Lost in Darkness — Found in Light
“Light to the Gentiles” is as apt a way to describe Epiphany as another. Isaiah’s promise — “the nations shall come to your light” — conveys not only a sense of hopeful expectation, but one of mystery as well.
We might ask, “What kind of light will this be and how and when shall we receive it?” The advertising industry has shown us numerous ways of getting light in its campaigns for products from beer to diet frozen dinners. Unfortunately, for many moderns light (or “lite”) has more to do with weight than with illumination.
Yet for the people of God, light can be a powerful biblical image for a new understanding of salvation. Light is comprehended by believers in both testaments as a symbol of hope. Because light reveals objects to sight which are hidden in darkness, light is an appropriate reminder about truths which may have been forgotten in darkness. It is out of this darkness God’s promise continues to be revealed.
Isaiah 60 speaks of a “darkness covering the earth and a thick darkness the people.” I know what was meant through my own encounter with darkness. No doubt, the contrast of bright, burning light with the “thick” darkness of night in the ancient near east is lost on technological modernity. Rarely are twentieth-century people subjected to either extreme of light or dark, what with our ozone layers and the residual lighting of our population centers. Pure light or dark seems outside our experience.
This may be why among the seasons of the Christian year, Epiphany is the most mercurial regarding its theological focus. Most of us prefer to focus on the suffering of Jesus during Lent or the expection of the Messiah celebrated at Advent rather than the enigmatic manifestation of light which Epiphany imparts. The mysteriousness of the coming light is more than most of us can grasp.
Occasionally human experience will thrust upon us moments of truth expectantly. And, as Alfred Hitchcock has said, “you can’t prepare for the unexpected — by definition.”
My one encounter with darkness was when I was in the midst of an evening of study. The best place to study at the seminary was the basement. It was cool in summer and warm in winter, but its comfort range was marginal enough to discourage sleep. Talk between students was minimal; anyone who wandered into the basement stacks was on a more purposive mission than idle chatter.
Anyway, those who would study in the Spartan accommodations in solitary confinement were not there for fellowship. To get to my study table, one had to go down two flights of stairs, only wide enough for one narrow-shouldered person to pass, while scraping but one side.
It was an evening in April. Most students were busy researching and writing papers and doing things necessary toward the end of the term. As usual, I was at my basement table. I was studying the clock, and it read 6:04 when everything went black. It was an absolute black. The kind of black in which the earth once lived before God gave light in all of its various forms.
I knew the fluorescent lights would come back on soon. After all, they always did — until this day. Frozen, I sat for several minutes, still in utter darkness. Certainly after ten minutes my pupils were completely dilated, yet I could see nothing.
It was a helplessness which connected me to my blind brothers and sisters. The electricity had not returned to the basement as the minutes seemed to stretch into quarter hours. There seemed to be no sound from the rest of the library. No one knew I was alone in the basement. The building had an eerie silence.
Getting up, I groped along the table, reaching a railing, and then some stairs, but not the ones I needed. I kept asking myself, “Why hadn’t I paid more attention to the landmarks which had been so easily taken for granted in the light?” There was for me a great terror the next few hours as I tried to feel my way out of the large basement which seemed to grow all the while.
At 8:37 p.m. the basement lights flickered back on with great grace. I had stumbled and fumbled my way to a back corner where the musty outdated theological journals were stored. I was further from my destination, the exit, than I had been two-and-a-half hours before. The light was a welcome epiphany.
Light and sight are precious commodities but, like air, are easily taken for granted. Their value is always doubly underscored by the conspicuousness of their absence. God’s revelation becomes matter of fact when received as a given in life. But during the darkness of a personal tragedy or in the bleakness of the world’s worst political episodes, the light of God’s hope is a true sanctuary.
Epiphany is always difficult for me to explain to my empirically-minded confirmation class of sixth graders. “It’s like when your baby brother cries in the night and your mother goes in to turn the night light on,” I explained to them with the best shot in the dark I could muster. And they nodded in agreement. We had all been there.
Water and Wine
“On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; Jesus was also invited to the marriage, with his disciples.” Thus begins Jesus’ public ministry according to John’s version of the Gospel story. What a way to begin ministry!
Jesus begins His public ministry in Matthew’s Gospel — after the baptism and temptation — by preaching in Galilee and calling James and John to discipleship. For Mark, the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry is the call of Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Going up to the synagogue, as was His custom, is the dramatic and most religious beginning according to Luke. Why would John begin Jesus’ public ministry at a wedding?
I’ve heard my colleagues say it a hundred times: “I’d rather do a funeral any day than have to fool with a wedding.” Weddings can be embarrassing to the church, after all, and in a multitude of ways.
First, as is usually the case, a pastor can never really control the proceedings. Many of the people in the wedding party aren’t even “church broke.” Second, the emotionally-charged atmosphere is the occasion of some moments of honesty from the family most preachers could just as soon do without. “You always loved her the most anyway!”
Third, no one seems to want a normal wedding any more. Weddings on the beach, in the garden, or at the local Burger King (it’s where we met), seem to be gaining in popularity. And, heaven help us, every wedding rehearsal seems to bring out the worst in taste and decorum … at least from those who are sober.
Yet Jesus begins His ministry at Cana. He and the disciples are attending the wedding of two people who aren’t even mentioned by name in the story. Why?
It may be Jesus’ sense that if there was ever a human relationship which had the potential to unite the physical and the spiritual, marriage was it. To be sure, the sexual-physical side of marriage is rarely overlooked. Those who enjoy a solid marriage covenant, however, will tell you their partnership is 90% mental.
Football coaches will say football is 10% physical and 90% mental. Much the same can be said of marriage. The mental-spiritual aspect is what will ultimately make the difference.
Mixing the physical and the spiritual is a difficult combination to pull off for most people. Statistics tell us marriage is a risky venture. This same phenomenon — the hesitation to mix the physical with the spiritual — is at work in the church. Some want to be about purely spiritual matters. Others want to serve their Lord, where “action speaks louder than words.” Unfortunately, this attitude sets up a false dichotomy between matters of the spirit and of the body.
In premarital counseling, a young woman summed up our whole culture’s attitude in one offhanded comment. “I don’t really know what to think. My friends all say sex is okay outside marriage, which is about a piece of paper anyway. My parents and my church have always told me sex was essentially wrong outside marriage. Now, I’m getting married and I really don’t know what to think. What I’ve been told was wrong since I was a child will, in three weeks, suddenly be all right! No wonder I am an emotional basket case.”
Jesus may have sensed this all along. To bless a marriage is to bless the best life has to offer. Marriage may not be for everyone. Marriage is the place in human life where ideals and reality meet head-on. The result is either beautiful or disastrous.
God’s claim upon our lives has elements of both spiritual idealism and earthy reality. I suppose it would be wonderful in the local church to simply worship, pray, and study the scripture all day, every day. Yet Christian commitment is not satisfied with turning inward upon the self.
The aim of discipleship is toward a lost and dying world. Jesus, as God incarnate, ate, taught, walked, and died like any human because He was one of us. Jesus blessed the marriage at Cana, for it is often within marriage we best learn to love one another.
I saw a poster on a pastor’s wall once which said: “the greatest gift a father can give his children is to love their mother.” God loved His children so much that He sent His son to be one of them.
The Message in Person
Some churches will use this beautiful passage from John’s Gospel as the reading for Epiphany Sunday. The word “epiphany” means manifestation or showing. I’m told that many years ago, in the fledgling church’s first centuries, the Feast of Epiphany was a major holy day.
Epiphany represented a time to celebrate two important events in the life of Christ. In the East, the feast represented the baptism of Jesus. In the West, the celebration was identified with the visit of the wise men.
This gave the season — the Sundays after Epiphany — its mission focus. The wise men were the first Gentiles to come to Jesus. Ironically, for many churches interested in the Spirit’s work in baptism, mission, and evangelism, this season of the church year is rarely utilized.
“The Word became flesh” is one of the Gospel’s primary truths. From the beginning of the Hebrew scripture, God has always had a message for His people. Messengers, too, have always been provided.
Before the coming of the Christ, enfleshed as Jesus of Nazareth, God attempted the message of self-communication through the creation. Sun, moon, and stars — all created after the light was separated from the darkness — revealed God’s majestic glory. The whole of Hebrew scripture is a litany of human messengers who tried, sometimes in spite of themselves, to communicate God’s message.
Adam’s parenting skills weren’t honed finely enough. After all, who would listen to a preacher with children like that! Noah was a good builder, but wine proved to be his undoing. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had their faithful moments, but consistency was lacking.
God never stopped trying to reveal the Word to the chosen people. Judges, kings, and at last the prophets all had their say, but the message was never really heard.
My father — never one to let an opportunity for moral guidance be squandered — was fond of saying, “if you want something done right, then do it yourself.” In light of the hard-hearted and wayward creation before Him, God decided to act in a final, decisive way. The Word must be put into a form creatures might fully comprehend.
To get the Word across, God appears in the flesh. Why was it necessary that God assume a human form? Just to send a message of love is not always enough. The way something is communicated may be nearly as important as what is communicated. Parents sending children to Sunday School deliver a different message than those bringing their children.
There is something about physical contact which is powerful. Grandma’s hugs and kisses speak volumes about the nature of her relationships. Woe be to the grandchild who avoids Grandma’s ritual! Hugging and kissing is putting physical action behind a message we think and feel. This acting out is important both for the sender of the message, and for the receiver.
Some years ago I used to visit a woman at the Twilight Home, a mercilessly-named nursing home dubbed the Twilight Zone by its employees. Clara Bell had once been a brilliant teacher; even at eighty-seven she retained more wit than most of us ever get.
Our visits were genuine and stimulating. As her pastor, I was one of her few contacts with the outside world. Of course there were a few church people, but most of her family lived far away and rarely visited. Curious, one day I asked her, “Why do you always want to see me?”
“Because you come for God.”
This answer helped me understand the function of pastor in a new and profound way. Maybe she liked me as a person, but primarily for her I was a representative of God in a way no one else could be. She was right. They had told me the same thing, in different words, at my ordination.
Epiphany is the end of the so-called Christmas cycle of the Christian year. Advent is a time of preparation. Christmas is celebrating His birth. But Epiphany is when God gets down to the business of communicating the incarnation in tangible ways.
Birth, baptism, and mission to the Gentiles demonstrate the physical side of the incarnation. God wants all and calls all through Jesus Christ as the Word.
I have a theory about letters and telephone calls. After living in Africa for a year I came to prize letters because you could see them, feel them, read them over and over again.
Calls on the telephone have the great advantage of immediacy, but once the receiver is hung up the experience seems gone. My unscientific poll reveals nine out of ten mothers prefer letters. Letters are tangible and physical: a message to be grasped.
God sent the Word by His son. The message becomes the messenger. The messenger becomes the message.
Governing the Heart
I am constantly amazed when people suggest the Bible is full of old, “worn out” stories. The implication is the Christian scriptures have nothing to say to us modern sophisticated folks. It is as if we have heard all this before.
On the other side of the coin, there are those who protect the Bible with threadbare interpretations heard for years. Zealous believers somehow envision themselves as protectors of scripture and the God it reveals. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Every turn to this source of divine revelation demonstrates it is scripture which interprets people, rather than people who interpret it.
Nowadays, to be well-heeled is to be in-the-know. We value knowledge as a society. Therefore, as individuals, to have knowledge is to possess power.
Political candidates understand this principle quite well. Political polls today dictate the formulation of political platforms, rather than report the public’s reaction to those platforms. We manipulate knowledge for our own purposes. We all do it.
Common sense is knowledge which is in the public domain. Another term for this is “conventional wisdom.” Conventional wisdom, or common sense, is what every thinking, well-educated, rational person can accept as a true body of knowledge.
Often people and institutions take this commonsense approach to problem solving. Practical thinking is based upon conventional wisdom, which is based, in turn, on what everyone knows to be true. Conventional wisdom has its own authoritative sources: “They say,” “Everyone knows that,” and “I heard.”
Unfortunately, many in our time use the Bible to authorize conventional wisdom. Yet the Bible doesn’t say “this is how it is,” but rather, “this is how it shall be.” In scripture the Word of God stands authoritatively over against common sense and what “everyone knows.”
We all know what kings are. They wear crowns and sit on thrones. Kings make imperial decisions and hand down declarations. Even in the American vernacular kings sit atop their mountain.
Matthew 2:1-12 speaks of kings. As a matter of fact, the whole passage is dominated by kings. Matthew speaks of King Herod, the three Kings of the Orient (the Magi), and, of course, the baby Jesus.
We would expect, as conventional wisdom might tell us, Herod would be the most powerful king in this story. After all, the rest of these kings are on his turf. One might also expect the wise “Magi” kings to display their great learning or the parents of the infant king to begin carving out the anticipated empire.
The Bible tells a different story. According to the Gospel, the king we would expect to be strong is actually afraid. From the beginning he plots to rid himself of rivals — even an infant. The Bible told this story before in Exodus.
The Magi are wise, not so much because they have secret knowledge, but because they are smart enough to worship the worthy king. Few others will be wise enough to fall down before the one worthy of true worship. The Jews expected a messiah after the fashion of David: big horse, man of war, comely appearance. Even here, at the very opening of the Gospel story, the Bible doesn’t give us what we expect, but precisely what we don’t.
Those who are “in-the-know” or “with it” — those of us operating on “common sense” or by principles of “conventional wisdom” — will never know what the Bible knows. The Bible knows a different way of understanding reality.
As an adult, Jesus isn’t much easier to understand. Speaking of allegiance to God’s Kingdom, He says, “whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33). In other parts of the Gospel story, Jesus speaks of hating one’s parents, turning the other cheek, and giving away all one has.
Conventional wisdom doesn’t know what to make of this kind of king. Jesus is a king who first rules the heart. The mind then follows. Jesus speaks of issues and commitments too deep for “common sense.”
In India, twice in his lifetime, Mahatma Gandhi single-handedly stopped a civil riot sweeping his country. Obviously, he was no king, but he was a ruler. Gandhi stopped violence by refusing to eat. His leadership was of a different order. Could you imagine a modern American politician stopping anything with a hunger strike?
In a story full of kings, Matthew tells us it is not power, wisdom, or knowledge which makes one a king. It is the power of the Spirit of God, which defies common-sense expectations.
God provides a king Who rules the heart of people. The heart knows much the mind has missed.
Lost in Darkness — Found in Light