Rise Up!

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As we gather this morning to worship, we are looking backwards towards these strange individuals who saw a star in a sky and who let it take them to a manger in Bethlehem.
They heard God speaking through that heavenly vision… maybe not in so many words, but in a language and a message that they could understand.
They were stargazers, astronomers, people who identified with the light.
And when God spoke to them, they arose.

“Arise, shine, the light has come” we hear in Isaiah, chapter 60.
Arise! Shine!

These are not words spoken only in far off lands to far off people.
No, God is still speaking.
The message of old is still being heard throughout this world.
Even in the midst of times that seem dark and troubling, painful and chaotic… there is a still small voice that is whispering:
“Arise… shine…”
In his reflection on these texts, Rev. Dr. B. Kevin Smalls notes (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2018-worship-planning-series/january-7-2018-god-is-speaking/epiphany-baptism-of-the-lord-2018-preaching-notes) that sometimes the darkness in our lives is so thick that we don’t trust the things that resemble the light:
“Might be a trick… and tricks don’t always
Lead to a treat, so I retreat in the darkness,
Hoping, slightly, ever so lightly that
My deepest fears will submit to the changing
Of dark gears leading to light years of praise
And adoration.”

We like to believe that we are the people of the light, like the Magi, but there certainly are times that we refuse the light.
We hesitate to take a risk, a step of faith.
We are comfortable in the darkness, in what we know, in what is familiar.
As Smalls writes,
“Darkness is for lying down, laying down, hanging around, pretending to be asleep.”
And wow, it feels good to pretend to be asleep. Or to actually be asleep.
To close our eyes and ignore what is happening outside of our lives, our homes, our neighborhoods, our country.
And so we get complacent in the midst of a changing climate and culture.
Statistics that should make us quake with their injustice barely faze us.
• Black women in the United States are 243% more likely to experience maternal death than white women. (https://www.thecut.com/2017/12/black-women-are-3-times-more-likely-to-die-from-childbirth.html)
• Every day, 46 children and teens are shot in murders, assaults, suicides & suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, and police intervention (https://www.bradycampaign.org/key-gun-violence-statistics)
• 1 in 5 adults in the United States or 43.8 million people experience mental illness in a given year (https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers)

But usually, we are too nice and kind to want to have real conversations about racism or gun violence or mental health.
We hesitate to talk about these things in church or to ask how God might be speaking, calling, pushing, begging us (the people of God) to respond.
Maybe we are like the people of whom Isaiah was speaking…
You see if we turn just one chapter ahead in that prophetic text, these people felt like:
“justice is far from us and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! There is darkness… we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead.”
They were sitting back, retreating into the darkness, waiting for someone else to do something about it.
“Hoping, slightly, ever so lightly that
My deepest fears will submit to the changing
Of dark gears leading to light years of praise
And adoration.”

But then Isaiah comes along with the reminder that we can’t just sit back and wait for our fears to go away.
“Arise, shine, the light has come”
Maybe those old words aren’t quite seeping deep enough under our skin to be heard and felt.
Let me try it again from the Message translation:
“Get out of bed, Jerusalem! Wake Up! Put your face in the sunlight. God’s bright glory has risen for you!”
God’s glory has risen for you… So what on earth are YOU going to do about it?

The Magi in our scripture rose up… they got out of bed and they followed where God was leading them.
Over field and fountain, moor and mountain, that star in the sky was their guiding light until it took them to the place where the child was.
And when they arrived, they could barely contain themselves.
They felt an overwhelming kind of joy, the Gospel of Matthew tells us, that was born out of the sense that they were in the right place at the right time.
So they fell on their knees and worshiped that little child.

You and I… we are called to get out of bed, to shake off the sleep, to open our eyes and put our faces into the light and to hear where God is calling us to go.
As we start a new year, of ministry together, I have such a fire and energy in my heart.
I can see all sorts of amazing things that God has in store for us if we would simply put our face in the sunlight and head out into this world.
This church is so generous, so powerful, so filled with talent and compassion and love.
And as we have risen up and followed God’s leading – I know that many of you have experienced that immense joy that comes from being in the right place at the right time… from finding that place where your gifts have met some great need in this world.
We experienced that kind of joy in our gigantic Joppa garage sale.
We experience it as we laugh and serve together at CFUM.
We experience it when we dress up in ridiculous costumes to help our young people understand something in confirmation.
Or when our children teach us the nativity story on Christmas Eve.
And in all of these places, we are also discovering the joy of realizing that we are not alone!
There are all sorts of other people on this journey with us. People who have the same kinds of yearning and hopes and fears… and who are ready, with us, to rise up and to truly make a difference in this world for the sake of Jesus Christ!
They are sitting right here in the pews with you.
But they are also outside of these walls – our neighbors here in the community – who might have the same kinds of passion and see the same needs, but might not use the same faith words to describe it.

Maybe they are the Magi – the strangers, the Gentiles, the ones who we didn’t know, but who have been on this journey as well, to bring light and hope into the world.

God is speaking and leading all around us…. Giving us opportunities to bring hope and joy and light and love to all we meet. Together, let us rise up to seek them.

Follow the Star

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Today, we come to the end of our journey through Narnia and the Christmas season with the celebration of Epiphany. 

The word Epiphany means “an appearance or manifestation” and on the twelfth day after Christmas, it is a celebration of the manifestation of God’s love in human form… and of all of those people to whom the good news was first revealed:   the shepherds at Christmas, Anna and Simeon in the temple, and the wise men who followed the star and journeyed from afar to worship the Christ Child.

As Matthew tells the story, these magi followed a star in the sky – a light in the midst of the darkness – in order to find this Messiah.  And that glimmer of light and hope reminded Matthew of another time of darkness and the promise of God that Isaiah shared with the Israelites. 

Arise! Shine! For your light has come… though darkness covers the earth and gloom the nations, the Lord will shine upon you… Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance. (60:1-3)

In Matthew’s eyes, it wasn’t a star in the sky at all, but the light of Christ himself, revealed to the entire world, that pulled those magi over mountains and deserts and seas to the countryside surrounding Jerusalem. He may have been a tiny infant in his mother’s arms, but in the words of John’s gospel – the light shone in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it.

 

To appreciate why this was good news, we can’t pass too quickly over the darkness in these stories. We like to focus on the beautiful image of wise and powerful men bowed down before a humble and poor baby. But in our scripture today, forces of death and violence, power and pride and lurking around every corner. 

You see, in between the appearance of the star in the sky and their encounter with the Jesus, the magi found themselves on the doorsteps of power. 

King Herod was an appointed ruler who had been chosen from among his fellow Jews because he was willing to betray them and serve the Romans.  His had been named a leader by the Roman Mark Antony to support the governor of Galilee, but through political maneuvering and not a little bit of money, scheming and treachery, he had climbed as high as he could – and now happily sat in Jerusalem as the “king of the mountain.”

Relationships for him were always about what the connection could get for him.  He banished his first wife and child in order to marry the granddaughter of an elite in Rome.  And he grew to be jealous of his second wife Mariamne, eventually executing her for adultery; he eventually married five different times. He killed his brother-in-law on charges of conspiracy, and then later his sons by Mariamne because he no longer trusted them.

In the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the White Witch reminds me of that cold, insecure figure Herod.

As Heidi Haverkamp reminds in the devotional for this season, the Witch’s castle was cold and full of statues of people the witch had turned to stone.  The only living creature besides the White Witch who resided there was her Wolf Captain Maugrim.  She couldn’t trust anyone and so her castle was empty and lonely. 

And she, too, feared a threat to her power and hold over the land. 

There had been prophecies in Narnia, after all about the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve and how one day they would sit on the throne of Cair Paravel.  When she came upon Edmund, all alone in the woods one day, she very nearly turned him into stone on the spot… until she realized she could use him for more information and to tempt the rest of his siblings to her castle and kill them all at once. 

She arrested and tried the faun, Mr.  for “fraternizing with Humans,” just as she did any who sought to oppose her reign. 

The White Witch responded to the news of these children who would be Kings and Queens in the same way that Herod did… with intrigue, lies, and a heart bent on destruction. 

 

What is the danger of a baby?  Or of four little children to a powerful king or queen? 

The danger is in what they represent and the threat to the future. 

And the danger is that there are people in this world who are willing to resist their oppression and power… people who are willing to follow a star and choose another way. 

The magi from the East arrive in Jerusalem… and instead of bowing down before King Herod, they want to worship, to bow down, to pay homage to someone else.   

And this season invites us to honor God and not the powers of this world.  To honor love and not fear.  Mercy not judgment.  This season invites us to let go of our power and offer of ourselves, rather than taking what we think belongs to us.

 

Isaiah’s prophecy calls out:  Arise!  Shine! Lift up your Eyes! 

That is a whole lot of exclamation points. 

And Isaiah isn’t just inviting the people living in exile to hear the words… he is commanding them to live differently.  

As Rev. Marci Glass writes:

“Isaiah’s audience knew all about the darkness of the world.  They knew the despair of exile.  They knew what it was like to look around and say, ‘ the problems are so big. What can one person do?’

The Christmas season is a time of joy and hope and peace, and I truly pray that each and every one of you were able to glimpse that spirit of Christmas in these last few weeks. 

But just as the Christmas decorations begin to be put away, the cold harsh reality of the world hits us. We find ourselves right back where we were before this season of consumer frenzy, perhaps with emptier pockets and fuller bellies, but back in reality nonetheless.

And maybe we start to ask that question:  what can one person do?

In the wake of yet another mass shooting in our country this week in Fort Lauterdale, what can we do to stop it?

In the face of loved ones battling illness and injury, how can we make the pain go away?

Perhaps we are left wondering what all of it was really for.  Are we just rehearsing the Spirit of Christmas, much like we get out the decorations and put them away again when the time has passed? Is our hope in the pomp and circumstance? the beautifully wrapped presents?  the music? or is our hope in something else?  Something that will sustain us long after the wreaths have come off the door?

 

Arise!  Shine!  Lift Up Your Eyes!

 

The magi in the East recognized that this star was leading them on a journey into the unknown.  And they willingly chose to follow that star.

This epiphany, I want to invite you to follow the star. 

I want to invite you to seek out light in the midst of darkness, hope in the midst of despair.

And I want to invite you to share the light of that star with others.

And just like the magi, I want to invite you to not only be willing to offer your gifts with God… but I want to invite you to be open to what God might be giving to you in this journey. 

 

As we come forward in just a few minutes for our time of response and offering, I want to invite you to come to this basket and select a star.  Don’t over think it… just reach in and take one.

Every star has a word on it.  And I want to invite you to think about how that word, that star, might speak to your life this year.

Stick the star to your refrigerator or bathroom mirror.  Put it in your devotional for when you do daily prayers.  Place that star somewhere you might see it each and every day so that you can remember, whenever you lift up your eyes, that God is guiding you.

I want to invite you to remember that what you do with the light that has shined in your life does matter.

The creatures of Narnia embraced the small role they could play and they stood up to the power of the White Witch and she was defeated.

Even Edmund, who had turned his back on those he loved, found that one simple action could dramatically alter the course of events.  

The magi from the east refused to bow to the demands of Herod and chose another way home.

God is calling you to Arise! Shine!  And Lift up your eyes to see can do through you. 

Ever-patient God, Help us be people of the light, shining your light of righteousness, peace, and joy into all the dark places of our lives and world.

Turn our aimless wanderings into a journey of purpose guided by your star.
Let the light break into our lives and our world, and transform us into people of the light.

Arise!

Shine!
Follow the star!