Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-18
Happy New Year to all who are here in person and those on the livestream and the KMSP partner broadcast. May God bless us all as we begin this new year.
After her first book “Becoming” became one of the best-selling memoirs of all time, our former First Lady Michelle Obama published her latest book, “The Light We Carry.” She wanted us to think about what we all need to get through turbulent times. And, indisputably, it has been a time where public and private are deeply intertwined. For example: The loss of millions during the pandemic (including more than a million Americans); the corrosive and cumulative effect of George Floyd’s murder; the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6; the explosion of political divisiveness, the ongoing election denial that perpetuates voting oppression, and the reduction of women’s reproductive rights.
In one chapter that she titles “Decoding Fear”, she talks about not ignoring or denying fear but making sure we don’t squander opportunities because of it. In relatable, honest, and genuine ways, Obama talked about the fear we all have in us and fear we all encounter in life. We worry about loss, harm, failure, and loss of control. We are attuned to those dangers and are constantly processing our fears and attempting to sort out actual emergencies from manufactured ones. In facing paralyzing fear, she reminds the readers not to lose hope and personal agency.
In rather comedic ways, she shared about her childhood fear of standing next to a creepy looking turtle in a Christmas play as a four-year-old, and her daughters’ fear of Star War figures such as Chewbacca and Wookies during their first White House Halloween Party. Who here is not afraid of creepy turtles or hairy creatures?
As a Black Woman, Obama speaks honestly about the oppressive racism and patriarchal system that she has had to face all her life. In facing her own internal struggles with external forces, she didn’t want to lose the light in her. The chapter concludes with the now famous story of her conversation with, at the time, Senator Barak Obama. Fear gripped her tightly as they went back and forth with
the decision to run for the presidency. The light in her prevails against the deep fear. The light shines brighter than the shadows. Facing her fear, she turned her no to yes, and well, the rest is history.
As we begin this new year, what new opportunities will we have to share the Christmas hope audaciously?
This morning’s scriptures come to us first from Isaiah 60. From the initial read, we can see the connection between the three gifts of the Magi – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – and the season of Epiphany. Upon closer reading, we can see the embedded hope within the passage. From the context of the Babylonian exile and captivity, Isaiah here offers a transcending vision for Zion.
Cory Driver of the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo describes Isaiah 60 as “intentionally intertextual.” Connecting Isaiah 9:2, “a people walking in darkness have seen a great light” to Isaiah 60, “Arise, shine, for the light has come,” Driver writes, “the people are called to respond to the shining of their light that the light belongs to the people. The people are called to rise up and shine, as a response to God’s glory and their light arriving in their midst. The world has come into darkness. But God is
doing something about it. God called to a downtrodden nation, in the midst of successive foreign rule by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, to arise and let their light shine.”
This light as described in our texts today is irresistible. It has a gravitational pull toward a righteous society. It is not a coercive attraction, but rather, nations take it upon themselves to come of their own volition and initiative because of the magnetic pull of the light shining from God’s people as in v. 3, “Nations shall come to your light, and royals to the brightness of your dawn.”
Then the once humiliated and abused people will receive unexpected gifts as in vs. 4 and 5, where once children were taken into exile, they will return from afar and be carried on the hips of their nursemaids. The intertextual link here is the children who were stolen by the exile and captivity will return. To parents living with this ambiguous grief of not knowing what’s happening to their children in time of war and uncertainty, the light of God gives them this audacious hope.
Next in the Isaiah text, something extraordinary takes place. Did you hear it? Not only there will be restoration
of children to their families, but also reparation of wealth. See in v. 5, “the wealth of the nations shall come to you.” Justice is restored and multiplied. Wrongs being made right, and those who have plundered exchanging positions with those they have plundered causes the righteous to rejoice. This concept of reparation is not just material, but also acknowledgement of the grievous act, and understanding and closure for all parties.
Then the passage goes further to include people who were formerly distant and outside. Midian, Ephah, Sheba, Kedar, and Nebaoith are invited back. These Arab and Afro-Arab tribes were chosen specifically because they were the decendents of Abraham and, not Sarah, Abraham and Hagar, whom Abraham sent away with their son, Ishmael. For generations they were not considered as the people of the covenant with God; now they are.
Having heard the interpretation of Isaiah, we move to Matthew, and it is a tale of two kings, Herod and Jesus.
The infant king born in humble circumstances comes not to take life but to give life; not to wield his power and authority against people, but to live among his people as a
servant (Matthew 20:25-28). The prophecy from Micah quoted by the scribes says that out of the tiny village of Bethlehem shall come a ruler “who is to shepherd my people Israel.” From the hometown of David, the first shepherd-king, comes a shepherd-king who will seek and save the lost (Matthew 18:10-14); who will lay down his life for his sheep. This contrast gives all people hope.
From this story of the birth, we can see hope is indeed audacious, dangerous, and risk taking. It is audacious because we are invited to follow the undeniable love of God in Christ. Nations will be drawn to the light and royals to the brightness of its dawn as Isaiah 60 tells us. The Magi, the Wise Men from the East, were foreigners seeking for the light and came to pay homage to this Christ Child. They took the long and audacious journey to seek for the light because the hope for a better world fueled them. With the light of Christ in us, what audacious hope do we have in us?
Hope is dangerous because those who are threatened by hope and change will defend it with violence. Our passage today tells us that Herod was frightened upon hearing the news of this birth and the whole Jerusalem was frightened with him. At the hand of a tyrant full of fear, the people
suffered with another infanticide. At the hand of a dictator drunk with power of a distorted history for personal legitimacy and security, the people of Ukraine have suffered for nearly ten months. At the hand of the majority in power fearing of the minority, the English-speaking citizens in Cameroon have suffered. White Supremacy and its destructive legacy continue in our nation and the world, and it will fight with violence to maintain its grip and power. The Herod of then, and the Herod of the now have all inflicted suffering on ordinary and innocent people. With the light of Christ in us, how will we confront and overcome this violence?
Hope is risk taking because it, at times, leads us down new paths unknown to us. The Magi didn’t have GPS or Siri or Google or Alexa, (sorry if I activated your phone or in home devices.) They had faith and the brightness of the light to guide them. We here today have the light in us to guide us. Margaret, in her sermon on Christmas Sunday, shared stories of how the Spirit created opportunities for her to experience the light and bear witness to the light. We too can do the same and not miss those opportunities of the Holy Spirit when the Spirit nudges our hearts and our hands to listen, to learn, and to serve beyond our own
agenda. With the light of Christ in us, what new paths will the light lead us in this new year?
No matter what hope may lead us to be, being transformed or renewed, we are assured that shadows will dissipate when the glory of God arises upon us. Just as the prophet Isaiah foretells, God’s radiance will be abundant, thrilling, and celebratory. Justice will be restored, restoration and reparation will take place, and people are invited to return and feast together.
On this Epiphany Sunday, fear has no power over us. Shadows of the past and present will not frighten us. For in this new year, the audacious, dangerous, and risk taking hope will lead us to do the work that God started in the Christ Child.
Our Senior Pastor, Tim, referenced Howard Thurman’s “The Work of Christmas” on his Christmas Eve sermon. Thurman’s words encourage all of us to embody Christmas hope for our neighbors near and far who are still waiting to experience Christmas. On Christmas night, our Associate Pastor for Justice and Mission, Alanna, led a team of volunteers to provide meals for our neighbors. In thanking the volunteers, she shared the poem.
The Work of Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and 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 others,
To make music in the heart.
May we be led by the light to see new vision, to bear each other up, and to participate in God’s work of justice and compassion with audacious hope. May we share the feast together as God’s people as we are about to do this morning.