The Light of the World
Add something good. Add something good. This was the big message from my tapping mentor for New Year’s Resolution time. Not, I’m going to be better about doing X, or even worse, I’m going to give up Y. No! Add something good to your life! What would that be for you?
And what does this have to do with religion? Well, I think it has a lot to do with what we believe. When we look at Buddhist concepts, for instance, a lot of them are very similar or even exactly the same as Christian concepts. But there are some differences, some important ones. One of those is that Buddhism starts with the concept of suffering, and then gives a variety of ways to release oneself from that suffering. These ways are excellent, and this is where we have many similarities. However, Christianity does not start with the concept of suffering. We start with the concept of love. We acknowledge that this love gets perverted, and that causes suffering, for sure! However, we do not start with the concept of suffering, we start with the concept of love. “God so loved the world…” is a fundamental truth for us.
How do we know God loves us? We start with the idea of creation, we affirm that creation itself is a loving act. God made the world and pronounced each part of it as good. Then there is the whole set of stories we call the Holy Scriptures that tell of how we failed to love God and love our neighbor, and God’s response to that. Over and over, the stories reveal that God loves the world, which includes us crazy humans, even in the midst of our unfaithfulness to God. We either buy that underlying theme or we don’t. Our willingness to agree that God loves us has a lot to do with our fundamental sense of happiness, I think.
So when we get to what we call the New Testament, we read the record of God’s response of love in the person of Jesus. I think about the difference between being able to read a love letter, and being able to hug the loved one. Being able to read a love letter is a wonderful thing, but it simply does not have the power that the person standing in front of you does.
This is what we believe about Jesus, that he stood there in front of us and said, this is how God loves. He showed us, in that very short three years of his adult life, how God loves us, and, how we should love each other, in a way that simply had not been done before.
Today we are celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, which technically happens on January 6. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the Epiphany is probably more important than Christmas, because they understand that this is where the “mystery” of the coming of Christ happens. So let’s see if we can unpack this a little. We know that the Epiphany – and it is called “The Epiphany” not just Epiphany – starts with the story of the magi.
Who were the magi, and why were they important? The magi were astrologers from Arabia, that much seems pretty clear. There is actually a village, a Muslim village, in the Arabian peninsula, which traditionally was the village of the astrologers. If you wanted to hire an astrologer for your town, you went to this village. And they had the story that they had sent astrologers to see this divinity. (see Kenneth Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes)
So they were not kings. Did they bring gifts? Of course! You would never go visit a dignitary without bringing a gift, in fact, you would not go visiting anyone without a gift, so that goes without saying. The gifts help confirm that they came from Arabia, because that is where both myrrh and frankincense come from. But the more interesting thing that is going here is that it is Matthew that is telling this story.
Each of the Gospels is written to a particular group of people, and so the story is slanted to reach them in some way. Luke, for instance, is a Greek convert and a doctor. It is clear that he is writing to Greeks, and he is particularly interested in the healings of Jesus. Duh! What doctor wouldn’t be?
Matthew, on the other hand, is Jewish, and is clearly writing to a Jewish audience, trying to explain why and how the Messiah fits into the prophecies that they all know. But here we have Matthew relating a story about a group of Gentiles visiting Jesus, and not just visiting, they “pay homage.” Paying homage is what you do to a master. Paying homage is saying, you are the lord of this, you are the master of this, I acknowledge you as top dog. We don’t do this easily in American culture, but there are some areas where it happens. People paid homage to Steve Jobs, they acknowledged him as a high-level master. They may not have liked him or some of the things that he did, but he was definitely a master. Other people come to mind, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Pope Francis, who else is there for you, people whom you acknowledge as real masters? There is a guy in Washington who makes glass named Chihuly, he is a master. I look at what he does, and I am just in awe. Who can even think of these amazing and huge works that he does? We went to the Chihuly glassworks in Tacoma, and sat and watched for hours, paying homage.
For the ancients, paying homage was much more than that, it was saying, you are my lord, I acknowledge your ownership of my life. It is hard for us to comprehend this concept, because it is so foreign to our ideas of autonomy. To voluntarily give up autonomy is not something we do in this society. But imagine, if you can, someone coming into your life that was so totally amazing that you simply walked away from everyone and everything that had been important to you. That would be paying homage to a lord. This is not a cult situation, but rather a recognition that one has found a real master, one that is worth following. Jesus was that kind of master. He still is.
So I said that the Epiphany starts with the story of the magi, these foreigners who follow the light, the light of a star. They had been trained to watch the stars, and to understand portents. When the time came, they put together what they had, and came to pay homage, to that light. This is the light that John talks about in his gospel. When we listen to the poetry at the beginning of John’s gospel, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God, and then he talks about the light coming into the world – we recognize that there is no way to talk about God, really. We have to use analogies, and one of the best is light.
The sun was well known in the ancient world as the giver of life – without sunlight there is little chance of life, at least for us and for the plants we eat. We know now that there are things that live in the sea and underground that can live without direct sunlight, but even then, the light is “stored” and transferred. A young woman who was here from Siberia was telling me that they did not eat vegetables or fruits most of the year, but they did not have vitamin deficiencies, and her American boyfriend did not believe that was possible. But it is possible, because the meat that they eat carries those vitamins for them. In the same way, sunlight can be carried, and used later. So here is a question: how can we be carriers of the light for others?
Or we can think about the moon. During the time around the full moon, once your eyes adjust, you do not need to have additional light outside. The moon does such a good job of reflecting the sun that we can function quite well if we need to. Old time farmers used to use that light to get a second shift in during the harvest season. Can we reflect the light well enough so that others can receive it?
During this season of the Epiphany, we will hear about the showing of that light in many different stories, and there is mystery in all of them. These are not things for us to understand intellectually, they are things for us to contemplate, to meditate in front of, to wait for wisdom.
At the beginning of this sermon I suggested that we think about adding something good into our lives as a better kind of New Year’s resolution. I would invite you to think about it as a way of adding light. When we add light into our worlds, we increase the light around us. When we choose to be positive, we add light. When we lift others up, we add light. When we refuse to be drawn into the darkness, we add light. I saw an advertisement for boxing equipment yesterday – you never know what I’m going to talk about next, right? It showed two brothers in Africa, the older one who was practicing boxing and winning a match, and the younger and smaller one wearing glasses. After the boxing match, they were making their way home through a very dangerous looking area, and sure enough, another boy, perhaps just a little older than the older brother came up and demanded money. After a short considered silence, the older brother reached into his pocket and pulled out some change and handed it over. The younger boy demanded to know why he did not fight. The older one said simply, he was hungry. In our strength, can we add generosity, in our weakness, can we add patience? What can you add for more light in your world?