Sermon 1.6.19 “Ablaze!”

Scripture Lesson: Matthew 2:1-12
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

This year began with the Nasa New Horizons space probe having an encounter with Ultima Thule, a tiny, icy, cosmic body over 4 billion miles away from Earth. The information gleaned by New Horizons is helping us learn about how planets are formed.

Later this week, we learned that China had launched a probe to the “dark” side of the moon. The information from this probe will help humanity better understand the formation of the solar system.

We can imagine that the astrologers from the east in Matthew’s gospel would be very excited about these initiatives! Space and the stars have always fascinated human beings. We are drawn to these lights shining in our night sky and to the light which illumines the day.

Humans are captivated by light. And this attraction is apparent in many of the religious and spiritual expressions of human history. Of course! Because light cannot be fully explained. It is beyond our full comprehension. And it is necessary for life to exist. So the imagery of light lends itself to expression of things spiritual, divine, transcendent.

In the Christian tradition, the gospel of John begins with talking about the word and the light. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” [John1:5] We speak of Jesus as the light of the world. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his followers, “You are the light of the world.” [Matthew 5:14] Jesus, love, light, God, the stars, the heavens, they are all incorporated into the Christian tradition.

The Jewish tradition, the religion of Jesus, also uses the imagery of light. The Jews were to be a light to the nations shining justice and peace. The long awaited Messiah was to be a light. The descendants of Abraham were to number greater than the stars in the night sky – back in the days before light pollution! There are countless references to the stars, the sun, and the moon in the Hebrew scriptures. God’s word is described as a light.

In December, Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah, the festival of lights. It is a holy time to commemorate the re-dedication of the second Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean Revolt. A small quantity of oil lasted for a week lighting up the rituals and prayers and services rededicating the Temple. At the end of the service today, we will sing, “Don’t Let the Light Go Out,” a song written to honor Hanukkah as well as a celebration of the imagery of the light that has not gone out.

Other religions and cultures also embrace the imagery of light. Hindus celebrate Diwali, a festival of lights symbolizing the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil, and knowledge over ignorance. Homes, shops, and temples are brightly illuminated often with oil lamps and candles. Fireworks and gifts are part of the celebration of Diwali.

A Hindu prayer celebrates light:
“O Mother, you are light and your light is everywhere.
Streaming from your body are rays in thousands –
two thousand, a hundred thousand,
tens of millions, a hundred million –
there is no counting their numbers.
It is by you and through you that all things moving and motionless shine.
It is by your light,
O mother, that all things come to be.”
[From the Bhairava Yamala, Hindu, cited in In Every Tiny Grain of Sand: A Child’s Book of Prayers and Praise, collected by Reeve Lindbergh, p. 10.]

Light is also important in the Buddhist religion. Many Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day in December. This commemorates the enlightenment attained by the Buddha as he sat under the Bodhi tree. This holy day includes lighting candles and decorating trees with lights.

The celebration of Kwanzaa, a week affirming the values of African American culture, involves the lighting of candles each day of the festival.

The image of light is important in Islam as well. From the Hadith of Muslim, we are told, “I asked the Messenger of God, ‘Did you see your Lord!’ He said, ‘He is a Light; how could I see Him?’” [Cited in World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, a project of the International Religious Foundation, p. 56.]

Another passage from the Qur’an [24:35] uses the imagery of light:
“God is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
The parable of His Light
is as if there were a Niche,
and within it a Lamp;
the Lamp enclosed in Glass:
The Glass as it were a brilliant star:
Lit from a blessed Tree,
an olive neither of the East nor of the West,
whose oil is well-nigh luminous,
though fire scarce touched it.
Light upon Light!
God guides whom He will to His Light:
God sets forth parables for men, and God knows all things.”
[Cited in World Scripture, p. 381.]

Light is also an important image in indigenous spiritual expression. We listen to a prayer from the North American Tewa Indian tradition:
“O our Mother the Earth, O our Father the Sky,
Your children are we, and with tired backs
We bring you the gifts you love.
Then weave for us a garment of brightness;
May the warp be the white light of morning,
May the weft be the red light of evening,
May the fringes be the falling rain,
May the border be the standing rainbow.
Thus weave for us a garment of brightness,
That we may walk fittingly where birds sing,
That we may walk fittingly where grass is green,
O our Mother the Earth, O our Father the Sky.”
[Cited in Here a Little Child I Stand: Poems of Prayer and Praise for Children, chosen by Cynthia Mitchell.]

These are just of few of the examples of spiritual expressions that celebrate the imagery and symbolism of light.

It just seems to be part of the human identity to be drawn to light. We could discuss seasonal affective disorder and other effects of light and light deprivation on humans. We need light to live, to thrive, to grow, and to be healthy. We have this in common with plants!

I’ll admit it. I have an attraction to lights, and not just the natural light of our sunshine state. I like light displays: the brighter, the more tacky, and the more garish, the better! I would wither and fade without visiting the Oakdale light display here in St. Petersburg several times each Christmas season. Even the tanks along the model railroad, and the soldiers in the display, and the war planes circling the train track, with Billy Graham preaching in the background that Christmas is about Jesus and peace, can’t dim the experience for me. Even with all of the discontinuity, I am drawn to it. Those lights shine for me.

And I can’t visit New York City without a stop at Times Square at night. I have got to see those lights!!! For me, it’s not so much the astronomy, the stars, and the constellations, but give me a good colored light display and my spirit soars!

So, when I hear the story that was read this morning, I feel some sympathy for those astrologers, or wise men, who follow a star that takes them to a newborn king. Yes, they follow a light, but this story also sheds light on the ministry of Jesus and on our faith. In this story, we see the conflict between this new born king, Jesus, and Herod, the established king, a puppet of the Roman Empire. There is the empire of this world, maintained through intimidation and violence, and there is the Divine realm, the commonwealth of God, a reality of anti violence and justice, that is lived out by Jesus. Two conflicting paradigms necessitating choices. The story sheds more light. There are those who are invested in a religious expression which favors them, their kind, and their tradition. And there are those who are open to a spiritual expression that includes all people and all cultures; that is universal in nature. This is the way of Jesus. Already in this story of these extreme foreigners coming to find the baby Jesus, we see that barriers are being crossed and walls are being taken down. Jesus represents a blessing to all of humanity and all of Creation, not just to one people or one group or one geographical region. This story portrays Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises in scripture. The magi are not part of that tradition. And yet they seek Jesus. So in this story we also see Jesus as a fulfillment of humanity’s hopes and dreams for authentic life and human community. This story sheds much light showing us Jesus’ universal mission to all people regardless of religion or ethnicity or culture. Like the sun, which shines and illumines all of the Earth, Jesus is seen as one offering spiritual illumination to all whatever their background or tradition. He is seen as a light for the world.

Here, we want to remember something else about light. It helps us to see better. It helps to show what is there. It illuminates. It does not hide. So it is with Jesus. He shows us the truth of our reality as humans. He shows us our frailty. Our need for forgiveness. He shows us our capacity for generosity and grace. He shows us our ability to love and be loved. He shows us our need to serve and live with an “other centered” orientation. He also exposes our capacity for evil. It may have been the very same people who shouted, “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday and, “Crucify him!” on Good Friday. That’s how it is with light. It shows us what is there. We see reality. Not fantasy. Not fiction. But reality. The truth. And when we are open to seeing in the light, to letting the light reveal what is there, it is then that we can come to truly know ourselves, and others, and begin to create authentic community with real people of all different kinds. And in the light, we can also pursue an authentic relationship with Creation that is characterized by respect, balance, and reverence.

The days are getting longer. There is more light. The celebration of the birth of Jesus has opened our spirits to greater light. While we may be putting away our Christmas lights, it’ll take them three months to take them down at Oakdale, the light of the way of Jesus ever shines to illumine our lives and draw us into authentic community. So, look for the light. Create the light. Shine the light. Reflect the light. Be a light. Let yourself be drawn to the light. For with light, there is life. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

Author: Rev. Wells

Pastor of Lakewood United Church of Christ since 1991. Graduate of Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary of New York.

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