SERMON FOR THE EPIPHANY OF OUR LORD, January 6th, 2019
LUTHER MEMORIAL CHAPEL, SHOREWOOD, WI
Rev. Michael Larson
The hymn “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright” is written and composed by Philipp Nicolai. He was a pastor in Germany during the plague. He lost 2,000 of his own parishioners to the plague. On a single day Pastor Nicolai buried 170 of his own parishioners. What darkness he must have lived in. What dark despair pastor Nicolai must have groped about in – struggling to see through tears – and having to work and keep his pastoral duties amidst such loss.
It is precisely in the midst of this darkness that Philipp Nicolai wrote that hymn – “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright.” In the pit of despair – battling the black plague – he would write the final verse that we just sung. “What joy to know, when life is past, the lord we love is first and last. He will one day, oh glorious grace, transport us to that happy place. Beyond all tears and sinning! Amen. Amen. Come Lord Jesus! Crown of Gladness! We are yearning for the day of your returning.
Today we hear of the Wise Men - pagans, fortune tellers, strange folks - traveling after a star in the dark night sky. They traveled well over a thousand miles to worship a child. They risked life and limb to find that little baby - God in human flesh, nursing at the breast of His virgin Mother. But traveling through half the known world was worth it. Walking through the deserts of Asia for 1000 miles was nothing – a small sacrifice to know who this little child was. They who lived in darkness have seen a great light. They fell down and worshipped him. They were glad. They opened their treasures and gave him everything they had.
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that God owes us. That we are always Christians because we were confirmed or because we keep our names on the church rosters. Or our mothers were godly and read the Bible every day and so we have secured our place in heaven. While the wise men travel for months, over mountains, through deserts passing by robbers who would murder them and animals who would eat them alive, just to see the baby Jesus, we consider a 15-minute drive to church sometimes just too much.
We get grumpy if we have to sing a hymn about Jesus which is more than four stanzas and we find it intolerable if worship goes ten minutes past the hour. Our tolerance for the holy things of God – the preaching of the Gospel, our love for the Christ Child, often looks more like the murderous rage of Herod than the joy of the Wise Men. Repent.
We are the sinners sitting in darkness whom God has come to save. The season of Epiphany is all about remembering who Jesus is, and who we are, as sinners, walking in darkness, in need of deliverance, rescue, and light. Our eyes must again be opened. Faith must be awakened. Darkness must again be dispelled from our hearts and souls. There is a God who made heaven and earth. The Father said let there be light. And Christ was and is that light.
God has mercy on sinners, in fact He loves them. And that means Jesus loves you. You are baptized. You are loved. In the first several centuries of the church another name for baptism was illumination. That is why we light candles for our little babies when they are baptized. To show that Christ is the light of world and to remind them to always live in this heavenly light.
Today is a good night to remember your baptism into Christ. God has not changed his mind about you. You are still just a child of his. It does matter how old or gray or wrinkled you have become. As accomplished as you are in your work, or profession, or whatever educational degree you have – you have never graduated beyond being his child. As old as you are you are you are still just a child – adopted in holy baptism. And that’s the way God likes it.
Like Philipp Nicolai, our lives too our plagued by sin, death, and decay. And all these things we suffer ought to remind us that this is not ultimately our home.
There is an old fairy tale about some children who lived in a cottage deep in the woods. They were warned not to stray too far from the house and its clearing, because if they did they’d be lost in the dark woods. A game of hide and seek led them deeper and deeper into the forest as the sun set and darkness enveloped them. The children groped around in the darkness but didn’t know the direction home or where they were. They couldn’t see the path that led home. There were strange and frightening sounds in the woods around them. They sat down and cried, holding onto each other.
But then through their tears in the distance, one of them saw a light. Immediately their spirits lifted and they began to walk together toward the light. Oh, what joy when they saw it! It was the light that streamed from the inside of their home. It had gotten so late and so dark that their mother had opened the door to the little cottage and stepped out to look for them. The light from the open door guided their paths back through the woods, back to home.
Epiphany is about just such a light. We live in darkness too. Darkness caused by sin and the death of decay. Like Job, and like Philipp Nicolai we have lost too much. It gets hard to know what direction our home actually is. It’s difficult to see the light at all. And like the wise men our journey is very long and dangerous.
But in the darkness, we have seen a great light. A door has flung open to our true home. And today we remember where we all belong. We are children of that house, citizens of the kingdom of God, by baptism into Him who loved us.
And as we walk toward that lightened door we find that there are many others besides ourselves also lost out in the darkness. They too are streaming to the door, coming from every direction. And as we draw closer to the door and its light, we draw closer to one another. Close enough to grab one another’s hands and walk together in growing joy as the light shines stronger and brighter. The light sets our hearts aflame with love and loosens our tongues with songs of joy. That light is the source of joy which enabled Pastor Nicolai to write a hymn such as we sang today in “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright.”
The door to our home has swung open and we have seen the light. A light shines from the open door to heaven. We are children of light. And the light is Christ Himself who shines from the open door to heaven.
We opened with Philipp Nicolai’s final verse to His hymn O Morning Star. It would be fitting to close with it. What joy to know, when life is past, The Lord we love is first and last, the end and the beginning! He will one day, oh, glorious grace, transport us to that happy place Beyond all tears and sinning! Amen! Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! Crown of gladness! We are yearning For the day of your returning.” In the name of Jesus. Amen.
(Fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm and explanation comes from a homily of Pr. William Weeden on a sermon delivered on the Feast of Epiphany 2015).