Arise & Move Beyond
Text: Isaiah 60:1
“Arise, Shine, for your light has come……”
This is Epiphany Sunday, the day we traditionally recognize the coming of the magi or the wise men to the nativity. As the tradition reads, the wise men followed a star and the star-metaphorically representing light-came to rest over the place where Jesus had been born. There are some scholars who believe the wise men didn’t find the baby Jesus until he was almost three years old-we’re not really sure when the wise men appeared on the scene-just that they appeared sometime after the birth of Jesus. In other words they we were late.
I kind of like the story that says you will notice we are talking here about wise men and not wise women – there is at least one school of thought that thinks the wise men wouldn’t have been late if they had stopped to ask for directions…..I guess a star isn’t quite enough to get you to the event on time.
All that being said, it is still Epiphany Sunday and we are recognizing that today. The word ‘epiphany’ actually means to shine upon, or some translate the word to mean ‘enlighten’ or perhaps what some people call having an ‘ah-ha’ experience. I have always considered the word to define an encounter with God; because when you experience an immediate clarity of thought, or you understand something more deeply, I believe you have encountered God at that moment. So an epiphany, for me, can also be defined as an experience ‘to meet God’ or to have a Divine encounter of some type.
These encounters don’t have to be huge events or be recorded in ancient history or involve a star or travels from a distant country. The Divine encounters can happen on a daily basis and be very simple, yet very elegant. I would say that most of my sermons involve an epiphany of some kind; I experience a new understanding or a new perspective on a familiar text, or I experience a new way of thinking about something familiar. An epiphany can be many things to many people.
I wanted to tell you about my epiphany with regard to the scripture text we read just minute ago; ‘arise, shine, for your light has come.’ This text is part of the Lectionary reading for this time of year and as such, most of us have heard this scripture many times. It is a favorite text for this particular Sunday, even if the lectionary year we happen to be on doesn’t include it in the regular readings, we may still be likely to hear it. A text that is so familiar can often be challenging in the sense that to really find something new to say can be difficult. Many of you have been coming to church for decades and have heard perhaps 30 or even 40 epiphany sermons; what can I possibly say that you have not heard before? What new understanding can I offer? What new direction or challenge can I provide for you? These are some of the questions I ask myself when I begin to think about a sermon. I often challenge myself to not only tell you something new, but to also have you experience something new; I think church should be an experience that involves more senses than just hearing.
So, I am thinking about the text-often I try to meditate on a thought or a text-and I begin to develop an understanding of this text in a way I had never thought of before. I’m sure someone has, but it was a new thought for me. As I began to think about the text, it occurred to me that there are two distinct actions, or calls to action, in this text. The first call to action is the word ‘arise’ and the second call to action is the word ‘shine’. I think we often overlook this as we read the text; we are to do two different things; first we are to arise, and secondly, we are to shine.
Let’s look first at this idea of what it could mean to arise. The first thought that jumps into my head is an image of someone getting up out of a chair. Another image is of a hot air balloon – it of course rises or moves upward. What gets left unsaid with these images, or even the definitions in the dictionary if you would happen to look the word up, is in almost every case, when a person or an object arises, it also leaves something behind. When we arise, we move toward something, but we also move away from something. When we get up out of the chair or off the couch, we are leaving the couch or the chair behind. When the balloon arises, it is leaving the earth behind. We cannot arise and take where we have been with us. Let me say that again; we cannot arise and take where we have been with us. It is impossible for us to do. We cannot arise without leaving something behind.
The first call to action in our scripture is to arise; now somehow I don’t think the call to action here is for us to get up out of a chair. That might be a place to start, but I believe the metaphor here goes well beyond just getting up. I happen to think the metaphor could also mean that we need to leave some things behind. We need to let the past be past and arise into the future. I think this idea of moving away from something as we arise is just as important as the idea that we are also moving toward something. The moving away, the letting go, the passing away of old hang-ups can be very therapeutic, but I also think it may be absolutely necessary. In other words, the action of arising must involve the letting go of the past or the willingness to leave a way of thinking or a way of being. To arise is to embrace a whole new way of living and being and thinking in the world. To arise in a sense is to experience re-creation, resurrection and re-birth. All of this is wrapped up in that simple, tiny word; arise.
At this point I wanted to give you another scripture to reinforce what I have been saying; this one is found in Second Corinthians, chapter 5, verse 17: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!”
I believe this scripture mirrors the idea of ‘arise.’ Because when we arise to follow Jesus, we leave old things behind, and all things become new. The leaving behind is an important part of this process; the letting go of what holds us is mandatory if we are to move forward. We looked at this text last week as we talked about transformation and I think that transformation and the action implied in the word “arise” or very close to each other. One could say that to arise is to begin the transformative process.
The second half of the equation is, after we arise, we are called to shine. We have been told to let our lights shine ever since we were old enough to learn the words to “This Little Light of Mine.” But as is often the case, it can be difficult to put legs under the metaphor – what exactly does it mean to shine?
There was a great African American theologian, professor, author and civil rights activist named Howard Thurman; you may have heard of him. I believe he died in the early 1980’s after a life dedicated to service to humanity. He wrote a poem about the days after Christmas, where we find ourselves today, the name of that poem is “The Work of Christmas” and I would like to share it with you now.
The Work of Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
— Howard Thurman
I’m not sure I have ever encountered a better definition of what it means to shine than this one.
Christmas is over, it is a brand new year, leave the things that hold you behind, let them dissolve before your eyes, and then arise, shine, be about the work of Christmas and let your light shine, for your Light has come.
I believe that far too often our definition of being a Christian or of Christianity in general is about a checklist of beliefs or behaviors that try to limit and control rather than to experience true transformation. This poem, “The work of Christmas” I think gives us a more realistic image of what Christianity should be and what the person who calls himself or herself a Christian should be concerned with. It isn’t about dogma or belief systems or acting in a certain way; it is simply caring for the other, caring for the less fortunate and restoring hope for those who have lost all hope.
That is what it means to shine. I think personal transformation is to shine, and helping others is to shine, but before any of that is possible, we must first “arise”.
So as we begin our New Year with the first communion of 2018, let me invite you to “arise” and as you do, begin to think about all the things in the past you would like to leave behind. As you leave your chair, think of that chair metaphorically representing everything you don’t want to take with you into 2018. Pile it up on the chair. See it there. While you’re gone, it will get cleaned off.
As you receive the elements of communion, may you think to yourself that this is the beginning of your season to shine. This is where it starts, this is the first step. “I will shine from now on” you might think to yourself as you receive the elements. So, “Arise, Shine”, and receive the elements. Amen.