Monday, January 07, 2008

Arise! Shine!

Arise! Shine!
Isaiah 60:1-6
January 6th, 2008
Epiphany (A)

© 2008 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: This beautiful passage in Isaiah is eschatological in tone. The light of the glory of God is shining forth across the darkness and illuminating Zion. With the irruption of that light, Zion is called to arise and shine forth. She becomes a beacon to all the nations. Her heart overflows at the return of her sons and daughters. The effect is so profound that it is, in some ways, like winning the jackpot, or a championship. But bigger, and vastly more important is this feeling being expressed by Isaiah.

Sermon Function: To translate this imagery into a call for mission action by the congregation in response to the fulfillment of this prophesy - Jesus Christ. For Christians, the Light of the World has forever penetrated the darkness of our hearts, and now we too are called upon to respond. We must arise and shine!

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In this first Sunday of the new calendar year, we celebrate the festival of Epiphany. I’ve been asked to explain what epiphany is, since the word is often used in contemporary English to describe the effect of a sudden discovery. Today, when someone says they had an “epiphany,” what they usually mean is something on the order of “eureka, look what I’ve suddenly discovered.” In the church, however, Epiphany has a specific meaning.

For the church, Epiphany has the meaning of “appearance” or “manifestation.” It is used to describe the appearance or manifestation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. In our story of Jesus’ birth, we learn that the manifestation of Jesus was revealed first to the Jewish shepherds tending their flocks by night, and then subsequently to the gentiles through the “wise men” or magi in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew.

Our reading from the prophet Isaiah has its origins on the return of the Jewish exiles to Jerusalem, a return authorized by King Darius of Persia. The subject of the verses is a personified version of Zion, the great city on the hill, Jerusalem, the place where temple worship took place. The joy of the return expressed by Isaiah is beautifully described in these verses of Hebrew poetry.

Let’s listen now to God’s word.

[Read Scripture - Isaiah 60:1-6]

Opening Comments

The traditional Gospel for Epiphany is Matthew’s account of the vision of the Magi, the wise men, who, upon seeing the Christ, fall down and worship him. This is an acknowledgement, as I mentioned earlier, that even the Gentiles from the East (in this case, the wise men are likely from the region we know now to be Iraq), acknowledge Christ as Lord and God – they fall down on their knees and faces in His presence.

I chose Isaiah for this Sunday, however, because Isaiah speaks more clearly to us in this church today than the story of the Magi. I chose the passage because of the circumstances this church faces as it continues to discover how to best respond to God’s call.

As you read this passage, you’re struck by how it lifts the heart, even as it challenges the mind. The person being addressed here, incidentally, is Zion. The imperatives at the beginning rouse the people of Zion to attention. “Arise!” “Shine!” Isaiah is speaking these words in response to the deliverance of Israel from the bondage of exile. But illuminated the events we just celebrated during Christmas, we read this text through a different lens, the lens of Jesus Christ, who you might remember is referred to as the Light of the World. For us, as for Isaiah and the people of Jerusalem, the light has come, and that light is the full glory, the full revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

Darkness Persists, and Will Be Overcome

His light, his glory, penetrates the darkness of our world. The darkness of a world permeated by sin and distress and death, war and genocide and famine, fear of the future, the loneliness of self-exile, and the uncertainties and anxieties we hold about the future. Exile was a period of darkness and faltering hope for Israel, and in fact even in the midst of the Glory of God, the darkness is still out there. Isaiah simultaneously announces, “Your light has come” even as “darkness shall cover the earth.” Ultimately, however, “the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” Somehow, this ancient prophet, speaking words of celebration at the resurgence of exiled Israel, is speaking our language. Christ has come, the light of the world has lived and lives among us, the kingdom of God has come near, but more is yet to come. The King of Glory will rise up over us, and even the thick darkness of our despair will be wiped out altogether.

Christ Is the Beacon of Hope

The light of Zion will be such that even Kings and nations will be attracted to it. Here, the reference to nations refer to all the nations of the earth, specifically, the gentile nations. This grand homecoming to the seat of Israel’s life will feature guests from all corners of the globe. You might remember that this was a promise first made to Abraham way back in time in the book of Genesis, when God promises that “Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him” (Gen 18:18 NRSV). Isaiah is recounting the fulfillment of this promise.

Through the lens of Jesus Christ, this passage has special meaning for the church. Jesus is the bright beacon of salvation. To him, all the peoples of the earth, Jew and Gentile, are attracted. As sons and daughters gather together for the glorious homecoming on Mt. Zion, so too will all the nations gather at the foot of the Lamb of God, Jesus, when he comes again to reign in glory.

In the Meantime

But what shall we do in the meantime? Isaiah is speaking to the people of Israel. But through the lens of Jesus Christ he is also speaking to us. And through that lens, we see how we the church, the Body of Christ, are challenged to respond to the irruption of the Light of the World.

Israel is charged, right from the outset, to arise and to shine. That is, to actually reflect this piecing light of God’s glory. And we need to ask ourselves if that’s what we are doing. Are we shining forth the light of the Christ, or do we keep it for ourselves? This church stands at a pretty big crossroads here at the beginning of 2008. There are big changes ahead. Potentially, a new pastor will be called. The Christian Education programs of the church will be redesigned and implemented. A new person will have to be hired to help us care for our building and furnishings. These are all necessary for the sustained life of any congregation. But how are we doing when it comes to sharing what we have been given by God? Are we fulfilling our call to share the light of the world with others?

I’m not one to want to seeking bigger numbers in church simply because bigger numbers automatically mean that something good is a happening. That is not a proper criterion for successful mission. What people look for in a church is deep meaning and the manifestation of faith in daily living. If a church lacks those things, then why would anyone bother to show up? Our church does much of what a church should do. I don’t think, for example, that I’ve ever been in church that is more welcoming to a complete stranger than this one is. Providing a warm welcome is a critical part of what we are called to do by Christ, but we are also called to be an invitational people, too – to go out of our way to share the good news of Jesus Christ with others by inviting them to the great reunion and festival banquet promised to us.

And this is a huge challenge for the church in today’s society. Let me give you an example of just how big the challenge is. I was recently reading a story by Stephen Moore in the Wall Street Journal. Moore writes a lament, really, about how Nintendo has turned his 14 and 16-year old sons into video game addicts. Moore’s New Year resolution is “to get my two teenaged sons back.” When not attending to the absolute minimum essentials for living, these two youngsters are sitting in front of the TV, surrounding themselves in the virtual world of games with titles like “The World of Warcraft” and “Counterstrike.”

Moore has learned that he’s not alone, either. He writes:
A parent down the street confided to us that his 12-year-old son was so obsessed with video games that he wouldn't take even a three-minute break from gaming to go to the bathroom--with unfortunate results. The other day we saw a kid at church, in a semi-trance, going down the aisle to Holy Communion while clicking on a hand-held Game Boy. Talk about worshiping a false god.1
You see, my friends, we must still contend with the darkness. And this is a pretty benign example of what obscures God’s children from seeing the light of Jesus. Think of the other things the church must contend with – addiction, grief, anger, resentment, dislike or outright hatred of the church because of abuse or neglect or ignorance. How do we fight back against a culture that believes that “my way or the highway” might actually be numbered amongst the Ten Commandments?

Three-Fold Response

I think we have to have a three-fold response to the things that turn us away from the light. (1) Worship that is truly worshipful, (2) become more invitational, (3) become more effective in our mission.

The foundation for any Christian community is worship. Our worship must reflect the light of its object, which is Almighty God. Anything that detracts from that is, frankly, idolatry. Worship that is truly worshipful glorifies God and acknowledges Him as the source of all life and the ultimate alleviation of our sin.

Second, we need to be more invitational. If our gratitude for everything that God has done for us in Jesus Christ is truly overflowing, shouldn’t we want others to share it with others? I encourage all of us to earnestly seek out ways of inviting people we know to worship with us on Sunday, so that they too might join us for the big family reunion to come.

Third, we need to become more missional. And by missional I mean two things. First, we need to take note of the explicit needs of our community and world and find ways to answer those needs, not just with money, but also with arms and legs and hands. People who see those things will want to know why it is we do them. The answer to that seeking question is straightforward – it is our response to the wonderful things that Jesus Christ has done for us by emptying himself on the cross, taking on the burden of our sins on our behalf. The second way we become missional is by taking account of how we reflect God’s glory in our day to day living. How does our relationship with our co-workers reflect the love we have in Jesus Christ? How about our friends and neighbors and family members? How do we use the resources for which God has made us responsible? Did you notice how verse six refers to the abundant riches of the earth?
A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD. (Isa 60:6 NRSV)
God finds his home in Zion, with the people of Israel, and then with all of the nations. The riches of the nations that are brought forth should be understood here as supporting the worship of Zion. By the way, this verse if one of the most interesting in scripture. How is it, exactly, that being covered with camels is a blessing? But it is. As are the valuable offerings of gold and frankincense, two items of great value that, you might recall, were part of the gift basket of the magi. You all have already demonstrated an incredible financial commitment to the future of this church and its mission. But I still challenge all of us to ask if we could be doing more, or if we could be using what we’ve been given in a way that more effectively responds to the mission of Jesus Christ, reflecting his light into the darkness of the world.

Brothers and sisters, Isaiah was writing about Zion, but through the lens of Jesus Christ, we see that Jesus himself is our Zion, our home. We are called to be with him, and to bring to the table all that we are an all that we have. We are also called to arise, and to shine, and to share with others the tremendous gift we have received from the light of the world, that light that penetrates all of those things that risk darkening our lives, so that the very heart of Jesus might thrill and rejoice. People of God, arise! Shine! Amen.

Let us pray.

Lord of the nations, we have seen the star of your glory rising in splendor. The radiance of your incarnate Word pierces the night that covers the earth and signals the dawn of justice and peace. May his brightness illumine our lives and beckon all the nations to walk as one in the light. We ask this through Jesus Christ your Word made flesh, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, in the splendor of eternal light, God forever and ever. Amen.2

Given at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas.

1Moore, Stephen. “Teenage Zombies.” The Wall Street Journal. Jan. 4 2008. Available online here.

2Theology and Worship Ministry Unit. Book of Common Worship. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993, pp. 191-192.