Rise & Shine


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,

about life,

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.

“Arise, shine!”

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.