Friday, January 2, 2009

Sermon: Sunday of the Epiphany (4 Jan 2009)


Sermon: Sunday of the Epiphany (4 January 2009)
(Isaiah 60:1-6/Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14/Ephesians 3:1-12/Matthew 2:1-12)
I Am Not Optimistic

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

William Sloan Coffin was a Presbyterian minister and noted peace activist. During an interview shortly before his death he was asked to reflect on the current state of the world: “Are you optimistic?” the interviewer asked. Without hesitation Coffin offered a profoundly Christian response: “I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful.” Coffin obviously knew Peter, and knew him well.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. According to His great mercy He has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, uncorrupted, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Pe 1:3-5, HCSB).

New birth, living hope, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ: optimism pales into insignificant foolishness in light of the hope engendered by this single great truth – Christ is risen. Optimism is mere wishful thinking by comparison, positive energy sent forth into the void on the off chance that like attracts like and whatever cosmic powers may be will respond with blessing. The church will have none of that. We are not optimistic, but we are hopeful. Christ is risen.

The hope that we have in Christ Jesus is not fuzzy, wishful thinking. It is hard-edged and rock solid. It is the passion of prophets, the strength of saints, the resolve of martyrs. It is the absolute conviction that God is at work reconciling the world to himself through Christ Jesus, the absolute conviction that nothing – no power in heaven, on earth, or under the earth – will be able to stand in opposition to God’s will to restore his image in mankind and to release all creation from bondage to corruption and futility. It is the certainty that God is even now putting all things to rights through Christ and with Christ and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. We are not optimistic, but we are hopeful. Christ is risen.

One morning this week I passed a street corner in an Atlanta neighborhood where thirty to forty Hispanic men and boys were waiting to be hired for day labor; late that afternoon many were still waiting. Dare we speak to them of hope? Were they hopeful, I wondered, or had their hope died along about 4 o’clock? This week has seen the escalation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, with devastating Israeli air strikes resulting in hundreds of Palestinian fatalities among both civilians and insurgents. Dare we speak to them of hope? Have both peoples lost all vestiges of hope in the prospects for lasting peace, justice, and security? I wonder. Barak Obama was elected on a platform of change and hope. If the recession and the war in Iraq prove intractable – at least in the short term – if little progress is made in health care reform, if oil prices spike again – in short, if there is little substantive change – I wonder if the hope he has awakened in so many, particularly in young Americans, can possibly survive. If not, dare we speak to them of a different hope, a new and living hope? Yes, yes we can speak of such a hope and yes we must speak of such a hope; for our God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is the only hope for this dark world.

There is no better commentary on the current state of our world than the ancient prophetic words of Isaiah to his own people. He not only describes their problems and ours, he also identifies the root cause.

Indeed, the LORD’S hand is not too short to save, and his ear is not too deaf to hear. But your iniquities have built barriers between you and your God, and your sins have made Him hide His face from you so that He does not listen. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, and you mutter injustice. No one makes claims justly; no one pleads honestly. They trust in empty and worthless words; they conceive trouble and give birth to iniquity.

Their feet run after evil, and they rush to shed innocent blood. Their thoughts are sinful thoughts; ruin and wretchedness are in their paths. They have not known the path of peace, and there is no justice in their ways. They have made their roads crooked; no one who walks on them will know peace.

Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We hope for light, but there is darkness; for brightness, but we live in the night (Is 59:1-4, 7-9, HCSB).

In light of these vast problems, problems their and ours, problems of human making and human sin, what has Isaiah to offer to a world filled with false hope or no hope, to the optimists who vainly proclaim, “Don’t worry; be happy!” or to the pessimists who cry, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”? Dare he speak to them, and to us, of a new and living hope?

The LORD saw that there was no justice, and He was offended. He saw that there was no man – He was amazed that there was no one interceding; so His own arm brought salvation, and His own righteousness supported Him. He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on His head; He put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and He wrapped Himself in zeal as in a cloak (Is 59:15b-17, HCSB).

Here is your hope, Isaiah says then and now, that when no man would act or could act the Lord God Almighty by his own arm has brought righteousness and salvation.

Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob;
His hope is in the Lord his God,
Who made heaven and earth,
The sea and everything in them,
Who keeps truth forever,
Who executes justice for the wronged,
Who provides food for the hungry.
The Lord frees those bound.
The Lord restores those broken down.
The Lord gives wisdom to the blind.
The Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord keeps watch over resident aliens.
He shall adopt the orphan and the widow,
But He shall destroy the way of sinners.
The Lord shall reign forever:
Your God, O Zion, to all generations (Ps 145, LXX, SAAS).

And in that day when the Lord acts according to his tender mercy, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, “to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79, NKJV). Through the Spirit Isaiah sees that this hope is far too large for Israel to contain; it will blaze forth like a new star in the heavens, causing Jerusalem to shine with the glory of the Lord and to become a light for the Gentiles.

“Shine, shine, O Jerusalem, for your light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you. Behold, darkness and gloom shall cover the earth upon the nations, but the Lord will shine on you; and His glory shall be seen upon you. Kings shall come to your light, and the Gentiles to your brightness. Lift up your eyes all around, and see your children gathered together. Behold, all your sons come from afar, and your daughters shall be lifted upon their shoulders. Then you will see, fear and be amazed in your heart, because the wealth of the sea and of nations and peoples shall change their course and turn to you. Herds of camels shall come to you, and the camels of Midian and Ephah shall cover you. All those from Sheba shall come bearing gold, and they shall bring frankincense and proclaim the good news of the Lord’s salvation (Is 60:1-6, LXX, SAAS).

This is a revelation, a shining forth, an epiphany of the hope that was theirs and the hope that is ours in and through the mighty acts of God. And this hope was first realized in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, when the uncreated light of eternity shone forth from a manger in Bethlehem – God from God, Light from Light – when a new star blazed in the heavens drawing kings to the light and Gentiles to the brightness, when magi from the East came to a house in Bethlehem, “saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasure, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Mt 2:11b, NKJV) – gold for the King of the ages, frankincense for the God of all, myrrh for the Immortal One, who shall be three days dead (from an Orthodox hymn sung at Compline of the Nativity). This is the Epiphany, the shining forth of Jesus, Son of God and Savior of all, to the Gentiles, to the kings of the nations who bent the knee before him and worshiped. This is the Epiphany, the shining forth of hope to Jew and Gentile alike – to every tribe and tongue and people and nation. This is the Epiphany, the revelation of the great mystery that was not made known to former ages but which has now been revealed through the Holy Spirit “that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of [God’s] promise in Christ through the gospel” (Eph 3:6, NKJV).

The arrival of the magi in Bethlehem is the arrival of hope: hope that God is in the world, reconciling the world – the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike – to himself. The magi are the firstfruits of all Gentiles who will bend the knee before the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the person of his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ – sign and symbol of you and me and of countless multitudes of Gentile faithful. For these Gentiles – for us – Paul was made apostle and minister, steward of the mysteries of God.

I became a minister according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God, the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints. To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col 1:25-27, NKJV).

And here again is the Epiphany: the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles, the revelation of Christ in the Gentiles, the revelation of hope and glory; for, God wills to draw all peoples – Jew and Gentile – together into one holy body in his son Christ Jesus, to fill that one holy body with God’s own Holy Spirit, and through that one holy body to make his image shine forth in his world once again. The Epiphany started in Bethlehem, but it did not end there. Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth have seen the glory of the Lord shining forth as the only holy body – Jew and Gentile – proclaims in word and prophetic action: We are not optimistic, but we are hopeful. Christ is risen.

Two millennia ago a star appeared – a heavenly convergence so spectacular and significant that magi from the east were compelled by the words of ancient prophets and led by the light of that star to Bethlehem, to worship him who was born king of the Jews: the Epiphany – the revelation, the shining forth, of Christ to the Gentiles. Some thirty years later a new “star” appeared, a new light shining in this dark world.

“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify you Father in heaven” (Mt 5:14-16, NKJV).

This, too, is Epiphany – the revelation, the shining forth, of Christ to all creation through his holy people, through those who have received new birth through water and Spirit, through those who are partakers of the divine nature, through those who are being renewed and transformed into the image and likeness of God. It is God’s will that “you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life” (Phil 2:15-16a, NIV).

The Epiphany of Christ to the Gentiles in star, magi, gold, frankincense, myrrh and all that – and the epiphany of Christ to the world in the church: these epiphanies are the birth of hope into a desperate world, a hope that is hard-edged and rock solid, a hope that will not disappoint. This hope is the absolute conviction that God is at work reconciling the world to himself through Christ Jesus, the absolute conviction that nothing – no power in heaven, on earth, or under the earth – will be able to stand in opposition to God’s will to restore his image in mankind and to release all creation from bondage to corruption and futility. It is the certainty that God is even now putting all things to rights through Christ and with Christ and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. We are not optimistic, but we are hopeful. Christ is risen. And that is the greatest epiphany of all.

Amen.

1 comment:

Father Robert Lyons said...

John+

Another outstanding homily. Thanks so much for continuing to provide these 'rich and meaty' selections.

Rob+