‘Direction: FORWARD!’

Rev. Jane Courtright

January 8, 2023

Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12

For most people, Christmas is well and truly over by today.  A return to work after several days off. The final event was New Year’s Eve…  and then, it’s over for another year.                                    Children, young people, adult students & teachers go back to school!

Of course, the build up started at least by the beginning of December, in some stores and radio stations, probably even earlier, somewhere between Halloween & Thanksgiving!                                  Then, as Christmas Day got ever closer, there were parties, Christmas meals, school and community concerts…. until at last the actual day Christmas is come and gone.

Yup, for most people, the Christmas season is before Christmas – with New Year to let us down gently – to ease us back to work, school, more regular routines.  But for the Church, Christmas ends TODAY – Epiphany Sunday, which marks the visit of the Magi to the stable at Bethlehem to see the toddler Jesus.

Today is 12th Night, when the decorations traditionally are taken down. To leave them up after 12th Night is considered by people to be bad luck! Our Christmas season is a rich mixture of the spiritual and the secular, of folk traditions from way back mixed with traditions from the Bible. And somewhere into all that mix of Christmas and 12th Night, legend & story, come the magi from the East, riding their camels and bearing exotic gifts.

When I was around 10 years old, my family had moved from Pennsylvania to New Jersey.  My Mom was always homesick for her hometown Milford and her family. Since our new home was only a couple of hours or so from Milford, she would often pack us kids into the car and drive to Milford to visit our grandparents, aunts and cousins.

I remember how at about 5 or 6 in the morning, Mom would turn on the hallway light and shout: “Up & At-Um, Atom Ant!” (Do YOU remember Atom Ant?!) We three kids would crawl grogilly out of our cozy covers and somehow found our way into the car. I’m sure we complained, but so anxious was my mom to get going that whining would have done no good!                                                          Besides, we kids really did look forward to the drive and the visits.

Without light, it is hard to find our way, life can be scary and it’s easier sometimes to stay in our dark negative pit. In the days of Isaiah, light was not something to take for granted.                            After all, their only source of light, other than daylight, was oil lamps or candles. Very few people could afford oil, so most people depended on candlelight.

In modern times, we take light for granted, since we now have artificial lighting.  (Well…except when we lose electricity because of snowstorms, ice storms, or high winds.)  Usually, finding our way in the dark isn’t somethings we have to worry about, which makes it hard to understand Isaiah’s words!

Today is Epiphany Sunday – the season of light spreading!  The term Epiphany means to ‘to show’ or to ‘make known’ or even ‘to reveal.’  The story ‘Counting Epiphanies’ by Yokanaan Kearns,          explains it’s meaning more clearly:  In this story, a Hawaiian third grade teacher gives her students one last vocabulary word right before Christmas vacation: the word epiphany.

In our Isaiah reading, he says, to the faith community, ‘Arise, shine, for your light has come!” I’m sure that they felt like complaining and whining, also, since they were living in the midst of ruins, their city destroyed, a definite time of widespread depression. Times were hard and they felt no joy in their lives.

Isaiah knew how they felt, so he came, full of hope and joy as he announced that their future would be much brighter. It was nearly impossible for these people to imagine better times                          since they were living in misery.  Still, Isaiah persisted, “Sure, you’re living in darkness now – however, the glory of God WILL shine around you.”

To live in the darkness is to live in a state of depression and hopelessness. To believe that things would change for the better was something they just couldn’t picture.                                                Still, Isaiah tried to lift the from their dark pit by promising they would be a light to the nations. He pointed out that the only way for them to feel the glory of God was to ‘Arise, shine, wake up, get moving   ‘Up and At-um, Atom Ant!’

One of the Hawaiian teacher’s students complained about that last vocabulary word, ‘Epiphany.’ She said it “…was so complicated, da meaning..” A sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something. One sudden WHAT of da WHAT?! One of the other students named Lawrence explained, “You know, like when you no understand, den all da sudden you understand!”

It’s an AHA moment – a light comes on. Do you remember the movie Apollo 13?  Following the explosion that almost destroyed the spacecraft, astronaut Jim Lovell was asked if he had ever been afraid. He talked about a time in WWII when he was flying a combat mission and was returning to the aircraft carrier on which he was supposed to land. Everything was totally dark.  The carrier had no lights due to combat conditions.

His radio & navigation equipment weren’t working, so he had no way to contact the ship. He turned on a map light in the cockpit to try and calculate his position, but as he did that, an electrical short caused the lights in his cockpit to go out. He found himself in total darkness and running out of fuel.

At that moment, he looked down and saw the luminous glow of sea plankton caused by the wake of the aircraft carrier.  All he had to do was follow the glow of light and he landed safely on the ship.  Where one light failed, another took its place.

There are times when we all find ourselves in the dark. Life becomes overwhelming and we can’t see to find our way. Some of you are grieving over losses in your life.                                                  Some of you are struggling with a relationship. Others are having struggles at work, at home, or at school.  You are in NEED of a light to find your way. Just as the light of the sea plankton saved Jim Lovell, the light of God can save you, or through you, others!

So, take a few moments to reflect: What epiphanies did God give you this past year?  What sudden understandings did you receive?

Now, imagine the year stretched out before you. What does the path look like?  Is it the same old dark path you’ve been trudging down for the past 3 years, even years before?  If you open your eyes and hearts wide, who or what do you think could show you the way?

Remember, after finding Jesus, the magi were warned by God to return to their own land A DIFFERENT WAY, rather than through Jerusalem, the way they had come,                                                 and the way they had intended it?  Emmanuel…God be with YOU!  Amen.

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