A Live, Light Streaming
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, January 3, 2021
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12
It was Christmas Eve day and I was here in the sanctuary in complete darkness. There was only one flicker of light coming from under a door, and that was the finance office, who were still doing their work. The rest of the place was in complete darkness. As I walked around the sanctuary I thought about the absence of the normal hustle and bustle, the excitement of the pageant, carols, and the Christmas Eve communion service. Getting ready for thousands of people to come into this sanctuary on a normal Christmas Eve and now we were in darkness, I felt a sense of melancholy.
But as I looked up, I saw through the windows light was still coming in, I walked up into the balcony at the back and I stared at windows that I can confess I just pass by normally. As I looked at them, I noticed a particularly graphic window of a woman holding a child in her arms with her spouse standing right behind. I must admit I thought this was Jesus and his mother in a wonderful picture, but as I read the texts that were around it, it was not that at all. It was actually the depiction of parents bringing their children to Jesus, and Jesus receiving them to be his own and saying, "Forbid them not. Bring the children to me."
As I studied this window, I turned around and saw the darkness of the church, and thought, "You know, as we enter into a new year, a new era, maybe that is the image we should have in mind: Jesus welcoming those who brought their children to him and the magnificent light that shone." In many ways it is like what we find in the Prophet Isaiah in our text today. A moment when the people of Israel returned to their native land after the exile. It was a time when there had been great darkness on the earth and the people spread out in many different places had finally come home. The sons and the daughters that had been scattered in foreign lands now being received back into the homeland.
There's this sense of excitement. The people of the world welcomed back to the wonderful centre of Israel where God is. It even speaks in glowing terms about all the nations bringing their gifts to God in Israel. Foreign countries, places like Midian bringing camels, Sheba bringing gold and frankincense, Kadar bringing flocks of sheep. There's this glorious vision that now the people are gathered back together in Israel, they can be a source for the whole world to come and acknowledge and honour their God. A moment of great joy.
As you look at the language used, it was the language of God's redeeming light that had been shone on the people of Israel. In the very beginning of the chapter you can see that Israel had become the source of God's light. "Arise and shine, for your light has come" was the opening line, a famous one in Isaiah. This is no longer a time for the people to live in darkness. This is a moment where kings will come and see the light of God, when the sons and the daughters will have a radiant light, a sense of purpose. All the nations will see the light of Israel, and Israel will be a light to the nations, a glorious vision. But it's a vision that was also picked up in the New Testament and in the arrival of Jesus. Over the last couple of weeks, we've heard those texts in various services that deal with the coming of the Christ Child, but there's a consistent theme in all of them: Light. Take for example the shepherds, who were out in the fields and suddenly they feel this light shone; the Lord shines upon them and that's when they hear the announcement of Christ's birth. In the darkness of their field, they see a bright light.
For the Magi, they see the bright light of a star, guiding them the place where Jesus was. They brought to him gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These Gentiles came to the Lord to give him their gifts. John (and we've looked at this before recently) in the beginning of his Gospel talks about Jesus as being the light that shines in the darkness. The darkness cannot put that light out. This is the image of God's light being revealed in the presence of his son Jesus.
After the life of Christ, the Apostle Paul picks up the same theme himself. He sees that the presence and the coming of Jesus was a light to the Gentiles. He was writing, particularly in our passage today from Ephesians, of a dark time, a time when he was in prison. In his own personal darkness, he could experience the light of Christ. When he'd been on the road to Damascus and was originally encountered by Christ, it was a bright light that stunned him and brought him to his knees. For Paul, Jesus was the light that brought the great God of Israel to the Gentile people. That it was his mission to bear witness to this mysterious, incredible revelation in Jesus of Nazareth. Listen to the words again from Ephesians verses five and six. “In former generations, this mystery was not made known to humankind as it has now been revealed to his Holy Apostles and prophets by the Spirit. That is the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”
You see for Paul, when Isaiah said, "Arise and shine, your Lord has come," God had shone his light upon the people of Israel and had set them free from captivity. When Jesus Christ was born the light of God was revealed incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and now believes in his ministry. That message is being shared with the Gentile world that the whole world would come and bring their gifts to God, that they would bring their frankincense and myrrh, (which was also referred to with the gold in Isaiah) and was there at the birth of Jesus, symbolically showing that people are coming to the light and the radiance of God.
Well, here we are on the brink of a New Year, and can there be a better text? Can there be a better message than the one that we are talking about today, for us right now? I don't think so. I think this Epiphany, this moment of revelation, of light that we celebrate in the coming of Jesus Christ is very much needed as we embark upon a New Year. I think it's important for two reasons. The first is that light, always as we know, illuminates. It illuminates the darkness. That light is revealed as light in contrast to darkness and shadow. In many ways 2020 is a year that people are talking about as a year of darkness and shadow. I think all the different references being made about the door of 2020 closing and hitting us on the back on its way out is a symbol that this is a year – even though many of us by the grace of God have made it through – when we have seen a great deal of darkness.
I think everyone, regardless of who they are and their situation in life, has felt that. We need an illuminating light to lead a path forward to guide us to the next part of our existence and a new year. We need a sign of hope and revelation that something better is going to come. Just like those who had returned to Israel, hope that their newfound freedom would give them something great through which they could glorify God.
I think in facing the uncertainty of this New Year, we are left with two very clear options. The first is one that I hear sometimes and is what I would call, nihilism. This sense that nothing really matters anymore. I recently read passages and a review of a book that had come out in 1982 by Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It is a book about 1968 Prague, when the Soviets and their tanks rolled into that beautiful city in what was then Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic. It was a time of uncertainty. There was this feeling that darkness had descended with the arrival of the Soviets. So, people decided to lose themselves. There were some who perceived that life was circular, very Nietzschean, that we always get the opportunity to redo things, so things don't really matter. We can always find some way of getting out of things at the end through a kind of a circular trip.
Then there are others who took the lightness approach, that nothing really matters, nothing is important, there is no real meaning so just lose yourself in love and in lust and in living the light life, without any real sense of purpose or meaning at the other side of it. I think when you're confronted by darkness as the people in Prague were in 1968, that can very easily become the way we think, that nothing really matters, that life is hard and that darkness prevails, so what the heck?
The other option is: Hope. Where does hope come from and what does hope look like? Well, hope certainly desires a better world. It desires that things are going to be better in the future than they have been in the past. If anything, during this dark year of 2020 that is passed, many things have been revealed that needed to be corrected. We have seen the social inequities that have occurred as a result of COVID-19. We have seen people struggling at the very bottom of life, trying to eke out a living and to survive. We have seen the taint of racism. We have seen the self-centredness of people just doing their own thing during this crisis.
There's no question that there are things that need to be changed as we move into the future, but we do so in a spirit of hope, not in a sense of nihilism. We know that things matter, that people matter, that life matters, and that God matters. If these texts point to anything it is that we are called to respond to the call of Christ to be our light and to illuminate our path.
If anyone new kind of existential and physical darkness, it was the great Helen Keller. She had this to say – and it's a quote that I think should be posted on our refrigerators, or maybe the screens of our laptops every day: "Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light." That is what Israel felt. That is what the people, when they gazed upon Jesus saw, that was what Paul wished for the whole world, both Jew and Gentile alike, coming together as one under the sovereignty of God.
That's my hope for you this year. That's my hope for the world this year. I've learnt something else too in this calendar year that's passed, and that is how incredibly connected and interconnected the world is. I've thought about that because flights have been banned from entering one place to the other because one person can bring illness to another part of the world. Or I go onto a live stream or a Zoom meeting at Oxford, with friends in Bermuda, with colleagues in Cape Town, South Africa, with Nupur in India, or with a member of the church who lives in Texas. This is the world we're in is so interconnected.
The Apostle Paul, if he were writing today would say, "Come on, world and get yourselves together! Get yourselves together with a hopeful response, and in a hopeful response also honour the Lord, your God." This is a moment, privately in our own lives and collectively for all of us to do that. The light not only illuminates the path, light is also radiant.
Israel was called to be a light to all the other nations, “Rise and shine your light has come. Be radiant, you sons and daughters. Let others see the glory of God.” When Christ came that all humanity might gather and find in him their source of life and forgiveness. Like the window at the back of the church with a mother and child and a spouse standing behind, bringing a child to Jesus. That is the image that we need to have in our minds this year, of the coming of the light of the world, and how on this Epiphany Sunday we honour and follow him.
This is also a time when we understand that Israel had a mission. Christ had a mission. Paul had a mission to the Gentiles, and we who are the church have a mission. We too should be radiating the light of Christ in our own lives. We are not the light; we reflect and radiate the light that has come. We need to be the light wherever we find ourselves. Whatever mission God has given us, maybe this is the moment at the beginning of this year, an important year in the history of the world, for us to think about our own personal mission.
Now I know that 2020 could go down in the annals of history with a little asterisk next to it that it had been a bad year, you know, like 1665 and the plague in London. It might seem like a footnote in history to others, but to those who have gone through it maybe it'll be the year that causes us to have a greater sense of our own mission in the world and to reflect and to radiate the life of Christ. We're going to need that as we rebuild. We are going to need wisdom, compassion, and love as we go into this New Year.
Len Sweet, who preached here a few years ago at one our Christian conferences, tells an incredible story of a missionary. The missionary had been in distant places and was back on furlough, and decided he wanted to take back to his students a globe of the world. He thought it would be lovely for them to have a perspective of what the world looks like and see it as something that is in God's hands. So, he goes to a store and looks at various globes, and there's one really nice detailed globe with all the colours and names of the different countries on it. He thinks it’s perfect but then the clerk shows him another one and this is also a beautiful globe. In the middle of the globe is a light, and when that light shines all the nations look brighter. The clerk said, "Of course you do know that the more expensive one, the costly one, is the one that has the light within it."
This Epiphany, we need a world with a light within it. We need to seek God's light in the world and to honour our God. “Arise, shine, your light has come. And to our Lord Jesus, be the glory.” Amen.