I woke up early the day after Christmas. I didn’t want to, though. I had taken two long naps on Christmas Day to catch up from the day before and went to bed early Christmas night. I wanted to sleep in … but I was up before it was light out. In the stillness of the early morning, I was sitting on the couch relaxing, when something we hadn’t seen in days was suddenly there. Sunlight. The sunlight poured into the living room. And when the sun comes in my living room, it’s hard to ignore!
On Christmas Eve in West Bend, Iowa, my sister-in-law, Linda, had to get her flashlight out. It had snowed and rained for a couple of days in Iowa and it was the rain icing on the power lines that was the problem. It caused the lights in the house to flicker on and off, on and off. The flashlight was just in case. It’s really hard to find your way in absolute dark.
Darkness was what the people of God had been experiencing in the time of our Isaiah text this morning. It’s likely the early days of Israel’s return from exile in Babylon. Those days are easily cast in shades of grey and gloom. Israel was once a powerful empire, but they lost a war to Babylon and had been taken captive and sent to live in a place that was not home. Now they were a downsized clan trying to rebuild their lives and their kingdom. The prophet pierces this gloom with a brilliant light, a vision of God's glory transforming the world and a promise that God will restore God's people.
The prophet calls to the people. Arise! Shine! Lift up your eyes and look around! The promise is that God will transform the people’s lives. This is how he says it: The glory of the Lord will appear over you… Then you shall see and be radiant… And in transforming the people of God, they will transform the world through their light! Nations shall come to your light.
So often we read these words of Isaiah referring to the infant Jesus, and I suppose from a Christian perspective that’s natural. First because of the reference in Isaiah 60 to gold, frankincense and myrrh that is mirrored in Matthew 2 and the story of the wise men. But more importantly, we Christians see all of our hope and light through the incarnation. The glory of God came into our lives through the infant child. The light began to shine when the star rose over Bethlehem. That light guided the seekers from the East to the infant Jesus.
What is fascinating to me is who is drawn to the infant Jesus by the light. That light drew people of wealth and means. They came to worship one of poverty and need. That night in Bethlehem, the rich and poor mingled in harmony. That night in Bethlehem, the rich bring gifts for this poor infant. It is so much a glimpse of the Kingdom of God that the grown Jesus will proclaim: a kingdom of peaceful co-existence; a kingdom of mercy to the poor; a kingdom where the rich understand their ability to bless others; a kingdom where no one is forgotten.
The star guided the rich visitors to the meek infant Jesus. It was light that drew them to this transformation. It was light that caused them to change everything. Remember that Herod had asked them to come back and tell him when they found this infant king. But siding with poverty instead of the power of Herod, the wise men went home by another road, changed, transformed, made new. It was the light of the incarnation that reshaped them, and in turn, the light, through them, changed the world around them.
The promise that God’s glory would shine on us happened that night. The star pointed to God’s glory in the infant Jesus. The star pointed to the kingdom of God glimpsed that night. But if it is just a picturesque image, it is nothing. The light shines not to illuminate the darkness of long ago. The light shines to illuminate the darkness of today. And the way that it shines is through us. Just like it was to shine through the nation of Israel so long ago. The light shines through us when we bring peace to places of discord and strife. The light shines through us when we bring mercy to the poor through gifts that bring them life. The light shines through us when we bring our abilities and resources to make other’s lives better. When we bring Light and shine it in everyone’s dark corners, the kingdom of God is at hand.
Barbara Bate (formerly on the staff of the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church ) tells of a time when she saw God’s light shining through. She was travelling in Zimbabwe to preach and lead a workshop. After worship, she visited a children’s village called SOS. Here orphaned children are raised, schooled and loved. These are mostly abandoned children, “dumped” as they are called in Zimbabwe. When they come to SOS they are gathered in small groups of children. Local mothers look after each small group of children. Most of those mothers are active United Methodists. They hold the children, feed them, name them and give them a place. Part of their care for the children is also to bring them to worship each Sunday. [You can ready Barbara’s account here.] Here is a community of people dedicating themselves to these abandoned children. Here is a community of people letting the light of God’s glory shine through them. Here is a community of people putting their faith to work. Here is a community of people being light for a very dark place in our world.
Zimbabwe is not the only place in the world where there are dark corners in which to shine the light. What dark corners of Rochester need to the light of Christ? What people abandoned by our culture need to be held, fed, named? The call of God is clear for those of us who have God’s glory shining on us, those of us who would call ourselves disciples of Jesus Christ. Arise! Shine! Be light for the world. In 2010 my prayer for Homestead and its ministry is that the people of Rochester would say of us, “We know they are Christians because of their work!” Amen.
Rev. Becky Jo Thilges, Lead Pastor
Homestead United Methodist Church