Lectionary readings for the 17th January:
1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20) Psalm 139: 1-6, 13-18 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 John 1:43-51
Second set: Isaiah 60:9-22 Psalm 96 Hebrews 6:17—7:10 Mathew 8:5-13
I have a friend who, following Orthodox convention, always left the Christmas decorations up until Candlemas. Well this year in our house, we have decided to follow this tradition and have left up all the Christmas lights and the crib scene, because it feels as though the past months have been months of dreariness and darkness. And light certainly dispels the gloom.
But it is more: we too are called to shine with the reflected glory of the Lord. It is difficult when we are separated from our traditions, causing some to wonder if God is still working in the midst of the people called Methodist. One writer, commenting on the reading from 1 Samuel 3, noted that the phrase ‘the voice of God was seldom heard and visions rare’ could equally have been written for twenty-first century western culture as for the days of Eli. But today, I want to concentrate on a reading from the second list – words from Isaiah that are often simply linked to the visit of the Magi, without any consideration of the poem itself. And yet, these are words of promise fulfilled – the light has come.
The latter chapters of Isaiah (56-66) describe the community of returned exiles who are struggling to believe that God was still with them. In fact, the previous chapter might well have been entitled ‘Where is God?’ Having been promised a great future, they have returned home to a nightmare and struggled even to exist. My guess is that Jerusalem probably resembled modern-day Aleppo, and little could be found to sustain the exiles in the abandoned farms and fields. In such circumstances, how could the community of God’s people be a light to the nations (42:5-7 & 49:6-7)?
Into this most difficult situation the prophet, speaking God’s word, invites the people of Zion to arise and shine. This does not demand that we are full of happiness and energy, but that we make ourselves available to reflect the divine light: your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
When John the Baptist was born, his father Zechariah was given a prophecy for his son:
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. Luke 1:76-80
It is a beautiful reminder that the dawn is indeed breaking upon us; the gloominess and darkness is being dispelled, for God’s presence is the light promising a new future for God’s people. And with epiphany comes covenant as God’s people commit themselves to follow God’s ways once more; to be the reflectors of divine light in an otherwise cold and dark world. The people of God are to reflect the light of God’s presence to the surrounding nations, and the words of Isaiah are reflected in St Peter’s letter:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 1 Peter 2:9-10
Light in the Bible, and in specifically, divine light, is never passive; it is an active light bringing to the world justice, peace and deliverance from oppression (see Isaiah 49:6 & 58:6-12; Acts 13:47). From the very opening chapter of Genesis (1:14-19), the writers were keen to stress that the sun and moon were mere lamps made by God to light the earth. Whereas God is the true light bringing glory to Zion, and to the wider community. In the magnificent prologue in John’s Gospel, the true light is coming into the world (1:9) and it is seen once more by St John the Divine describing the new Jerusalem:
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. Revelation 21:22-23
In turn, we are invited to shine as stars in a dark world (see Philippians 2:15), and to change the metaphor a little, how many of you remember singing this old Sunday School favourite? Jesus bids us shine, with a clear, pure light, like a little candle burning in the night; in this world of darkness we must shine, you in your small corner, and I in mine.
It’s an invitation to enter active commitment to work for the common good for all of creation; to be part of the healing, restorative presence in the world.
There is something creatively radical in Isaiah’s poetry: it is that universal welcome – even Gentile and daughters. You may think these are two strange groups of people to mention, but they stand for all who are at the very margins of society. And all are invited within the sphere of God’s love. Redemption is holistic, it is for the whole community. In this week The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes published a long-awaited report on the harm caused to women and children in Ireland from 1922-1998. State and Church may been seen as bearing the largest blame, yet culpability is societal and should cause us all to pause and reflect on our own responses to the marginalised members of society. We need to reflect the light of God just where we are.
So back to Isaiah. Although previously it appeared as though the people had been abandoned and rejected, in the new community, they were given a new status: when the glory of God rises upon them, they become God’s pride and joy. Isaiah invites us to experience this new relationship with God in the new community. Being God’s pride and joy allows for a deep and intimate relationship as God’s people are called to know God as Lord, Saviour and Mighty One.
We sometimes imagine that the world is going steadily into decline, but at the entire time of writing and compiling the book of Isaiah, the tiny nation of Israel faced on crisis after another. Superpowers threatened and clashed, and many must have believed themselves to be powerless in the face of escalating disaster.
Does this sound familiar, contemporary even? Those who are called into the community of faith are to remain firm in their commitment to the God of all creation. To speak as the prophets did of old to remind people that however foolish human decisions may be, we believe in a God who can still work through the darkest events to bring order out of chaos and light out of darkness.
Living God, in Christ you make all things new. Transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make know your heavenly glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Prayers for the church and the world
Remind us, O God, when we seek to go our own way, that you are still the creator and redeemer of this world. Remind us, O Lord, when we feel as though the darkness is overwhelming, that Jesus came as the light of the world, and calls us to follow. Enable us to bring light to the places in which we live and work. Strengthen those this day who are overwhelmed by the burden of providing healing and care, and who have exhausted their store of compassion, and strength. Bring healing to the many damaged lives of the people in Ireland, whose past experiences have denied them life in all its fulness. Bring true shalom to the people of America, so that together they may move onward in peace and grace.