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

        I want to talk this morning about light—about light and shadow, good and evil, hope and despair, about the thrill of vaccines and boosters and pandemic fatigue amid sky-high Covid rates.

        More than that, I want to talk about false binaries: the myth of either-or and the gift of both-and.

        Like you, I would love to focus on nothing but the Light that has come—to us and to all; the glory of the Holy One that has risen—upon us, of all people; and the divine summons to each and every one of us to shine with the outrageously good news that Love has become and moved into our neighborhoods so that our flesh might become Love.

        I mean, we could talk about that all day.

        And then there’s that star—another source of light—that so thoroughly engages the spiritual longings of wise foreigners that they drop everything to follow it on a long and dangerous journey.

        We could wax poetic about that all night.

        And then, of course, there’s the New Year, which some of us are still willing to embrace as reason for hope and a fresh start.

        It is yet another appropriate and potentially uplifting subject on which to focus our attention this morning.

        But then there’s the continuation of the Christmas story, which, for all the romanticizing of Epiphany and magi and camels and gifts, goes south very quickly. Just a few days ago we had angels singing “glory to God in the highest heaven” and dazed shepherds hurrying from their fields into town to see God’s love come down as a newborn baby lying in a manger.

        Now Matthew has the nerve to remind us that a paranoid Herod is Rome’s puppet king in the region. While the magi are pure as snow in their quest to find the baby king, Herod will stop at nothing to preserve his own power. Enter the all-too-real world of political intrigue and manipulation, corruption and deception. Matthew gives us joyful encounter, heartfelt worship, and a change of direction in one scene and then, immediately after the ending of today’s lesson, the Holy Family fleeing for their lives to Egypt and Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.

        It doesn’t get much bleaker than that. And I wonder if that is not Matthew’s point.

        Now, don’t get me wrong: I love stories of stars and journeys, gifts, and life-saving dreams as much—and probably more—than the next person. I’ve preached hopeful—and sometimes even inspiring—sermons about them many times, and if that’s where you are this morning, there is nothing wrong with that. I know that some of you—and sometimes all of me—come to church wanting and needing to hear a word of hope, not to be reminded of what we already know is wrong with the world.

        I hear you, and … I wonder if we do both ourselves and the world a disservice when we treat darkness and light, good and evil, pre-pandemic life and Covid-world, hope and despair as mutually exclusive, all-or-nothing states of being. I think we harm ourselves when we fail to acknowledge the shadow within us, and we hurt others and all people whole when we refuse to see light and love—the very image of God—in other people.

        The very first gospel written, the Gospel of Mark, says absolutely nothing about the birth of Jesus. But the other three—Luke, Matthew, and even John—make it very clear that Jesus is born poor and oppressed into an unjust system in a broken world. Luke notes that Caesar required everyone in the Roman Empire to be counted for purposes of taxation. Matthew pulls the camera back from the manger to show us that Bethlehem was part of Judea, which was ruled by Herod, an ambitious lackey of empire. And, John—well, John pulls no punches, speaking in poetic terms of Jesus as the light who has come into the world’s bleakness, a love-light so strong that no bleakness can overcome it.

        Just as the magi could not see or follow the star without the darkness of night, we are drawn to the Healing Light of Christ precisely because of the brokenness of the world and the ache within our own hearts. We rejoice in the hope of a new year especially when the year that just ended has been hard. We cherish our health even more when we’ve experienced serious illness or injury. We become much more aware of what is important and essential when a deadly pandemic separates us from people, practices, and places that we love.

        And let us not forget the fundamental premise of our faith: That God loves us just as we are, that God so loves this world—in all its brokenness—that God took on flesh and lived among us that we might know healing and wholeness, justice and peace, and life abundant. The light comes not to overcome the bleakness within our own hearts and the world, but to reveal it; not to destroy it, but to heal and transform it.

        The unnamed magi in our story were not so different from us. Living in a scary world, they wanted to make meaning out of mystery. And so they dedicated themselves to following the light in the darkness. And when they found what they were looking for, they were changed—so changed that they went home by another road.

        Beloveds, this sweet old world of ours is a holy mix of things. Our lives, more often than not, are a sacred blend of good and bad, difficult and delightful, joy and pain, hope and struggle. And God dwells with us in it all. Love walks beside us through it all.

        I realize that this sermon is more conceptual than may be helpful, and I apologize for that. What I am trying to say is that, like you, I long for the light. My heart needs to hope, and I desperately want this pandemic and all its life-limiting restrictions to be over.

        And, at the same time, I don’t want us to miss the blessing of what is. I want us to bring light into the bleakness; I want us as a church to bring God’s goodness into evil. I understand the desire to separate ourselves from pain and deny our grief, but I believe we will be healed and transformed when we open our hearts to the reality of their presence in our lives. I think newness and hope are to be found in the both-and rather than the either-or.

        I want, by God’s grace, for us to be able to see hope and brightness in shadow and struggle. Toward that end, I leave you with Padraig O Tuama’s “Liturgy of the Night,” which is not so different from the goodness and light of our creation story. Listen:

On the first night God said: ‘Let there be darkness.’ And
God separated light from dark; and in the dark, the land
rested, the people slept, and the plants breathed, the
world retreated. The first night.
And God said that it was Good.

On the second night God said: ‘There will be conversations
that happen in the dark that can’t happen in the
day.’ The second night.
And God said that it was Good.

And on the third night, God said: ‘Let there be things
that can only be seen by night.’ And God created stars
and insects and luminescence. The third night.
And God said that it was Good.

And on the fourth night, God said: ‘Some things that
happen in the harsh light of day will be troubled. Let
there be a time of rest to escape the raw light.’
The fourth night.
And God said that it was Good.

And on the fifth night, God said: ‘There will be people
who will work by night, whose light will be silver,
whose sleep will be by day and whose labour will be
late.’ And God put a softness at the heart of the 
darkness. The fifth night.
And God said that it was Good.

And on the sixth night, God listened. And there were
people working, and people crying, and people seeking
shadow, and people telling secrets and people aching 
for company. There were people aching for space and
people aching for solace. And God hoped that they’d
survive. And God made twilight, and shafts of green to
hang from the dark skies, small comforts to accompany
the lonely, the joyous, the needy and the needed. 
The sixth night.
And God said that it was Good.

And on the last night, God rested. And the rest was
good. The rest was very good.
And God said that it was very Good.

        Beloveds, as we turn toward the Light in this season of Epiphany, as we usher it into our world with gladness and singing, may we also make room for the full spectrum of life. May we invite God’s healing love into every forsaken corner of our hearts and every rejected part of the world.

        May we let love’s light shine into it all, until it all of it becomes good and very, very good.