Isaiah 60:1-6 and Matthew 2:1-12
What is the difference between darkness
and thick darkness?
The prophet Isaiah described a time of
“darkness covering the earth
and thick darkness over the peoples.”
How can anything be darker than darkness?
When I was a kid, my family used to
take camping trips to New Hampshire.
We had a big old Army style tent,
made of heavy, olive green canvas
that made the interior of the tent pitch dark,
even in the daytime.
At night, the darkness inside the tent was so thick
you literally could not see
your hand in front of your face.
THAT was thick darkness.
Every morning, my stepfather would call out
“Rise and shine!”
and then would throw open
the flaps over the windows
sending bright beams of sunlight
into the pitch black interior of the tent.
As much as we wanted to,
going back to sleep was not an option
for me and my siblings.
Isaiah sounds a little like my step-father.
He told the Israelites
“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
Then you shall see and be radiant.”
I have to admit, that when we emerged from that tent
it was more with squinty eyes and grumpy attitudes
than it was with anything resembling radiance.
Maybe it was like that for some of those Israelites, too.
The thick darkness that Isaiah was talking about, though,
was not the darkness that is achieved by
completely shutting out the light of the sun.
He was describing the thick darkness that comes
when things are so bad there seems to be
absolutely no light at the end of the tunnel.
Not literal darkness,
the kind that keeps you from seeing what is
just past the end of your nose.
But the darkness of despair,
that prevents you from perceiving
even a glimmer of hope
beyond your present troubles.
The Israelites who had been kept in captivity in Babylon
ever since their nation had been conquered
were being allowed to return to their homes.
That was good news.
But a shadow hung over them.
They were returning to a ruined homeland.
Some of them had acclimated themselves to their captivity
and resisted being uprooted.
What should have been a joyful homecoming
was complicated by a whole new
set of trials for this weary people.
“Arise, shine,” Isaiah declared to them,
“for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
Notice that Isaiah did not say
their light WOULD come
and the glory of the Lord WOULD rise upon them –
once all the problems they faced were solved
and all their trials were behind them.
He said that that the light and the glory
was already with them
even before they had begun the work of
cleaning up the wreckage of their past.
Most of the time that is just how it works.
The light of God comes to us THROUGH the darkness,
before it drives the darkness away.
The light changes US
before it changes our circumstances.
Often it is the clearing away of the darkness WITHIN us
that makes possible the dispersal
of the darkness around us.
The darkness that covers the world is, in a way,
not as thick as the darkness
that overshadows the person
who is unable to see,
or who shuts their eyes to,
the light that God sends them.
It’s not always easy to face the light, though.
It can hurt our eyes and make us want to squint
or pull the pillow over our head,
the way the light bursting into our tent, as kids,
felt invasive and unwelcome.
The light of God carries the promise of hope,
but it also demands that we get up and walk in the light,
instead of rolling over and remaining in darkness.
The way we let the light of God shine
into the darkness around us
is to open the windows of our lives to receive it.
We go to God’s Word in the Bible.
God’s first creative act was a Word that
brought forth light out of darkness.
And God’s Word continues to bring
light out of darkness in the world –
and in the lives of men and women.
We receive the light when we worship.
Through worship we are
focused on God’s presence among us.
And, we are reminded of both,
what God offers us and what God expects of us.
When we share in the Lord’s Supper
we experience in an immediate and tangible way,
Jesus, who is the Light of the world.
We receive the light when we approach God in prayer.
By the light that we receive,
we are transformed so that
we become beacons of light to others.
Jesus told his disciples that they were
to so let their light shine
that people would see their good works
and give praise to God.
Throughout the Bible,
light describes both the glory of God
that shines UPON God’s people,
and the way that the radiance of God’s glory
is reflected THROUGH God’s people.
The Greek word for this radiance is “epiphany.”
Epiphany is also a day and a season
in which we continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus
and how the glory of God shines upon us
through God’s Son.
Epiphany has another meaning.
To experience an epiphany is to have
a sudden breakthrough in understanding,
so that we are guided to see
something clearly about God,
and about ourselves,
that had been clouded and obscured until then.
Epiphany is a season to hear
the words of Isaiah in our own lives.
God is present TO US, to deliver us
from the thick darkness of fear and despair.
But God is also present THROUGH us,
reflecting the light that has reached us
through our own darkness,
the way the moon reflects the light
that comes to it from the sun,
so that we become agents of epiphany
to those around us.
Isaiah told the Israelites that
“Nations would come to their light,
and kings to the brightness of their dawn.”
The story of the magi who followed the star to the manger
was a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.
They were Gentiles – non-believers – from foreign nations
who nonetheless were drawn from far away
by the light that shone into our world
by a star over Bethlehem,
and through the face of a newborn baby,
who came to bring light not only to the Jews,
but to all humankind.
Today’s equivalent of the Gentiles would be
those who have not had the breakthrough of knowing
that God’s light has come for them, too.
People who may be living in a darkness
of their outward experiences.
But just as likely, people living with
a thick darkness
of hopelessness within them.
People found outside,
and sometimes inside,
the walls of our churches.
As Christians, and as a church,
our responsibility is to position ourselves
to receive the light of Christ,
and to let it shine through us
to others who need to receive it, too.
In this new year of 2015,
let us resolve to allow the light of Christ
to show us the way to do that,
and to be ever more conscious of how we are,
or are not,
reflecting the light of Jesus for those around us.
Rise and Shine!
Lift your eyes.
Your light has come
and the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
May it also shine through you.