~ Isaiah 60:1-6/Matthew 2:9-11~
My optometrist is actually a friend of mine, so when it comes to telling me hard things he does it gently (well, he’s gentle with all his patients but I like to think I have special standing). At a recent annual visit he said, “David, I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that your eyesight has improved well enough that you don’t need to wear contacts anymore.” Well, that is good news. However he then said, “the bad news is your eyesight is improving because you have early onset of cataracts.” He assured me that the cataract situation is early but it is inevitable.
And, you may have noticed recently that I occasionally wear these glasses – trifocals. I just can’t see the music or words in our hymnals of late. Why do they make the font so small? I’m sure none of you have any of these issues. I asked the doctor if my improved eyesight, however temporary, would get me back to the perfect eyesight I enjoyed when I was young; you know, 2020 vision! Hardly, he said.
On this Epiphany Sunday, on this first Sunday of the new year, in this year of 2020 I want to talk about perfect vision, 2020 vision. Of course, I do this along with thousands of other preachers around the world who just can’t let the opportunity pass to really work a good metaphor when its put on a silver platter like this.
The prophet Isaiah seems to work the metaphor as well. “Lift up your eyes and look around,” he says. And, you’ll be able to see because the “light has come, and the glory of God has risen upon you.” Indeed, because of God’s glory, he says, you will shine. Of course, he is talking to the people of Israel. When God shines on you, O Israel, nations will come to your light, kings will be dazzled by the light of your dawn. So, the prophet says, if you lift up your eyes and look around you’ll see them coming, sons and daughters who were afar off, the wealth of nations will come your way, even lots of camels. And they will bring with them gifts of gold and frankincense.
As you might guess, in Christianizing this prophecy intended originally for Israel, it morphed into something else. Indeed, the light shining on Israel became the light shining on Christ. The glory of God arises upon Jesus. And, now, the nations and kings come to see Him.
This is what Matthew does with it. Most scholars consider this prophecy from Isaiah as the inspiration for Matthew’s magi. Nations come to see the Christ; kings from foreign lands come to pay him homage. And they come bearing gifts. But, you might have noticed, Isaiah only talk about two gifts, gold and frankincense. Weren’t there three gifts? So it is that scholars believe that Matthew added the third gift, myrrh, as a foretaste of Jesus’ death, for myrrh was used as a burial ointment.
So three sages from the East come by the light of a star to see the Christ child, upon whom the light and glory of God shines. Thus, they experienced an ‘epiphany’, which literally means a manifestation of a divine presence. And so it is we observe Epiphany Sunday.
On this Epiphany Sunday the question I ask is, “how is our vision.” Can we see anything clearly? Or are we stumbling around in the dark? Is our eyesight blurry? Or is our vision perfect – 2020 perfect?
And, of course, the answer is – no, it is not perfect! Impossible. Who am I kidding? But, on the other hand, does it have to be so bad that we can’t see anything? Are we working in the dark here? Can we, in fact, have at least some sort of vision, even if it’s a bit blurry?
We live in confusing times. Competing voices clamor for our attention. The landscape is a chaotic mess. It is hard to make out clear images. It is hard to see where the truth is. It is hard to see our way forward. The temptation is to just give up, just quit and retreat.
As justice is perverted, we ask if it can be straightened out. If peace is impossible as warmongering continues to raise its ugly head, we grow weary of trying. As the wealthy get wealthier and the poor get poorer, looking for solutions to the widening gap gets all the more daunting. As white nationalism grows in numbers and fervency, seeking to change the endemic racialized culture in which we live seems overwhelming. As we see hard-won advancements for gender equality looking way to vulnerable with our current justice system, we are afraid. As Christian voices declare solidarity with hate and wanton evil, we wonder if there is any place for us that can still be called Christian. And, on top of all that, the elevator stopped working and we say, “Oh no, not again!” It is all so wearisome.
And yet, I believe we can see with clear vision. We just need to claim it, to own it. And that is the vision of the Christ. The loud, hateful religious voices of our world do not speak for the Christ. They are, in a word, ‘anti-Christ’. Instead, Christ can be reclaimed, I believe. We, here, can be that place in our world that is ‘Christian’, meaning a follower of Christ.
There is a movement these days made up of justice-leaning Christians made up of both evangelicals and progressives called “Red Letter Christians.” It’s based on the fact that in some bibles the words of Jesus are printed in red. The idea is really quite simple: To take Jesus seriously by seeking to live our his radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in the Scripture. In this a commitment is made to first and foremost do what Jesus said. Calling us away from consumerist values that dominate our American culture, the call is made to, instead, meet the needs of the poor. Jesus calls us to be merciful, which has strong implications in terms of war, violence, the criminal justice system and capital punishment.
Jesus’ words are authoritative and compel us to follow him. Or, in other words, Jesus is the lens through which we understand what it means to be authentically Christian. He is the lens through which we see and understand the world and how we live in it. Indeed, through Christ we can have perfect vision. We just need to be diligent in pursing that vision. As we enter into 2020 may we follow the light, with boldness, with courage, with determination. Let us make our voices heard because we do, indeed, have something quite important to say. May we not be afraid of the dark but walk in the light that shines on us. As the prophet says, “Lift up your eyes and look around.” When we do that, as he says, “then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.” Or as Matthew says of the magi, “there, ahead of them, went the star that had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was…they were overwhelmed with joy.” May we also follow that star. Amen.