St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, January 10, 2021
“Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
IN THE BEGINNING … the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. Gen 1:1-2 The place where something would be in the future, and yet nothing was yet created, is hard to describe. When we’ve spent our lives on this rock, seen the sun go up every morning and down each night, it’s hard to set the stage for the moment of creation and not have our home planet described somehow. The darkness and the deep, the void formlessness are saying too much, perhaps, about nothing. Nothing at all. Not even space. Nuthin’ at all. It isn’t a bad negative. It’s just a zero.
Some have called that ‘chaos’. The word chaos, however, summons up a sense of clouds and garbage, the detritus left after a cyclone destroys a farm. Unorganized matter, rampant purposeless energy. But that was not the canvas on which God created our world. Out over that sea of deep dark nothing, God’s Spirit flowed and laid His Presence. The Father spoke: “Let There Be Light!” and in a splintered second, light sprang out of the void. From nothing to everything in less time than it takes to say it. God saw it, it was good, and the existence of darkness and light commenced at the first click of the second hand in its very first sweep. Time, as we experience it, began along with light.
This is the season of Light. Epiphany means a shining forth, emanations from the source of all light to reach the ends of the earth with the light of the Gospel, good news that our lives may now be safe forever in the Person of God’s Son, conqueror of sin and death, Man and God forever, progenitor of a new race into which He calls us. We are to join Him in this new race, humankind redeemed, and more than forgiven, transformed, from death to life, undying, filled with divine light.
Sometimes it feels as though our matches have gotten a bit wet. And no wonder, with the chaos and clamor of the world against our spirits, desperate attempts to get our attention away from the miracle of life in Christ, calling up our old nature, making us mad, ashamed, bitter, foolhardy—chaotic. But the light doesn’t come from you. Your matches don’t light themselves.
In this festival of light entering our world, its symbol the star of Bethlehem, guiding the magi to Christ’s cradle so the Gentile world might be first to worship Him as King, this light is lit from God the Father to God the Son, in God the Spirit who indwells us. His light enlightens us: Illumination. The process by which we are illuminated causes a bit of destruction. Our old ways have to burn. Lies we’ve believed. Ways we’ve lived. Foolish thoughts we’ve entertained. Patterns of behavior we need to give over.
I liken this to changing the mantle of a Coleman gas lantern. If you’ve ever done this, it comes a silk mesh bag with threads to draw it tight at the waist. You tie it to the gas stem, then set a match to it. It burns slowly, shrinking and becoming feathery ash. Then you pump it and turn on the gas. Suddenly, that ashen bag glows, then comes brighter, and finally you can’t look at it for brilliance. The source of new light has been transformed by flame from something to nearly nothing, then into a substance that can hold the intense heat of bright light.
That’s your soul. It was merely human, and the process required a kind of dying. God set His flame to your life and the pain of transformation may have overwhelmed you. If you’re still going through it, you know. This has its purpose. You will not die. The aim of such incendiary conflagration is to be born again in a baptism of fire. To come out of darkness and live in the light, as a child of light. As St. Paul wrote: “you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness.” 1 Thes 5:4-5 And John Baptist said, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Matt 3:11 That fire is illumination.
The Apostle John was fully illuminated. His epistle rejoices that God is light and there’s no darkness about Him. He begins His Gospel with the astounding preamble that restates the Genesis creation with an understanding that The Father eternally begets God the Son, who in turn as The Word of God speaks light into existence as His function in creation, the enactment of the Father’s will: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” John 1:1-5 The darkness could not understand, surround, encompass or extinguish the light. Light destroys darkness.
John goes further. The Son, the Word, “was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. He was in the world, and … as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
It begins with the light being born out of darkness and creating a world with living creatures. Then darkness enters into a perfect creation and conflict ensues, war against heaven. At Christmas, light enters our world once more, and as He lives that life among us, the light goes forward. A star beckons visitors to His bedside. A boy left behind in the temple astounds the elders with wise questions and deep answers. A Galilean carpenter’s son emerges from Jordan’s waters as a voice from heaven calls Him “My Son Who pleases me.” Miracles attend His life: healings, wonders, new hope, and the defeat of death. Light touches common people who, though babies by comparison, are enlightened far more than bookish scribes and proud religious types. The light goes out from this One Life, and cannot be extinguished, even when accusations are leveled falsely at Him, even when they nail Him to boards and kill Him publicly.
Light goes forward. Darkness must always back away. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” We may even try to redefine light and dark, claim it for new improved religion, socially or academically acceptable language, new norms, woke wisdom. Going boldly where angels fear to tread can be a false wisdom, enveloped in false light. Don’t fight that with hate. Only love can win the day.
And let freedom ring. Plato once wrote: “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” Speaking truth to lies can bring trouble but we must never fear light or truth, even if unpopular, dangerous, or misunderstood. We mustn’t fear light. Wield it carefully, lovingly, but push back the darkness with light and just know that light will make some people fearful, angry, belligerent.
C. S. Lewis talked of illumination when he said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Once we see the evidence of God, and His Son, and feel the power of His Holy Spirit indwelling us and showing us what was always around us, we come to believe in Him, and by Him we come to believe in the life He’s given us.
St. Paul wrote about our transformation from darkness into light in many ways. Our Epistle this morning sums it with his admonition we’ve enshrined in the Eucharistic liturgy, perhaps more familiar to us: “And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.” Paul asks that we “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” It’s not enough to know that Jesus died to take away the sentence of our sins. That’s true, but He asked us to follow Him, picking up crosses of our own, with a promise that it would turn out alright. But the sacrifice has got to be made. We lay down our lives in order to leave the darkness behind and enter the light. Then, “be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” A newer rendering of that passage helps, as we: “Stop imitating the ideals and opinions of the culture around you, but be inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit through a total reformation of how you think. This will empower you to discern God’s will as you live a beautiful life, satisfying and perfect in his eyes.”
This is illumination. Being filled with light. It’s imperative that we know about God, about Christ. Good. Then we also must get to know Him personally. He comes to our worship of Him, and we take Him for Lord and Master of our lives. Then we die to ourselves, walk in His light, and let the process of sanctifying grace burn off the silk of that old mantle. Any metamorphosis is painful, but consider taking trash into heaven with an eye to God’s patient approval. No dice. Then we go wherever light is shining, the true light of God, not the dim light of a TV screen. We fill ourselves with that light. But by this we are not yet fully illuminated. That is edifying, purifying, sanctifying.
Now: Jesus says, “You are the light of the world… shine before people in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” You shine where you are, and illumine the lives around you that you’ve been given. Light has entered the world, and now enters your life. Your superpower is illumination. Shine where you are and drive back the darkness. Let others bear witness that you are a new you.