January 7, 2018 “Glowing” – Isaiah 60:1-6
January 7, 2017 – Epiphany Sunday
Our outdoor Christmas lights are still up, as I hope many of you will see this afternoon when you visit our home. I thought by now they might be the only Christmas lights still on in our neighborhood, but at least two or three of our neighbors had theirs shining last night.
Christmas keeps its place in a society that has largely ceased to believe in or acknowledge its religious roots. One reason may be that it is celebrated with great displays of light. Whether it’s the candles that illumine a service like ours on Christmas Eve or the gaudy displays on those big houses up on McClean Blvd., at this time of year people love light. It’s dark outside, starting around 4:30 in the afternoon and lasting until almost 8 in the morning. Even daytime feels dark when it’s cloudy and raining. It’s good to have some light shining in that darkness.
We celebrate our Lord’s Epiphany in this season because there is worse darkness than the mere physical absence of light. When Isaiah spoke in verse 2 of darkness covering the earth, “and thick darkness the peoples,” he had in mind a spiritual dimness, a lack of light in the hearts and souls of men and women.
The prophet wrote of that darkness in the previous chapter, 59, beginning with verse 9, “So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in shadows. Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like those without eyes.” He explains in verse 12 that he is speaking of sin and its effect on our minds and hearts. To do wrong and go our own way without God is like horrible, unrelenting dark with no flicker of light to offer relief.
Isaiah wrote at a time when he could see thick darkness covering the world in the events unfolding around him. The black cloud of enemy armies was on the horizon. Weak and foolish kings would try to escape the hands of cruel conquerors, but nothing would save them. The Assyrians and then the Babylonians would tear Israel to shreds and scatter the pieces across the land. It was a dark and troubling time to be alive.
As we enter 2018, it appears to me darkness is gathering force once again. For the first time since my childhood, nuclear war seems again a live possibility for our world. Insane gun violence continues to take hundreds of lives in our country. The number of prominent men revealed to be sexual predators has been staggering. And the homeless population on our own community’s streets just keeps growing. “And darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.”
Near the end of their Christmas letter, Adam, a young friend of ours who teaches at Wheaton College, said, “I wrote last year under the pall of the dark turn our nation’s history had recently taken. Times are not much less dark now, we think…” I agree.
You’re probably thinking this is pretty depressing talk for the first Sunday of the year. You would be right. It reminds me of conversations Adam’s father Jay and I had in college as we sat sipping tea and playing chess. We would get so wrapped up in the sad state of affairs in the world that we would finally have to laugh at ourselves. Here we were, young men with our whole lives ahead of us, talking like the jaded old codgers we actually are now.
But those depressing college conversations made us both realize how crucial Christian faith is. Were it not for Jesus Christ, I doubt we could have laughed very easily. Adam wrote “Times are not much less dark now, we think, but we are grateful for God’s grace at work in our family, church and community.” Isaiah, wrote in verse 1, “Arise, shine; for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” As our Christmas Eve text from Isaiah 9 told us, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” Jesus coming into our world is a brightness that dispels the gloom in which we find ourselves.
Isaiah predicted that the Lord’s light appearing in Israel would bring the world to them. Verse 3 proclaims, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” And so it happened. The kings came.
The magi first saw the great light as a star rising in the east. Their study of the heavens and prophecy led them west to find the king heralded by its shining. In our Gospel reading this morning we heard how they came to worship and bring gifts to the little boy Jesus. Isaiah’s prediction in verses 5 and 6 was fulfilled as the camels of the magi carried the wealth of foreign nations, gold and incense, into Bethlehem, a tiny suburb of Jerusalem.
People still come to God shining forth in Jesus Christ. We are here this morning because we’ve seen His light and want to come and worship, like the magi did. We are still finding His light in the darkness and discovering hope when all seems bleak. As I said on Christmas Eve morning, we keep coming back to worship like people returning home. Jesus is the light guiding us safely to the home God has for us.
There is more to the story, though. The opening words of our text teach us that all is not done when you and I have arrived at the light. The prophet saw the light dawning on Jerusalem, but he pictured another shining as well. The ancient city was itself to shine. “Arise, shine;” he told them, “for your light has come.”
You see, getting home ourselves does not end our responsibility. When my wife and I are both out during the day and one of us comes home toward evening, we have a kind of unspoken understanding. The one of us who gets home first will turn on the porch light, or this time of year all those Christmas lights, for the other still to arrive. That light glows out into the dark with the message that home is there and a welcome is waiting.
The people of God come home to His light, but we are also meant to shine with that same light, welcoming those who have not yet arrived. Everyone who has believed in Jesus Christ is called to “arise and shine,” to turn on the light for the rest of the world.
We realize, of course, that we have little light to offer from ourselves. You and I can scarcely begin to tackle the darkness in ourselves, much less the darknesses I named a few moments ago and all the others that went unnamed. Our faith and hope is that we can rise and shine because the light of Jesus Christ will shine through us.
I remember when fiber optic cable got pulled through the ground in our old neighborhood in Springfield. I was so thrilled at the prospect of our house being connected to high speed Internet that I almost went out and hugged the guys digging the trench. I still marvel at how fiber optics work, piping light for miles along tiny flexible strands of glass to carry data from one place to another. It’s not exactly how it works, but it’s almost like the bright pixels on my screen can land on yours and vice versa. Those cables carry light that is full of information, messages, pictures, sound and video.
Christians are meant to be fiber optic cables for the brightness of Christ. All the hope, peace, love, joy and faith He brings to us is vital information to be transmitted to the world through our lives. We don’t make the light. The grace of Jesus comes to us as a gift from God. Verse 2 goes on “but the Lord will arise upon you and his glory will appear over you.” It is His light, but we are the channel by which that light is sent on to appear to others.
This is the call for you and I, for Valley Covenant Church, in the year 2018. Get up and glow with the light of Jesus Christ! Our community, our world is waiting for the light which we can shine for it. People are looking for the porch light to guide them home. How can we turn that lamp on and guide them there, guide them here?
In two weeks we will gather for our annual business meeting. My prayer is that part of what we will talk about is not just how we can take care of ourselves, meet our budget, etc. But let’s talk some about how we can glow this year. To whom can we reach out? To what ministries in our community shall we put our resources and energy? To which dark corners of our world can we shed a little light through support of missions and even by going there ourselves like some of you have done?
Yes, the times are dark. Our nation is divided and our world even more so. But times have often been dark down through history. England’s Civil War in the 17th century was one of the darkest times in the history of that nation. English soldiers fought against English soldiers over how the country would be governed and who would govern. Christians fought against Christians over differences in belief and practice. When it was over in 1651 the nation remained deeply divided. A Commonwealth had replaced the monarchy and a cruel and vicious man named Oliver Cromwell, who called himself the Lord Protector of England, was in charge. He banned Christmas as a pagan festival. Those who remained loyal to the old ways and to the monarchy were oppressed and persecuted.
Loyal royalists would eventually win the day and restore a king to the throne in 1660, but in the meantime one of those loyalists did something else instead of fighting. He had a little chapel built at Staunton Harold in Leicestershire. It was one of only a handful of churches built during that time. It still stands. An inscription above its west door reads:
IN THE YEAR 1653
WHEN ALL THINGS SACRED WERE
THROUGHOUT THE NATION
EITHER DEMOLISHED OR PROFANED
SIR ROBERT SHIRLEY BARONET
FOUNDED THIS CHURCH
WHOSE SINGULAR PRAISE IT IS
TO HAVE DONE THE BEST THINGS
IN THE WORST TIMES
HOPED THEM IN THE MOST CALAMITOUS
THE RIGHTEOUS SHALL BE HAD
IN EVERLASTING REMEMBRANCE
Cromwell’s petulant response to Sir Robert’s building of the chapel was to ask him why he could not pay toward a ship for the navy when he could afford such a fine building. Sir Robert was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London where he died at the young age of 27 before the chapel was finished. That church, where people continued to do the best things in the worst times, was finally completed by the guardians who held the estate in trust for Sir Robert’s young son.
I’d like us to be a church like that, people who do the best things in the worst times, bright, shining, glowing people who do not give up their faith and service no matter how dark it is. If all goes horribly wrong and missiles are launched, 2018 might be the worst year the world has ever seen. I pray with all my heart that it is not. But even without that catastrophe this year will be hard for some people, for some of us I imagine, maybe even for our church. It may feel very dark out there.
On our Covenant Facebook group, some pastors have talked about how the new tax law will affect giving this year and beyond. The raising of the standard deduction takes away the tax advantage of charitable donations for many ordinary people. Will that mean that churches and other charities see less income now? It’s hard to say. But as Garry said at Bible study Friday morning, we will now need to give to the Lord for good reasons, for the real reasons, not just because it gives us a tax deduction. It’s a chance to deepen our faith and commitment as Christians, to glow in the darkness.
It is in dark times that Christ shines brightest. As John 1:5 says, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” It’s in the dark that you and I can really shine for Jesus. We can light the way for each other and especially for our friends and neighbors. Christmas decorations will come down, but the light behind them is always glowing. May you and I also glow with that light.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2018 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj