Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.
“In one thousand feet, take the exit on the right. Continue for three quarters of a mile. In five hundred feet, turn left on Main Street. Recalculating route. Make the next legal U-turn. Recalculating route.”
Have you ever felt that going through life can be a little like following the directions on your GPS? Everything seems to be going just fine for a while – the GPS lady is doing a great job, when suddenly she doesn’t warn you until it’s too late you just passed the turn you were supposed to make. Or she wants you to take an exit that doesn’t exist. Or tells you about the traffic jam AFTER you’ve passed all the alternate roads you COULD have taken instead. Recalculating route. Make the next legal U-Turn.
Maybe that’s how this last year felt for you: like one big recalculation. Perhaps it started out fine, but took a few detours here and there, and you ended 2014 in a part of the map you weren’t expecting. Perhaps the beginning of 2015 finds you on a road that you weren’t expecting to be taking, and you’re finding that the map is unclear and the usually dependable GPS lady is suddenly at a loss. Am I going the right way? Do I have the right directions? How in the world did I end up here?
The road that we are walking is sometimes a dark one. We all could use a little light to show us the way. We all need the light that shines in the darkness, the kind of light that darkness cannot overcome.
On January 6th begins a new season of light we call Epiphany. While the rest of the world has already finished up its after-Christmas sales and New Year’s parties, and put away the Christmas lights and decorations, today we are observing the final element to the Christmas story. Wise men from the East finally show up on the scene – maybe their GPS was broken? - followed a blazing star, looking for a child born a king. Today we too pay homage to a king who so often comes into our world as a blazing light, surprising us in our darkness, and shining on us when we seem to have lost our way.
Before there were such things as cars and GPS ladies or even reliable maps, people read the stars. The stars, especially the North Star in the northern hemisphere, helped people find their way through the ages. Now, the North Star is not the brightest star or the most easily found in the night’s sky. Instead, it’s so helpful because, while all the other stars travel around the sky during the night, the North Star stays fixed in place, which is pretty handy if north is the place you want to go. For slaves in the South a hundred and fifty years ago, the North Star was both a beacon of hope and a map to show them the way to freedom. The North Star was the light that shown out in their darkness to show them the way, and no amount of darkness could extinguish their hope.
Often we are too busy to look up at the stars anymore – and especially around here there is so much light at night that they are hard to see. And we have our fancy GPS devices and apps. But do you remember the last time you look up at a night sky full of stars?
When I was a camp counselor at a Lutheran camp in Wisconsin, one night during the week every cabin went out into the woods for a camp-out. It wasn’t very far at all from the main camp, and it was only for one night, but for every cabin of teenage girls I took out there, I may as well have been talking them to the Canadian wilderness. After it got good and dark, I would take them for a hike along the trail. I found a nice dark spot where we could get a clear view of the stars, and I turned the flashlight off. After nervous giggling died down, we would all get quiet and gaze at all the stars. After a few moments I pointed out the North Star and why it was special. Then I told them Jesus was a star shining in their lives that would never shift or change or falter or dim.
Each of these teenage girls lived in a world that was constantly changing around them. They were trying to figure out who they are and who or what they should follow. They were trying to find their way in a world that was often not friendly or kind, a world that often could be very dark.
In many ways that world hasn’t changed. The world was a dark place back when the wise men followed a very special star on a long journey far from their homelands, and it continues to be a dark place today. Then, like now, there were political intrigue and power plays happening in palaces and in places of power. For people like King Herod, the darkness was just fine, thank you very much. The way things were was just fine, and would go on being just fine. The powerful would continue to rule the powerless, the strong would oppress the weak, the rich would lord it over the poor. All would continue as it “should” be, with the Herods of the world living it up while the hopeless continue with nothing.
But a light shown out in the darkness, a star appeared and rose in the night sky, and things started to happen.
Perhaps the wise men who followed the star felt they had lost their way too, when they arrived in Jerusalem. The expected to find a child, born to be king. They certainly found a king all right, but one who was frightened out of his mind at the news that there was someone out there who would threaten his position.
The wise men had to keep following the star, through all the detours and strange U-turns and recalculations they faced on their journey. The light stayed with them until they arrived at their destination – Jesus, the one who would shepherd his people, who had been called Messiah and Savior and Lord by an angel to some shepherds working the graveyard shift in a field with sheep.
The life of this Jesus when he grew up seemed to take a few unexpected detours, too. He did not grow up to be the king that others expected him to be. Instead of wearing fine robes and dining in palaces, he broke bread with poor people and hung out with fishermen, tax collectors, and women. Instead of wielding a sword as a warrior, he used his words to teach and to heal and bring peach. Instead of being crowned and venerated as king of his people, he was worshipped and given gifts by wise men from another country.
The light of the star lead these men to the light of Jesus. But the journey for them was not an easy one. They faced many hardships as they traveled, and probably got lost and had to make a few U-turns. And also the journeys that have lead us to the light of Jesus were often not simple or easy. We all have had and will continue to have a few recalculations and U-turns of our own. But the light of Jesus will never leave us, no matter what kinds of detours our lives take.
These days in Epiphany will continue to grow brighter, little by little, by precious minutes each day. But while we’re in the midst of it, this little increase of light can be hard to notice. It’s so easy to miss. We all need reminders that the light is indeed growing in our days, and that the light of Jesus is with us, shining in the darkness of our hearts. We also could use a reminder that that Jesus wants us to let this light shine out so that others can see it.
For the wise men, this reminder was a star. But for us, in these days, it can be something smaller and less interstellar. It can be something physical, perhaps something that you use often or see every day. I’d like to share with you the reminder that I use – this flame-less battery candle that I have in my office. If you've come to Holden evening prayer during Advent, you’ve seen it too, lighting the way in the darkened sanctuary. It still shines brightly, but, as you can see, it looks a little different. It’s a little broken. It’s been dropped a few times. But I still keep it around, and have used it for Holden and for synod youth retreats I’ve been a part of. I keep it because this is the kind of light that Jesus prefers to use to shine in the darkness – not the Martha Steward’s Perfect Christmas-O-Rama lights, but the lights that are chipped and lopsided and are burned out here and there.
Jesus calls the dim bulbs and the broken lights and has them shine in the darkness for him. Jesus finds the lost and those always making U-turns and gives them an honored place at his table. So go ahead, leave your Christmas lights up until Lent to remind you of this, especially if they’re starting to sag a little or half falling down. Because the light is STILL shining in the darkness, and the darkness will not and cannot overcome it. Amen.