Sermon: More Light

January 8, 2023

Isaiah 60:1-6
Matthew 2:1-12

by Eric Anderson

To state the terribly obvious, chapters 58 and 59 of Isaiah come before chapter 60, the first verses of which were read this morning. As Dirk G. Lange observes at Working Preacher, “Chapters 58 and 59 are characterized by gloom, by despair, by a call to repentance (the ways of the wicked are crooked, our transgressions are many, our sins testify against us). They are also marked by a yearning for light and glory to come (we wait for the light but there is only darkness).

“The opening line of Isaiah 60 is like a thunderbolt of glory…”

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.”

Those who first heard these words were the exiles, or those recently returned home from exile, of Jerusalem. It had been seventy years or more since their parents or grandparents had been taken to Babylon from the surrendered city. I don’t know what they expected to find on their return, but I suspect it was something better than what they found. Homes had to be constructed from the collapsed stones of the past. Fields had to be planted. The Temple had to be rebuilt. As Juliana Claassens writes at Working Preacher, “The hopeful message directed to the people of Yehud is designed to help its first readers raise their eyes from the stark and devastating challenges that made up their current reality.”

Five and a half centuries after that day, a new religious movement arose within Judaism. The times were desperate again. The Temple built by those who had returned from exile had been destroyed once more. Many of the city’s buildings had been leveled and, according to historians of that time, its entire population killed or enslaved. Followers of this new faith turned once more to the reassuring words of Isaiah:

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.”

In times of shadow – evil committed under the bright sunlight, to be brutally truthful – in times of shadow, the new Christian movement declared that the light had come in the person of Jesus.

More light.

These remain shadowy days around the world. Major wars, claiming more than 10,000 lives in a year, continue to rage in Ukraine, Ethiopia, and Myanmar. Wikipedia lists seventeen “wars” that have taken between 1,000 and 10,000 lives in the past year. Politics in the United States continues to sacrifice the public good to the interests of a few. We measure economics by simple activity without asking who benefits from that activity and who suffers. Sexism’s ugly head has never receded that far, but it seems to me that open hostility to women and women’s rights has increased in my lifetime, especially recent years. As for racism, well. I still recall the chants of “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville in 2017. I do not forget the relentless attempts to disenfranchise voters of color. It is very clear that white supremacy underlies the goals of “Christian nationalism.”

As Pete Seeger wrote, “Oh, when will they ever learn?”

More light. I could do with more light.

I could do with more light, so I will have to seek it. The magi, remember, didn’t look up at the star and say, “Hey! More light! How nice.” They got on their camels and followed it – not, I imagine, that the camels appreciated it much. As I said on Christmas Eve during the passing of the light, reaching out for the light is a central discipline of faith and especially of the Christian faith. Passive inactivity doesn’t work. The contemplative life, which to those who have the obligations of work and family looks very passive, isn’t. Those who “retire from the world” do so in order to focus their spiritual concentration.

You don’t have to withdraw from the world to focus your spiritual concentration. You do have to make time and space for that focus. That time and space might best be solitude for you, or it might be in a small group with family members or close friends. It might be filled with singing or it might be filled with silence. It might be engaging in work for someone else’s welfare or it might be something you give that helps someone get by. I really appreciate the yearnings people have to put their own muscle and bone into supporting their neighbors in the community. I have to point out, however, that the magi did no such thing. They just gave stuff. As it turned out, the stuff they gave was what allowed the family of Jesus to get away from King Herod.

If you’re looking for more light, read the Scriptures. Read them carefully. There’s a problem with this section of Isaiah. Michael J. Chan writes at Working Preacher:

“’Reversal.’ This is the word that best describes the hope expressed in Isaiah 60. Through the power of God, the oppressed are put into power; those once stripped of resources and goods not only receive what was taken from them, they become exceedingly wealthy in the process; those driven far from Jerusalem return. The world, the text claims, is about to be turned on its head.

“One thing the author of Isaiah 60 did not change, however, is the organization of imperial power. The differentials and binaries present in Near Eastern empires — and many empires, for that matter — remain unchanged in Isaiah 60’s vision of the future… New empire, same as the last?”

If we’re going to seek more light, let’s really seek more light. Early Christians heard Isaiah’s words “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” in the story of the magi’s visit. That’s how they came to be identified as kings, by the way. Matthew called them magi, and there are endless arguments among Biblical scholars what he meant by that.

The point is that the visit of the magi to a newborn ruler upset the expectations of monarchy. The gifts of the magi were offered freely, not extorted, as would usually have been the case. When he became an adult, Jesus simply refused to act like a first century ruler, even one out of power trying to regain his throne. He didn’t gather an army. He didn’t set up a tax structure. He just said, “Follow me.”

And then, with stories and with healings and with blessings, he showed them what following him meant.

If we want more light, we’re going to have to do more of that, aren’t we?

Curiously enough, it’s in Isaiah 58 – you know, the section that Dr. Lange thought so harsh – that we find the way to more light, not just for ourselves, but for those around us and the world at large.

“If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.”

(Isaiah 58:9b-10)

As much as you and I need more light, more light can’t just be for us. It has to be for those around us, and for those far away. More light comes when people are no longer kept from employment or housing because of their race or gender or sexual orientation. More light comes when we realize that insults based on race, gender, and sexual orientation aren’t funny, they’re harmful. More light comes when lies are abandoned for truth, and the liars are not rewarded with power. More light comes when the only hunger is that which comes from appreciating the scent of what’s cooking, and not because there’s nothing to cook.

“Then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.”

More light. I could do with more light.

May I find more light at the cradle-side of Bethlehem. May I find more light in the wonder of a star. May I find more light in paying focused attention to the stories and the prayers and the inspiration of the faith. May I find more light in the work of both charity and justice. May I find more light in the labor of a community of Christ followers.

May I find more light, and may I contribute to bringing more light to this still-dark, still-shadowed world.


Watch the Recorded Sermon

There are often differences between the text as prepared (above) and the sermon as delivered (the video just above). There are such differences today.

The image is Star of Bethlehem by Elihu Vedder (1879) – star-of-bethlehem-elihu-vedder/ZQGKSOvT8p52xA — Google Arts & Culture, Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on January 8, 2023

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