Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Sermon for Epiphany Sunday, "Rise and Shine"

Sermon 1/2/11
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12

Rise and Shine


            When I was on staff at Camp Aldersgate when I was a teenager, the program director used to sing a little song to wake people up in the morning: “Wakey, wakey, rise and shine, breakfast is at eight and not at nine!” Of course, he was from England, and sang with a lovely British accent, but I can’t pull that off. And of course, we really didn’t feel much like rising and shining most of those early mornings. But I can’t hear the phrase “rise and shine” without thinking of those days. Another camp memory – a little song about Noah’s ark, and the chorus – which repeated through many verses, “So rise and shine, and give God your glory, glory, rise and shine, and give God your glory, glory. Rise and shine and give God your glory, glory, children of the Lord.” Ok, the song was of the variety that after a few years, you sort of never wanted to hear that chorus again. But I guess after enough years go by, you can get sort of nostalgic, or just hear with new years, and I’ve been thinking about the hopefulness, the energy of those words, perfect for new beginnings. Rise and shine and give God your glory, children of the Lord.
            That’s the message of Isaiah this morning: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Isaiah is writing this part of his prophetic texts when the Israelites have finally been given permission by the king of Persia, Darius, to return to their homeland. They had been living in exile in Babylon for so long – for most people, a lifetime had passed since they had been exile from Israel – more than 50 years had passed – many would not remember or not even have been born when the people were forced to leave their homeland. But finally, they can return, and begin again. And really, it was very much a new beginning – too much time had gone by to simply resume life as it had been. They would have to create new lives in Israel. But Isaiah writes with words of such hope: Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth . . . but the Lord will arise upon you . . . Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.”
Today is Epiphany Sunday. Epiphany day is technically January 6th – 12 days after Christmas day – making today technically the 9th day of Christmas – nine ladies dancing day. So we’re still in this season of Christmas, actually. But we celebrate the Epiphany on the closest Sunday before January 6th when it doesn’t fall on a Sunday. Epiphany is the day, among other things, when we remember the arrival of the Wise Men or Magi, men from the East from a sort of priestly class, men whose religious practices included an interest in astronomy, to see the Christ-child. The Wise Men visit Mary and Joseph and the child sometime after Jesus is born – he was maybe already a toddler by the time they arrived at his home, even though we see many Magi in nativities. They brought gifts for the child, believing he would be a king – gold and frankincense and myrrh. Gold for a king, frankincense for priestly significance, myrrh, a perfume used at death in burial rites. There’s no mention of a number of Magi – but over time, of course, we’ve come to think of there being three Wise Men.
The word Epiphany is from a Greek word that means literally “coming to light,” or “shining forth.” You can see why our text from Isaiah is so perfect for Epiphany. Epiphany, in our faith context, is a day when we think of the light of Christ shining forth in the world – Christ coming to light, being revealed. This ties in with the Wise Men because the Magi weren’t Jews, and their visit to Jesus, recognizing him as a king, symbolizes that Jesus in the light of the whole world, not just of the then-very-small Jewish faith. Jesus comes to be light for the world – revealed to all of us – that’s what we’re celebrating on Epiphany Sunday.
Today Epiphany isn’t something we make much of us – at least not in the church in the United States. But in our church history, the feast of Epiphany used to be one of the great celebrations. Perhaps you also remember the Shakespeare play, "12th Night" - this refers also to the 12th night of Christmas, the eve of Epiphany, the culmination of the Christmas celebration. Nowadays, however, we do things a little differently. We barely make it to Christmas day without jumping the gun and celebrating during Advent. We certainly don't make our celebrations last for twelve days after, not unless you try to pass New Year's Eve parties off as the newest form of religious Christmas revelry. After all, what's so fun to celebrate in Epiphany, anyway? There's no presents left to exchange, the baby Jesus is already born, and though it's a feast day, we're really trying to get through at least the first week of January without breaking our well-intentioned resolutions!
But I think Epiphany is an important moment in our liturgical year, and actually just right for the new beginning that we all seek. Most of us know what the word Epiphany itself means in everyday usage. Epiphany means a sudden realization of the truth about something. It's the lightbulb moment, the "A-Ha" moment when the pieces fall into place and comprehension succeeds. It's the moment of recognition. And that meaning can help us understand what Epiphany means for our lives today. Today we celebrate that the light of the world is shining. But more than just acknowledging the light of Christ, our task is to let that light shine into our lives and bring all of the dark places out of the shadows. What would it mean if the light of Christ focused on your life and made visible everything that has been hidden and unseen? I’ve been thinking about this in two ways: First, I think letting in the light of Christ – really – would make us deal with aspects of ourselves and our behaviors that we try to hide. Do you struggle with envy or coveting what others have? Are you facing an addiction that you can’t control? Are you holding on to resentments or conflicts with others that you have been unwilling to resolve? God at work in us reveals all those things – uncovers them, not so that we can be judged and condemned, but so that we can be healed and let go and move forward. This is a time when so many of us are making New Year’s Resolutions, and I think that the reason that so many of us fail in our efforts is because we don’t really examine what’s behind our feelings – why aren’t we happy with what we have, always long for what others have, for example? And we never ask for support – we start out to change our lives on our own, without the grounding, the source of our being. It is Christ who is the light, and we can’t shine without that source, God, empowering us.
What would it mean if the light of Christ focused on your life and made visible everything that has been hidden and unseen? Here’s the second way: We don’t see ourselves very clearly. I think the apostle Paul was right on when he talked about how we “see in a mirror dimly.” So often, we look at ourselves and see our failures, our faults, our flaws. We gloss right over the gifts we have, the way that God has created us, the strength we have, the ways that we have been uniquely formed and blessed and placed in this world so that we can serve and give and bless others. We just don’t see in ourselves all that God sees in us. And so we let ourselves off easy, because we’re convinced that we can’t do what God knows we can do and do well. When the light of Christ brings everything in us into view, when we let that light shine in all the overshadowed places, then we start to see ourselves as we really are, as God created us, and as God is calling us to be.
Next Sunday is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, when we will remember and celebrate the baptism of Jesus. As part of our celebration, we’ll have a chance to renew the vows that we took or were taken for us at our own baptisms, to reaffirm our faith, and to begin again. Let the light of Christ fill your hearts as we begin again. Let the light wash over your life, that we might be ready to share the light with the world. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Amen.

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