Sunday, January 27, 2019

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Psalm 29
God's law is perfect, refreshing the soul;
God's instruction is sure,
giving wisdom to the simple;
God's precepts are right, rejoicing the heart;
God's commandment is pure
giving light to the eyes;
God's fear is clean, enduring forever;
God's judgements are true,
every one of them righteous;
more desirable than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
pure honey from the comb.

As a general rule, you should always make sure you can deliver on your promises.

Nowhere is this sentiment more acute than in the world of advertising. Make a crazy claim and Competition Bureau Canada may come calling, enforcing their mandate to root out “deceptive representations” and ensure that each of us can make informed choices. It sounds a little bureaucratic, to be sure, but in the real world, we need to be wary.

It begins with outrageous claims: ‘this detergent will make your whites whiter than white’ or this food is ‘all-natural,’ meaning it has origins somewhere on planet Earth. The technical name for this is puffery, suggesting that something is better or best without supplying the means to verify the claim.

And that’s just the simple and obvious examples. What about fillers and oversized packaging? We’ve all seen the big box with the tiny little product inside, but what about injecting brine in my chicken and charging me by the pound, or fillers like too much oatmeal in my granola?

Those who watch American television can tell you about ‘certain side-effects’ listed in very tiny scrolling print at the end of the commercial, or the announcer who begins to talk really, really quickly to share something they don’t want you to hear. Or something called ‘angel-dusting,’ listing 12 essential nutrients that are only provided in microscopic quantities. Or the old bait-and-switch, listing a eye-catching sale price only to find that it applied to a single seat on the airplane.

And it’s not just detergent and breakfast cereal we need to watch, it’s churches too. Drive around town and read the signs: the ‘friendly church’ that may or may not be friendly, the ‘church with a big heart’ that actually sounds like a medical condition, or ‘a family church,’ a metaphor that tends to suggest that the church will mirror whatever disfunction happens to live within your own family. Yikes!

Even scripture is not immune, and the example is found in Psalm 29:

God's precepts are right, rejoicing the heart (of course).
God's commandment is pure, giving light to the eyes (lovely).
God's law is perfect, refreshing the soul (Amen to that!).
God's instruction is sure, giving wisdom to the simple.

Okay, hold it right there. That’s a pretty bold claim! I’ve spend hours puzzling over a single passage, trying to make sense of it, so what does that make me? And I’ve met people who read exactly the same Bible and draw completely different conclusions about what it means, what does that make them? “You can lead a horse to water’ and all that, but how does it follow that these instructions can make the simple wise?

Maybe the best way to enter this question is to think about examples in the Bible of this movement from simple to wise. Who’s done it? Perhaps the most obvious example would be the twelve: fishermen, common folk, who were willing to drop everything and follow Jesus. And they didn’t do it (it would seem) from any kind of informed position, or from a position of great learning, but from a sense of openness, a willingness to simply follow.

Picture them on a typical day-in-the-life, fireside on a beach, maybe sitting in someone’s kitchen in Capernaum, or even an upper room in the big city. What were they doing? Talking, praying, singing psalms, psalms like Psalm 29, a song that Jesus and his disciples would have sang many, many times. And the song itself is a compelling summary of why the law is at the heart of their religion. Time and time again, Jesus made it known that he was there to fulfil the law rather than overcome it, and Psalm 29 was a case-in-point.

The poem essentially restates the same idea in a half-a-dozen ways: that the law is commended to us, and its impact is clear: refreshing the soul, reviving the heart, lighting the eyes, and (of course) making wise the simple. It brings together Jesus love for the scriptures and a central lesson that he stated and restated and he hoped we would understand: Jesus believed that the key to a happy and faithful life was a life lived in the law.

When a teacher of the law heard Jesus give a smart answer, he asked him, "What is the most important commandment?"
Jesus answered, "The most important one says: You must love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.' The second most important commandment says: ‘Love others as much as you love yourself.' No other commandment, no other part of the law is more important than these."

This ‘love God and neighbour’ passage is at the heart of scripture, but I want you to ignore the content for a minute and listen to the topic. Jesus is a teacher of the Law, the perfect Law, the Law that Moses carried to the people, the Law that resides in Ark of the Covenant that resides in the Holy of Holies. Rather than divorce Jesus from his religion and his past we need to draw a stronger connection.

He took a band of seemingly simple people and turned them into religious reformers, intent on re-igniting the flame of belief. He wanted to reintroduce people to the heart of scripture and the link to their lives—to make them passionate followers of the law and compassionate neighbours and friends. He wanted to make a case for the Most High in a time that featured numerous rivals for the title, whether it was Rome or mammon or other local gods. And when we wanted to get started, he wasn’t above a little drama to make his point:

He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place that best described his mission and motives, and he read the words. Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

I’ll get to the words in a moment, and the important link to Psalm 29 in moment, but first there are lessons behind the lesson, found in this simple description. First, it happens in the context of sabbath worship, a teacher of the law entrusted by his community to bring a word of hope. Next, he is handed Isaiah, one of Jesus’ theme books: always grounding the lessons in everyday issues, always living in the tension between God’s comfort and judgement, between grace and hard truth. The congregation is captivated, the words are compelling, and the last word is the most arresting of all: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Just as an aside, there is another link to Psalm 29 here, mostly unintended, but one that’s worth noting. Further down, the psalmist makes another request, one that speaks to all of us who like to talk a good game: “Keep your servant also from presumptuous sins,
lest they get the better of me.” To be presumptuous, of course, means to fail to observe the limits of what is permissible, the very thing that Jesus seems to be doing as he suggests Isaiah has been fulfilled by his reading. But we know the truth. So here are the words once more:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[a]

When we hear these words we tend to think of types of people—the poor, the incarcerated, the blind—rather than types of needs. But if we shift our gaze to types of needs, we start to get a more universal picture: the need for good news, the need for freedom from all forms of imprisonment, the need for new sight whenever we fail to see clearly, and the need to escape oppression, particularly the many ways we oppress ourselves.

And these mostly universal needs—hope, freedom, insight, release—are the very needs that God in Jesus wishes for us, commends to us in scripture, and makes manifest in the gathered community that we call the body of Christ. The law makes the simple wise by lifting up simple needs and pointing to God. Loving our neighbour, we see God. Forgiving others, we see God. Trusting in Jesus and his promise of fulfillment, we see God.

May God grant us hope, freedom, insight, and release. And may God grant us greater and greater wisdom, through God’s Word, Amen.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Second Sunday after Epiphany

1 Corinthians 12
Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. 3 Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues,[a] and to still another the interpretation of tongues.[b] 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

There are moral superstars among you.

Now, I'm not suggesting that some of you are less moral, immoral, or given to all sorts of turpitude. I'm simply reflecting on the fact that some have advanced training in moral theology and others do not.

You see, the brave souls who dove into the murky waters of biomedical ethics last fall, they wish for a level playing field, an opportunity to spread the wealth of their knowledge and encourage others to practice whatever is the opposite of turpitude. Basically, I just like saying turpitude.

What I propose to do is give all of you the same introduction to Christian ethics, in a somewhat condensed form. And the setting for this instructive moral quagmire is a trip to the supermarket. So we begin.

You’re in a hurry as you approach the supermarket, you know exactly what you need, and you won’t be a minute. All the spots are taken, except that handicapped spot near the door, and in a flash of turpitude, you take it. “What’s the harm?” you say to yourself, “I’ll just be a minute.” Of course, immediate harm ensues, when the next person who enters to lot needs the space. So our first principle, rather aptly, is Do no harm. One down, three to go.

It turns out the first item on your list is chocolate covered almonds. Mmmm, you love them. And as you lean over the bin, scoop in hand, you realize you are alone in the aisle. Remember, you’re in some sort of moral holiday here, so you decide to sample. And as the taste explodes in your mouth, you remember this sermon, and with it the second principle: Pursue the common good. Laws against theft are in place to allow us to live together as a society—and provide a set of assumptions about how we will behave—as we pursue the common good.

Next, you’re at the cash, and the check-out person has give you too much change. It’s a simple enough mistake, “an error in your favour” like Monopoly, but this time you have a choice. The first thing to consider is ‘what would I do if the situation was reversed?’ If you were short-changed, would you say something? Of course you would! So the next principle is simple: Treat others as you wish to the be treated. We call it the “Golden Rule,” a principle that exists in some form in almost every religion and philosophy.

Being moral is hard work, so it’s time to head home. As you walk toward the door, you notice that the edge of the rubber mat is flipped over, creating a trip hazard. What do you do? In the strictest technical sense, it’s not your problem. Stores have liability insurance just for such situations. But what if your 90 year-old granny is two steps behind? You fix the mat. What if it’s your 90 year-old neighbour? You fix the mat. What if it’s someone you’ve never met?

This scenario includes elements of all the principles we have defined so far: pursue the common good (a society where people care for strangers); do no harm (a reasonable person will see that the mat is potentially harmful); and treat others as you wish to be treated (I wish the person before me fixed the mat before I nearly tripped). Using all of these principles together, we define our fourth principle as Develop a moral character.

Fun story: I led an ethics workshop many years ago for a not-for-profit in Scarborough and when we got this last principle, one of the participants sharply disagreed. And they just wouldn’t let it go. I tried more and more examples (what about your grandmother’s grandmother?) but the response was the same every time: ‘it’s not my responsibility.’ Meanwhile, at the edge of the room, this person’s supervisors were wide-eyed and staring at each other, taking mental note.

I share all this to save you from turpitude, and to lift up the seventh verse of the reading Judith shared this morning: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” The Greek for common good is συμφέρον (sympheron), which appears most often in verb form, and is translated as beneficial, as it ‘it would be beneficial to cut off your hand if it causes you to sin (Matthew 5.30). As a noun, it becomes ‘common good,’ meaning whatever is beneficial for everyone. Unfortunately, whenever I say ‘common good’ you now think chocolate covered almonds, but you’re just going to have to set that aside.

But just before I say more about St. Paul and the common good, I should set this verse in context, specifically, the church at Corinth. Our passage begins with a reference to backsliding, returning to paganism and the obvious turpitude that follows when you listen to mute idols. It’s one example of bad behavior within the congregation that Paul seeks to correct. But when he tries to get them to mend their ways, he tries to put it into a more positive framework than simply saying ‘smarten up.’ So he reminds them:

There are all sorts of gifts, but the Spirit gives them.
There are all sorts of service, but the same Lord to serve.
There are many examples of good works, and in each one, God is at work.

These gifts of the Spirit are meant to support the common good. If you are wise, or knowledgable, or particularly faithful, or you have some overt gift like healing, or prophecy, or speaking in tongues, or making sense of someone speaking in tongues—if you have any of these gifts—you do God’s work and embody God’s desire to distribute gifts.

“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Read one way, this means that we have gifts that we should use to further the common good. It seems straightforward enough, until we keep reading, and see that Paul is suggesting we’re part of the Spirit-filled co-op, with gifts distributed for the sake of the whole. If you are wise, you don’t need to be knowledgeable, or vise versa. People who have a healing presence may make lousy prophets, and if you speak in tongues it doesn’t automatically follow that you understand what you’re saying. Maybe leave that to others. God works in us and others by the Spirit, but works in a unique way through each of us—to further the common good.

And obviously it doesn’t stop at the door of the church. We take these Spirit-filled and Spirit-given gifts out with us, to live moral lives, and to use our various gifts to further the common good of society. And there is even a word for that—the common good of society—most often called the commonwealth. Yes, it’s also the name of an organization headed by our glorious queen, but it’s primarily an idea, defined as “a nation, state, or other political unit...founded on law and united by...tacit agreement of the people for the common good.”* It’s also a state where “supreme authority is vested in the people” and while sounding a little like Monty Python, it simply means we have a vote that matters.

So this commonwealth, the common good of society, is an idea that should inform every aspect of our lives. Equal treatment under the law, equal access to the “goods” we share, like health care and education, government services and so on. Plus, there is an element of responsibility implied too, paying our fair share of taxes, serving on a jury, making sure that others receive equal treatment and an equal share. It’s not political in the sense that it belongs to the left or the right—it’s foundational, the commonwealth we enjoy together.

Until it’s not. When voices enter the conversation that reject the idea that we have a responsibility for the well-being of others, the commonwealth begins to fray. When some are “more equal” under the law, or even believe that the law doesn’t apply to them, the commonwealth begins to fray. When some suggest that the “goods” we enjoy cannot be shared equally—based on the state of the economy or the status of an individual, then the commonwealth begins to fray. The commonwealth, like democracy, is an idea, and always more fragile than we assume.

The good news is that moral theology doesn’t belong to the church alone. And while people beyond the church might simply call it “ethics” or “values” or even “civics,” it’s still moral theology, and it still comes with a few, simple principles—that followed correctly—can further the commonwealth of all peoples.

Do no harm
Pursue the common good
Treat others as you wish to be treated
Develop a moral character

Further, we believe that wherever people are applying these principles, God is there. Wherever people seek equity, fairness, compassion, God is there. And wherever the gifts of the Spirit appear, in whatever form, God is already there. We don’t need to reinvent the commonwealth, the common good of society, we need to look for it in the people we meet. Paul said it best: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Amen.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Baptism of Jesus

Luke 3
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with[b] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

It certainly wasn’t the first case of mistaken identity.

In their heart of hearts, people were wondering if this intriguing figure in the desert was the Chosen One. And John the Baptist would be quick to correct them, setting them straight. But it certainly wasn’t the first case of mistaken identity in the Bible.

In Genesis 18 the Lord appears to Abraham and Sarah in the form of three visitors. The couple are gracious hosts, and the anonymous encounter is going extremely well until Sarah laughs at the suggestion that he will have a child in old age. But God (in disguise) is very patient, saying only “is anything too hard for the Lord?”

In Exodus 2 it’s the daughters of the priest of Midian who mistakenly assume that Moses is an Egyptian, based perhaps on his dress of the way he carries himself. And of course, much of Moses’ early life is a case of mistaken identity: raised by the daughter of Pharaoh—a Prince of Egypt with a secret—even to himself.

Joshua 5 gives us one of the strangest examples, with Joshua meeting an unknown soldier on the road to Jericho, sword drawn, ready for battle. “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” Joshua asks. The mysterious soldier says “Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” It’s the other passage where someone is commanded to take off their sandals, standing on holy ground, but we don’t talk about it much, God as an heavily armed soldier and all.

Mary in the garden (John 20) is another obvious example, through her tears asking where this unknown gardener has hidden the body of her Lord, but we know who he really is, and soon she will too, along with everyone who believes.

And before we get to Luke 3, there is one more example of mistaken identity relating to John the Baptist, this one from Mark 6. Jesus’ fame is spreading and old Herod hears about the miraculous things that are happening. Those around him say “maybe it’s Elijah returned,” or maybe some other prophet of old. “No,” Herod said, “it’s John the Baptist all right, raised from the dead!” But we know it’s not, although it’s a comfort to see Herod losing sleep over the John the Baptist and the terrible events at court that led to John’s death.

But that’s leaping ahead. The earlier case of mistaken identity is by the riverside, people seeking the Chosen One. They are anxious to accept this baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the hope that their wish will be fulfilled. And John, of course, understands this mistaken hope and clears things up:

“I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire.”

But just when we thought this passage exhausted the last bits of mistaken identity, there is one more. There, among the seekers and the pilgrims is the son of a carpenter, in the crowd, God in disguise. For now he is content to get in line, to accept John’s baptism and begin his ministry. God, however, gets the last word, clearing up (once and for all) this case of mistaken identity:

21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

And even without God speaking to interpret what’s happening, we can find various ways to understand our baptism. Wise people tell us that baptism, like communion, is a visible sign of God’s invisible grace. It’s like that hand stamp that only shows up under a certain type of light—it’s there, but it’s not immediately obvious.

And it’s something we do together, a point I try to remember to make from time to time. The church authorizes me to baptize, but I’m just a stand in for you, the people of God, who are doing God’s work of baptism while I’m busy up here with the baby, or child, or occasional adult. This body, the body of Christ found in the church, is also a visible sign of grace, grace upon grace as the church baptizes the next generation of believers.

And in the United Church, perhaps uniquely, we have this conversation every few years about the place of baptism in our denomination. It always begins around the question of membership, and what it means to belong, and the extent to which the non-baptized are excluded from certain aspects of our common life. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing, our enhanced sense of fairness and our desire to include everyone, or maybe it’s just our unique brand of Christianity, our focus on justice (another word for fairness) that leads us to have this conversation.

Whatever the reason, our desire to remain within the Christian church usually marks the end of the conversation (until the next time). We remember that since the beginning of the church, baptism has been the only rite of initiation into the body of Christ, and that it’s always more than a ritual or a mark of entry—it’s a transformational moment, entering once-and-for-all into something much bigger than ourselves or even one denomination.

And when we step into these kinds of definitional conversations, asking who we are or where we belong, it can be helpful to ask the thinkers and sages to remind us what it all means, why we do what we do and why it still matters. Karl Barth, as an example, would remind us that baptism is a matter of life and death. ‘The person who emerges from the water,’ he says, ‘is not the same person who entered it. One person dies and another is born.’ (The Epistle to the Romans, p. 193)

And he’s just getting warmed up, because Barth says don’t listen to me, listen to Martin Luther: “Your baptism is nothing less than God clutching you by the throat,” Luther said, “a grace-full throttling, by which your sin is submerged in order than you may remain under grace.” Maybe it’s good we don’t have a baptism today, since it’s starting to sound like a contact sport.

But then Barth takes us back to scripture, back to the source, to expand on this idea that at the moment of baptism we are utterly transformed, that a new person is born. He reminds us of Colossians 3: “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

In other words, we exist within the life of God, we are folded in, hidden within the unfolding story of God in the world. We don’t simply walk in newness of life, we are hidden within life itself. In the ultimate case of mistaken identity, we may appear as our former selves, but we a new person altogether. Anyone in Christ is a new creation, the past is done, and new life has come. (2 Corinthians 5).

Baptism, of course, is not magic. It’s not a shield from trouble, or a spell that saves us from ourselves. Luther said our sin is submerged so that can remain under grace, but it’s still there. Baptized believers are not perfect, as anyone who reads the paper will tell you, or anyone with an ounce of self-awareness will know. Folded into the life of God, we retain our free will—we still live in the world, and we are live with others.

But there is one last layer of mistaken identity, the one that allows us to look at others and see God. Understanding the we have a secret life within God, we can appreciate that others do too. We can see Christ in others, in the vulnerable, in those who love and those who need love, in the very fabric of the earth itself.

In each case of mistaken identity we looked at a few moments ago, God was up to something: making promises, acting in human history, giving hope when hope was lost. At our baptism we became part of this unfolding story, something bigger than ourselves, hidden within life itself.

May God bless us and make us a blessing to others, as we remember our baptism and give thanks. Amen.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Epiphany Sunday

Isaiah 60
“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
3 Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you:
All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters are carried on the hip.
5 Then you will look and be radiant,
your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
to you the riches of the nations will come.
6 Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.

Sitting here, in a Victorian church, on the edge of a Victorian village, in a Dominion formed in the Victorian era, if follows that there will be symbols.

Take a stroll through the village and look for symbols: on the gable immediately below the roof, on columns, door frames, fence posts, and in the brickwork itself. What first appear as design elements may have deeper meaning, something the architect or owner hoped to express to the passersby.

A cherub, for example, symbolizes love or fertility. A lion’s head says nobility, or love for the mother country. An owl means wisdom or vigilance, which leads to the symbol of an open book, for wisdom or learning. The green man is another common symbol, a face emerging from a leafy background, and one that is hotly debated (like the Christmas tree) regarding it’s pagan background.*

Head over to the cemetery, and the Victorians had even more to say. A column represented the death of the pillar of the household, often broken at the top to indicate taken too soon. An urn represented someone cultured (and not cremation, which was not practiced in Victorian times) and a veiled urn represented the veil between this world and the next. Most complex is the clasped hands, which often symbolized a couple reunited in death. You can generally tell which hand is clasping which, and the cuff of that hand tells you whether husband or wife died first, leading the other to the afterlife.**

Back in the village, one of the most common, to the point that we hardly notice it, is the symbol of the sun and the sun’s rays. It’s an optimistic symbol, certainly the symbol of a golden age of progress and prosperity, and in our context, a symbol of empire. Every Victorian child knew that the sun never set on the British empire, illustrated by maps and stamps with the empire in pink or red. It was an optimism that would endure into the century that followed—until the shadow of war fell across the empire—but the symbol of the sun endures to remind us of that unique time.

And the symbol of the unsetting sun had an ancient pedigree. Throughout the ancient near-east—Egyptians, Akkadians, and Israelites—the connection between royal power and the sun that never set was common. A version appears in Psalm 72: “may your anointed live as long as the sun endures.” And then it’s reinforces this with a verse that you might recognize: “he shall have dominion from sea unto sea.” That last part is also our motto (“A mari ad usque ad mare”), though oddly omitted from the version we read in our hymnbooks today. That’s not very Canadian, is it?

And like our hypothetical stroll through the village, the passage from Isaiah invites us to “lift up your eyes and look about you...look and be radiant” as your heart swells with joy.

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.

The darkness, in this case, is exile. Long ago, the people were carried into exile, the great city destroyed, all hope seemingly lost. But for God, all was not lost. It remained God’s desire to lead these exiles home, to restore the people to the land, to bring light to the shadowed places that were never forgotten.

But there was problem with this plan, a shadow that the passage hints at but doesn’t fully reveal. Some, we know, were reluctant to return to the ruined places, even in the midst of great joy that they were allowed to return. Some clinged to comfort, or opportunity, and some perhaps to the belief that this redemption would be short-lived. Whatever the cause, some need to be convinced to return, and that convincing can be found in the text:

3 Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you:
All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters are carried on the hip.

See the dual promise: the nations will be drawn to this new Jerusalem, kings in the brightness of a new beginning. And the children (we always worry about the children!) they will assemble and come along too! Sons from afar, and daughters ‘carried on the hip,’ a delightful turn of phrase that should get anyone out the door and back to the land of light.

Through it all, there is an abiding sense that the prophet is trying too hard. He’s overselling it: again a reflection of the very human tendency to choose the ‘devil you know’ over the uncertain promise of return. Hear what I mean:

The wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
to you the riches of the nations will come.
6 Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.

There is a reference here to something else you might be familiar with, but I’m going to set that aside to focus on the need to promote the very thing people longed for, prayed for, worked for, but some chose to ignore. Exile is a state-of-mind as well as a physical reality, and people needed to be convinced to make the trip. It was wrapped up in royal power, the promise that Jerusalem might become something it never was, and the sentimentality of taking the children home. It was a compelling message.

Again, why would you need to sell a return from exile? You would expect people to drop everything and run home, not wait around for a prophet to sweeten the deal. Doesn’t the promise of return sell itself?

There are a few things we should remember as we figure this out. First, the exile lasted decades, meaning many exiles were living in the only place they ever knew. Jerusalem sounded remarkable, but for most, it wasn’t home. Also, Babylon was world-class (as we would say today) and anyone living there might feel some pride being at home in such a great city. Finally, the exiles were hardly suffering in Babylon: they made lives for themselves, doctors and lawyers, and high places in the royal court such as our friend Daniel (of the lion’s den fame). They were the High Victorians of the ancient near-east.

Looking at the clock, it might be time for the ‘so what,’ the link to today that will help us put the whole thing together. And whenever the preacher talks exile, there is a moment when we need to complete the circle and decide who’s in exile today. Or, in the context of this passage, who is light-shy? As with all popular metaphors, there is a cast of usual suspects.

Some are in exile from themselves, and lack of sense of their true selves and who they were created to be. Some are in exile from the success and prosperity that many enjoy, and see no route to return or even begin. Some are in exile from any kind of higher meaning: they attach to status or things or the ‘perfect life,’ until they discover how truly fleeing these are. And some are just mad: mad at life, mad at the people around them, even mad at God.

Convinced that there are many forms of exile, and equally convinced that for many, it’s the only life they know, our task would seem to be light-bearers, or light-bringers, into the dark places we go. We are not the light, we bring the light, reflect the light, promote the light. “Arise, shine,” Isaiah said, “for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.” We allow the light to rise upon us, that others may see a way home from exile.

Again, we’re not making the light, we’re allowing the light to shine through our lives to cast a pure light on others. They may or may not choose to see it, embrace it, follow it. But we can bear witness to the power of the light in our lives and see what comes next. God will do the hard work.

May God shine through us, into the darkness of an often weary world, and make all things new. Amen.