Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I'm ba-a-a-ck...

Two kind parishioners gently held my feet to the fire and asked me to get off my behind and post sermons again. Here's the sermon from Epiphany Sunday, Jan. 6. Keep your eyes peeled for Jan. 13's sermon next week. I won't be preaching Jan. 20. This sermon is on Isaiah 60:1-6.

Those of you who know a bit about Christians around the world know that in many parts of the world, today is a very special day. Today is Epiphany; and in the earliest days of the church, it was today, January 6, that celebrated the birth of Jesus, not December 25. And even though most churches now celebrate Christmas on December 25, in many churches around the world, today is still a very important day. There are a few scattered churches that still celebrate today as the only celebration of Jesus’ birth, and there are many others where gifts are exchanged today as a sort of capstone to the Christmas season. And in the west, where we celebrate Christmas, Epiphany has come to be about the visit of the Magi, who came from a long distance to see Jesus.

We call today Epiphany. And it is not an accident that we call it by this name. An epiphany is another word for a revelation. We even use this word today in normal conversation. I stared at the crossword puzzle for hours and hours and just couldn’t see it; but then, I don’t know, I just had an epiphany and it all fell into place. When we use the word epiphany, we generally mean something we found out for no good reason, an Aha! moment that just comes to us and we don’t know why or how. All of the sudden, the truth is revealed to us, plain as day, through no effort of our own.

That is why Jesus’ coming is referred to as an epiphany. Through Jesus, the heart of God is revealed to us. Though God was all around us before, though the world we live in was created by him, though we ourselves were created by him, something about God remained inscrutable and far-off. We simply did not know the heart of God. But in Jesus, that heart has been revealed. When we want to see the face of God, we see it in Jesus; when we want to know the heart of God, we need to get to know the heart of Jesus. Jesus is the self-revelation of God, the epiphany of God.

The passage which Jeff just read for you is a passage about an epiphany. Isaiah was writing to people who were at an all-time low. God’s people had been conquered and were scattered all around the known world. It is unclear exactly when this was written. In 701 BC, much of the nation was conquered by the Assyrian Empire, but Jerusalem just barely survived. The people who were conquered were scattered all over the world, many never to return. 115 years later, Jerusalem was again attacked, this time by the Babylonians, and this time the city fell and the whole nation was taken by Babylon. After this conquest, the Babylonians exiled many residents of Jerusalem and forced them to live in the land of Babylon, far away from their home. It’s unclear when exactly this passage was written: was it written to a city just barely hanging on, or was it written to a city that had been conquered which the people remembered in their dreams? Now, either way, it’s not a pretty picture. Either the people were just conquered or just about to be conquered.

Either way, the people were at a real low, so far removed from the height of their power just a couple centuries before. Then, Israel was a powerful kingdom with a powerful ruler, King David, who would live on in legend for centuries to come. No one could have imagined then that this is what would have become of the city.

But Isaiah has an epiphany. Isaiah has a vision, God reveals to Isaiah something that shall be. And Isaiah shares this vision here with us. And we should notice that he is speaking to Jerusalem, that city that was once so fair and beautiful and now had utterly collapsed. And to that city he says, “Arise, shine; for your light has come! And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you!”

We hear this passage all the time, especially at Christmas time. But consider what he is saying: he is going into a burned-out shell of a city and saying, “I see something here that you cannot see! You look around and you see only faded glory, you see only the echo of past beauty. But I see something that God is doing and it’s so profound and so urgent that I need to tell you about it. To this place–to this dark place–God is bringing light. God is bringing his glory! It’s rising on you as sure as the sun in the east.” This is Isaiah’s epiphany, Isaiah’s vision.

And then he goes on and says, “For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Not only will your land be bright, says Isaiah, but it will be so bright that it will attract the rest of the earth. The rest of the earth will be drawn to your brightness as a moth to a flame. And he goes on to talk about the people streaming into Jerusalem: first, he mentions “your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their arms.” So he first mentions the Israelites themselves, who will come back to their home, their rightful home, the men walking and supporting the women during that long walk back from exile. And then he says, “The abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall be brought to you.” By this Isaiah means that even the island kingdoms would come, drawn by the bright light of God’s glory; they would come and bring their goods for trade, and Jerusalem would again be a prosperous trading center for people from all over the world.

Finally, he says, “A multitude of camels shall cover you...” by this he means that the ships will come from the islands, but a caravan of camels would come from Africa and Egypt, bearing their precious gifts to bring to the light as well. All the nations of the world, says Isaiah, will return to you, O Jerusalem, and proclaim the praise of your God, the Lord.

It is a beautiful vision, and it is given to an absolutely hopeless city, the city of Jerusalem. We dare not forget how profound it is that the Bible speaks beautiful visions like this to places we call hopeless. Jerusalem had no earthly reason for hope; it had no military power to speak of, its inhabitants were scattered all over the earth, and it was just a shell of what it used to be. And yet by the power of God, Isaiah looks at this hopeless burned-out husk of a city and says that God has great plans yet for it, that God is not through with it yet.

I wonder if we truly believe in this God. This God looks at places like Coatesville and Philadelphia and New Orleans and Iraq and Pakistan–places the world calls hopeless!–and says, “When I look at you, I do not see the horror that is, I see the potential that exists for you in God’s Spirit.” If we truly believe in this God, then we dare not abandon the places and the people the world calls hopeless, but we love them and serve them and await faithfully the amazing work that God can do in them. If we truly believe in this God, there are no such things as bad neighborhoods and there are no such things as hopeless people; there are people and places that are simply awaiting their Isaiah, someone who will remind them that God has plans for them too! Maybe you are that person this morning and maybe I am your Isaiah.

Another thing which we must notice when we look at this passage is the way in which Isaiah talks in the past, the present and the future tenses, almost all at once. Sometimes, he talks as if the vision has already happened; he says, “Your light has come; the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Sometimes, he talks as if the vision is taking place right now, before his eyes: “Look around, they all gather together, they come to you;...” And sometimes he talks as if this is all in the future: “But the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” I think what is happening here is that Isaiah is seeing a vision that transcends time; he is seeing something that is almost going on outside of time. And he is so excited when he is telling us about it that he mixes up the vision he has seen with reality, and so he feels as if it has already happened, when in reality the fulfillment of the vision is some years away.

In fact, most Christians read this passage today and believe that it took hundreds of years to fulfill this vision. That’s because Christians understand this passage to be about Jesus. He was the glory of the Lord made human and living in Jerusalem. He was the one whom the wise men came to see, bearing their gold and frankincense and myrrh (did you notice that in the text?). He was the one who people came from all over the world to see. And He was the one who stretched out his arms wide enough to embrace the whole world, even nations which were still unknown then, and die on a cross for the sin of all. And Isaiah is writing this vision bare minimum 550 years before he even comes to earth. 550 long years before the vision was to be fulfilled.

All this is to say that epiphanies aren’t usually fulfilled on our timetables. In rare moments, like Isaiah, we might get a glimpse of what God is doing in the world. We might get a glimpse of things the way they should be, the way things will be in that great day of the Lord when Christ returns. Yet we are given no assurances that things will be that way in our lifetimes. Think of it: at least 25 generations came and went between the time Isaiah saw his vision and the time the vision was fulfilled. At least 25 generations of children and mothers and fathers lived and died wondering when the vision would be realized.

Maybe you are in a Jerusalem-type place this morning that seems hopeless. Maybe you are facing financial difficulties, or job difficulties, or problems in your marriage, or other sorts of issues that just seem hopeless. And so you cry out to God for things to be made right. Help, God! Get my boss off my back, or help me to make the extra money I need to make ends meet, or change my heart and my husband’s heart so that we can be more happily married! Help! And we wait and we wait and we wait, and maybe it seems that we wait 25 generations too, for God to help us. And indeed, there is no assurance that we will actually get what we have been praying for; there is no assurance that there will be a neat and tidy solution to our problems.

Well, we may ask, what’s the point then? Why do we pray if we may or may not get it? Why see a vision of what should be if we might not get that vision fulfilled? But maybe we could learn something from those 25 generations that lived and died between Isaiah and Jesus. Those 25 generations, even as they lived in that burned-out shell of Jerusalem, or sat in exile, those 25 generations kept hope alive. They kept alive the deep and ancient hope that God had a plan if we will just faithfully await it. Parents kept that hope alive for their children who kept that hope alive for their children who kept that hope alive for their children so that one day, far down the road, when God came there were still faithful people waiting for him.

Maybe getting our problems solved isn’t the point of life at all. It certainly isn’t the point of Christianity, nor is it the point of an epiphany. We are not Christians because we want to have neat and tidy lives where everything works out. If that’s what you want, you’d better try another religion. Ask the apostles, ask the martyrs. We aren’t Christians because it’s easy. We are Christians because we believe that God has a plan for this world–even when it seems impossible. And because we are Christians, we keep hope alive. We keep telling people what God has done in our lives so that they know that God isn’t dead, that God isn’t through with us yet. As Christians, we see the world as it should be, and even though it is not that way now, we do not despair, but we keep hope alive, that even though it may come after our body has returned to the earth, God will come and set things right again, and things will be as they should be. God rarely works on our timetable, and so we must keep hope alive for those who come after us.

Finally, when I look at this passage, I also see that the vision was fulfilled in a way that no one expected. When Isaiah has his epiphany about the nations streaming into Jerusalem, he naturally envisions it in a way that speaks to Jerusalem being a political and financial power again. Riches will stream in from all over the world, the exotic islands bringing their spices and shells, the mysterious kingdoms of the south bringing their camels north, dripping jewels, to trade for your goods. And so the Jews right up until Jesus’ day awaited someone who would bring the Kingdom back in that way, a wise political and financial ruler who would bring them back to prominence, make them a real player in the world again. But this is not how the vision was fulfilled; the vision was fulfilled by a little boy in a manger; the vision was fulfilled by a young boy playing when the Magi from the east come bearing their gold and frankincense; the nations were indeed drawn by the light of God’s glory, but who ever thought God’s glory would come in that way at that time? Nobody.

If we want our lives to become what God has for them to be, we need to prepare for similar surprises. Often, we are pretty sure of what we need. We need a wrinkle-free face, a few more dollars in the bank account, an advanced degree, a more compliant spouse, and a slightly bigger home. These are common American dreams. We should not be surprised, though, if we turn our lives over to God, if God decides we need different things. God might just decide that our lives really need a dose of humility or discipline (at least those are two things God is constantly suggesting I need). God might see our lives differently than we see them, and if we are to pursue God’s vision for our lives, we might just not be pursuing the things the rest of the world pursues. A God who would restore a city through the birth of a child, a God who would heal the world by sending a baby, a God who would conquer death through death–this God realizes his visions in different ways than you or I might. It is this God, this wild, difficult-to-understand God, who we are called on to follow.

What does God want to do in your life this year, in 2008? God does have a vision for your life, you know; there is an epiphany available to you, even if you are at your most hopeless. But remember, it is his vision and not our own; it will be fulfilled in his time and in his way. It is our job simply to follow in faith.