The horrendous tragedy and suffering in South and Southeast Asia this week remind us of the true context in which religion is significant. We live in a world whose natural forces, such as the Tsunami, press ahead on a scale to which human affairs are trivial. Religion helps us understand humanity’s place in a world of such cosmic forces. Those forces also remind us that our God, their Creator, moves on a scale that dwarfs even their terrible powers of destruction and creation. As we weep for those lives drowned out, those people depleted by sickness and grief, those futures destroyed, we need to ask, who is God whose creation breaks shorelines and their peoples like a boot on an anthill? Can human beings be at home in a creation like this?
Today is the feast of the Epiphany in the liturgical calendar, which celebrates Jesus’ “appearance” to the public world. “Epiphany” means “appearance in public.” The traditional gospel text for Epiphany is the familiar story of the three Wise Men who come from the East to see Jesus as one they expect to be a king. The interesting question, of course, is just what it is that appears in Jesus. Christians have always answered that it is God that is revealed in Jesus. So what does Jesus reveal of God?
Today as we struggle to reconcile the Tsunami’s devastation with the appearance of Baby Jesus to the delightful gift-bearing Magi, I want to call to your attention three classic Christian symbols that themselves give content to the Epiphany: that God in Jesus is the Light of the world, that God in Jesus brings salvation to all people, and that God in Jesus is King of the Universe. These are large themes, but they are all necessary to grasp the religious significance of the Epiphany.
Our text from Isaiah says, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Last week I talked about the text from the beginning of the Gospel of John that says, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” In both Isaiah and John, light symbolizes understanding. But it isn’t just any old understanding. It is the understanding of the glory of God. For Isaiah, this meant something like a glory of Israel’s God that would be apparent to all the nations of the Earth, so that they would come in awe and response to worship God and receive divine judgment. The theological significance of this point in Isaiah is twofold, that the God of Israel is not merely for Israel but for all nations, and that God’s glory is something vaster and deeper than politics.
Christians took this passage to refer to Jesus as the light of the world. Now Jesus gave a new meaning to the divine light. On the one hand, according to John and others, the light of the world was the foundation of the creation of the world itself. The light reveals the Creator in the depth dimension of the world. On the other hand, the human meaning of Jesus as the light of the world is humility and faithfulness in love. Jesus was the one who showed God to be with the humble and poor, with those who would take last place and let others go first, with the losers in competition rather than with the hard-drivers. The light of the world never shone more starklythan at the crucifixion when the life of Jesus was snuffed out.
So as we cry for the dead and dying, the starving and grieving, we know that somehow in that suffering is the light of the world. In that suffering is the Creator, who is at once too glorious to be scaled to the concerns of human loss and too intimate not to be present in the stench and funeral pyres. Part of the Epiphany of Jesus is that we are graced by a cosmos beyond our imagining, and yet we are not alone.
Our text from Ephesians is a bit less metaphysical than the light of the world symbolism. Paul, or the author of Ephesians who was probably a student of Paul’s, understood the significance of Jesus to be that by his own sacrifice, both Jews and Gentiles, all the peoples of the world, now have access to God. Moreover, they have a new common way of life, based on love, with model communities of support and worship. Paul said that Christian Jews did not have to give up Jewish practice, and Christian Gentiles did not have to take on Jewish practice or give up their other religious life except in cases where it was synonymous with debauchery. Rather, the early Christians thought of the Christian Way as the promulgation of the good news, the gospel, that God saves all people, and that because of Jesus Christ all have access to God.
So the second thing revealed in the Epiphany of Jesus Christ is that we are all acceptable and need to find out how to live in the light of that acceptability. For Paul, and clearly for Jesus, the way to live before God is in communities of love and compassion. Surely this does not mean that only Christians should get together. It means that we who are only distantly affected by the water’s devastation should take the survivors as our brothers and sisters, equally loved by God, grieve with them for the losses of their families, friends, and homes, and help them to start anew. The Epiphany lesson is that Jesus died for them as well as for us, regardless of their religious beliefs and practices.
The third symbol of God in Epiphany is that Jesus was born a king. From our text, we know that King Herod feared that what would appear in Jesus is a king who would threaten his own throne. Some of you remember from last week’s gospel that Herod’s reaction was to kill all the children in and around Bethlehem two years old and under, a desperate expression of his fear of alternative royalty.
We know from what followed that Jesus was not a political pretender and never became a king in Herod’s sense. But Christians have claimed that Jesus was indeed a king in a more profound sense, a messiah in a sense not imagined by previous Jewish usage. The traditional word for this monarchy is Pantocrator, which means the Almighty Creator and Ruler of All. Images of Christ Pantocrator are common in Eastern Orthodox iconography, and the window above the altar here at Marsh Chapel is a somewhat domesticated version of this. The images are supposed to show how Jesus is at once human, and also the divine Logos. Christ Pantocrator is both the Alpha and the Omega. However we understand the beginning of the cosmos, its Big Bang, and its ending, perhaps a re-contraction to a new Big Bang or simply a Final Dissipation of energy and order, Christ is the almighty king of that, the Cosmic King. Moreover, because God as Creator is intimately present in each thing within the flow of the cosmos, Christ Pantocrator is almighty king of that too. The Pantocrator is king of the most distant and the most intimate. Christ the King is in the death-dealing friction of techtonic plates, and also in the lost joys, the suffering, the grieving, the sickness, the hopelessness, the help, the sharing, the care, and the love in the aftermath of human disaster.
Nature’s carelessness about human life causes us to ask what place we human beings have in the cosmos. The founding myths of Genesis suggest that the whole cosmos was made for the support of human life, and we know that this is not so. The cosmos is far older and vaster than anything imagined in biblical times, and we human beings have infinitesimal significance, products of mere chance evolution on a minor planet of a minor sun in a minor galaxy at the center of nothing. In the history of the Earth, last week’s slight slippage of the Indian techtonic plate under the plate of Southeast Asia is a tiny part of the movement that one day will put Bombay miles beneath Bangkok. How can human beings be at home in such a cosmos?
The Epiphany of Jesus reveals that the Almighty King who creates the cosmos of unimaginable span and power is the same humble God who enjoins us to seek justice, practice mercy, to help, and to love one another. For within the vast indifference of the cosmos exists the human sphere in which justice matters, mercy matters, helping others is our calling, and love is divine. Human life is full of meaning. From the intimate tasks of working and living with family and friends to the grand tasks of social justice, world peace, the cultivation of the arts, and the attainment of high civilization, life is meaningful. Its flourishing is a joy and its destruction means tragedy. Suppose our lives are short, they still are meaningful. Suppose our communities and civilizations last only a few centuries, they still are meaningful achievements. Suppose all carbon-based life forms are extinct in a few billion years, they still will have had their eons of glory. Humanly meaningful value does not lie in lasting forever. It lies in the density with which human meaning is rooted in the depths of God.
We are at home in the universe precisely because we can care for one another and share in the meanings of one another’s joys and sorrows. The vast indifference of the rest of the cosmos makes the studied care of human beings and the precious meanings of our lives all the more important. The Epiphany of Jesus Christ, Pantocrator, King of the Universe, reveals this.
I invite you, then, to squint with me in the light that reveals God’s glory so vast and cosmic that the Psalmist asks in amazement, “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?” We cannot deny the brightness of that glory by seeking to make God a domestic caretaker of the human scale of things. That same light, however, is the humble Jesus who illuminates the folds of justice, mercy, and love. I invite you also to accept Ephesians’ call to recognize that all people lie within the creative love of God and are free to approach God’s glory as redeemed sinners. Let us have no partisanship about who our brothers and sisters are, and where we all are going. I invite you finally to join the Wise Men in adoration of the Baby Jesus, helpless in the bosom of his family, nearly killed by imperial dynastic politics, finally killed by a later stage of that same imperial process. For, what that baby will teach is how to be at home as lovers of God and one another in a cosmos for which human life is wonderously strange and worthy. Come to the table where the light illumines God’s glory and our ties with all the people of God’s creation.