Epiphany Sunday, January 5th, 2020
As mentioned earlier in worship, today we celebrate Epiphany. It is a day we celebrate the visit of the magi to visit the infant Jesus (hence the bulletin cover and the projected image). It is a celebration of Jesus, the light of the world, revealing God’s presence and light among all humanity and creation through incarnation. It connects to the magi’s visit in particular because as non-Jews, who nevertheless followed a star to find and adore Jesus, they represent Jesus’ bringing of light for all peoples, not just for Jews. Jesus broadens God’s promises to include all humanity, expanding the covenant originally established with the tribes of Israel.
There is much to love in this passage from John for this morning. The way is speaks of light shining in the darkness and the night being unable to overcome it. The way it connects Jesus as the Word of God embodied to the words God spoke in Genesis to speak creation into existence is profoundly poetic, and mysterious, and holy. And the idea of something as transcendent as the Word of God becoming flesh and blood and dwelling among us, full of grace and truth. It carries a weighty, palpable sense of wonder and mystery that is made very real and embodied for us.
Yet there are troubling pieces of what we hear the author of John’s Gospel saying about Jesus. Or rather, I should say, what is troubling is how John refers to and undermines the Jewish people in this passage where he describes the mystery of Jesus as divine and incarnate. John is casting subtle digs at the Jewish people and their belief, in effort to bolster the claims of this new faith springing up in the wake of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection.
Verse eleven, for example, states that Jesus came to “his own”—which is to say, the Jewish people—but they “did not receive him.” While this may seem innocuous enough, it has been read as a way to cast the Jewish people as “lesser than” Christians, as wrong or foolish for not believing Jesus was the messiah.
Later on, in verses 17 and 18, Jesus is compared to Moses. While Moses conveyed the Torah to the people, John is setting up Jesus as superior, as the bringer of grace and truth. Then the following line: “No one has ever seen God,” directly undermines Moses’ authority as the key prophet of Israel who spoke to God face to face, mediating for the people of Israel, the Jews.
It is a sour and shameful truth that this passage can easily be construed to support antisemitism, specifically, but a Christian hegemony and superiority more generally speaking.
But antisemitism and Christian hegemony is a reality about our faith’s history that we must confront and root out we are to be authentic and faithful in following Jesus the Christ.
Over the course of Hanukkah, you may have seen, there were a number of antisemitic attacks and incidents, the most egregious of which was a man breaking into a rabbi’s home and attacking the guests with a machete as they celebrated Hanukkah. The Anti-Defamation League reported that antisemitic attacks, vandalism, and incidents doubled from 2017 to 2018 (we don’t have 2019 statistics yet). We have seen neo-Nazis return to public prominence and heard them called “decent people” from the highest office in the nation. We have heard the bone-chilling chants from the Charlotte rally of “Jews will not replace us.” We have wept at the attacks on Synagogues.
We can also observe, however, if we are vigilant, some on the left end of the political spectrum who also promulgate anti-Jewish ideas. I have encountered people whose zeal for Palestinian liberation is a simultaneous blanket condemnation of all Jews. Meanwhile, Jews have been portrayed as bogeymen by conspiracy theories, pitting communities of color against Jewish people by blaming them for gentrification, greed, and the wealth gap in our nation. Nevermind that many Jews in our nation also endure poverty.
We must declare as Christians that the demonization of any faith tradition or those who avow no faith tradition at all, such demonization is evil. Antisemitism, Islamophobia, or any other persecution based on religious faith is evil. Period.
As people who affirm Jesus as a source of light and truth, it is incumbent upon us to proclaim that all people who seek to worship and live compassionately, in peace, pursuing truth and fulfillment, must be allowed to do so freely without fear of violence, threat, or having spurious labels and lies ascribed to them.
Jesus may be for us the light of the world. But even John notes that “true light gives light to everyone.” There is a beauty and truth in this metaphor. Light does not discriminate in its shining. Nor is light diminished by the presence of more light, other lights. Instead we find that the mostly brightly lit spaces are those where there are more lights. In a vast room, one candle can cast tremendous light. Even more so and brighter still when there are ten, or one hundred, or a thousand candles in that same space.
Several years ago, the Islamic Center three blocks from the church I served in Los Angeles endured a barrage of threatening phone calls. Along a one mile stretch of Wilshire Boulevard there was a Jewish Temple, a Catholic church, a Presbyterian church and the Islamic Center. We pulled together to organize a march for interfaith solidarity. The threats continued and culminated with the Los Angeles police arresting a man who had planned an attack and amassed several weapons. Through a letter signed by the church Council we assured them of our solidarity and offered to support them however we could
Subsequently, through our continued communication and ongoing conversation, the Islamic Center reached out to us during the holy month of Ramadan to invite us to join them one evening at their Iftar meal, where they broke the day’s fast after sundown. We joyfully accepted and learned and were welcomed in. Later that month we were able to loan them some tables on a moment’s notice when they were hosting another Mosque for another iftar meal.
Ramadan ended in June that year. Time passed. The months rolled in to fall, then winter (such as it is in Los Angeles). A few weeks before Christmas, I got a call from Kristen at the Islamic Center with a question. Given the solidarity and support they had felt from during a hard year, they wanted to know what would you think of us coming on Christmas eve to bring hot chocolate and cookies and wish you a merry Christmas?
So that Christmas Eve, the congregation was greeted at the doors of their own church by muslim neighbors holding signs that said Merry Christmas and hot cider and home made cookies. They also reached out to the Temple down the street to arrange something similar for Hanukkah (though I don’t know the outcome).
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains the choice before us this way: “You can see religion as a battle, a holy war, in which you win a victory for your faith by force or fear. Or you can see it as a candle you light to drive away some of the darkness of the world. The difference is that the first sees other religions as the enemy. The second sees them as other candles, not threatening mine, but adding to the light we share.”
On Epiphany we celebrate the uniqueness of the light that Christ brings into the world and the ways that Jesus’ story and life, and death, and resurrection has shaped and continues to shape our lives. And this day, we are called to choose to follow the light unthreatened by other faiths, but with thanksgiving for innumerable ways that God reveals her holy wisdom and light. Let us promise to add our light to the world as well.