Epiphany always begins with the wisemen.
Faithful studiers of the night sky their attention is caught by a wild star,
a star not on any of their star charts.
“It went where it wanted to go. It did not stay put.” . . After years of mapping the heavenly lights this one appears to them
and when they are unable to map its path, they decide to follow it, as best they can.
It has taken hold of their hearts.
So, after long years of standing at tall desks,
making meticulous marks in books of leathery paper,
looking through their top floor windows
they set out in the darkness.
After lives of standing still or moving slowly they hire camels to cover a great distance.
Their backsides unaccustomed to the bony protuberance of the beasts’ humps
and their confidence unsettled by riding high up on the camels’ impossibly thin legs,
sometimes they prefer to walk.
Down on the ground they’re unsettled by the bad temper of the beasts,
their snuffling and noxious breath.
But they are not without courage these scholars and so they go on,
encouraged by curiosity and amazement and some holy stirring of their hearts
as they watch the dancing star in the night.
We don’t know how long it took them
but we do know that to those they encountered in villages on the journey
they must have seemed strange as a Royal Doulton china on a camping trip,
as out of place as three banana trees in the middle of your wood lot.
It’s hard being the odd ones but they persisted.
One night in the darkness the star seemed to wait for them,
hovering over an animal shelter and that was odd too,
but because of it they knew they’d arrived
and they went in and offered their gifts in the soft darkness.
We make much of the star and I love it myself.
The story of the wild star encourages me to look in unexpected places
and follow unfamiliar paths.
I’m all for paying attention to this untamable light.
But I don’t want to forget that this epiphany took place in the darkness.
It is the darkness it hangs in that allows us to see.
And that, it seems to me, is an important thing to remember this morning as our community makes its way through these days, hard-pressed by deaths.
It seems important that we not forget that God is as close in the dark as in the light,
even when we may not be able to see or feel that Presence.
We’ve often forgotten how holy the dark is and if we’re not reading carefully, Scripture makes it easy to do that.
Lots of references to darkness in Scripture portray darkness as something that is always to be overcome or avoided.
“God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1.5) or
“I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. “(Ecclesiastes 2:13 )
There are tens and tens of verses celebrating the light and putting down darkness
but there are also those stories of wonderous things, epiphanies,
that happen in the dark.
In the story of Genesis when God separates light from the already present darkness. God doesn’t eliminate it, God draws out the light and makes it distinct.
When God wants to remind Abraham of that promise to make him father of a huge family, God takes him out into the night and tells him to look up into the vast dark sky and count the stars stitched into it.
Years later, Jacob running from his brother Esau, lies down exhausted in the darkness and sees a ladder full of angels
On his return home, years later, alone in the night, he wrestles with a mysterious figure in the darkness who blesses him.
The Exodus from Egypt, that journey to freedom, happens at night and it is in the night that manna falls from heaven saving the people from starvation.
It’s not night, but it is almost dark as God wraps Godself in thick cloud at the base of the Ten Commandment mountain,
God puts on thick cloud into which he invites Moses, wanting to talk to him but also to protect him from the shattering brightness of the Holy Presence by dimming the light.
This darkness God wraps round is so important that when it appears in the Hebrew text there’s a special word, for it – araphel – thick darkness. (Ex 20:21). As much as we need the daylight, we need the darkness too.
Because light holds its own hazards.
We know we can’t stare directly at the sun without damaging our eyes.
We know how we lose our way in a white out, the thick brightness robbing us of our ability to see beyond what is right in front of us.
God knows this and offers a different lens.
“I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Holy Presence, [. . .], who call you by your name. Isaiah 45:3
To glorify light without reflection leads to a kind of spirituality, Barbara Brown Taylor says, in her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark ” deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention”. She calls it, “full solar spirituality,”(7) that wants to stay only in the sunny side of faith.
But what does solar spirituality do to us in the darkness.
This week there is much grief in the pastoral charge, the deaths of two beloved men and the terminal illness of another.
And these are only those I know in this moment.
There is also the loneliness of others or the anxiety of waiting for newsor there is depression.
There are all these and there is grief and anger that like darkness we sometimes think is something to be done with quickly when truly these too are a part of the holy journey and can’t be rushed or run from or explained away.
What do we do with these times if we think we’re only creatures of the sun that we’re only faithful, only loved when we’re covered in light?
Light is an essential; we welcome and celebrate it. It’s an important image for God and for Epiphany.
But darkness may also be holy.
The wisemen enter the darkness warmed by the breath of animals and kneel to offer their gifts. After they leave Joseph falls asleep in the darkness and is warned to take his family away in the night to safety in Egypt.
I woke one morning before light. It was that wonderful colour, as black hints at blue, the richest, deepest blue, the colour through which you see dark and light embracing.
I was anxious about many things, I could feel it in my body.
Lying there, having compassion on my shallow breathing, allowing it to deepen, my racing heart to slow, I imagined myself out in the blue darkness, vulnerable to its deep, dark blue, one with it.
Softly the morning begun in shallow tight anxiety surrendered to the holy darkness and was freed.
This was a gentle darkness but holiness is present in awful darkness too.
On the cross, as Christ gave up his life, the sky darkened and though we think of it often as being the most terrible of times, and it was that – a terrible darkness, but it was not only that — the darkness also held the presence of the divine spirit drawing close to embrace the One on the cross.
When we’re in the midst of grief we can’t always feel the presence of God in the darkness. It’s not helpful to suggest to someone plunged in anguish that God sends the darkness to test or try us. The One we worship is not that kind of God.
Faith in God is not a protection from the darkness, nor was it meant to be. But, faith in God equips us to find our ragged way through the night, when we least expect it feeling the press of God’s loving presence in the dark,
Wondrous things happen in the darkness, we learn to trust and risk, stepping out beyond our fear
When I was a child we’d spend part of our summer on the small island where my father lived as a small boy. Over the years the gracious old house had lost its plumbing to cold and neglect. We had to avail ourselves of “the little house” which was a rickety two- seater some ways away down a narrow mown path. How scary it was to head out in the dark. There might be snakes in the grass, or intruders somehow come from across the water. How I ran down and how I ran back towards home. But then, always as I came close to the house my fear diluted and I paused in the open square of grass just before the porch. There the darkness was not fearsome but mysterious and shimmering, and never to be forgotten. It is with me still.
Jan Richardson writes, in The Advent Door “[. . .] In the womb, in the night, in the dreaming; when we are lost, when our world has come undone, when we cannot see the next step on the path; in all the darkness that attends our life, whether hopeful darkness or horrendous, God meets us. [. . .] “
So let there be light, glorious light and bright sparkling epiphanies, but let there be reverence for darkness too, in which stars are held and God is with us, always.