05 January 2015

Sermon – “Arise, Shine” (Isaiah 60:1-9)

I don’t consider myself a film buff, but I do enjoy a good movie once in a while. One movie I didn’t bother to go and see in 2014, however, was Left Behind. Apparently my choice was a wise one. In addition to the theology that it represented, which has no warrant in Scripture, I understand that the film did not have a single redeeming feature. Here is what I read in some of the moviegoers’ reviews:
I simply don’t know where to start. This is—without doubt—the worst pile of steaming garbage I’ve sat through…
This movie was simply AWFUL. Really, really bad. And to those who are going to argue that the reason why this movie is rated so low is because people are becoming “anti-Christian”, NO. The acting was terrible, the script was horrendous, seriously. A group of high school kids in drama club could do better. It was deathly boring, I thought I was in there for more than three hours.
Shockingly horrible movie. I can’t imagine anybody being able to sit through it except for morbid curiosity… Save yourself an hour and 40 minutes of pain and cringing (or however long you can tolerate this train wreck of a production). Buy this movie and save it as a punishment for your grounded kids…
If anything, this movie can bring atheists and Christians together holding hands to stand firm against piles of schlock like this.
Ladies and gentlemen, this … may be the worst movie, not just this year… I mean the worst movie of all time.
I didn’t come here this morning to dis a movie. But its title, Left Behind, does provide me with something of a hook on which to hang my sermon. I believe that Isaiah’s words from which we read a few moments ago were addressed to a people who had been left behind.

A scene of destruction

After years of surviving as a puppet kingdom, in the summer of 587 BC the walls of Jerusalem finally fell to King Nebuchadnezzar and the invading armies of the Babylonians. But that fall occurred only after Jerusalem had been under siege for eighteen months. During that time unimaginable atrocities occurred among a people driven beyond the point of desperation. Here is Jeremiah’s description of what conditions were like:
The chastisement of my people has been greater
than the punishment of Sodom,
which was overthrown in a moment,
though no hand was laid on it…
Happier were those pierced by the sword
than those pierced by hunger,
whose life drains away, deprived of the produce of the field.
The hands of compassionate women
have boiled their own children;
they became their food
in the destruction of my people.
The Lord gave full vent to his wrath;
he poured out his hot anger,
and kindled a fire in Zion
that consumed its foundations. (Lamentations 4:6,9-11)
It seemed impossible that things could become worse. But they did. When the walls were breached, the people of Jerusalem, already reduced to animal behavior, were met with the full brutality of the armies of Babylon. Here again is how Jeremiah describes it:
Women are raped in Zion,
virgins in the towns of Judah.
Princes are hung up by their hands;
no respect is shown to the elders.
Young men are compelled to grind,
and boys stagger under loads of wood. (Lamentations 5:11-13)
In the end, most of those who survived the onslaught were led away in captivity to Babylon. Jerusalem had been reduced to a heap of charred stones, its empty streets inhabited by jackals. Only a tiny remnant of the people remained to tend the farmlands. Poor beyond imagining, desolate and forsaken, it was to these people that Isaiah’s words were addressed:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 

A vision of hope

The words seem impossibly optimistic. But before we write Isaiah off, let us take a moment to examine them more closely. What we see in this passage is a complete reversal of circumstances for the people of Jerusalem. Isaiah is writing to a people whose backs have been bowed low by the yoke of humiliation and subservience. When people have been beaten down in that kind of way, when they have been robbed of all hope and any sense of self-worth, their eyes tend to bend downward. Indeed they dare not look upwards for fear that some further catastrophe may befall them. But Isaiah calls upon them to do exactly that—and what do they see?
Instead of darkness, their eyes are met with light. To be sure, there is darkness. But it is not the darkness of the toppled walls of Jerusalem or the sooty ruins of its Temple. No, now the darkness hovers over all the earth, with Jerusalem being the one exception. And instead of people fleeing to get away or being led off into captivity, we find that whole nations, their rulers included, are being drawn into its light.
Apparently those opening words are not enough to draw Isaiah’s listeners out of their gloom. And so he calls upon them once again: “Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you.” Leading this vast procession are the people of Jerusalem itself. No longer a ragtag collection of defeated captives, their shoulders hunched over in despair, their bodies wasted through starvation, now they are robust, their eyes gleaming with joy, their stride confident and sure. As they look on, their mouths gaping in amazement, the dullness disappears from their eyes and is replaced with vigor once again. The cobwebs of gloom that had enshrouded their hearts are swept away as a new warmth begins to glow from them. The word Isaiah uses here is found in only one other place in the Old Testament, in Psalm 34:5, where David bids us “look to [the Lord], and be radiant”. The idea is that of witnessing the first rays of the sun as they peer over the horizon at early dawn, bringing with them all the promise of a new day.
But look: It is not only the people of Jerusalem who are coming, but people from all nations far and wide, from Midian and Ephah across the Gulf of Aqaba, from Sheba at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, from Kedar and Nebaioth to the east, and all the way from Tarshish in southern Spain. It was not only people who would stream into the holy city, but they would bring all their wealth with them, to offer in homage and praise to the Lord.
Those with a keen ear will have noticed that among the tribute that pours in are gold and frankincense, two of the three gifts brought to the infant Jesus by those strange visitors who had seen his star in the east. And that may just be enough of a hint to help us realize that what Isaiah was speaking about was not a political promise or a military victory, but something infinitely greater: the breaking of God’s final rule into creation. As we read in the opening chapter of the Gospel of John, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

A word for today

Well, what does all of this have to say to us today?
I suspect that there are some of us who look back on the old year, or even the whole of their past lives, in much the same way that the people of Isaiah’s time looked on their beloved city of Jerusalem, and all we see is a heap of ruins. Our lives are littered with unfulfilled dreams, lost opportunities, damaged relationships. Yet even in the midst of the wreckage, God graciously invites us to look up.
As we look up, what do we see? First of all and most importantly, that God has not forgotten us, indeed that we are the objects of his love. In spite of our failures, in spite of our outright sin, he loves us with a burning, undying love—a love from which nothing in creation, no tragedy, no failure, can separate us, a love that brought his only Son to the cross. It was there, mysteriously and miraculously, that the Son of God absorbed all the pain and darkness, all the sin and evil of the world into himself. Such is the love that God has for you and for me.
The second thing to realize is that it is in our moments of pain that God’s light very often most clearly shines. As the apostle Paul was about to close his second letter to the Christian congregation in Corinth, he shared with them some of his own personal pain. Through it the Lord had told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” “So,” wrote Paul, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9,10). I am not suggesting that we seek out suffering. Yet I do believe that God is able to use our pain and even our wrongdoing, indeed to redeem it, in such a way that his glory is revealed.
A case in point is another movie that came out this past year, but this time it is one that I fully intend to go and see. It is showing in theaters now and it is entitled Unbroken. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, who competed in the 5000 meter run in the 1936 Olympics and may easily have become the first man to break the four-minute mile had World War 2 not intervened. In 1943 his bomber plane was shot down over the Pacific. In spite of the blistering heat of the sun and very little water or rations as well as being strafed by a Japanese bomber, he and another crew member were able to survive a grueling forty-seven days afloat in their leaky life raft.
That alone would have made an epic tale of suffering. However they were “rescued” (if that is the correct word) by a Japanese naval ship and transferred to a series of prisoner-of-war camps, where for two years they were subjected to some of the most cruel and brutal treatment imaginable. Receiving a hero’s welcome on his return home, Zamperini found himself haunted by nightmares of his war experience and his desire for revenge and began drinking heavily. As his life whirled into a downward spiral, it was through his wife’s encouragement that he attended a Billy Graham crusade and there committed his life to Christ. Immediately he found that his dependence on alcohol ceased, his nightmares vanished, and eventually he was even able to forgive his captors for the unspeakable cruelty to which they had subjected him. In all it is a remarkable story of God’s power to bring light out of darkness, glory out of suffering.
As we emerge into this new year of 2015, amid all the ups and downs may we find in it the opportunity to discover more deeply the love that God has for us in Christ and his power to redeem and restore. And may we take Isaiah’s words to heart and find them fulfilled in our own lives.
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

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