Rev. Emily Wilmarth
First Presbyterian Church of Highlands, Sunday, January 3, 2016
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
The prophet Isaiah speaks to a nation of people living in real darkness. The Israelites had been refugees, exiles living in Babylon. Now they were returning to Judah, relieved to go home and hopeful for the future. Only, they returned to find Jerusalem destroyed, their homes and infrastructure a garbage heap. Fighting and unrest broke out between people. Going home was supposed to feel good. Instead, it was awful. But then the prophet speaks a word of hope. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
In the Old Testament, the phrase “the glory of the Lord,” describes, or identifies, God’s presence. The “glory of the Lord” is the manifestation of God in human reality. It is the pillar of clouds that the Israelites follow during their forty years in the wilderness. When they complete the construction of the Ark of the Covenant, the glory of the Lord descends and fills it, so the Israelites can carry God’s presence with them. In the sixth chapter of Isaiah, the glory of the Lord fills the holy sanctuary, taking up residence in the midst of the Israelites’ holy worship space.
But in the turmoil of exile, it’s easy to imagine that the people of Israel had come to doubt God’s presence in their midst. It is easy to feel like God is on your side, to feel like you are blessed, when things are going your way. It is much more difficult to feel God’s presence when all you are experiencing loss and all you see are obstacles. And as the Israelites encounter a deeply disappointing homecoming, they must have wondered where God was. The darkness they experienced caused them to doubt their identity as God’s chosen. How could they be without their reigning king, or even a prosperous land to call their own? How could God’s promise to Abraham – that God would bless him and all of his descendants – be true now that Israel seemed to be hanging on by a thread? Still, Isaiah offers them this word of hope. “The glory of God has risen upon you,” he proclaims. “Your light has come.”
Isaiah assures them the darkness of their exile is over and God has not abandoned them. The promise of God’s light is the promise of grace. God’s light shines, not because of anything the Israelites have done to deserve it, but because God chooses to shine in their midst. God elects to enter their darkness and to bring them radiant light. As a result, Isaiah proclaims, the people of Israel will be radiant. Their hearts will thrill and rejoice. One translation reads, “Your faces will glow, and your hearts will pound and swell with pride.” (CEV) When God’s light shines on us, even our bodies show our joy.
But God’s light shining on Israel, God’s presence in their midst, is not the singular message Isaiah proclaims. “Nations shall come to your light…kings to the brightness of your dawn…the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you…a multitude of camels shall cover you.” In other words, the glory of God shines in the darkness for all the nations. God’s presence, God’s light and goodness and mercy shine for all people.
Isaiah calls the people of Israel not simply to notice God’s light, not simply to revel in it or hoard it for themselves. Isaiah also calls on them to shine that light for everyone to see.
Today we celebrate Epiphany. When I hear the word epiphany, I usually think of a light bulb going off over my head. An epiphany is a sudden realization or insight. An “aha” moment when something that was not clear before suddenly makes sense.
But the word epiphany also means a revelation or a manifestation of something. In the church, our Epiphany celebration is about the birth of Jesus, God’s revelation to the world. In the person of Jesus, God manifests God’s amazing love for us. In Jesus, God becomes present to all of us in a way we can comprehend – in human form. Like the glory of God made manifest in a pillar of clouds or a light shining on Israel, Jesus is the new way God becomes present to God’s people.
We remember on Epiphany that the wise men who came from foreign nations to bow down and pay homage to Jesus followed the light of a star shining brightly in the night sky.
In fact, throughout Advent and Christmas, light has been a running theme. During Advent, we waited in hope for the Light of the World to come. On Christmas, we celebrated the truth that the light entered the world. We raised our candles to the tune of “Joy to the World,” proclaiming that Jesus, the earth’s new king, rules with truth and grace. The light has come to us, not by our own doing, but thanks to God’s radical grace.
So now on Epiphany, the call of Isaiah to “Arise and shine!” compels us to take that light and shine it for the sake of the world. This is the work of Christian life. Shining light means entering into the dark places of life and offering light of Christ’s love and grace. I think that shining light means more than simply doing nice things. I think it means noticing where there is darkness in the world and actively bringing light into those places.
There are lots of ways to shine the light of Christ in the world. As Kevin and I were putting Christmas decorations away last week (ironically, packing up the lights of Christmas into storage for next year), a documentary called “Escaping ISIS” came on PBS. The film tells the stories of several Yazidi families in Iraq who have managed to escape death at the hands of ISIS. The stories are appalling and frightening. As one journalist describes, “[ISIS]’s treatment of women is notoriously cruel, but conditions for Yazidis are particularly extreme. ISIS considers members of the religious minority as devil-worshipping pagans. Under their rule, Yazidi women are bought and sold as sex slaves, raped, and even stoned to death.”1
One of the people highlighted in the film, whose work truly amazes and inspires me, is Kalil al-Dakhi, a lawyer who risks his life over and over to rescue girls who have been kidnapped by ISIS terrorists. He didn’t plan to spend his life saving kidnapped girls, but as those who escaped returned to their community, he began to listen to their testimonies. He realized through the girls’ stories of captivity how the system worked, and how he could gather others to help him rescue more girls.
Every rescue puts his life and the life of many others, his loved ones included, at risk. And yet, the alternative is too dangerous. The excruciating torture that the kidnapped girls undergo at the hands of their captors is too awful for him ignore. Kalil al-Dakhi doesn’t rescue girls for his personal benefit. He shines that light because he cannot let the darkness win.
We don’t have to go out and risk our lives in order to shine the light of Christ in the world. Each of us has the capacity to reflect the light that shines on us. A small, kind act can make a huge difference in someone’s dark day. And every small light that shines grows into the radiant light of the world:
A phone call to check in on a grieving friend because grief can be the loneliest, most isolating experience;
An afternoon a week tutoring a young student with the Literacy Council, because education opens up the world to those who have access to it;
An invitation to dinner to someone who lives, or thinks or believes differently than you, because it is in our diversity that we come to know the fullness of God’s good creation.
I learned that as she spent her final months and days in hospice, Kitty Byers shined bright light, even in the darkness of her pain. The week of Thanksgiving, she ordered several meals from Mountain Fresh, and for families who could not afford a turkey dinner of their own.
We shine, a colleague reminds me, because we’re shined upon. “We aren’t the lamps, we’re the mirrors,” she says. She remarks on a worship service she attended where votive candles were placed on a sheet of aluminum foil. She reflects, “The foil not only made the candles brighter—they seemed hotter as well. Make no mistake: without the flame itself—the light which we are called to magnify—the whole thing is nothing but a waste of Reynolds Wrap.”2
I’m not much of a resolution maker when it comes to New Years. I know I’m likely to break them, and I don’t like to set myself up for failure. But, I think this year I might go for it. I think I will make a resolution to be more mindful about my capacity to reflect the light of Christ in the world. I will pay closer attention to the dark places I want to avoid, and I will think of ways I can brighten them. And if I can’t, I’ll ask others to help. We don’t shine light for the glory it brings us. We shine light for the glory it brings God.
Will you join me?