Epiphany begins with speaking God’s name, Immanuel, “God with us,” in its fullness. For it is when the savior has come. The king of the universe doesn’t sit on a throne, but lays in the poverty and ordinariness of a manger. He doesn’t come to us wearing a robe and a crown, but instead wears dirty diapers. The God who created the heavens and the earth, who freed the Israelites from Pharaoh, meets us as a screaming, drooling child. And though it’s to remember that the hands of this child are the same hands that are nailed at Golgotha. The same head, the one that is still soft, still forming its skull—will have a crown of thorns placed upon it. God has done this—has entered into the mud and the blood of this life to show us who God is, to save us from ourselves, to save us from the gods of our own making.
The season of Epiphany continues this reflection, on what it means to understand this flesh and blood human as the Messiah, God’s son. Beyond the visitation of the magi, Epiphany continues with Jesus’ baptism by John and Christ’s turning of the water into wine at Cana. For Epiphany Sunday, January 5th, the Lectionary includes Isaiah 60. A gorgeous passage describing God as the rising sun:
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around…Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice…”
This passage proclaims that the light of God’s glory and love has burst into the world like a rising sun—casting out the darkness and burning off the fog of sorrow and sin that enshroud us. God’s light, undoes the darkness of our self-condemnation, our guilt, our sorrow, our loneliness. Human history is filled with many false dawns, false sunrises—moments when something seemed new, and it turned out to just be more of the same. The New Year is the perfect time to remember these false dawns: with everyone making resolutions and commitments to loose 20 pounds or talk with an estranged sibling. It’s the time of year when we promise to change, to amend our own lives, but most likely fail over, and over, and over.
But Christ is the light of God’s dawn, the true new beginning, the New Year’s party hosted by God. The child in the manger is the sun that rises in Isaiah 60. It’s a light that sets the world a-light with a sacred flame—filling creation with mini “big-bangs” of joyful redemption, reconciliations, recreations. The rising of the sun in Isaiah and the birth of the Christ-child in Matthew marks the end of the old world order, proclaims the birth of a new life for creation, and for us. A new life stirs in those swaddling clothes. Christ is life; God’s promise incarnate. This baby embodies God’s promise that the divine holiness will seep into every dark corner and cave of this world; will roll away every stone that blocks every grave. Epiphany beckons us to see the world through God’s newness, to awaken to God’s grace in Christ, to see the world and each other in light of Christ. As the Isaiah passage says in verse 4 we need to: “Lift up your eyes and look around.” Epiphany is when we say, I was blind, but now I see. Epiphany is when the divine optometrist performs laser surgery, a surgery that enables us to see the world in light of God’s promises. The promise that when the sun of God’s glory rises, and illumines our lives: “Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.” God’s light not only overcomes the darkness, it doesn’t just pledge that what we see on the 10 o’clock news every night will end. God’s promise, God’s pledge, God’s gift, is the gift of joy. The blazing glory of God kindles the embers of joy within us. Now joy is not to be confused with happiness here—Jesus doesn’t promise us happiness, but he does promise us joy. This is just another way to say that God promises us that God will always be present. God will always be Immanuel.
I feel as if joy is always surprising, always wells up unexpectedly. As Simone Weil says: “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them.” What is the gift of joy about though? Joy is about seeing the world as it truly is; about seeing the world through Christ’s promise. This is odd; because it’s so easy to think that those who really see the world “as it is” are the weary cynics, the scornful, the people who meet each day with the refrain “there is nothing new under the sun.”
Epiphany starts with us remembering there is something new in Bethlehem. It’s interesting that Jesus is born at night. That a star, a light, a distant sun leads the magi to the place where their gifts are to be given, where they are to kneel, and where they are to worship. Epiphany‘s invitation to see the world in light of Jesus’ promise invites us to see the world as the magi did on that night. We see how this baby is more than we bargained for; in this baby’s birth, the world has been re-born. And as Epiphany continues, we see there is something new in the waters of the Jordan. Just as Christ descends into the waters of the Jordan, God descends into human life—like a setting and rising sun Jesus submerges and rises in the waters of the Jordan. And as Epiphany nears its end, we see there is something new in Cana. Water, the source of life is also a source of celebration. We see that Jesus is here to keep the party going, to let the joy of celebration go a bit longer. Christ is the true light, the new life, the final dawn. With Christ, everything is new under this sun.
Our response to God’s newness might look like inadequate things—small weak candles amidst darkness. But this is what the Isaiah passage calls us to, to “Arise, shine; for your light has come.” And this is a little odd. Because when the sun rises you would think that is when you can shut off the lights, when you can put out the candles, because you don’t need them to see anymore. They can’t add anything to the sun’s brightness. But it doesn’t matter that our response to God’s love doesn’t add anything to it. God does not need our lights—our acts of love, our words of truth, our moments of forgiveness—but God wants them. There is no full return we can make to God, but that is okay—for God has come among us, and we must rejoice.
Joy is our startled response to God’s love for us, how we awaken to God’s grace. Joy is the miracle which the miracle of Christ gives birth to in us. It may be a painful miracle, a costly one, but it’s a miracle nonetheless. Joy is a gratitude, a thankfulness that wells up from the deepest fathoms of one’s soul. Epiphany shows us that Christmas is the beginning of our joy; a joy that asks us to share it. The joy of Christ should make John-the-Baptists out of all of us. Sending us into the world to proclaim: “Rejoice! For the miracle is among us! Christ is among us! Repent! Believe! Rejoice!”
The season of Epiphany reminds us of what God has done in Christ—his birth, death and resurrection—and what God will do in Christ. It points to the day when joy will be all that fills our hearts. It points to the day when the mountains will bow before the Savoir; when hallelujahs will roll through every valley like a morning mist; when instead of quaking the tectonic plates will dance with joy. We hope for this joy. We long for this day. During Epiphany we see that the world is full of suffering, but it’s also full of hope. And hope is always scary, because it could be a false hope. If we put our hope in ourselves then the first strong wind of suffering will snuff out our candles. But fear not, for we put our hope and our faith in God’s faithfulness. God will fulfill our hope as sure as the sun will rise. The world will not succumb to darkness. As the novelist Marilynne Robinson states, “So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes…With all respect to heaven, the scene of miracle is here, among us.” God is here, with us, among us. Therefore, let us see the world as bathed in the miraculous light of Christ; the miracle that that leads all of creation to praise God, as Immanuel.
This is an edited and condensed version of a sermon I gave in 2013 and was originally published with The Washington Institute.