Entering into 2020 has elicited a lot of reflection on the previous decade. A new year is a common time to reflect and take stock and to dream of what you hope the new year will bring, but this new year has prompted much more conversation than usual. Perhaps, it’s because it’s the only time any of us will celebrate a year of double-digits! Perhaps, we are all in a place where we’ve been yearning for something better, and we hope the fresh start of a new decade might bring it. I imagine you’ve done your own bit of reflecting on what has happened in the last ten years. As I pondered over the last ten years of my life, I thought about how many titles I’ve taken on and how those titles have shaped me. I’ve been a partner for a whole decade, and in that decade, I’ve also become mom – first to my son Isaac and then to my daughter Hannah. I’ve become a mom of an elementary school student. I’ve held the title of friend to some amazing people who’ve walked with me through the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows over the last ten years. In this decade, I also officially became a reverend and have held the titles of chaplain, minister, and senior pastor. All of these titles have stretched and challenged and humbled me in ways that I could’ve never imagined. But, life never is quite what we imagine it to be, is it?
In our text for this morning, the prophet Isaiah is speaking to the people of Israel as they have returned from exile, and this life post-exile is not quite what they imagined it would be. They had finally been freed from captivity, but their return back home hadn’t been all that they had hoped for. Not everyone had been able to return. They had a lot of disagreement about what their life together should look like now that they were back in their land. Fractures and discord were brewing. There was political strife, corruption, and economic uncertainty. They had tried to rebuild the temple and failed. Many were struggling with poverty and famine, and there was an increasing feeling of despair sinking in.
The people of Israel had just spent many decades being exploited and enslaved. Their land, their wealth, their bodies had been stolen. Can you imagine their disappointment that their return from exile, something that they had hoped for, for so long, didn’t bring what they had imagined? Their disappointment had turned to despair and paralysis, and it is into this moment that the prophet Isaiah says, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” This is a vision of hope in the midst of a time of despair. A nation that has been subordinate to other nations will have nations streaming to them. A nation that has had its resources drained from it and taken by the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, and then the Persians will have the wealth of other nations coming to it. Wealth and abundance are flowing in from desert caravans, bringing gold and frankincense as gifts! The abundance of the sea is coming to them. And if they lift up their eyes and look around, they will see that their sons and daughters who are still scattered from the exile will be brought back to them! The nations will even proclaim the praise of their God! It’s a word of good news for the community of Jerusalem that has been knit back together. Though they are surely a weary people, Isaiah invites them to stand in this future that God has for them. They are to arise in expectation and witness the great reversal that is taking place. Those who once were scattered and dominated by other empires will experience abundance and power. God’s glory will be completed in the glorification of God’s people!
At the turn of this decade, I wonder if we too feel like weary people? I wonder if we’ve turned the page on a new decade and realized that things aren’t like we imagined that they might be? I wonder if we feel paralyzed by our despair? Think about all that has happened in the world this past decade. This has been the decade of Occupy Wall Street, the Sandy Hook shooting followed by numerous other school shootings, the #MeToo movement, an unraveling Paris Climate Agreement, and the Black Lives Matter movement. And yet we take all of these issues with us into the next decade as we are still faced with corporate greed, gun violence, the normalization of sexual assault, the rapid destruction of our planet, institutional racism that results in violence against people of color, and the prospect of yet another endless war. In the last decade as a church we’ve wrestled with our role in addressing the darkness in our world, and we’ve felt called to clarify our stance as inclusive community of faith so that those who’ve been marginalized most in our world know that our church is a place they can belong. We were compelled to take a stand as ICE unexpectedly detained and deported our brother Gilles. We’ve done all this in the midst of a sharp decline in membership in the American church, in the midst of people drastically changing the way they are interfacing with religious institutions. After you survived a significant church conflict that caused much grief and loss, you emerged out of this decade having hired your first female senior pastor and also having the opportunity to celebrate and honor the ministry of your beloved patriarch who was pastor for thirty-three years. And yet, as we’ve turned the page on a new decade, things aren’t exactly how we pictured them.
But on this Epiphany Sunday, when we Christians celebrate that Jesus was truly God in the flesh, we bask in the light of Christ that shines on all people. We celebrate that we have been grafted into the family of God, and that like the light that shines on Israel, Christ’s light shines on us. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Today Christ’s kin get to behold his glow until they glow themselves. They get to pass the gold and frankincense around as if it belonged to the whole family. They get to rest in the glorious presence of God, whose bright dawn has broken not only upon Christ but also upon them.”[i] Isaiah’s vision calls us to hold space for hope in the midst of despair, to hold space for light in the midst of darkness. Isaiah’s vision calls us to let the light of God illumine the way things are, burn away things that do not reflect God’s kingdom, and glow in a way that compels all people toward it. As Madeleine L’Engle says, “We draw people to Christ…by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” We are to bask in the light of Christ, and then let that light glow and burn in us.
Isaiah’s vision calls us to arise, to lift up our eyes, and look around at what God is doing in the midst of despair. In a world that often seems overshadowed by the darkness of violence, hatred, apathy, and despair, the church is called to mediate God’s presence and shine God’s light! Christ’s light illuminates all the corners of our hearts and our world where we have work to do to make the world look more like God’s kingdom. We are to look expectantly for God to do a great reversal like Isaiah talked about and like Mary sang about. We are to look for the lowly to be lifted up and the powerful to be brought down! We are to arise and shine as the light of Christ shines on us and all our world.
The one whose light shines in our darkness invites us to come to his table this morning. At his table, he reminds us that his light attracts people both near and far. He reminds us that when we encounter his light we might have to go home by another road. He reminds us that his light changes the ways we interact with the powers that be. He reminds us that when his light shines great reversals take place. He reminds us that his light calls us to die, putting behind the people we’ve been and living into transformed identities. He invites us to come and share in the bread and the wine, and take the light of Christ into our bodies so that we can glow. He invites us to look around at who else is at the table and discover how we can draw strength from one another. He invites us to be nourished so that we can arise from our paralysis of despair and see the light that is coming in the darkness. He invites us to be filled so that we can go and be the salt and the light that he has called us to be. Arise, shine, for your light has come. Go now and shine for all the world to see! Amen.
[i] Barbara Brown Taylor as quoted in Feasting on the Word, Bartlett and Taylor, Eds., Year A, Vol. 1, 199.