“Enlighten Up!”

Mk 1

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

One of the greatest influences on America’s Founding Fathers of America was “the Enlightenment.”

This was an intellectual movement of the 18th century that emphasized the need for reason as a governing principle of human life. And for some Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Hume, reason was a substitute for religion.

These philosophers thought, for example, that science was a better guide for living than faith because science was based on rational thought, while religion seemed to be filled with superstition.

Thus, people who were “enlightened” could leave religion behind. They could escape from illusion, and they could see things as they really are.

Ironically, at the same time as these views were being promoted, organized religion was demonstrating its ability to prod society to act in what we would now consider reasonable ways! For Christians were a dominant force in abolishing slavery; they believed that even when human beings looked different, they were fundamentally the same. Persons of all races deserve equal treatment under the law because they are equal in the sight of God.

The church promoted further progress in this area in the twentieth century, when clergy such as Martin Luther King led the struggle against racial discrimination.

Enlightenment, therefore, isn’t just secular. Religion as well as science can also lead to new knowledge and insight.

After the 12 days of Christmas, the Church now has entered the season of the church year known as “Epiphany,” the Season of Light. Enlightenment is also the theme of this first Sunday in Epiphany, when we recall the Baptism of Jesus.

Because the baptism of Christ is a good fit with Epiphany, after Jesus was baptized he had a vision. According to the Gospel Lesson for today, Christ “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

Thus we could say that when Christ was baptized, he became enlightened: he learned of his divine mission to present the Gospel of the Kingdom of God and part of the message of God’s Kingdom was the equality of all people.

The people of Israel were chosen by God to be “a light to lighten the Gentiles.” Ultimately, this mission would reveal that Jews and non-Jews are beloved of the Lord. Everyone is invited to renounce their sins and follow the path of love and justice.

Like the later abolitionist position, this was an inclusive message. And the movement for racial equality reminds us that the process of enlightenment that began with the people of Israel and was furthered by Jesus continues in our own day. So we see other groups such as the disabled claim equality in the sight of God and equal justice under the law.

At the same time, this admirable, progressive heritage of our faith should give us pause. While we have been learning about God’s ways for human beings for centuries, it seems inevitable that we have more to learn. We can be pretty sure that our understandings of the Light of Christ are still far from perfect.

Consider how ignorant and prejudiced this country was only a few decades ago. I can remember as a small child visiting the deep South and noticing the separate public drinking fountains for people then known as “colored.”

As a Northerner, I was shocked. Yet I could have visited large areas in northern cities that were “ghettos” of de facto segregation. Plenty of people saw this discrimination as an unchangeable order. Only after political and spiritual conflict could our moral vision expand to make discrimination illegal.

So instead of resting on our laurels and congratulating ourselves for our enlightenment then, we should wonder: what immoral practices are we missing? What injustice does our society allow simply because we can’t detect it—because our vision is limited by our ignorance?

Of course, the answer to this question will only be revealed in the future! But the fact that it can be asked means that we shouldn’t be complacent.

While we may be more enlightened than our ancestors, we have plenty of further enlightenment ahead of us. For example, as the political season heats up, we should look for new ideas and new vision from the candidates we support.

Enlightenment is also a necessary goal for us as a parish. At the Annual Meeting, we look at the past year; we note changes in our parish life; we record successes and we admit failures.

But we also look ahead. A relatively new member of Incarnation asked me just before Christmas what goals I had adopted for myself for 2012. When I thought about it, I realized that I hadn’t set down any specific targets for my own ministry. (I have since pondered this challenge, and I’ll present a few goals I have for the coming year later at the Annual Meeting.)

The question to me about my own obligation was also a reminder that I am not completely enlightened! Like every human being, I have plenty left to learn.

And this need for further light from the Holy Spirit is a good message for all of us at this time of New Year’s resolutions.

Our resolutions might have to do with working life—if we are determined to change jobs or careers, for instance. Or they might concern private life—if, for example, we are resolved to spend less of our time being angry!

Whatever the nature of our personal goals, we need to start with the premise that we don’t know everything. However smart or experienced we are, we haven’t learned all we need to know about the world around us or ourselves or about God’s plan for our lives.

But, in a way, isn’t this limit to our knowledge encouraging? Especially if we believe that our ancient religion will lead us from old truths to new as surely as the old year gives way to the new?

The future stretches out before us. That future is God’s gift of time, a chance to use the freedom he gave us to seek light from the divine Spirit—and to find it!

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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