January 7, 2018 – White Bluff Presbyterian Church
Why did the wise men come? We have no way of knowing. The story in Matthew 2 starts in Jerusalem on the day when the wise men showed up. Things were like that back then; it’s not like they could have posted a status update on their Facebook page; no one was following every word they wrote on their Twitter feed. They didn’t call ahead for reservations on the telephone; they couldn’t even send a letter in the old-fashioned snail mail, or have their PR people put out a press release to publish in the newspaper. No one knew they were coming; no one ever knew when anyone was coming. Travelers just showed up, knocked on the door, and expected that they would be welcomed with food and warmth and all the other signs of good hospitality.
So what went through their minds when they started the journey? All they told the people of Jerusalem was that they saw a new star in the sky. A light shone, and it was so compelling that they assumed it was a sign of something important happening that they had to honor. So what was so compelling about it? Was it especially bright? Or was there something else compelling about the color and quality of its glowing? Was it placed in the sky in a unique way, or moving around in some way they had never seen before? What was compelling about that star? We don’t know.
Maybe that’s why, over time, this passage from Isaiah’s writings started to be associated with the story of the visit of the wise men each year. It also has a light shining in it. And its light is also compelling. Isaiah spoke these words to a discouraged bunch of folks. For centuries, they had been a nothing kind of people along the highway between the much more wealthy and powerful centers of politics and culture. The Egyptians and the Assyrians, to their south and northeast, respectively, had trampled over Israel as they passed back and forth in their trade, in their wars over territories, and in other ways they were building their power and wealth. To protect themselves from just being swallowed up by one of them or the other, or from being fought over like two toddlers having a hard time sharing some little plaything, they had to pay tribute to their more powerful neighbors, a fee of sorts to maintain their independence. Then, a bit at a time, their land had been seized anyway, and their leading citizens had been sent away or killed. Finally, their ruling city had been overrun, their temple had been destroyed, and they were wiped off the map and out of existence.
Then, after centuries of being their neighbors’ plaything, and after decades of lying in ruins, the leading citizens and their heirs were allowed to return to the place they had been taught for their whole lives was their true home. They showed up in Jerusalem and found the needs overwhelming. They had to build new homes and shops. They had to clear their farmlands and find some way to plant crops to have food. And what were they going to do about that temple, lying in ruins, a shameful memorial to a faith that was all but destroyed? They had to rebuild; God deserved that. But how?
Isaiah spoke boldly to these defeated, overwhelmed people: Arise! Shine! Your light has come! Sure, it looks bleak right now. But the light of God is rising over you. And in that light, you will be able to see what you cannot see right now. You will see the strength which is beyond any strength of your own, but which God alone can give you. You will see wealth that is greater than anything you can earn through your own work, but which God will provide for you. You will see a vision of what you will become, God’s own people who have enough resources, enough wisdom, and enough compassion to take care of each other, so that things will not be like they were before: everyone will have enough, and no one will have too much.
And then, Isaiah said, the most incredible thing will happen to you. That light which is rising over you, which will allow you to see yourselves in a way you cannot see right now, that light will be reflected in you, and through you. Everything about you and your life together will be so bright it will compel the nations to come to you. Imagine that! Rather than you having to go hat in hand to the other nations, they will come to you to be a part of the tremendous thing that you have become! Rather than you having to pay tribute to the neighboring nations to keep them from trampling over you, they will bring their riches to you. Isaiah was specific: they will bring gold and frankincense, you will attract things of great value and exotic wonder.
As we try to understand those wise men and their visit, this passage from Isaiah might help us make sense of it. For a lot of different reasons, some of which we cannot even explain ourselves, we have been attracted by the light shines from Jesus. We have made a choice to come here, to worship, to join the church, to become a part of the work which goes on here in Jesus’ name. We are like those wise men who saw the new star in the east; there is something that has compelled us to come to Jesus. And we don’t just come like scientific observers. We are not detached; we bring our whole selves to that light, our gifts and our passions.
As we are drawn closer and closer into the light, we can start to see everything more clearly. We can see ourselves more clearly. Where we have always been told that we are inadequate, that we are too small or two big, too thin or too heavy, too weak or too overbearing, too stupid or too foolish, we see differently in the new light of God’s dawn. Our bright parts and our shadows are no longer seen as we see them, or even as other see them, but they are exposed and illumined as only God has seen them. In the light of that dawn, we are radiant with a light that is so powerful that no darkness can overcome it.
It seems absurd, incredible. We might have never thought that we would see the possibilities like this. But gradually, over time, that light fills us and shows us the promise of God. And then, more incredibly, we start to reflect that light. That light reflects in us and through us so that it shines into others’ darkness. We start to broadcast the power of God, illuminating those around us, so that they can see themselves exposed, and illumined in that circle of divine light, too. With the light shining through us, others are compelled to come to Jesus, too, bringing their unique treasures and their wonderful gifts.
That is the way it is supposed to work: we don’t try to shine all on our own, but we also don’t try to hide the light under the bushel basket. We move toward that beautiful, joy-filled, love-filled light of God, and once we have found it, we reflect it again, radiating it to others so that we might illuminate others with joy and love and beauty as they journey ever nearer to the light. It doesn’t always happen the way we expect; it is not our light to control, but God’s light to rise whenever and however it will. But it happens. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, it happens.
It happens at this table. Here, Jesus offers us a bit of bread and a sip of juice, but so much more, too. He offers us himself: his body and his blood, his spirit and his peace. Here at this table, we get to rest ourselves for a bit; we do not have to put on airs or try to make anyone think that we are more sophisticated or more put together or more connected or more certain or more anything than we really are. We all get fed with this bread and juice for our bodies, and we all get fed with Jesus for those needs lying deep in our souls, too. And then, as the light of Christ’s nourishment rises here, we are sent out into the world, sent and equipped to do our best to show others the same grace. The glory of the Lord rises upon us, and then appears over us as we find the strength and riches to reflect that glory and illumine others. It happens, maybe not when and how we think it will, but by the grace of the Holy Spirit, it happens.
And it happens in this season of epiphany. In the past few years, it has become our tradition on Epiphany Sunday to offer a star to each of us. On that star is a single word, different for each of us. The words represent some kind of gift. Maybe our word is a gift which we need to receive. Maybe our word is a gift which we are called to give. Maybe there is something more complicated in our word. But there is a star, and that star represents God’s light rising over us. And there is a word, and that word is a gift. This morning, I invite those of you who want your star word to pick one up; the basket will be in the center aisle as you leave worship this morning and head out into the world.
Isaiah tells us, “You shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.” That is a bold statement spoken into the haze and shadows of everything going on in our bodies and our spirits, in our community and in our world. “You shall see and be radiant” because the light of God rises, and that light is so compelling that you cannot help but be drawn to it. That light exposes and illumines you, and then radiates through you to shine onto others. That is the way it works; even wise men can be compelled to travel far, to bring their riches, and to pay homage to a little baby, when God’s light rises overhead.
My prayer this morning is that we will see that light, we will be drawn to that light, we will allow that light to reveal God’s love and glory to us, and we will allow that light to shine in us and through us, too.