Sunday, January 3, 2010

Light in the darkness

Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

I grew up in the extreme southern suburbs of Chicago. Each year, my class took field trips to different places in Chicago: Lincoln Park Zoo, the Field Museum of Natural History, the Shedd Aquarium, the Museum of Science and Industry.
One of the highlights of the Museum of Science and Industry – never called MOSI, as it is in Tampa – is the coal mine. Visitors to the museum have the opportunity to ride in an elevator down a shaft to see how coal is mined. The tour guides always allow visitors to experience the deep darkness of being far from any natural or manufactured light. It is really dark there, darker than being outside at night. And so, because of the total darkness, the light of a single light seems extremely bright when the tour guide turns it back on.

After the darkness of conquest by the Babylonians in 587 BCE, and almost 70 years of exile more than a thousand miles from home, the Jews found light in the return to Jerusalem. Isaiah’s words today reflect the hope of the people as they resettled in their homeland. And for a short time, all was well. The light did shine on the Jewish people.
But it did not last. Jerusalem and Judah was conquered by the Greeks, and then by the time Jesus was born, the Romans were in charge. People did what Caesar – communicated through local governors – wanted.  King Herod ruled by permission of Caesar – although many Jews believed he was not the rightful king. It was a time of darkness for the Jewish people. Into this darkness, Jesus was born.
It seemed to be an unimportant birth – a baby born to an unimportant family in an unimportant town. In Luke’s version of the birth, angels spoke to shepherds, sending them to go and see the baby and celebrate the good news he brought. The light of God’s glory shone around the angels as they spoke.
By contrast, Matthew’s version has no shepherds, but it does have the response some foreigners who claimed to have seen a star. Scholars have struggled to explain who these foreigners were. The Greek text says “magoi” which comes into Latin, then English as “magi.” They have been called kings, wise men, sages, wizards, magicians, astronomers, and astrologers. The details of exactly who they were, and how many there were, is a mystery. Western tradition says there were three people. Eastern tradition holds that there were twelve people. Perhaps they came from Babylon (later called Persia) – where the Jews had once lived; perhaps they came from somewhere else. What matters is that they came.
These magi had noticed a star, and decided to follow it. Scientists have tried to explain the star – a convergence of three stars is the most common thought lately. But how would one follow such a star? Let’s allow God some more mystery, and say that the star was a miracle, and the magi wisely followed it to find Jesus. What matters is that they followed the light.
They recognized God’s doing in the appearance and leading of the star, and were prepared to honor the child born to be king of the Jews. So they brought gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Strange gifts for an unimportant baby.
The shepherds and the magi noticed the light of God’s glory and allowed it to change their lives.
Perhaps it’s just that simple for us, too. When we see God’s light, we should pay attention, and follow it. We may not even know we are living in darkness, but God knows. King Herod certainly thought he was living in the light, but we know he was living in the darkness. Our Gospel passage stops before the sad news of his order to kill all infants in Bethlehem under two years of age. He wanted no other claims to his throne.

When we find ourselves in a dark tunnel, we look for the light at the end to guide our steps and get us safely into the light again.
·        In the darkness of serious illness, we look for the light of healing.
·        In the midst of the darkness of grief, we look for the light of acceptance and healing.
·        In the darkness of unemployment, we look for the light of work.
·        In the darkness of depression, we look for the light of hope in a better future.
·        In the darkness of a crisis of faith, we look for the light of God’s promises to be with us always.

If you know you are in a dark place right now, seek out someone who has light.

·        If you are ill, you may find light in knowing you are getting the best possible care, and that others suffer with you. I remember Volena saying she got so much encouragement from others enduring chemo at the same time. And we have been encouraged by her positive attitude.
·        If you are grieving, tell the stories you need to tell, and spend time with others who are grieving as well as those who are not. I remember Helga telling her son-in-law that he should go to the grief support class.
·        If you are unemployed, never give up looking for work. Take a positive attitude with you wherever you go. In the meantime, fill your time with meaningful volunteer work. It could be for a place where you hope some day to get a job, or for somewhere else, like Hope, a school, a library, or an organization like Habitat for Humanity. Having something meaningful to do gives us a sense of purpose, and helping others fills our hearts with love and light.
·        If you are in the darkness of depression, first, seek medical care if your depression is more than occasional. If your depression is occasional, look for people who need help, and volunteer. There are plenty of volunteer opportunities here at Hope. Help with Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. Staff the pick-up day for Angel Food Ministries. Be with the folks at the Hope booth in Dunnellon on the first Saturday of every month and talk with the folks who pass by. Help out with one of the Scout troops that meet in Luther Hall – those young people are an  inspiration to us all as they work for their badges and learn leadership skills. In all of those places, I have seen light and love and joy.
·        If you are having a faith crisis, look first to Jesus, who brings light into the world in so many ways. Jesus reminds us that faith does not come from inside us. Rather, it is put into our hearts by God – by the Holy Spirit who whispers our prayers when we aren’t able to pray.
o       There is an old story. Younger folks may need to know this: Most cars these days have separate front seats for each person, but in the old days, the front seat was almost always a bench seat, like the back seat.
o       So, here’s the story: When a John and Jane first began dating, John drove, and Jane sat as close as possible to him. As time went on, after marriage and a couple of children, Jane’s normal place in the car was near the passenger window. One day, Jane said to John, “Why is it that we don’t seem as close as we used to?” John replied, “Well, I haven’t moved.”
o       Sometimes, it seems to us in a faith crisis that God is absent, or not as close as God once was. But God can rightly say, “Well, I haven’t moved.” So, when we are having a crisis of faith, we can look to see how we have moved away from God’s light. We can check to see what is different now from what we used to do, to have a relationship with God.

You may be a person who is not living in the darkness at the moment. If so, look for light shining within and through you, so you can be the light for someone who is experiencing darkness. Share with them some of your own light, some of God's light, so they can see their way out, and into the light.

Jesus brought light into a dark world. Sometimes, we need to be reminded of Jesus’ light. And sometimes, we can be Jesus’ light in someone else’s life, reminding them that Jesus came to fulfill God’s purposes, filling the world with light and life.
Your challenge for the next week is to watch for ways in which God has shed light into your life, and to share some of that light with someone living in darkness.

Please pray with me: God of light and life, we thank you for being present with us always. Help us to follow your light wherever it leads us, and to share your light with those who seek it. Amen