“Christ be our light.” – Sermon for the Epiphany of our Lord

We’ve explored before what metaphor is. Sometimes people will try to downplay something that is real by calling how we speak about it “mere metaphor.” The reality is that speaking metaphorically about something is not any less realistic than speaking of it literally. Take for example this statement: “The snow blanketed the streets.” Did the snow really blanket the streets? Well—not in the sense of an afghan, but it surely did lay on the streets as a blanket lays on a bed. How boring would it be to speak only in literal terms…Three inches of snow was on the street. Or how about this: “Her eyes were reflective” instead of “Her eyes were twinkling diamonds.” Or perhaps: “Life is the duration of existence marked by different events that positively and negatively impact someone’s success and wellbeing,” instead of the much simpler, “Life is a highway.” Metaphor is real talk—no less real than the literal. In some ways, metaphor is more real because it tells us so much more by the images it paints within our minds. We know what diamonds are, and we know how they behave. And so to say someone has twinkling diamonds for eyes, we can conjure up in our imagination what such a person’s eyes look like.

And so it is when we speak of God, of Jesus, and other matters of faith. It’s not simply “mere metaphor” to refer to Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It’s not simply mere metaphor to say that God is the rock who gave us birth. These are very real statements, confessions even, if you will, that describe in real terms who God is…And so we do well not to reduce our expansive language for God as “mere metaphor,” but instead to embrace and wrestle with what it means to speak of Jesus as both the Lamb of God and the Lion of Judah…How is that simultaneously possible? As we approach these questions honestly, deeply, and more importantly, innocently as a children, we will come to a better understanding of our own relationship with God and just how much God loves us.

Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.

What is light?

Technically, scientifically speaking light is electromagnetic radiation that can be apprehended by the human eye.

But for our purposes, that doesn’t really answer the question.

What is light?

It’s a question human beings have been asking themselves for millennia. The pre-Socratic, Greek philosopher Empedocles suggested that everything was made of four different elements—fire, air, earth, and water. He further believed that the goddess Aphrodite created the human eye out of each of these four elements, and that she lit a fire within each person’s eye so that we could see. This fire in our eyes was the source of light.

Some roughly three hundred years later, Greek mathematician Euclid suggested that light moved…and that it moved in straight lines. He came up with this idea because of his observations about how light reflected, and he was able to develop mathematical formulas to figure out how light moving in a straight line would behave.

Fast forward another almost three hundred years, and the Roman philosopher poet Lucretius suggested that light was made of teeny-weeny little parts. Lucretius was what we call an atomist—someone who taught that everything was composed of discrete components, as opposed to holists, who believed that although things might be broken down into smaller parts, things can’t be understood unless taken as a whole. “Light and heat of the sun,” writes Lucretius, “these are composed of minute atoms which, when they are shoved off, lose no time in shooting right across the interspace of air in the direction imparted by the shove.”

Lucretius wasn’t in fact too far off the mark when we consider light from the modern perspective. The English polymath Isaac Newton spent much time studying light. He believed light to be made up of particles of matter—little bits that have mass. And they behaved liked particles instead of waves because he observed how water, for instance, when travelling in a wave, would bend around an obstacle, and light instead seemed to stop—going no farther—when it encountered an obstacle. It wasn’t until 1850 when Frenchman Leon Foucault was able to obtain a sufficiently accurate measurement for the speed of light that the wave theory of light was substantiated, putting the particle theory of light in the rubbish bin of physics until none other than one Albert Einstein picked it up again in the early 20th century.

Einstein built upon the work of German physicist Max Planck, who studied light frequency. Planck understood that light waves had different amounts of energy, but these waves could gain or lose energy only in finite amounts related to their frequency, or the rate at which they vibrated within an electromagnetic field. Planck suggested that the amount of energy these light waves had could be measured by the number of tiny pieces that composed them. He called these tiny pieces “quanta,” from the Latin for “how many.” Einstein picked up Planck’s work and in 1905 published four papers, all remarkably and surprisingly short for how cataclysmically they changed our understanding of how light works. Quantum physics was born…

Ultimately, Einstein was able to prove that light was made up of particles of energy, then called quanta but today known as photons. These photons behave both as particles and as waves and they are simultaneously energy and have mass. Add to all this, building on the work of Newton, Foucault, and Planck, that there is an inherent relationship between the speed of light, time, and all the physical stuff of the universe. Light, time, and matter are intricately, yet in a very simple way, intertwined together, affecting each other at a subatomic level. All of life, all the stuff, all time, and even energy itself is related. If one of those factors change, then the other do as well! This was a remarkable revelation, a great epiphany if you will, for humanity. It changed the very understanding of how the universe works.

Today we once again mark the occasion of the Epiphany of our Lord, the celebration of the magi following a great star, in other words, a light in the night sky, that led them to Jesus. Epiphany is one of the major holidays, major holy days, that the church keeps. It’s the twelfth day of the Christmas season. At his incarnation, Jesus is born in Bethlehem of Judea. He is born among the Jewish people. As St. John tells us in the prologue of his gospel, “he came to his own.” Now today, on this Epiphany of our Lord, we come to understand, we come to realize, we come to see that Jesus hasn’t come down from heaven just for the Jewish people. God hasn’t erupted onto the stage of human history just for the sake of those descended of the bloodline of Abraham. No—from the moment of the incarnation, the good news of Jesus Christ is for all: Jew and Gentile, the wise and the simple, male and female, Democrat and Republican, straight and gay, rich and poor, old and young, red and yellow, black and white. All these…all these are precious in God’s sight.

The revelation on this day, this Epiphany of our Lord, is that a great light shines in the darkness of this world so cut up, categorized, ranked, classed, and divided based on differences between every one cast in the image of God—which, by the way, means each and every human being. What God is revealing to us this day is that his creative and redeeming love is for everyone. What God is revealing to us this day is that his love is for us. What God is revealing to you this day is that his love is for you.

It’s a rather simple idea, at face value, much like the relationship between light, time, and matter is easy enough to express in simple mathematical equations. Yet in other ways, it boggles our minds. God who created something from nothing, who by uttering an unassuming word gave rise to light and life, to matter and energy, to time and all existence—that God loves us. Of all the grand and marvelous things in the universe to love, God chooses to love us. God chooses to love you. That’s something truly remarkable, even if it’s something said so simply as “God loves you.”

When you have a glimpse into what that means, what it means that God loves you, when even for a momentary instant you have a fleeting understanding of God’s love for you, you’re having your own epiphany. In that moment, in that instant, when you sense the love of God in Jesus in a way that words only approximate to describe, the creative and redeeming light that first called for life at the moment of creation awakens within you. In those moments, in those instants, the word of God who was with God and who was God, who was born among brutish cattle and laid in a manger, who preached and taught radical impartiality for all regardless of who they are, who suffered public humiliation and death on a cross, who rose again to life in indescribable glory—in those moments, in those instants the Word of God manifests as the light of Christ, and that light shines in your darkness, the darkness that surrounds you wherever you may find yourself, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

And so we are no longer a people who sit in darkness. Upon us the light of God has shined. And that light fills us with love, fills us with energy. Remember—light doesn’t exist apart from energy, or time, or all the stuff of this world. We in our physical bodies, we with every fiber that makes us who we are—we are filled with the love of God, a light that can’t be put out, in lives taken up so completely into God’s very own self through the revelation of Jesus that they have no beginning and no ending—eternal light, eternal life, eternal love—light, matter, and time. We are filled with these. They make us who we are in Christ Jesus. And so we can’t help but live as he lived: sharing our light, sharing our life, sharing our love with a world that is beset by darkness, a world beset by jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, enmities, strife, and general all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants. And yet just as God sent Jesus to us to bring us into the light of salvation, so now does Jesus send us. “As the Father has sent me,” Jesus says to his disciples, to us, “so I send you.”

On this Epiphany Sunday, we remember that Jesus is the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome. Just as the magi followed a star, a great light in the sky, that revealed to them the true nature of God, so too do we look to a star, a source of light in the midst of darkness, for guidance. Jesus is the star of our life, sparkling bright and shining in the darkness around us, bringing light to our benighted world. We still look to that star today when we follow Jesus and are guided by his light, and that star, Jesus, fills us with his own light. We shine our own God-given light when we, like Jesus did for us, share the light, share the life, share the love within us with a world longing for a glimmer of hope in a land of deep darkness. We become hopeful beacons in the midst of hopeless darkness.

Christ be our light.

Shine through the darkness.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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