Light, Fear and Hope

January 7, 2018 (Celebration of Epiphany)

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Matthew 2:1-12

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine


2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 2:1-12, NRSV)


Let us pray: O Holy One, God of light and peace, whose glory, shining in the child of Bethlehem, disperse the darkness that shrouds our path, that we may come to know Christ, offer him our hearts and souls, and follow his presence to live as he leads us. Amen.


The author Peter Benchley, who wrote the book Jaws which was later adapted into the famous movie by Steven Spielberg, spent time living in a house that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean.  He was deeply afraid of the ocean, but he was also fascinated by it.  He watched the ocean at various times of the day and the night. Overtime he became aware of the many changes of the ocean, but he was also mindful of how the sky changed as well. He is quoted as saying “the sunrise has to be the greatest sign of hope in our lives.”[1]


What a great image that the sunrise offers hope.  Hope for another day, for another chance, for a new dawn and a new opportunity.  And if you have ever noticed the sun rise then you know how magnificent, how awe inspiring, how beautiful it is when that first light breaks over the horizon and the light illumines the world.  But, light can also be harsh.  Light can also illumine the darkness and reveal things we would rather not see.[2]


Yesterday, January 6 was Epiphany, the official ending of the twelve days of Christmas.  Epiphany celebrates that Christ is the light of the world.  Since Christmas we have been in the midst of some brutal winter cold complete with snow and single digit temperatures.  The days are short, and sunlight is fleeting.  It is too cold to get out and even enjoy what little sunlight we have.  We have hope that eventually the days will get longer and yes, there will be more daylight and warmer temperatures as well.  So, in step with nature the church marks Epiphany as the day and the season when Christ, the light of the world breaks forth into creation.   During Epiphany we celebrate Christ coming as a good thing, which it is.  We celebrate it as a joyous thing, which it is.  We celebrate it as a life-giving thing, which it is.  But all too often, we celebrate it as an easy thing, a gentle thing, a non-threatening thing; which it is not.  The coming of the light of Christ into the world is a challenging, good thing.  The coming of the light of Christ into the world is a costly grace and an intense mercy.  The coming of the light of Christ into the world brings life, but it also brings death.[3]  Because that is exactly what the light of Christ does; it shines upon our lives and shows us who we really are and demands a response from us.[4]


So, in this season of Epiphany we retell and relearn all about Christ’ life — his humanity and his ministry.  As the days lengthen and as more and more light comes into our world we hear the stories of Jesus and we follow where he takes us.


We begin this Epiphany journey with the familiar story of the Magi, the Wise men, following the star to the manger.

The Magi, or wise men, are from the East traveling to Jerusalem.  They were astrologers and scientists from more than likely what is our present-day Iran.  They were not Jews.  They did not worship the God of Israel.  They studied the stars, they lived their lives looking up at the night sky, studying each star and learning all about the heavens above.  They are mesmerized by the brightest star they had ever seen.   The Magi are filled with hope, and excitement.  They follow the star wherever it may lead them.  The star first leads them to Jerusalem and they go to King Herod and ask about him if he knows the importance of the great star.   King Herod is instantly afraid, and he co-opts the Magi to become spies for him and come back to tell him what they find.  The Magi continue their journey following the star which then takes them to Bethlehem to the manger and the baby Jesus.  When they finally reach him, they fall on their faces at the awesomeness that they find.  Somehow, they understand that this baby in a manger will change their lives and the world.


The Magi brought gifts.  One of them brings frankincense which was used in worship services and it signifies Jesus’ divinity.  Another brings gold which of course is used for money and power and it signifies Jesus’ kingship.  The third brings the gift of myrrh which was a burial spice, used in the embalming process and it is a foreshadowing that his life and ministry will lead to death.  These are the gifts for the new king of all peace and prosperity.  Three gifts fit for a king, not the kind of gifts we expect for a baby born in a feeding trough.  But he, as we know is no regular baby, God and a man—all parts of who Jesus was and is.   It is a warm and wonderful story but as Paul Harvey was so famous for saying now for the rest of the story…


The rest of this Epiphany story tells of the Magi’s encounter with King Herod. The Magi are “warned in a dream” not to return and report to King Herod.  Herod knows that the presence of these three Magi and their quest for God’s Messiah announce that the world is changing, that God is approaching, and that nothing can stay the same when God shows up.  A new king is a threat to the old king and the old order.  The Magi figure out through a dream that Herod is planning to kill his threat, the baby Jesus.[5]  In order to protect the baby Jesus and themselves the Magi go home by another road.  It’s a great image—home by another road.


In this Epiphany story we see molded together two very human qualities that ingredients in all of our lives — fear and hope.  Fear of change and threats to our well-being, fear of the unknown, the new, the unforeseen.


But also hope — hope in a light, in a star that catches our eye and tugs at our hearts and calls us to see, well hope…, hope in a messiah who will change the world.


That is often how life is — fear and hope.  And we choose how to respond to each, fear and hope and which will rule our lives, our choices and our actions.  How hope and fear will play out in the way we live and make decisions and how we treat others.


When fear pops up our natural response is to go back to what we know, to what makes us comfortable, back to a life of self-sufficiency where we know what to expect and how to act.   That is what fear does to us – we freeze, we fight, or we flight.  Do we install more security systems in our homes and cars?  Do we build more gates or buy more guns?  Do we save even more for retirement, pulling back from charitable contributions to make sure we have enough?  Do we close our hearts – and minds – to those who are different? What?  Fear.


And Hope, when hope pops up?  What does hope do to us?  Hope pops up with a smile and an excitement at the possibilities that are out there.  Hope is a little risky and feels a little vulnerable, but it keeps pulling at our hearts and inviting us to go, to follow, to try, to just do it.  The Epiphany is when the light goes off and you take that first step into the unknown, toward the hope and away from the fear.


In a sense that is the message of Epiphany.  How do we manage our fears and our hopes?  Epiphany shines a light on our lives and demands a response from us. Do we give into the fear or do we embrace the hope?


The star of Epiphany says that we live by grace, and we participate in a story that is infinitely more about the promise of hope than you and I could ever imagine. confident that Jesus – the light of the world and our Emmanuel – shines on in the darkness and that the darkness has not overcome it.


Let us pray:

[1] Idea from Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, IL in a sermon by Rev. Alice Trowbridge 1-4-09.

[2] The Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, Sermon Year B — The Epiphany of the Lord January 2, 2012, Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12.

[3] The Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, Sermon Year B — The Epiphany of the Lord January 2, 2012, Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid.