Sunday’s sermon: An Unexpected Light in the Darkness

Star of Bethlehem

Texts used – Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12

  • Close your eyes and imagine the night with me. A cool breeze blows across the desert, carrying with it grains of sand from a thousand different places all at once. The night is dark, but the moon shines bright, and the sky is dotted with countless stars. You and your companions have spent your whole lives learning about those pin-pricks of light. You know their names and stories and meanings. You have studied their language and know how to interpret the way they whisper the mysteries of the universe. You understand which heavenly movements signify shifts in politics and kingdoms, which ones speak of love and loss, which ones predict disasters and evils and joys to come. Night after night, year after year, you rouse when the rest of the world is asleep and come out here to study and follow and listen to the voices of these stars. You’ve been out here so often, you can actually anticipate the steps of their heavenly dance. You know where the stars will be and when. But that night … that night was different.
    • Appearance of a new star – wholly unexpected light
      • Star that hadn’t been there before
      • Star that was brighter than all the rest
      • Star that spoke of movement and purpose, of a baby and a king
    • You may not have been expecting it, but you know what this star means. A child has been born – newborn royalty that, according to the stars, will change everything. So you and your companions gather up your things, pack up your camels, secure your precious gifts, and set off.
  • Today – celebrate the Epiphany
    • Day to honor the coming of the Magi to the manger-side
    • Significant because traditionally thought of as first time the Messiah is revealed to and recognized/worshiped by Gentiles
      • Outsiders
      • Ones who don’t understand, don’t belong (Jewish way of thinking at the time)
      • Wasn’t a pleasant word – whole different word in both Heb. and Gr. → often both get translated as “nation/s” but very “us/them” mentality
        • See this in our text: Let all the kings bow down before him; let all the nations serve him.[1] → “nations” is not word used exclusively for Israel but is instead word for “the other” – word encompasses all nations/peoples other than Israel
      • And yet here are these outsiders, these foreigners, these Magi from the east coming to kneel in the presence of the Christ-Child in holy admiration before nearly anyone else. Just like the star that they followed to find the Christ-Child, these Magi were an unexpected light in the darkness.
    • Headlines, breaking news stories, and goings-ons around this country and around the world can make it feel like we’re all wandering around in darkness
      • Bumping into each other
      • Bumping into the growing edges around us – places where our expectations and the reality of life grate against each other instead of fitting as nicely as we’d like
    • Blessing and joy in the midst of all that: people that bring God’s unexpected light into our lives and into our world
      • Key word = UNEXPECTED → Maybe it is the girl or boy next door. Maybe it is the sweet, little grandma that lives down the road or the retired pastor or exactly the person you’d expect to bring God’s light. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s the challenging person. Maybe it’s the down-and-out person. Maybe it’s the addicted person or the odd person or the ignored person. Maybe the person to bring that encouraging light of God is the last person you would expect.
        • Light of the Star of Bethlehem = unexpected light
        • Light of the Magi at the cradle-side of the Christ-Child = unexpected light
        • Friends, God still speaks today through unexpected lights.
  • Now, here’s the thing about light: it shines indiscriminately, lighting up whatever it happens to fall on! It doesn’t pick and choose what gets lit up and what doesn’t. It just shines. → sometimes reveals things that are unexpected
    • Boys have a book
      • 2 cars out together at night
      • Keep encountering scary-looking things
        • Fire-breathing monster?
        • Monster with 2 heads?
        • Monster with enormous teeth?
      • All “monsters” revealed to be precariously-stacked items when the light hits them → not what they were expected to be
    • God’s light works the same way
      • Shines indiscriminately – God doesn’t pick and choose who gets light and who doesn’t
      • Reveals the unexpected in people, situations, and communities
      • Paul = perfect e.g. of this
        • Roman citizen by birth
        • Educated as a Pharisee
        • Spent the early part of his life zealously persecuting and condemning Jesus’ followers to death, even taking an active part in the martyrdom of Stephen[2]
        • And yet this is the man that became one of the greatest apostles as far as miles traveled and letters written are concerned (at least in terms of what we have today). Paul was an unexpected light.
          • Says so himself in today’s Scripture: God gave [God’s] grace to me, the least of all God’s people, to preach the good news about the immeasurable riches of Christ to the Gentiles.[3]
  • NT passage this morning also reveals just how unexpected God’s plan for salvation was
    • Paul keeps speaking of God’s “secret/hidden plan” → not talking about some secret knowledge that must be attained like some early branch-offs of Christianity claimed (sorry … no secret “heaven only for the special” card here, folks)
      • Gr. translated over and over again as “secret plan” = mystery = the unexplainable, the ungraspable, something that’s difficult to figure out and to understand → The great mystery of our faith – that element that we have trouble wrapping our minds around – is that God came down to live among us as a human being, died a horrible and completely undeserved death for our sakes, remained dead and buried in a tomb for three whole days, then rose from the dead and, in doing so, extended to us a grace that covers us unquestioningly, unarguably, and unconditionally.
        • Grace doesn’t just cover those who are “good”
        • Grace doesn’t just cover those who are “worthy”
        • Grace doesn’t just cover those who are already “stable” (in faith, in relationships, in life, in anything)
        • Grace covers everyone. Period. Like the light of God that shines, grace is indiscriminate in where it lands and who it touches. Grace doesn’t just choose the mighty, the settled, the well-off, the perfect. Grace chooses everyone.
          • Words from communion liturgy: No matter who you are … no matter where you come from this morning … no matter what you bring with you … you are welcome here, at this table and in this community. → That is grace. No matter who. No matter what.
          • Scripture tie-ins
            • OT: [God] delivers the needy who cry out, the poor, and those who have no helper. 13 [God] has compassion on the weak and the needy; [God] saves the lives of those who are in need. 14 [God] redeems their lives from oppression and violence; their blood is precious in [God’s] eyes.[4]
            • NT states it radically – Paul: This plan is that the Gentiles would be coheirs and parts of the same body, and that they would share with the Jews in the promises of God in Christ Jesus through the gospel.[5] → Remember what I said earlier about Gentiles, how they were treated as “the other” by the nation of Israel to the point of having a different word for them? Despite that prominent attitude, one Paul most certainly would have been steeped in thanks to his Pharisee up-bringing, Paul is boldly saying that these “others” are a part of the same body … coheirs even in the work and promises of God. Paul is calling the Gentiles an unexpected light.
  • Story of one such unexpected light[6]She was …
    • Born in New York City in 1897 just before the turn of the last century – 3rd of 5 children
    • Bright student → accepted at University of Illinois (quite an accomplishment for a woman in the mid-1910s
      • Studied for just under 2 yrs – dropped out of college
    • Moved back to NYC, more specifically, Greenwich Village → became radically involved with “literary and liberal crowd”
      • Became a journalist for socialist and progressive publications, interviewing people like Leon Trotsky
      • Became a social and political activist
        • Arrested a number of times for involvements in protests → one time: protesting for women’s right to vote in front of the White House
          • Led to hunger strike in jail
    • Had a number of failed relationships, one of which ended up with her pregnant and being bullied into an abortion by the father of her child
      • Illegal and therefore difficult to obtain in the early 1920s
      • Also very dangerous – death rates as high as 30%[7]
    • When she later married and had a daughter, she and her husband went to have the child baptized in a Catholic Church. The year was 1926. This encounter with God and with the church started her on a personal spiritual journey that would lead to her convert to Catholicism in 1927.
    • Began publishing The Catholic Worker with Peter Maurin in 1933 → simple newspaper quickly morphed into the Catholic Worker Movement – still alive and well today
      • Goal: to “live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ”[8]
      • 220+ Catholic Worker communities across the country
        • Each has its own individual aim
        • All have something to do with caring for those pushed to the margins of society – food, clothes, shelter, etc.
        • We have one such house right in our backyard, right down in Rochester. [In fact, this congregation regularly participates in this house’s mission within the community.]
    • Friends, Dorothy Day was an unexpected light.
      • Woman, a radical, and a self-proclaimed anarchist in a time when none was very well received
        • Women thought of as inferior
        • Radicals often scorned by the rest of society
        • Anarchists were regarded warily – suspicion and caution
      • Yet the development of her faith combined with her strong belief in peace and mercy and justice led her to be a light for so many in a place of desperate need.
        • Recently called one of “four great Americans” by Pope Francis along with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Thomas Merton
  • Friends, who are those sources of unexpected light today? Immigrants? Refugees? Those who have been labeled the “dones” and the “nones” – those who, for any number of reasons, refuse to have anything to do with organized religion but work tirelessly for justice, for peace, for mercy for their fellow human beings not because they have to or because they feel obligated to because the desire to do so burns in their hearts? In our New Testament reading this morning, Paul says, “God’s purpose is now to show the rulers and powers in the heavens the many different varieties of [God’s own] wisdom through the church.”[9] Do we seek out that variety? Do we look for the light in unexpected places? And do we have the courage and the determination and the resilience to be that unexpected light in the darkness for a world so desperately in need? Amen.


CHARGE: Friends, I want to share a quote with you this morning from author Madeleine L’Engle. She said, “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” As you go from this place this morning, look for the Light. Cherish the Light. And be the Light.


BENEDICTION: And go with the love of God, the peace of Jesus Christ, and the companionship of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

[1] Ps 72:11.

[2] Acts 7:58-60; 22:20.

[3] Eph 3:8 (emphasis added).

[4] Ps 72:12-14.

[5] Eph 3:6.

[6] Biographical information from, accessed Jan. 2-3, 2016.

[7], accessed Jan. 3, 2016.

[8], accessed Jan. 3, 2016.

[9] Eph 3:10.

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