When I began to think about this sermon, I thought that I was going to work with the traditional Biblical stories for Epiphany, and the Sunday following. They include the visit of the three wise men, Jesus’ baptism by John, Jesus turning water into wine during the wedding at Cana, and the Transfiguration, which is always the focus of the last Sunday after Epiphany, before we move into Lent. My original intention was to explore each of those texts for what they can tell us about the meaning of Epiphany, about how the Holy One was made manifest in and through Jesus in each instance, and about how that same making manifest operates in our individual lives and in the life of our community. It sounded like a good idea for a sermon. Working with these texts in that way is, indeed, a useful exercise, and I recommend it to your attention as we move through this season. However, I did not find the required inner energy to that work in this present context.
Instead, I found myself drawn, as I so often am, to the Hebrew scripture lections for Epiphany, which was yesterday, January 6, and for the First Sunday after Epiphany, today. Since we usually do not have a service at Seekers on Epiphany, which is always January 6, we usually miss reading together the account from Mathew of the visit of the wise men, which we heard today. We also often miss the first six verses of Isaiah 60, which Nancy read this morning, and which I would like to read again.
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Holy One has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Holy One will arise upon you, and Our God’s 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; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Epha; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of Our God.
The Hebrew scripture lection for this Sunday is from Isaiah 43.
But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, "Give them up," and to the south, "Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made."
Arise, shine; for your light has come.
The Holy One will arise upon you, and Our God’s glory will appear over you.
You shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned.
The One who created you, who formed you says, “I have called you by name; you are mine.”
There are moments when scripture seems to speak for itself, when exegesis and exposition seem almost irrelevant. This moment is perhaps one of those times. It is a time when, if we have ears to hear, eyes to see and hearts to know, the Holy can be manifest within us and among us. It is a new dawn. It is an epiphany. [Pause]
Indeed, our liturgical theme for this season after Epiphany is “A New Dawn.” During the six remaining weeks of the season, we will be exploring where, in our individual lives, our life together here at Seekers, and in the world, where we see evidence of a new dawn, of the coming of the light, of circumstances where we can thrill, rejoice and serve.
Epiphany is about the appearance, shining forth, or revelation of the Holy One. Within the Christian tradition, the term came to express the key understanding that Jesus of Nazareth was, in life, the shining forth or revelation of the Holy One to humankind in human form. From the post-Easter perspective, Epiphany is about how the Risen Christ is alive now and the fullest manifestation that we know of the Holy One. Jesus, both in his earthly life and as the Risen Christ, is God made manifest. The season is also about all the ways that we know the presence of the Holy One. One of the ways in which that happens is when, as Isaiah insists, we are called by name and told to not be afraid.
In what follows I am drawing heavily on a sermon for this Sunday in the liturgical calendar by Thomas Long, who teaches at the Candler School of Theology at Emory. The online version of these words will include a link to Dr. Long’s sermon (© John Mark Ministries), from which l will quote without further attribution.
Isaiah can say with great confidence, "’Do not be afraid,’ says the Lord," because he knew that the Holy One who spoke those words is not some distant deity, some impersonal force loose in the universe, or a small “G” god pulling the strings of history. No. Our God is more like a mother who listens in the night for the cries of her children. "’Do not be afraid,’ says the Lord. ‘ I created you. I formed you. I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.’"
The God of Israel, the God whose story is told in this scripture, always calls us by name: Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Samuel, Mary. This is the God that we see in the face of Jesus; this is the God who walks along the shore and calls by name: "Peter and Andrew, James and John, follow me." This is the God who calls us to be part of Seekers Church and to serve in the community and the world. [Seeker first names], everyone, come follow me.
This is the God who knows your name, who knows the number of the hairs on your head, the God who remembers you and does not forget you, the God who, even when the winds of life howl and the world’s seas roar, listens for your voice, knows your cry, and says to you, says to each of us, "Do not be afraid. I know you."
A well-known theologian once confessed that he was plagued many nights by a terrible dream. He dreamed that he was traveling in some distant city, and he ran into someone with whom he had gone to high school. In the nightmare, the person would say, "Henri, Henri, haven’t seen you in years. What have you done with your life?" This question always felt like judgment. He had done some good things in his life, but there had also been some troubles and struggles. Moreover, when the old schoolmate in the dream would say, "What have you done with your life?" he would not know what to say, how to account for his life. Then one night he had another dream. In this one, he died and went to heaven. He was waiting outside the throne room of God, waiting to stand before almighty God, and he shivered with fear. He just knew that God would be surrounded with fire and smoke and would speak with a deep voice saying, "Henri, Henri, what have you done with your life?" Then, in the dream, when the door to God’s throne room opened, the room was filled with light. From the room he could hear God speaking to him in a gentle voice saying, "Henri, it’s good to see you. I hear you had a rough trip, but I’d love to see your slides."
Fear not. I have called you by name. You are mine. You are my beloved child with whom I am well pleased. A new dawn, indeed.