“Bring Back the Light”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
January 6, 2019
University Baptist Church
It’s a New Year. The tree is still up, but it’s losing its needles and will have to be taken down after the service. The greens will be removed and the ornaments carefully stored away for another year. College students are still enjoying their long-deserved break from school, while primary and secondary students try to focus while they are still in full Christmas let down mode.
Arise and shine says the prophet. The days are getting minutely longer. There is new leadership in the House and yet parts of the government continue to be shut down as both sides dare one another to blink.
One of the promises of the new House is to bring back the light. Not in so many words, but they have promised to expose the alleged corruption of the current administration. Bring back scrutiny. Scrutiny and mutiny sound a lot alike. Some are salivating over that possibility. I was moved by the photos of the record-setting 102 women sworn in this past week, representing a diversity of religious faith and economic backgrounds. I hope they bring back the light.
But the light that Isaiah is talking about is not about short-term political gain. It’s about the long arc of history that bends toward justice. It’s about God’s overarching vision for a people that had endured the worst of exile. It was a promise that God has not left us comfortless.
“Arise and Shine for your light has come,” says Isaiah—even before the people can understand it. You see, Isaiah is writing to the people who had recently returned from exile.
The 60th chapter of Isaiah comes from what is known as third Isaiah. Isaiah, it is generally believed, was written over a 200-year span of history by at least three people.
The first 39 chapters were written before the exile and told the people to shape up or they would be shipped out. They didn’t and they spent fifty years in Babylonian captivity.
The next sixteen chapters were written in the exile to give comfort and hope to the people who had lost their land. The suffering servant prophecies, which look so much like Jesus, came from this part of the book.
The third book of Isaiah comes from the time of restoration, when the people returned to the Holy Land only to find it in a shambles and a shell of its former glory. In the last 11 chapters, Isaiah gives hope and encouragement to this remnant people.
Many of us can identify with being a remnant people. Trusted institutions have failed us. For some of us our very families have failed us. For others physical or mental health have taken their toll, leaving us feeling like a remnant of our former selves. Then there is the volatile stock market, rising global temperatures and the continual anti-immigrant bias. There is a lot that makes us feel like the remnant.
We are back in the Promised Land, in a New Year, but like the Israelites, it still feels like we’re in exile. There is so much to repair, so much to transform. We don’t know how or if we can go on. We are tempted to turn our head to the wall.
The good news from God is that even in the midst of exile, we are not alone. There are others who walk this path with us. When we are in the dark tunnel of our despair, they light a candle and point us toward the light of hope, dawning among us.
Isaiah is very intentional about the metaphors he uses to describe God as he outlines this new day for the Israelite people. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, God’s presence comes along with lightening, earthquakes, thunder, and the obscurity of night. God is seen as a divine warrior who will shape the destiny of the nations because of God’s wrathful anger.
But Isaiah strips away all of the war-like symbols and images of God. All that remains is light: pure, holy, grace-filled, healing, loving light which symbolizes hope and salvation.
When I was in San Francisco, serving a church that had burned down, we had a vision of building a new building that would be a vibrant interfaith center. But how do you decide what religious symbols to put in a building that was to house Muslims, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, and Post-Christian Feminists. About the only thing we could agree on was light. Light was a universal symbol of the Divine spark that we all find holy on some level.
The image harkens back to the exodus where God led the people as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Once again the people will be able to have life and have it abundantly. The people will be freed from all that binds them. And as Isaiah says, the reflection of the light of God in them will cause other nations to be attracted to them.
Isaiah’s vision is about the future, but it’s also about the present. It’s about embracing the possibility that you can imagine a different reality. It’s about bringing back the light.
When we feel like we can’t go on, people come and help us get up and get out of bed. They make us meals. They help us imagine what the future might look like. They don’t tell you, “it’s all right,” when it is decidedly not all right. Instead, they tell you that you don’t face this alone. You don’t have to let the darkness have the last word.
Arise and shine because people have surrounded you with support.
Arise and shine because you are loved.
Arise and shine because God lives in the holy mystery that is our very lives.
The Christmas story, really the Christian story is the kind of story that holds out hope and vision for a better future. Bring back that light. And may it carry you toward a new tomorrow.
I’m reminded of the poem written by Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario over 100 years ago. It was recited by American Baptist Missionaries Joan and Gus Parajon every day as a talisman toward how they wanted to live their lives. I believe it brings us light. Hear it as we enter this New Year:
We've Got to Be Fair - by Ruben Dario
We've got to be fair, we've got to be good,
We've got to be drunk with peace and love
And carry our souls with an easy grace
With hearts naked and clean.
We've got to forget all hatred,
All lies, all meanness;
We've got to hold each other in the fire
Of big holy love, sweet and fraternal.
We've got to fill ourselves up with holy optimism,
Open our arms to those who hurt us,
Embrace all our enemies
In a disarming hug of love and forgiveness.
Forget passions, bitterness and bile.
Be strong, be kind, giving only good for evil;
For this is how good souls get even
By taking the high road!
We've got to be joyful, so said
Paul, the chosen voice;
And walk down every cold path
Wearing the soul of God as our coat.
We've got to remember that we are brothers.
We've got to remember our sweet Pastor
Who, crucified, bleeding and broken,
Begged forgiveness for his executioners.
(New York, 1915)
So, Isaiah lights a candle in the darkness. He says to this forlorn people looking for hope, “arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of God has risen upon you.”
Envision the possibilities which lie ahead.
Look around with the wonder of a child.
Let your creativity flow out of you, painting a tapestry of hope along your path.
What do you hope for in the coming year? What is realistic to expect? How can you help make that happen?
As Karole told us, Anna, the octogenarian prophet proclaimed that eight-day-old Jesus was a reflection of that great light from God. Jesus certainly was that light. If we are true to the prophetic literature, he was another in a long list of lights. Maybe some of that light is in you too. Our work as a church and as a people of faith is to bring back the light, to nurture it, tend it, provide it with kindling and shelter from the wind that might blow it out. For we celebrate the light today and in the days to come. For if we are attentive enough, that light will point us the way toward peace.
Let me close with a saged poem by Anna’s namesake, Ann Keeler Evans, a seminary classmate who works as a Unitarian minister in Pennsylvania:
Ann Keeler Evans©2018
In the deepest, dark MidWinter
When there’s far more Dark than Day
When the snow is brightly gleaming
The children burst outside to play
They ride their sleds down bumpy hills
And weave amongst the trees
They make their angels in the snow
And lose their giggles in the breeze
When it’s time they run back home
As fast as they are able
For now their hands are icy cold
And supper’s on the table
They leave the angels lying there
Quiet, pretty, white
And never stop to turn around
And see those forms take flight
They do not see the patterns
That they weave up in the sky
But the beasts of field and forest
Pay heed as they pass by
They watch them dip and flutter
Across the icy land
They hear the high sweet voices
And the beat of wing and hand
And it is of Peace they whisper
And it is of Peace they shout
And it is Peace they fly for
And they draw the hatred out
These are but lesser angels
That children draw in snow
But they all have angels’ vision
And they know what angels know
It is Peace for which we struggle
And Peace for which we yearn
It is Peace that they must show us
And Peace that we must learn
When supper’s finally over
And the children are abed
The adults make their way outside
And take their turn on sleds
And when we’re done with laughter
Some instinct makes us wait
And trace our own snow angels
Down beyond the gate
We do not see them rising
Would not believe it if we did
We don’t believe in angels
We’re no longer kids
But angels still believe in us
They still invade our sleep
They still sing their songs of Peace
When Winter drifts are deep
And all these soft snow angels
Plant a longing in our souls
To fill ourselves with fresh new dreams
And aim for higher goals
There is so much glorious wonder
Over which angels watch are keeping
We can dream vast dreams of Peace
Even as we lie sleeping
And we can rise the next day
As the Sun makes snow drifts glisten
And begin to see things differently
And begin to really listen
But if you think it’s not your business
If the world stays merry and bright
Then never lay yourself down to draw
Snow angels pretty, quiet, white.
May we help bring back the light. Amen.