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“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

—Matthew 5:14-16

After the council made the decision, I felt excited, but nervous. As a pastor, I wondered how people would respond to the news. The following Sunday, I stood in front of the congregation and made the announcement: Sunday morning worship is canceled.

I paused and then continued: next week, Sunday morning worship is canceled because we’re doing something special. We’re having a candlelight Epiphany service. So please don’t come in the morning, instead join us at night.

The season of Epiphany begins Jan. 6 with the feast of Epiphany (often celebrated the following Sunday) and ends the day before Ash Wednesday—the first day of Lent. Depending on where Easter lands (it’s a moving holiday), the season of Epiphany can be as short as 4 weeks or as long as 9 weeks.  The word Epiphany means “to appear” or “to bring to light”—it’s a season of increasing brightness and ends with the light on maximum: Transfiguration Sunday. On the mountain top, we catch a glimpse of Jesus’ glorified human nature—a blazing image of God’s end game for humanity.

The following week, my office phone and email were eerily quiet. Anticipating some confusion on Sunday morning, I went to the church early and redirected a few folks and a visitor who missed the announcement and showed up ready to worship. The afternoon passed slowly as my anxiety steadily increased. An hour before the evening Epiphany service, I looked at the empty parking lot and wondered if anyone would show up. “Have folks moved on with their day? Are they now busy prepping lunches, finishing homework, organizing schedules and looking ahead at work projects and sports schedules?” 

January in Michigan is in the dead of winter. The sun sets early. The sky was dark when my anxiety eased as I watched people slowly trickle in from the shadows cast by the street lights. When folks entered, they picked up unlit candles at the doors, and kids were handed mini LED candles. To my surprise, two minutes before the service, the church was nearly full. As people sat in the dark, the Christ candle was the only light in the sanctuary—front, center and lifted up on a lampstand—a light shining in the darkness.

Like normal, we worshiped by walking with the liturgy through God’s greeting, call to worship, passing the peace, confession and assurance of faith, a sermon, and various prayers and songs scattered throughout the service. Because Epiphany is a season of beholding and spreading light, we ended the service by lighting our candles from the Christ candle. As we tilted our candles and spread the dancing flame to those around us, we lifted up our little lights and sang a song that became a powerful anthem during the civil right movement in the 1950s and ’60s:

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

Jesus gave it to me, I’m gonna let it shine

Ev’rywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine.

When fighting back the immense cultural darkness of racism, cynicism, hatred, violence, war, pollution, and a myriad of other dark forces, it’s encouraging to remember that a small but important way to resist is to lift up your little light. One light, lifted up in the darkness, is a powerful testimony to the goodness and faithfulness of God in a painfully broken world. 

But the real power comes from gathering with others. In our sanctuary on that dark January night, light spread from one person to the next. Seeing someone lift up their light inspires others to do the same. Slowly the light grows until the darkness is fleeing before a whole room full of light. One light lifted up in the darkness can be powerful, but hundreds of lights gathered together and lifted up creates a brightness more brilliant than any small individual flame—like shining stars. 

A constellation of shimmering light is what Paul had in mind as he looked up into the night sky searching desperately for a metaphor to encourage the small and vulnerable Philippian church.  When they felt overwhelmed by the dark forces of their day, Paul wrote,

“Therefore, my dear friends…do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.” Philippians 2:12-16

It’s important to remember that Jesus is the one and true light – no one shines brighter than Christ. But as followers of Jesus, connected to him through the power of the Spirit, we also shine. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14) Many of us are familiar with the grafting language of bearing fruit when connected to the living vine. Here is another metaphor to meditate on: When you plug into the true power source, you’ll light up like a LED.  

Jesus knows that when we’re connected to Him, we shine. Jesus also knows that when we follow him and walk in the way of love, every small act focuses and intensifies the light. Every kind word – light.  When we listen with patient compassion – light. When we give generously, build life giving relationships, advocate for justice, we shine. When we pray, when we stay hopeful, when we look for the good in others – darkness trembles and begins to flee in fear.  One life can shine with grace, testifying to the goodness of God – but a whole community radiating love and gratitude because of God’s faithfulness is a powerful beacon that can reach further and deeper into the darkness – like a galaxy of stars shining in the night. 

Epiphany is a rich, but unfamiliar and overlooked season. January is considered a cold and dark month – the merriment of the Christmas season is over, the new year has begun and we’re back at work or in school. Culturally, these weeks are marked by a return to routine. But liturgically, Epiphany is a season of quiet hope with a watchful eye towards God’s promise to bring wholeness in and through the person of Jesus – the Light of the world. The church is the body of Christ – gathered together in worship and sent into the world to shine in every dark place.

 

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