to as the “king of fake news”. On the website, Blair also states, “Don’t inform us that our stories aren’t true. We have so many disclaimers now that the disclaimers are satirical. We make sure the words “satire” or “fiction” appear in EVERY category BEFORE the story. Twice” (https://tatersgonnatate.com/sample-page/).
I re-examined the meme; when reposted, it contains no such warnings. In response to my classmate’s post, two people had posted emojis expressing anger; one person posted, “Just stupid satire. Not true.” I posted the website’s statement about everything being fiction, then raised the following question: “Doesn't posting something like this only promote anti-Muslim rhetoric? Does it in any way build up or promote the good?”
I am concerned for our society for we are witnessing the demise of truth and we have the technological tools to spread mistruths and fake news to millions. The Internet is a great thing when used properly, but it can also be used to promote hatred and contempt for others. Those of you who know me well know that I appreciate the humor and satire of Andy Borowitz. It strikes me that there is a significant difference in content and quality between his satire and Blair’s efforts. Blair’s satire, such as the Ilhan Omar piece, can far more easily be misconstrued and lead to harmful consequences.
At the same time, fake news, combined with fake scientific analysis and reporting, lead many to ignore or dismiss the dangers of global climate change and the increased amounts of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere. The prince of darkness continues to roam our world.
Yet, at Christmas time, we celebrated the entrance of light into the world. In last week’s gospel lesson from John 1, we read of John the Baptist’s relation to the light: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1.5-9; NRSV).
Matthew, drawing upon the prophecies of Isaiah, also refers to Jesus as the light. Matthew tells us that Jesus, upon hearing of John the Baptist’s arrest, withdrew to Galilee, more specifically to Capernaum by the sea of Galilee in the land occupied by the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali such that Isaiah’s prophecy might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (Matthew 4.15-17; NRSV). Indeed, in John 8.12, Jesus told the scribes and the Pharisees, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (NRSV).
On Christmas Eve, we considered Jesus’ claim to be the bread of the world. Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6.51; NRSV). Jesus was laid in a manger, a place of feeding and being fed; he is the sustenance of those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. When he was tempted, Satan invited him to turn stones into bread, but Jesus reminded Satan, “It is written, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord’” (Deuteronomy 8.3; cf. Matthew 4.4; NRSV). Remember how Jesus multiplied the five barley loaves and two fish to feed 5,000. Indeed, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which means “house of bread,” also the birthplace of King David. In John 6.36, Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (NRSV).
Tomorrow is the Feast of the Epiphany which celebrates the visit of the Magi and the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles. One of the meanings of epiphany is “an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/epiphany). Jesus life and the miracles he performed were an epiphanies. But the Epiphany with a capital “E” celebrates the visit of the Magi, although in ancient times, it also celebrated the baptism of Jesus. The celebration was later moved to two Sundays – one for the visitation of the Magi and one for the baptism of Jesus. Both are epiphanies. At the baptism, God’s voice was heard to say, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3.17: NRSV).
The forces of darkness may presently rule this world, but let us never forget it shall not always be so. The kingdom of heaven is already among us and it continues to come.
In a few moments we will baptize Wilder James Clark. Now Wilder is not of an age where he can enter into baptism of his own mind and accord, so the parents and godparents speak for Wilder. I doubt that Wilder will strenuously object to being baptized, but if he does, we can live with that. I suspect it is the rare person who comes to God with no objections or reservations. In the case of infant baptism, the parents, sponsors, and godparents commit to raising the baptized in the Christian faith, to nurturing the child’s faith development. This commitment carries a lot of responsibility; it is not to be taken lightly.
In the baptismal covenant, we are asked if we reject Satan and the forces of darkness and if we commit to following Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. In baptism, we become a member of God’s family. As we read in Ephesians, God “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us” (Vs 5-8; NRSV).
As we live more deeply into life in Christ and grow in the riches of God’s grace, we should come to say with the psalmist:
How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God. The sparrow has found her a house and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Happy are they who dwell in your house! they will always be praising you” (Psalm 84.1-3; NRSV).
In the baptismal service we are called to assess the depth of our commitment to our own baptismal vows. In today’s service, coming as it does just after the start of the new year, I encourage each of us to use the questions addressed to the parents and godparents as an examen of conscience. How are you living into these renunciations and affirmations? Are you living more deeply into the baptismal covenant? Is your life an epiphany of God’s grace?