The Light Shines

Sermon for Epiphany Sunday
January 7, 2024

Let your light shine for all to see. For the glory of the Lord rises to shine on you.
—Isa. 60:1 

We said goodbye to some very famous and important people in 2023. Rosalynn Carter is the first one that comes to my mind. Then there’s Matthew Perry, and Jimmy Buffet, and Bob Barker. There are probably several others that most of you can think of, but one that I bet makes nobody’s list is a man who died on August 8 at the age of 81.

His name was Sixto Rodriguez, but he went by Rodriguez. Born in Detroit to Mexican immigrants, he became a musician. Some people said he was better than Dylan. And he made a couple of albums around 1970—the critics loved them. But nobody ever bought them, so he was quickly forgotten… in this country.

But not in South Africa. Nobody knows how it happened, but Rodriguez took off down there during the apartheid era. Censorship and repression were the name of the game there; and so young people began listening to Rodriguez’s music, which had a strong protest element. And Rodriguez was on par with the Beetles in that country—much more important than Elvis ever was. His 1970 album Cold Fact was a gold record ten times over, but he never got any of the money for it.

The people of South Africa back then had no access to the outside world, so they didn’t know who Rodriguez was. They just knew he was American, and because of rumors that got started, they all thought he was dead. In fact, it seemed to be an accepted fact in South Africa that he had committed suicide on stage.

After apartheid ended and South Africans were once again able to access the rest of the world, they tried to find out what happened to Rodriguez. And after a long search, they found out he was alive. It seemed he’d given up on music, and was living in a derelict house in Detroit, laboring at hard jobs like demolition. Of course, he was more surprised than anybody to find out he was one of the most popular musicians in a country he’d never been to.

And so they brought him over to do a concert tour in the late 90’s. Up until he appeared on stage at the first concert, he still thought it was a hoax. But there they were, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of screaming fans, thrilled to see an artist who, as far as they were concerned, had come back from the dead.

The story of Sixto Rodriguez is an amazing story of how somebody seen as a failure by those around him was actually a superstar in a country he’d never visited. It’s a theme that we love in literature as well. Think of Harry Potter—despised by the family who raised him, but idolized in a world he didn’t even know existed until he turned eleven.

It's a story we find in the Bible as well. People who are nobodies in the eyes of others—and often in their own eyes, too—are really somebodies in the eyes of God. Take Mary—probably a girl in her late teens who was chosen to be the mother of Messiah. She couldn’t have imagined that an angel would think she was special enough to visit. She couldn’t have imagined that God would single her out for the most amazing rôle any woman has ever played in the world. Still overwhelmed, she visited her cousin Elizabeth. And she couldn’t have imagined that Elizbeth would immediately greet her with the words, Blessed are you among women!

Nine months later, how could she have expected a sudden visitation of shepherds who were out tending their flocks—complete strangers to her—telling her that angels had just told her of her Baby’s birth. When she and Joseph took him to the Temple, as thousands of babies before him had been brought, she found out that there were ancient prophets there waiting for him, saying he was the One they’d been waiting their whole lives to meet.

And finally, at the end of all the stories of the Nativity, we have today’s even more amazing story: Foreign sages suddenly show up to visit Jesus. We sing We Three Kings, and for the most part it’s a beautiful song with very biblical imagery, but the Bible doesn’t say they were kings. The Bible doesn’t even tell us there were three of them—just that there were three gifts they brought.

But whatever office they held or however many of them there were, they appeared by Jesus’ cradle. And they worshiped him. And in this way, the Bible tells us that the Christ Child was not just significant for Israel, but was important to all the world.

Perhaps after the angel’s first announcement to her, Mary should’ve expected all these things to happen. But clearly nothing could have prepared her for the knowledge that she and her Child were important in places they’d never been, to people they’d never met. Angels, prophets, and the light of a star pointed to the Baby. And those with ears to hear and eyes to see had their lives changed by Jesus, long before he preached a single sermon or performed his first miracle.

The light that shone on the wise men two thousand years ago still shines today. It’s not the light of hydrogen and helium (the main fuel burned by stars to create light and heat). It’s the light of God talked about in the 60th chapter of Isaiah (vv 1-4a):

Arise, Jerusalem! Let your light shine for all to see. For the glory of the Lord rises to shine on you. Darkness as black as night covers all the nations of the earth, but the glory of the Lord rises and appears over you. All nations will come to your light; mighty kings will come to see your radiance. Look and see, for everyone is coming home!

All of us do things that make a difference in the world—sometimes in places we never intended and cannot picture. For a rock star, it’s probably through their music. For an actor, it’s a movie they appeared in. For a billionaire, it’s their money. And for people of faith, it’s the light of God shining through our words and our actions.

My first three sermons of the year are going to be about discipleship. So today, as we gather round the table, let’s think about the light we shine on the people we meet and the places we go. In the bread and the cup, we are united as one body to receive Christ. In the strength we receive from God and from one another, we go out into the world to make a difference. The angels’ message of peace and goodwill is still spoken through the words of Christ’s followers, and the light that led the wise men to his cradle still shines through the actions of his disciples. We may not know all the people who hear our message, nor see all the places God’s light shines through our ministry. But let’s go forward into 2024 knowing that even one candle can change the darkness, and one word can speak into the void.
—©2024 Sam Greening