Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"Arise, Shine: For Your Light Has Come!"

Isaiah 60: 1-6

1 Peter 2: 9-10

      There was once a pastor of a small country church in South Carolina who was known as one

of the thriftiest persons in Aiken County.  In order to keep the air conditioning bills down in the

summer, every night, the good parson would walk around the sanctuary opening the windows to

the cooler evening air.  Then each morning, he would just as methodically close them before the

morning sun began to beat down on the building.  In fact, he was so thrifty that he didn’t want to

waste electricity switching on the lights for his nightly ritual.  He had become pretty good at navigating

in the dark from window to window.  But sometimes, he would manage to bump into a massive oak table

which sat at the rear of the sanctuary.  Have you ever known one of those high-energy people who

always move fast, almost like a bee buzzing from place to place?  That’s how

the good pastor walked, even in the pitch dark.  So after banging into that oak table at excess of

four miles an hour, he’d be left with a Charley-horse or a wicked stubbed toe.  As he limped or

walked stiffly around the town of Graniteville, South Carolina, everyone knew that the pastor was

trying to save the church money, again.

      The story of Israel in the days when the 60th chapter of Isaiah was composed is a story of people

wandering in darkness, at least spiritually-speaking; running into obstacles; stubbing their toes; limping

badly in their journey toward faithfulness to Almighty God.  Gone were the celebrated golden days when

King Solomon ruled the nation in peace and prosperity; when Jerusalem

was a city of unmatched splendor; when the people worshiped in the magnificent temple Solomon

had built.  Their glory faded into memory, further clouded with each passing generation.

      Life in the prophet’s day was a life of exile and bondage.  The Medes and Persians had taken

occupation of Israel’s territory, both fragmenting its sense of community, and leaving the people

desperate and helpless.  At the time of this morning’s writing, a trickle of exiles was being permitted

to return to their homeland.  But any attempts to rebuild the temple and reestablish the

community were failing miserably.  After a while, as Old Testament scholar Paul Hanson points

out:  “Grave doubts regarding God’s power, and regarding God’s covenant promises to His people,

began to surface.”  The sort of grumbling which had been heard centuries earlier, as the Hebrews

crossed the Sinai Peninsula, was heard again:  Where is God in this mess?  Why has God abandoned us in our time of need. 

      It so often happens just that way.  Disappointments and tribulations in life lead to doubts

about God – about God’s presence; about God’s power; about God’s promises.  One of our basic

beliefs as Christians is that God is connected with everyday life.  We don’t understand God as out

there somewhere, but rather close and intimate.  So when tragic suffering or bitter setbacks rear

their ugly heads, we naturally wonder:  Where is God in my mess?  Why has God abandoned me

when I’m in such need?  At these times, it feels like darkness closes in; the darkness of harsh

despair; of gnawing loneliness; of consuming guilt; the darkness of ill health, or of shattered

dreams.  God knows there are enough struggles and stresses in life to test the mettle of even the

most committed believer.

      The setting for this morning’s passage is a dark night of the soul for the nation of Israel.  The

people were feeling abandoned and dejected.  Their vision of God was surrounded by what the

prophet calls “thick darkness;”  a darkness so heavy and so dense that it hung shroud-like over

the stooped shoulders of the people.  Yet in the midst of such profound gloom, the prophet dares

speak of light.  In the clutch of night, he catches a glimpse of sunrise, dawning even over dark and

helpless Jerusalem.  The sun is, as the prophet understands it, the very glory of the Lord radiating

 brightness from which all darkness takes flight.

     For the people, however, there was a clear disconnect between the prophet’s optimistic vision

and the reality which they were living.  Their experiences as a battered and broken community

had driven them into spiritual hopelessness as deep as their darkness was thick.  They seemed

unable to penetrate this shroud of melancholy.  It’s not unlike us, going through the worst of life’s

trials, and a pastor or friend or family member saying to us:  “Everything’s gonna be okay.  Hang in

there.  You’ll find some light at the end of the tunnel.”  Well-intended as such words are, to we in

the depths of despair, these words carry an empty and hollow ring.  Perhaps that’s how Isaiah’s

words rang for his contemporaries – hollow, empty, pollyannish. 

       Yet the prophet – who is one of them, he himself in great pain, negotiating as best he could the

darkness -- clings tightly to the rich metaphor of light which discloses the reality of God:  “Arise,

shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”  Yes!  “…..darkness

shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his

glory will appear over you.”  The point that Isaiah is trying to make is that God remains in control

of the light switch, and that God’s face will not remain hidden, but degree by degree will be

revealed.  It was true that the despairing people couldn’t find God in the midst of their thick darkness. 

But God could and would find them.  At the core of the prophet’s message is that when all is said and done,

only God can reveal God.  Left to ourselves, we humans cannot penetrate the impenetrable darkness.

  In our pain, we may perceive God as distant, unknowable, inscrutable.  For our part, we just seem to

stumble around – spiritually-speaking – banging into things and stubbing our toes.  But God, in the mystery

of divine grace, comes to humankind in an act of supreme self-revelation, and in an act of supreme self-sacrifice.

      The prophet goes on to say that not only will God’s light - God’s glory - dawn upon the people,

but the people themselves will become a light to the nations, and the nations will be drawn to

the light.  Isaiah proclaims that “A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of

Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come.  They shall bring gold and frankincense,

and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”

    On this Sunday of the church year we call “Epiphany,” we bring this prophecy of Isaiah together

with an event it foreshadowed.  You’ll recognize this episode usually associated with the birth

narrative [although it took place months, maybe years later] which is recorded in the 2nd chapter

of Matthew’s Gospel:  “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea,

wise men from the East came to Jerusalem asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king

of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’  ……and

there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the

place where the child was.  When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed

with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down

and paid him homage.  Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold,

frankincense, and myrrh.”

      Like the Gentiles of Isaiah’s day, the wise men came to Jerusalem because they were drawn to

the light; drawn by the very glory of God; by the very Son of God, born a child, destined a king.

And they came bringing gifts as a proclamation of praise, just as the prophet had foreseen some

five centuries earlier.  This is epiphany; this self-revelation of God, in the midst of “thick darkness,”

in the person of a helpless and innocent child.  As promised, God’s glory was revealed to the

 nations through Israel.  Today, we celebrate that God is made manifest to all humankind in and

through Jesus the Son.  The people who walked – and WALK – in darkness had – and HAVE – seen

a great light! 

      Craig and Charlie were on a hunting trip in northern Michigan one frosty autumn night.  It was

one of those cloudy, moonless nights that seem to close in like a heavy blanket.  The plan was for

Craig and Charlie to meet up with the rest of the hunting party at a remote site fifty miles from the

nearest town.  They had a hand-drawn map to the site, but it had become wet when they’d crossed

a stream, and was now illegible.  For hours, the two men wandered over rough and barely-visible

mountain roads, tripping over every rock on the path and every tree limb fallen across it.  As it

grew even colder and darker, they began to panic.  Then, off in the distance, they thought they saw

a tiny point of light.  As they crossed what seemed miles, they could make out what appeared to be

a campfire.  As Craig and Charlie stumbled wearily out of the thick night into the warmth and light

of the campsite, their fellow hunters let out a cheer at their safe arrival. Epiphany is God’s cheer

that we’ve safely arrived; led by the light, to the light!

      How many of us feel like we’re wandering in darkness today, straining to find even a point of

light toward which we might go?  Our darkness may be despair and depression.  Our darkness may

be boredom and malcontent.  Our darkness may be aimlessness and lack of a sense of purpose. 

Our darkness may be illness or disease.  Our darkness may simply be a perceived absence of God. 

Isaiah proclaims the good news:  God’s light has come!  Earlier words from the prophetic book of

Isaiah point to our present reality:  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;

those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined…. For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given.” 

      On this first Sunday of a new year, on this day of Epiphany, on this day when we’re invited to

partake at the Lord’s Table the symbols of loaf and cup which reveal the self-sacrificing love of the

Lord, let us turn and walk – no, run – toward the light.  We need not stumble in darkness, for God

has disclosed a beacon of hope in Christ.  In the depth of our despair, whatever it may be, we may

not be able to penetrate the thick darkness.  So God has done it for us.  In the throes of life’s problems,

we may find ourselves traveling without direction, depending on some life-worn and illegible map. 

So God has a blazing and comforting fire lit for us where we can warm our feet, and lighten our spirits.

  Father Clement of Alexandria stated early in the 1st millennium:  “Christ turns all our sunsets into dawns.” 

And the prophet Isaiah states:  “Arise, shine; for your light has come.” Like the wise men, let our eyes

be greeted by the star, and our ears greeted by God’s cheer, as we

stumble out of the darkness into God’s marvelous light!  Amen.