Sermon Reflecting the Light
Good morning. Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the appearance of the Magi, the recognition of the Christ child as the light of the world. It may seem odd, then, that I’ve chosen to preach on this passage from Isaiah. Perhaps you were expecting to hear that story, and maybe a sermon that calls you to give your gifts to the Lord, too. In fact, you’ve probably heard some version of that sermon many times. It’s a good message and it needs to be repeated, but not today. These are very different times for the Church.
We want to be back in the sanctuary, worshiping with one another. We want to share in fellowship and love. We long to sing together—without masks! And we know we’re not there yet. The vaccine is coming, but very few of us have been vaccinated. We’re worshiping online today because, well, it’s January 3rd. We know that some people have had gatherings for Christmas and New Year’s. We don’t want anyone to bring the virus into our sanctuary.
We are close—tantalizingly close—to that point where we can return to our old ways of being the Church. Yet the closer we get to that reality, the more difficult it becomes. Why do we have to keep waiting? Why isn’t the future here? How long, O, Lord? How long?
Our reading from the prophet Isaiah reflects the hopefulness of a new reality. This is as true for us as it was for the people of Judah who heard these words from Isaiah. These words were proclaimed to the Jewish exiles who had returned home from captivity in Babylon:
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 2 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. 3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
The exiles have returned and all the nations of the world can see God’s favor. The kingdom of Judah is restored. Wealth is about to stream into the nation: the abundance of the sea, as well as a multitude of camels. I mean, who can’t use a bunch of young camels this time of year, right?
Okay, maybe that last example doesn’t quite translate into what we would recognize as a blessing in 2021. Still, the rest of it sounds great! The nations can see God’s glory reflected in God’s chosen people. The light of God’s love will rise upon the people, be reflected by the chosen people, and draw others to that light. Wow! That’s amazing!
Except, it didn’t happen like that. Not exactly.
Remember, the exiles weren’t exactly welcomed home with parades and fireworks. The exiles were gone for two or three generations. Yes, they were the religious and political leaders of Jerusalem, but the people who remained in Judah found ways to survive without their former leaders.
The Jews who remained in Judah abandoned Jerusalem. They didn’t rebuild Solomon’s temple—the former center of the Jewish faith. They found ways to practice their faith without the temple. Also, Babylonian soldiers had settled in the land of Judah and intermarried with the Jews who remained.
To the exiles who returned, this was shocking. To them, the people who had remained in Judah weren’t practicing the faith properly. When the exiles returned, they found conflict with those who had remained. I imagine that Isaiah’s words must have resonated with the exiles. If they were to be a light to all the nations, then surely those who had remained in Judah would come to see the world and the faith as the returning exiles saw things. The remnant would ask the exiles to teach them the true faith. And then the remnant would thank the exiles for coming back and restoring things! And don’t forget all the abundance of the seas and the camels.
Except it didn’t happen like that. Not exactly.
The exiles were allowed to return to Judah because the Persians had defeated the Babylonians. The Persians decided it was in their interest to let the exiles return—they even allowed the exiles to rebuild the temple. But the exiles never truly reconciled with those who remained in Judah. Also, the Persians were really the ones who held power over the region.
In fact, the Persians were the real power in Judah and much of the Middle East for the next 200 years. Then Alexander the Great came through and conquered all of the land that bordered the Mediterranean Sea and much of the Middle East. And when he died, his generals carved up his empire and created their own kingdoms. The political divisions in Judah began when the exiles returned and they continued until Jesus’ time.
The vision of the prophet Isaiah never came to be. When I think of the divided world that Jesus was born into, I’m reminded of a line from a Bruce Springsteen song: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Of course, that’s not exactly how it works with scripture. Prophets offer a vision of what might be, what might happen, if the people heed the word of God and repent. It seems to me that the exiles didn’t do the difficult work of reconciliation, so the dream was delayed.
As Christians, we read these words from Isaiah as pointing toward Jesus. We believe that Jesus is the light. We believe that the world was covered in a thick darkness, because it didn’t know God, and only the light of the Christ could penetrate that darkness.
That darkness is still with us. The divisions among God’s chosen people erupted when the exiles returned from Babylon. Those divisions were never healed. They lingered until Jesus’ time and they continued after Jesus’ death and resurrection. And the divisions among all of God’s children are still with us today. Reconciling all those divisions is still the work of Christ’s Church.
This is normally the place in the sermon where I would tell you to “be the light!” I’m sure I’ve said that in other sermons before, but there are two problems with that statement. The first problem is theological. The prophet Isaiah tells us to shine, yes, but more than that, he tells us that our light has come, he tells us that God’s glory has risen upon us. He isn’t telling us to be the light, he’s telling us to reflect the light, the light of God’s love for humanity.
That’s an important distinction. Only Jesus can be the light of the world; the light that shines in the darkness; the light that cannot be overcome by the darkness. That means that each and every one of us carries a much smaller burden. We are not called to overcome all the divisions in our world. We are simply called to follow Jesus into the dark places and reflect his love for humanity. If we try to be Jesus, we will come up short and we will injure ourselves in the process.
There’s another reason I’m not telling you to “be the light!” Even though the year 2020 is behind us, we’re still in the midst of the pandemic; we’re still in the midst of a great darkness. We’re in uncharted territory. We can’t do many of the things that we used to do to reach out to others; the work of reconciliation is much more challenging in this environment. To put it another way, it’s tough to reflect the light of Christ’s love when we’re stuck in our homes; it’s tough to reflect the light of Christ’s love when it’s not safe to gather in large groups. It’s tough, but it’s not impossible. Now is not the time to give up.
I’ve heard from a lot of you that church just isn’t the same when you’re watching it online.
It’s not the same for me, either! It’s really different staring at this computer screen. I miss seeing you folks in the pews. Also, I can’t read your responses to what I’m saying. Your light and your energy are not reflected back to me. I have no clue what you’re thinking when I’m preaching—good, bad or indifferent. I’m flying blind up here.
Even when we do worship together, there are still a lot of people who cannot join us in the sanctuary. So, fewer people are gathered, and it feels less like church than usual. We have fewer opportunities for conversations with one another. That’s how a lot of church business gets done and that’s also how we keep up with the events in the lives of our church family.
Believe me, I miss all of that, but this is not the time to give up. If anything, this is the time to engage more fully with the new way of doing church and the old ways of doing relationship.
I want to encourage you to keep reaching out to people who aren’t typically in worship with us, whether that’s in-person worship or online worship. Reach out to people who have left this congregation over the years. Invite them to worship with us. Reach out to people who haven’t gone to church in years. Invite them to worship with us, too.
At the same time, continue to reach out to your church family. After worship, pick up your phone and call another member of this congregation. Talk about the service. Talk about what you liked and what you didn’t like. Feel free to pass those comments on to a member of the Session or to me. Then, when you’re done talking, call someone else. Preferably someone you don’t typically talk to on a regular basis.
Yes, I know that some of you have been involved in this sort of outreach for several months now. Today, I’m encouraging all of you to pick up the phone. Don’t wait for someone else to call you; reach out. Reach out and reflect the light of Christ’s love.
In your conversations, I encourage you to consider new places where we can reflect the love of Christ. Kick around some new ideas about how we can reflect Christ’s love to new people and in new places. Share the conversations with other members and share them on social media. Instead of waiting for things to go back to “normal,” we have to make a new normal, a better normal. We can only do this together. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, as you go forth into the world, look for new ways to shine! Look for new ways to reflect the light of God’s love! Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!