January 7, 2018

Preached by Rev. George Yando on January 7, 2018.

Isaiah 60: 1-6
Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3: 1-12
Matthew 2: 1-12

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Drawn To The Light

“Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” These words from the book of Isaiah were first written to those Israelites who had been exiled in Babylon had returned to begin the difficult task of rebuilding their country, their capital city Jerusalem and their beloved Temple.  But the great and glorious expectations of reconstruction and reformation hadn’t quite unfolding the way they had hoped.  Instead, the people were overwhelmed by the immensity of the task.  They were out of money and running low on energy.  The economy was in ruins.  The task of rebuilding the city and Temple was staggering.  V. 2 of the reading captures their feelings quite well: thick darkness covers the people.  They are tired, weary, emotionally spent.  They have no energy left for much of anything, let alone rebuilding a country.

I can’t help but wonder, when I read those lines from Isaiah 60, if the people didn’t just get up and leave the first time they heard them spoken or read.  Why would they bothered to stay?  The words are a promise that God is going to be manifest, that is, seen, in the very context of their lives in that day.

Can’t you hear the people wondering out loud, “Yeah, right.  Is this guy nuts?  Does he really expect us to believe that God is going to be made real in the midst of this mess?”  Isn’t it funny how sometimes the people who are most surprised by God’s presence are the ones who are the most faithful in the practice of their beliefs?

There’s a story from the Old West – and I’m assuming that the Old “American” West – where in a small frontier town, a saloon that was being built right next to the church.  The congregation was very upset.  They prayed all through the planning and building of the tavern that God would intervene and do something.  Well, the day before the grand opening of the new saloon, a lightning bolt struck it and burned it to the ground.  The church people rejoiced.  The saloon owner sued!  He argued that the calamity that had befallen his new business must have been an act of God; moreover, it was one that had been precipitated by the prayers of the church people, and therefore, they owed him damages.  The congregation’s leaders vehemently denied the claim.  The matter went to court and after arguments were presented the judge said, “Well, I don’t know how I’m going to rule on this one, but this appears to be the situation: the saloon owner believes in the power of prayer, and these church folk don’t.”

Now you might laugh at the story, but there’s more than a little truth in it.  If seems that the people who have the hardest time believing in the presence of God are the very people who would proclaim to the world that God desires to be made known in the lives of human beings.

I recall reading a story about a woman in Northern California who had asked her church to pray for her.  She had very painful arthritis in her hands.  She wanted it to get better.  It was so bad that she had been forced to retire early because the pain was so debilitating.

One day, several months after taking retirement, she woke up with no pain.  A week went by, and still, no pain.  She went to see her doctor.  The doctor could find no evidence of her former condition.  She wondered if she had been healed.  She wondered if her prayers had been answered.  The only explanation she could come up with was the unbelievable one: she had been healed.

The next Sunday she arrived at church for worship bubbling over with excitement about her healing.  She wanted to tell everyone.  She told the first friend she saw, “My arthritis is gone!  I’ve been healed.”  The response from her friend was less than enthusiastic: “Oh, really?  It sounds to me like your medication finally began to pay off.”  She told another person.  He responded by saying, “It’ll return.  Just wait.  It always does.”  She told a few more people, but most of them just smiled and said, “Oh, really.  That’s nice.”  By the end of the worship service she was completely deflated and went home deeply saddened.

The lesson here seems to be that we need to be careful about sharing our spiritual highs and miracles with our church friends and neighbours.  Someone’s faith and common sense just might be challenged and they won’t like it!

Yet in spite of that bitter reality the prophet speaking in this morning’s text doesn’t seem like he’s going to be put off by nay-sayers.  He speaks a bold word in the midst of a depressing situation.  He proclaims to these people who are overwhelmed by the task of rebuilding a nation that they will be the very ones through whom the light of God will shine.  The nations of the world (and that means everybody) will see God through them.  The dawn of God’s new day is about to break out upon the darkness of their discouragement.

The prophet says, “Look around because you are about to be overwhelmed by the amazing presence of God.  Not only will all of your relatives be returning, but the wealth of all the nations will find its way to Israel, too.”   The prophet is exaggerating here, but good preachers know when to do that.  Sometimes, in order to make a point, the preacher needs to engage in a little hyperbole in order to get people’s attention.  The prophet wants them to know that here and now, through these very people, God is beginning the work of reconciling the world.

A friend of mine whose name was John died quite a number of years ago from cancer.  He was only fifty, about ten years older than I was at the time.  I met him just a few months before he passed away.  He called up for an appointment, came into my office and said, “I’ve got cancer.  They told me I’ve got maybe six months, a year at the outside.  I’ve been away from the church since I was eighteen, but I want to come back.  I won’t pretend like this was something I had thought about before I was diagnosed with cancer.  But when I was told about the diagnosis, I didn’t know where else to turn.  I also need to tell you that I’m mad as hell at God for giving me this cancer.  And if that offends you, please just say so, and I’ll leave right now.”

He and I had some amazing conversations over the next few weeks.  Gradually he spoke less and less about his anger and became more open to the idea of a merciful God.

You see, John had been a salesman most of his adult life.  For the first few years he drifted from one sleazy enterprise to the next before he finally found his niche.  He began work for a company that you’ve no doubt heard about.  I won’t mention the name, except to say that they promote a line of products through a pyramid-like network of distributors.  John was really smooth.  He had risen high in the company for which he worked and had achieved considerable financial success, but he wasn’t especially proud of the accomplishment or of how he had managed it.  John had very low self-esteem and was burdened by a good deal of guilt and remorse.  As I mentioned, we talked a number of times over the passing weeks, and as we talked the conversation shifted away from his anger and toward the idea of a merciful God.  John was really intrigued by the notion of grace.  He had real difficulty wrapping his mind around the possibility that God could really be so forgiving.

Eventually, after a number of conversations he called me and told me he was ready to join the church.  He said, “I’m as ready now to make this decision as I ever will be.”  Then he laughed and said, “Mind you, I’d worry about a church that would accept me as a member.”  I remember saying in reply, “John, I’d worry about a church that wouldn’t.”

The next day John was rushed to hospital and into the Intensive Care Unit.  His body was failing fast.  I went to see him.  After I got there he said to me, “I don’t think I’m going to make it to church on Sunday.”  He began to cry.  I knew that making an affirmation of faith and formally joining the church had become very important to him.   I asked him, “John, do you still want to join the church?”   He nodded and said, “Yes,” and through the tears asked, “But how?”  I said, “We’ll do it right here, right now.  Give me your hand.  All that’s really needed is a simple confession of faith.”

“John, do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God?”  His eyes closed for a moment, then he looked me directly in the eye and said in a clear voice, “Yes.”  I led him through a short, simple prayer asking God for forgiveness and accepting Christ as Saviour and Lord.

John died later that night and three days later, at his funeral, we celebrated his life in the sanctuary of the church where he had become a member while in the intensive care unit of the hospital.

I tell you this story because I witnessed in the face of death’s darkest and most despicable work, the light of God.  I saw in this man, this one who had wandered so far, far away from the church, a bright and brilliant representation of the very spirit of God.

That’s the promise of the prophet this morning.  That’s the promise of God each and every day.  There is no situation so dark, so depressing, where the light of God cannot be found.

Do you want to know something even more amazing?  God brilliant new dawn, God’s healing and restoration, are available for all people.  No matter where you’ve been, no matter what you have or have not been doing, there is nothing that can separate you from the love of God.  There are no barriers.  Everyone is invited.

In response to all the Johns of the world who might worry about a church that would accept them as members, the good news is that they need only worry about a church that wouldn’t.  All nations will be drawn to the light says the prophet.  There are no barriers.  Everyone is invited.

We don’t have to look very far to see what this new community of faith will look like.  Just open your Bible.  Read about Matthew’s church: the pews in his church are filled with the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Look at Luke’s church; his church looks like a hospital.  He lists the poor, the blind, the diseased, the lame.  Paul’s church is really cosmopolitan: he preaches that Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, male and female, wise and foolish, all are one in Christ.  In Luke’s account of the Acts of the Apostles, we witness the baptism of Jews, Samaritans, Roman soldiers, a business woman, an African eunuch, slaves, gypsies, politicians, and a long list of nameless folk from Jerusalem to Corinth, from Jericho to Rome.

Maybe that’s too easy, a little too abstract.  Let’s make it more personal.  Think of the person you could never imagine sitting next in church.  According to the prophet, he’s invited.  Think about the person you never, ever want to see again, let alone sit next to in a pew.  She’s invited too.  Think of the people with whom you would never associate socially, except passing in the streets, people about whom you would shudder just thinking about having to deal with them.  They’re included too.

I’m reminded of a little song that most every kid who has ever been in Sunday School has learned: This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”   But that’s the easy part.  The real work of God begins when you and everyone else (and everyone really means everyone) joins together to let our lights so shine that all of the world will move through the darkness to stand together in the brilliant light of God’s amazing love.

It could happen. It will happen.  It is happening.  Epiphany is about God’s eternal light coming into the world, shining into its darkest places, dispelling the gloom and hopelessness with a glory and a hope that can never be extinguished. Thanks be to God.  Amen.