Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Spirit's Mantle -- A Sermon

Luke 4:14-21

I’ve always found the story of Elijah passing over the mantle of the Spirit to Elisha to be quite powerful. It’s really the story of one generation passing the torch to the next.  So, when it came time for Elijah to ascend to heaven, he turned to Elisha, and asked him: What can I do for you before I leave?  In response, Elisha boldly asks Elijah for a “double share of your spirit.”  Yes, he wants everything Elijah has, but more.  So then, after Elijah ascends into the heavens, Elisha picks up the same mantle or outer coat that his mentor used to hit  and divide the Jordan, so they could cross over to the other side, and he followed his mentor’s example and hits the water and it divides so he can cross back over to the other side.  When the other prophets see Elisha coming toward them, they recognize the spirit of Elijah resting on Elijah’s former assistant, and affirm his calling to begin a new era of prophetic ministry in Israel (2 Kings 2:1-18).

Although the stories are different, something similar happens on the day that John baptized Jesus.  John didn’t give up his ministry of baptism that day, but it’s clear that the mantle passed from John to Jesus at the moment the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus, anointing him as messiah.  

This morning we catch up with Jesus after he’d endured the trials and temptations in the wilderness, and gained some notoriety  for his preaching in the synagogues of Galilee.  Now comes the real test – facing the hometown.  These people know him better than anyone else, or at least, that’s what they think.  After all, they can say – “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”  Because they’d heard about the miracles performed in other towns, they expect him to do the same for them.  With these expectations hanging over him, Jesus enters the synagogue, and as soon as he arrives the leaders invite him to read the scripture for the day and offer a few words of interpretation.  In other words, they invited him to deliver the sermon!    

Now, hearing the Word of God read and interpreted was very important to a community like this.  They believed that God spoke through these words, and they hoped God would speak to them that day.

You get the sense of importance that the Jews placed on hearing the Word in a passage from Nehemiah, where the people go to Ezra the Priest and demand that he read to them from the Torah.  When he opened the scroll and blessed the people, everyone shouted “Amen! Amen!” and they bowed down and worshiped the LORD, even putting their faces to the ground.  Although we don’t know what Ezra read, the people begin to weep.  Obviously this Word cut deep into their hearts, and so I wonder, does the Word cut deep into your heart and mine?  

When Ezra hears them weep, he tells them:  “Don’t be sad, because the joy from the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:1-10).  

  So, in the tradition of Ezra, Jesus opens the scroll, reads from it, and offers his interpretation.  It’s his first sermon in the home church, so how will the people respond?

Well, the Word that Jesus reads comes from Isaiah 61, which offers good news to the oppressed.  After Jesus reads this passage, he points to himself, and tells them that the Spirit of God had anointed him to preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, liberation of the oppressed, and the “year of the Lord’s favor.”   This year of the Lord’s favor is the Jubilee year, which, according to the Torah, instructed the people to return the land back to its original owners.  It was designed to prevent wealthy landowners from accumulating large tracts of land at the expense of the common person.    
These are powerful words that reveal God’s vision of justice, God’s preferential option for the poor.  These are the kind of words that inspire prophetic leaders like Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, and Dorothy Day.  But on this day, Jesus chooses to embrace it for himself.  After laying out God’s vision for the world, he places this mantle of the Spirit on himself, because, as Jesus declares: “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”  Not yesterday, not tomorrow, not in the next life, but today.  Yes, today is a day of new beginnings.

When Jesus uses the word “today,” he’s declaring that the reign of God has begun, and that it would be marked by a message of liberation and hope – not for the powerful and the rich, but for the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned – that is, the people living on the margins of society.

Since our nation observed the birthday of  Martin Luther King this past Monday on the same day we watched the first African-American President be re-inaugurated, it’s good to remember that Dr. King wasn’t just a leader in the Civil Rights Movement.  He focused his attention on God’s justice and he took up issues that made him rather unpopular.  When prophets talk about justice, they have a tendency to make enemies!    So, his decision to speak out against the war in Vietnam and provide leadership for the Poor People’s Campaign turned former allies into opponents.  There are aspects of Dr. King’s legacy that we tend to forget, but they too reflect the Good News that Jesus sought to proclaim and embody.
How should we hear this message of Jesus that he takes to the pulpit in Nazareth?  

Perhaps we can find the answer in the story of Pentecost.  As Paul suggests in 1 Corinthians 12, we are the body of Christ, and if we received the Spirit’s mantle on the Day of Pentecost, then we’ve been issued the same call and we have all the necessary gifts to continue Jesus’ ministry in the world today. We’re already participating in Jesus’ messianic reign.  For instance, we partner with Congregational Church of Birmingham in hosting SOS each year.  We’re a key partner with Motown Mission, Rippling Hope, and Gospel in Action Detroit, helping to bringing healing hope to the residents of Detroit.  And more recently we’ve taken a leading role in the formation of the Metro Coalition of Congregations.

You’ve heard and seen the invitations for our Founding Convention on February 24th, but the Coalition has been busy for some time not only adding to our numbers, but making a difference in the community.   We took a leading role in helping MSHDA get funds out to those facing foreclosure, with Kathleen Potter serving as the chair of that task force.  We’ve reached the point where we think we can declare victory and take up another issue.  We’ve also been active in advocating for a regional transit authority in metro-Detroit, which will allow the region to develop a good, usable  public transportation system.  Crystal Balogh and Kate Mills chair that task force.  A number of others from this congregation are serving on these two task forces, or on the other two task forces – the one addressing gun violence and the one addressing health care.  All of these issues and more serve as calls to justice, and they connect directly to Jesus’ proclamation of a year of the Lord’s favor.

Yes, Jesus has declared that the word from Isaiah 61 has been fulfilled – but to each of us is given the question – how will you respond?  Will you follow the lead of the disciples and accept the challenge, or will you follow Jesus’ former neighbors who try to throw him off a cliff?  As we ponder this question, let us remember the words of Ezra, who reminds us that “the joy from the Lord is your strength!”

  Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
3rd Sunday after Epiphany
January 27, 2013

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Different Gifts, Same Spirit -- A Sermon

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Last week, in our reading from the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist told the crowd that he baptized with water, but another would come baptizing with the Holy Spirit and Fire.  When Luke moves to Jesus’ baptism, he leaves us with the impression that Jesus, upon the Spirit falls in the form of a dove, is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and Fire.

In Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts, Jesus gathers the disciples together and tells them to wait until the Spirit falls on them, because the Spirit will empower them to proclaim the good news of God’s realm to the ends of the earth.  Then, as story the moves to the day of Pentecost, the Spirit falls on the entire community and they begin to proclaim the good news of Jesus in languages they’d never learned, and as a result God was glorified and the Age of the Spirit had begun.

But what does this Age of the Spirit look like and what does it mean for us?   In today’s reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul addresses some issues that had emerged.  Since he was the founder of this church, members of the church had turned to him for help, and so he offers his advice, sort of like a Regional Minister might.

Apparently there were questions about spiritual things, and Paul doesn’t want anyone to be ignorant about such things, because back when they were Gentiles, they’d been misled by other gods, and it seems that these earlier spiritual ideas had crept into the church, and were threatening its survival.

It appears that this congregation is confused about the pneumatikon or spiritual things.  The NRSV and the Common English Bible translate this Greek word as spiritual gifts, but that may not be the best translation.  If you drop down to verse four, where Paul speaks of “different spiritual gifts,” you’ll see that he uses the word charismaton. Now it could be just a synonym, but it also could be more than that.   While the first word speaks of spiritual things, the second word speaks of grace.  I suspect that Paul wants the Corinthians to focus on spiritual gifts that build up the community rather than spiritual experiences that enrich the individual at the expense of the community.  

Now, we’ve talked some about spiritual gifts in this church.   There were conversations before I got here about them, and I’ve continued to talk about them. In fact, I’ve been thinking about them, writing about them, and teaching about them for much of my adult life.  As I’ve shared before, I spent the latter part of my high school years as well as my college years worshiping in Pentecostal churches, where we emphasized the importance of spiritual gifts, with an emphasis on a few particular ones.  My next book, which I’ve been writing for several decades and comes out some time this spring or summer also  focuses on this issue.  So, in the course of my life, I’ve spent some time with this passage of scripture and have found that it is a great storehouse of spiritual riches that God desires to make available to the church today.    In fact, I believe that Paul’s word about spiritual things is very timely.

There’s a lot of interest in spirituality, but the question is –what kind of spirituality are people seeking?  
You may have heard of people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  Surveys suggest that this is the fasted growing religious grouping – even if they don’t see themselves as religious.  Sometimes you’ll hear them called “Nones.”  That’s not “N-U-N-S,” as in Catholic sisters!  It simply means that these folks are religiously unaffiliated.  Most of them believe in God and think of themselves as spiritual, but they don’t have much use for institutional forms of religion.  Buildings, creeds, rituals, and committee meetings don’t speak to them.  Not only that, but the younger you are the more likely you are to consider yourself part of this grouping.

Diana Butler Bass’s most recent book, which is entitled Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening speaks to this very issue.  She’s been going around the country asking church people what Christianity is going to look like after the religious trappings fall away?  Where once people were content to describe themselves as religious, that’s no longer true.  So what comes next? What does the church have to offer people who seek to experience God’s presence but aren’t committed to the institution that many of us have invested in very heavily?

One of the criticisms of this new movement is that it tends to be very individualistic.  People draw from different traditions and belief systems, but end up creating their own tradition.  Many of us who are sympathetic to this growing movement, have a question for them:  Is “spiritual but not religious” enough?  That’s the question that Lillian Daniel has been asking.  She’s written a new book with the title When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough, and if you’ve been participating in John’s study group, you’ve already explored this topic with Lillian,  and the group that meets with me on Wednesday will take it up this week.

Lillian is concerned about self-created, do-it-yourself spirituality, because it often lacks a sense of community.  There’s no accountability, and no tradition to guide them.  As Disciples we think of ourselves as a non-creedal community that allows us freedom to discern the truth for ourselves, but our Founders, the Campbells and Barton Stone assumed that we would listen for the voice of God in scripture and in the community.  It’s not just about me – it’s about what God desires for us and from us as a community.
So, Paul writes to this church and reminds them that while there are different gifts – there is but one Spirit.  There are different ministries, but the same Lord;  different activities, but the same God.  Every gift comes to the church from God as an expression of grace and they’re intended to be used for the common good.

Some have gifts of wisdom and others knowledge; some gifts of leadership and others perform miracles; some prophecy and others have the gift of discernment; still others have gifts of tongues or interpretation.  And this list is by no means complete or exhaustive.

Because these gifts are signs of God’s grace, we don’t earn them or merit them; we simply receive them as gifts and the proper response is to use them for the common good, because using them in this way reveals the glory of God.

People will tell me that they believe in God but don’t need church, or they ask me why they need church when they can encounter God at the beach in a sunset.  While I can understand their statements and questions, I tend to agree with Lillian Daniel that it’s very difficult to stay in tune with the Spirit on our own, especially in times of great distress.

When we experience something like what happened in Newtown, Connecticut, where twenty-six children, teachers, staff, and parents died in a hail of bullets, where do we turn?  Where do we go to find solace and support?  Many in Newtown turned to their faith communities, and in fact early on people turned to the priest from the Catholic parish that sat nearby the school, and it seemed to me that he drew from the Spirit of God the resources he needed to help support the community at that moment in time.  

As important as that work of the Spirit was, true community develops when we’re willing to let the Spirit move in our midst, gifting us with spiritual gifts that God can use for the common good and reveal to the world the glory of God. And the Spirit provides these gifts to everyone as the Spirit chooses, which means that everyone here is gifted and every gift is important.

One of my Disciple colleagues who ministers at a nursing home left a comment on my lectionary reflection this past Thursday.  Brian wrote that this passage has been very meaningful to him in his ministry, because it offers encouragement to the residents, so that they can see themselves as gifted and can contribute to the common good.  He writes:
They often feel that they have nothing left of value to give. With sensitive preaching and counseling, the ideas that Paul is expressing can show them that whatever they have is more than enough. They are of the same Spirit as their favorite preacher or saint. While it is true that they can no longer teach a Sunday School class, they can still pray. They can hold a crying friend's hand. They can share the wisdom of their years.
Yes, to each is given a “demonstration of the Spirit” for the Common Good.  And,  it’s not the institutional  mechanisms that define the common good, or reveal the glory of God – it’s a community resplendent with different  gifts given by the same Spirit.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2nd Sunday after Epiphany
January 20, 2013

Sunday, January 13, 2013

With Water, Fire and the Holy Spirit -- A Sermon

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

John went down to the Jordan to preach a message of repentance and baptize everyone who responded to the message.  Despite his odd appearance and the harshness of his message, hundreds came to be baptized.  Some in the crowd wondered whether or not he was the Messiah, but John pointed away from himself to another.  While he baptized with water, the coming one, the one whose way he prepared, would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with Fire.

One day, as John was baptizing, Jesus came and got in line.  Unlike elsewhere in the Gospels, John doesn’t try to stop Jesus from being baptized. He doesn’t even seem to recognize him.  He just immerses Jesus in the waters of the Jordan, like everyone else. 

  However, when Jesus emerges from the water, the heavens open, a dove descends, and a voice calls out from the heavens: “You are my son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”  At this moment God makes a claim on Jesus’s life.  It’s at this moment that Jesus receives his calling to baptize with the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit and the refining nature of Fire.

We’ve come this morning to remember Jesus’ baptism and remember and reaffirm our own baptism vows to serve God in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit.  And for those of you who’ve not been baptized, today offers an opportunity to consider what it means to be baptized into Christ.  
For those of you who have been baptized – what does this sacramental act of the church mean to your life?  What difference does it make?

As you’re thinking about your experience, I’ll share my own experiences with baptism.  As a pastor I’ve baptized a few people, and I expect I’ll baptize a few more people before my ministry concludes.  But I’ve also been baptized myself – not just once, but several times.   You see, I was born at Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles, which was a Catholic Hospital.  Apparently, it was the practice for nurses to baptize babies – just in case.  At least that’s what I’ve been told.  Not long after that, I was again baptized at St. Luke’s of the Mountains Episcopal Church in La Crescenta.  Then, when I was twelve, as was the practice of my Episcopal heritage, I was Confirmed at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Klamath Falls, Oregon.   On a Sunday Morning in the Spring of 1970, I joined other sixth-graders in confirming the vows made on my behalf at my baptism.  And then the Bishop laid his hands on me, even as Peter and John laid hands on the believers in Samaria (Acts 8:14-17), and symbolically conferred upon me the Holy Spirit.

Now, you’d think that this was sufficient, but apparently it wasn’t – at least not for me.  During high school, after having a conversion experience, I decided I needed to do something to confirm this experience of faith.  And so, in the summer of 1975, while at camp, I was baptized in the cold running water of Big Fall Creek.  Each of these baptismal experiences involved water, but John also spoke of a baptism with the Holy Spirit.  In line with the theology of the church I attended at the time, I pursued and experienced what some call the Baptism of the Spirit, including receiving what Pentecostals call the initial evidence of speaking in tongues.   With this experience, I’d covered all the bases – as far as I know!

My experiences might resonate with some, and not with others, but I share this for two reasons.  One is personal – I have strong beliefs about baptism.  The other is church related.  From the earliest days of our Disciples tradition, Baptism has played an important role in our life together.  Because we practice what is called Believers Baptism and because we baptize by immersion, we look a lot like Baptists. But our theology of baptism has similarities to that of Catholics.

One of the key moments in our Disciple history came when Alexander Campbell and his wife had their first baby.  He’d already left the Presbyterians, but he was still trying to figure out what it meant to be a New Testament oriented Christian.  Since Campbell liked to read the Bible inductively, he began to read the New Testament to see what it had to say about baptism.  One of the texts that stood out to him was Acts 2:38.  In this passage, on the day of Pentecost, Peter tries to answer the question – What must we do to be saved.  And Peter says:   
“Repent, and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  
This seemed like a clear-cut answer to Campbell’s question.  Baptism follows belief in Christ and after repentance, and then as a consequence, baptized believers received the assurance that their sins were forgiven and that they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Even if you didn’t feel different after Baptism, Campbell believed, and Disciples have taught, that God is faithful to this promise.  

After he came to this understanding of baptism, he shared it with his family, and they invited a local Baptist preacher to baptize all the adult believers in the family upon making the Good Confession as found in Matthew 16: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  Writing in the Millennial Harbinger in 1832, Campbell describes the scene.
To my great satisfaction my father, mother, and eldest sister, my wife, and three other persons besides myself were that same day immersed into the faith of that great proposition on which the Lord Himself said He would build His church. [Alexander Campbell and W. A. Morris, The Writings of Alexander Campbell: Selections Chiefly from The Millennial Harbinger (Google eBook), p. 11]
From that time on, Disciples have looked to Acts 2:38 as a guide to how we should practice the Sacrament of Baptism.  It should come after belief and repentance, and it will lead to forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And this understanding fits well with John’s message here in Luke 3.

Of course, there are other elements to the way we understand Baptism.  For instance, Paul writes in Romans 6, that in baptism we identify our selves with Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:1ff).  And if we identify ourselves with Jesus, then surely we also identify with Christ’s body, the church.  As a result, baptism serves as a point of entry into the community of faith.  But, because Disciples believe that baptism ushers us into the church universal and not just a local congregation, we don’t make it a practice to rebaptize people who come to us from other Christian communities, even if their practices are different from our own.  Yes, in spite of my own experience, it would seem that once is enough for God.   This is why most Disciples congregations practice what we call open membership.  Still, even if we recognize a variety of baptismal practice, Disciples churches still follow the pattern and practices that Alexander Campbell saw present in the biblical story.

I want to add one other element to this story, which I think relates to Jesus’ own experience as he was baptized by John.  Consider that in this moment of baptism, Jesus received his call to ministry.  When the Spirit fell, and the voice of God thundered from the heavens, God made a claim on Jesus’ life, calling him to his ministry.  Disciples traditionally have interpreted baptism as the primary point at which the believer, the disciple, is ordained to ministry.  This is the way that Disciples theologian  Stephen Sprinkle puts it: 
No theological bar exists to any baptized believers who are designated by their congregation to baptize, administer the Lord’s Supper, preach, teach, or any of the other functions usually considered the prerogative of the ordained ministry in other traditions.  Any other ordination to Christian ministry is secondary to Christian Baptism.  [Stephen Sprinkle, “The Disciples Vision of Christian Baptism,” in Baptism and Belonging, Keith Watkins, ed., (Chalice Press, 1991), 20.]  
So, if you’ve been baptized, God has claimed you for ministry!

Since the liturgical calendar invites us to remember Jesus’ baptism, it’s appropriate for us to reaffirm our own baptisms, and if we’ve not been baptized, to consider whether we should take this step of faith and identify ourselves with Jesus and his body – the church.  In just a moment I’m going to invite you to turn your focus on the baptistry, and even though we don’t have a baptismal candidate ready to go down into the waters of baptism today, we can affirm God’s claim on our lives.  For as Isaiah said to the people of Judah, living in exile, “Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you.  I have called you by name; you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1).  This is the promise of God, which baptism confirms and seals with water and the Spirit.  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
1st Sunday after Epiphany 
January 13, 2013

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Following the Star -- Sermon for Epiphany Sunday

Matthew 2:1-12 One of the first songs most of us learned as children was this old English lullaby:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high,  
Like a diamond in the sky.

It’s not a Christmas carol or even an Epiphany hymn, but the third stanza seems to fit today’s service:  

Then the traveller in the dark,
Thanks you for your tiny spark,
He could not see which way to go,  
If you did not twinkle so.

Light pollution makes it difficult to see the stars in the night, but if you get away from civilization, maybe go up into the mountains, you might get a sense of how the stars looked to the ancient world.  No wonder ancient travelers looked to the stars for guidance.  If you knew the movement of the stars, you’d know where you were and where you were going.  They were the original GPS, and they weren’t nearly as annoying!   

According to Matthew, Magi – Zoroastrian priests from Persia -- followed a twinkling star to the house of Jesus, so they could honor him as king of the Jews.  Yes, as we bring the Christmas season to a close this morning, we hear a story that invites us to look forward to new journeys upon which the Spirit of God will lead us in the coming months. 

The message of Epiphany is this: The light of God is made manifest in Christ to the world, and as the body of Christ, the church continues to shine this light into the world.  As, Jesus said: don’t put your lamp under a bushel basket; instead put it on a lamp stand so that your light will “shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:15-16 CEB).   So, as Isaiah puts it:   “Arise, Shine!  Your Light has come; the Lord’s glory has shone upon you” (Isaiah 60:1 CEB).  Darkness may be closing in on you, but “the Lord will shine for you; God’s glory will appear over you.”  (Vs. 2).  Another way to understand Epiphany, is to think about how this word is used in normal conversation.  When someone says they’ve had an epiphany, what they mean is – they’ve had a moment of understanding, a moment of clarity.  

We see this in the conversion stories of the great saints of God.  Jonathan Edwards, one of the great American theologians of the colonial era describes how he was reading 1 Timothy 1:17, which says: “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory forever and ever, Amen.”   As he read these words, he experienced a moment of spiritual clarity:
“There came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from any thing I ever experienced before.” 1  
These moments don’t come all the time, but when they do, they move us profoundly.   A couple of years back, I was at a conference up at Rochester College.  I remember how the words of the closing sermon moved me so profoundly that I began to weep.  As Katy spoke, her words penetrated my soul and I experienced in a very powerful way the love of God. 

Epiphany invites us to open our lives to moments of life-changing enlightenment.  Since the Magi represent the East, perhaps it’s appropriate to use the Buddhist term “mindfulness.”  Thich Nhat Hanh defines “mindfulness” as the “kind of energy that helps us to be aware of what is going on inside of us and around us, and anybody can be mindful.”      

In Matthew’s story, a star shines brightly in the darkness of the night sky, drawing the attention of the Magi, who recognize that this light in the sky is a sign that something important is occurring, and that they need to follow the sign to where it leads. You may have heard the slogan: “wise men still seek him.”  It’s an invitation to join these men of wisdom in finding enlightenment at the feet of Christ.

  There are, of course, other characters in this story besides Jesus and the Magi. There’s even a villain – Herod, the titular King of the Jews.  That is, while he holds the title, his claim is questionable.  He’s not a descendant of David, and he came to power in part by marrying into the last Jewish dynasty, but what is more important, he had the support of Caesar.  So, while it’s not surprising that when the Magi come looking for the “King of the Jews,” they first stopped at Herod’s palace, this wasn’t their final destination.  What they learn from Herod, however, is that the prophet Micah had spoken of a shepherd arising out of Bethlehem.  And so, they head out from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to find their promised king.  Of course, Herod, always concerned about his own power, had other designs in mind – but you’ll have to read the rest of the chapter to see what Herod had up his sleeve.  

But before we move to Bethlehem, we should stop to think about what Herod represents.  He represents “the powers that be” and the “rulers of this world.”  Unlike the kingdom of God, which Jesus represents, Herod’s kingdom is founded on brute force.   Like so many other brutish powers, Herod represents the kind of top-down, take-no-prisoners, power for the sake of power, kind of rule that we see with someone like Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad.  Of course, you don’t have to go to Syria  to find examples of this kind of domineering power that Herod represents.  There are many examples of domineering power much closer to home.

When the Magi reach Bethlehem, their search ends at a little house in Bethlehem.  Upon their arrival, they fall on their knees, and honor this child with tribute – gold and incense  – recognizing in him the rule and reign of God.  

The Magi recognize Jesus as the true king, but as we learn from the gospels, his kingdom is very different from that of Herod.  His is a kingdom of light rather than darkness; love instead of domination.  Instead of enslaving us, it sets us free. In fact, it’s the kind of kingdom described in the Beatitudes, where Jesus declares:   Blessed are the poor, the grieving, the meek, the ones who hunger after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.  It’s no wonder that Herod tried to snuff out the realm of God at the beginning, even as Pilate tried to do the same later on.  It’s just not the way the world does things! 

But the message of Epiphany is clear – the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.     

So, where do you see signs of God’s kingdom present in your life?  If you’re looking for lights in the sky, then you’re probably looking in the wrong place.  But, remember when the older President Bush spoke of “a thousand points of light?”  He was talking about voluntarism, but on this Epiphany Sunday, as we celebrate the coming of God’s light into the world, I think it’s an apt description of how we, having been enlightened by our encounter with the child born in Bethlehem, carry the light of God into the world.  

You’ll find the light of God present wherever people care for the poor, teach children, feed the hungry, build homes for the homeless, give a shoulder to cry on, or stand up for those who are persecuted and oppressed.

In just a couple of weeks we’ll celebrate Martin Luther King’s Birthday, and I think you could call Dr. King one of those points of light, but he’s not alone.  Consider Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement.  She gave her life to organizing people to advocate for and engage in efforts to bring relief from poverty.  She heard her calling in a moment of enlightenment, when she discovered the power of God’s love. She wrote of her own conversion:  
We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other.  We know him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore.  Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.2
   The good news is that each of us has access to the light of God that twinkles in the night sky, guiding “us to thy perfect light.”

1.  Jonathan Edwards testimony in Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories,  Edited by John M. Mulder, (Eerdmans, 2012), p. 83. 
2.  Dorothy Day in Finding God, p. 231.  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Epiphany Sunday
January 6, 2013