SCRIPTURE – Isaiah 60:1-6 – Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the hip. Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.
Rise and Shine!
Jan. 5, 2014
The sanctuary looks a bit different this morning, doesn’t it? A group of us worked yesterday morning to take down all the Christmas decorations – the tree, the wreaths, the Advent candles. Feels kind of empty, doesn’t it? The same is true with our house. We started undecorating yesterday and the place feels like the joy was packed away in plastic totes. Of course, our outdoor lights are still up. As I look at the forecast for the next few days, I’m beginning to think Christmas lights on the porch aren’t THAT tacky in July, are they?
Why is taking down the Christmas decorations one of the most dreaded events of the year? I’d like to think that it’s because we’re so sad that Christmas is over, that we want the joy of this season to go on for months. But I wonder if the truth is we don’t want to take down the Christmas decorations because we’re so tired from Christmas that we don’t have the energy.
I bet if I asked 10 of you “Are you glad Christmas is over?” twelve of you would say, “Yes!” I’ve asked a lot of people this year “How was your holiday?” and many of them answered with “Stressful!” That seems a funny way to respond to the celebration of the Savior’s birth, but it’s the reality. When we get to this time of year, we’re still suffering from a holiday hangover that has nothing to do with eggnog or New Year’s Eve. It’s plain fatigue. That’s especially true when you hit the ground running on Jan. 2, like the schools did this year. What we need right about now is a good two-day nap to get our brains and bodies back in gear.
But Isaiah’s not about to let us get complacent. We’re sitting around, slouched over from the holidays, and then Isaiah bounces in, all chipper and full of pep. “Rise and shine!” he tells us. Did your parents used to do that to you when you were growing up? Right in the middle of a good sleep, the lights go on and the blinds go up. “Rise and shine!” This phrase is usually said with the most enthusiasm on the day kids go back to school after Christmas Break.
Rise and shine. I’m not a morning person, so these words are especially hard on my ears. In high school, my room was in the basement of our house. It was a cool hangout, but you know what a basement room means – no windows. And it was weird because my internal clock stopped working. Without any natural light to orient me, it always felt like night time, which meant I always wanted to sleep. I’m sure being a teenage boy had nothing to do with that. So when my mom or stepfather would wake me up with “Rise and shine,” well, I would rise, but I sure didn’t do any shining!
The Israelites didn’t feel like doing any shining, either. You see, God had warned them that they needed to change their sinful and selfish ways, that they needed to return to a life focused on God. When they didn’t, the empire of Babylon swept in, took over the Promised Land, and sent the Israelites to live in a far-off foreign country as exiles. Preacher Susan Bond says that “they were in a nation of strangers. The street signs were all in a different language, the money was different, the food was not what they knew.” They were locked in a basement bedroom in someone else’s house and there were no windows. Their spiritual clocks stopped working. They were in exile, and home was far away. In our verse today, when Isaiah commands them to “rise and shine,” the Israelites have just returned from this exile. They have come back home to find their nation ransacked and their way of life destroyed. Their whole homeland has been undecorated, and they have to start the process all over again, brick by brick, shrub by shrub.
They have to begin the arduous and daunting task of rebuilding their city and their culture from scratch.
I have this fear that relates to what the Israelites are facing. I came to the realization not too long ago that so much of what I’ve done in my life is tied directly to my computer. And if there was ever a fire in the office and my computer and backup system were destroyed, I’d have no trace left of my work from the last couple decades. No seminary papers, no thesis, no sermons; all would be lost forever. Hold your applause.
That’s what the Israelites were facing; their entire existence had basically been sent to the recycle bin. They were emerging from the deepest of darknesses and beginning to make that long journey from the despair of exile to the radiance of God’s glory. So Isaiah’s words are basically a pep talk. “C’mon, Israel, get out of bed! Don’t you see the light that is shining in you?” Isaiah tells them, “See, darkness covers the whole earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.”
Isaiah’s image of darkness covering the whole earth could be a modern description. In many respects 2013 was a dark year. The Boston Marathon bombing, the war in Syria, the death of Nelson Mandela, killer tornadoes and typhoons, North Korea’s missile threats and the controversies around Obamacare. What a year, huh? How about for you personally? Where did 2013 fall on the darkness-to-radiance continuum? For too many of us, the darkness of a financial challenges or personal illness or disintegrating relationships made us feel like we were in a basement bedroom, cut off from God’s light in some ways. And now we move into a new year, 2014, with our hopes rekindled that, despite what the newspaper says, despite the devastation around us, maybe this year will be better, maybe this is the year that God’s light breaks through.
As we look forward to the future, Isaiah’s words serve as a reminder of what already is – “the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.” God is with us even now, shining on us and in us. Darkness is all around us, but God’s glory is right here with us. Well, if that’s true, why can’t we see it? Why do things sometimes feel so dark to us, like the windows of our soul have been boarded up?
Maybe we’re looking in the wrong place. I was at an amusement park once, and to get to the top of one of the rides, you had to climb a winding wooden staircase that was at least 150 stories high. I’m a scared of heights, so that may be a slight exaggeration. I finally made it, and do you know how? One step at a time. I kept my head down and my eyes focused on the next step. I never looked up, I never looked around me. I stayed focused on the next step. Sure, I missed a gorgeous view of the park, but I also made it to the top safely with my lunch still on the inside.
I’m glad Isaiah wasn’t behind me on these steps, because listen to what he tells the Israelites when they are facing their steepest challenge: “Lift up your eyes, look around you.” No way! Are you kidding? Then I might realize how high up I am, I might see the dangers all around me – the rickety staircase swaying in the wind, the hard concrete sidewalk 150 stories below me. I’m keeping my head down.
That’s a tempting approach to surviving life. Keep your head down. Stay focused on the next step ahead of you, the next task ahead of you, the next day ahead of you. Don’t look up, because what you might see may be too scary – children growing up, your body getting older, relationships changing. Keep your head down. Focus on getting through today. Don’t look up. But what view might we miss if we do that?
We are about to enter the church season called Epiphany. Epiphany marks the time when Jesus’ true destiny was revealed through his baptism and ministry. The word “epiphany” actually means an unveiling, a revelation, an eye-opening “Aha!” experience. But we run the risk of not seeing the epiphany of God in our lives if our heads are down. Isaiah tells us that the glory of the Lord is over us, but we’ll never see it if we keep our heads down. Sure, with our heads down we can’t see the danger, but we also can’t see the beauty, the majesty, the opportunities. What do we miss when we go through life with our heads down?
To live with our heads up means to be looking for God’s work in our lives, to be anticipating that God is real and is active, showing us a better way to live. God doesn’t coerce us into faith; God loves us and works in our lives and waits for us to take the time to notice, to lift our heads from our busyness and the banality of everyday life to see God’s glory around us in such simple things as a child’s smile or a friendly face or a cup and a piece of bread. So we face a choice: do we move forward from here with our heads down, putting one foot in front of the other, living one day just to get to another? Or do we move forward with our heads up, eyes open, with a sense of purpose, looking for God’s presence and God’s blessing in our lives?
We don’t have to look far, because Isaiah tells us that it’s already upon us. We aren’t looking to see something we hope is coming; it’s already here! Christ has already been born! Our lives are already meaningful! The question is whether we choose to live that way, to live a heads-up life. Isaiah’s call to rise and shine has a huge implication in it for us; it implies that we already have the ability within us to shine. God has already placed within us something special, this light that can illuminate the darkness and warm the cold places of our lives. We don’t light candles in order to hide them under baskets, do we? So why would we go through life with this beautiful light within you always pointed at the ground? Your life is a gift to you. And your life is a gift to others. You are valuable to God. You have a light to shine. I know there’s darkness around, but God’s glory is upon you. So rise and shine!