Sunday’s sermon: Look Around

star of bethlehem

Texts used – Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

  • Yesterday, Peter and I took our kids to the Children’s Theater up in Minneapolis. As our Christmas gift, Peter’s mom gave us tickets to “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and yesterday was the big day.
    • Tickets ended up on the main floor basically in the middle – seats 14-17 in a row of nearly 50 seats
    • Most of the row was empty except the seats right next to us → family with 2 parents and 2 young boys
    • During the intermission, the family next to us got up and moved around like pretty much everyone else, and they were just starting to come back as the house lights went down for the 2nd half of the performance. So there they were, trying to get back to their seats in the awkward way that you have to walk when you’re trying to get to seats in the middle of a row … and it’s suddenly pitch black. The performance hadn’t quite resumed yet. The stage lights hadn’t come up yet. It was just plain dark – so dark I couldn’t even see Luke sitting next to me.
      • What did the mom do? Took out her phone and used the flashlight feature (that’s built into pretty much every smartphone nowadays) to easily see their way back to their seats → sat down just in time as Whos down in Whoville came out for the 2nd half of the performance
  • As they sat down, I could see on that mom’s face just how grateful she was for that little flashlight feature. And that whole experience got me thinking about just how easy it is for us to access light today, even in times and places when simply flipping on a light switch isn’t an option. We can use our phones. We can use any number of flashlights or lanterns, from little pen lights to those giant Maglights that basically double as baseball bats. Many of us even have tiny little lights that hang from our keychains. With a little bit of pressure, we get a light that’s bright enough that you don’t really want to be looking at the little diode when it lights up! In this day and age in which light is so readily available – literally at our fingertips 24/7 – I think it’s easy for us to forget just how dark the darkness can be and just how precious light truly is.
    • Today on the church calendar = Epiphany
      • Day to celebrate the coming of the magi
      • Day to celebrate the coming of the light
      • Today is the day for the Star of Bethlehem to really, truly shine. You see, even though we talk about the star throughout Advent and on Christmas Eve … it doesn’t actually appear in Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth. Luke’s version has angels and shepherds and an inn and a manger … but no star. It’s only in Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ birth that we find the Star of Bethlehem lending its light. – today’s text: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” … When they heard [King Herod], they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy.[1] → So as we mark this day of Epiphany together – the Star of Bethlehem and the coming of the magi – we’re going to talk about how the Light can open our eyes and give us the chance to really, truly look around us.
        • Call to “look around” is one we hear directly out of our OT passage this morning – Is: Arise! Shine! Your light has come; the Lord’s glory has shone upon you. Though darkness covers the earth and the gloom the nations, the Lord will shine upon you; God’s glory will appear over you. Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance. Lift up your eyes and look all around.[2] → It is none other than the dawning of the light that gives us the opportunity to look around, to lift up our eyes – to open them wide! – and see all that is around us. And that is indeed what we must do, friends, because God has much to show us and teach us.
  • Open our eyes to the blessings around us
    • Continuation of the Is passage: Lift up your eyes and look all around you: they are all gathered; they have come to you. Your sons will come from far away, and your daughters on caregivers’ hips. Then you will see and be radiant; your heart will tremble and open wide, because the sea’s abundance will be turned over to you; the nations’ wealth will come to you. Countless camels will cover your land, young camels from Midian and Ephah. They will all come from Sheba, carrying gold and incense, proclaiming the Lord’s praises.[3] → This text is full of blessings! “Your sons will come from far away, and your daughters on caregivers’ hips … The sea’s abundance … the nation’s wealth … countless camels … gold and incense.” All of these are ways that we can be blessed – by the presence of others, by the provision for our needs and maybe even some of our wants, and by the presence of God in and through us.
      • Is reminds readers/hearers of those blessings in the midst of a time when blessings seemed scarce at best → context of Is = prophet during the Babylonian Exile
      • Is = providing that Light in the darkness for the people → words of hope and reassurance and blessing in a time of deep heartache and struggle and despair
        • Light of God’s love and promise opening Isaiah’s eyes so that Isaiah himself could help open the eyes of those to whom he prophesied
        • Scholar: The prophet Isaiah gives a spectacular view of untarnished hope after the dark season of Persian rule. God’s glory is revealed. God’s light bursts through and dispels the prevailing darkness. The prophet begins by telling the people to “arise” and “shine” because hope and light now radiate from God Almighty for all who wish to see.[4]
    • This time of year, starting around Thanksgiving and continuing on through the New Year, we’re often encouraged to “count our blessings” (instead of sheep, as Bing Crosby might tell us). Sometimes it can be hard to do – counting blessings – because things in our life aren’t going the way we planned.
      • Career
      • Relationships
      • Personal goals/achievements
      • But let me ask you this: How many of you watched “It’s a Wonderful Life”[5] this Christmas? How many of you watch it every Christmas? That treasured and timeless story of George Bailey and his little Savings and Loan – a man who, when he thinks he has nothing left and the world would be better off without him, is shown that the blessings in his life are rich and abundant and right before his eyes.
        • “It’s a Wonderful Life” = sort of the modern twist on Isaiah’s words for this morning
  • But there is a flip side to every coin, friends. When our eyes are opened to the incredible blessings around us – no matter what those blessings might be – our eyes are also opened to places of hurt and darkness and desperation in this world … places of great need. God’s Light shines in and on those places, too.
    • Shining of the light = call to action → Isaiah makes it clear that lifting up our eyes and looking around is a blessing. He says, “Then you will see and be radiant; your heart will tremble and open wide.” But we also know that God does not desire our hearts to be opened wide just for our own needs and desires. It’s easy to care about and work for the things that you yourself need. It can be much more challenging to care about and work for the needs of others. And yet the passage itself begins with a call to action rooted in the presence of the light. “Arise! Shine! Your light has come; the Lord’s glory has shone upon you.” Isaiah makes it perfectly clear that, once we have been touched by the Light – once we have opened our eyes and looked around – we cannot go back to living in the dark. We cannot go back to living disconnectedly. We cannot go back to living dispassionately. We cannot go back to ways of disinterest and apathy and self-concern.
      • Scholar: “Arise! Shine!” This is not an invitation. It is a command. … Those who are privileged to stand in the light have a responsibility not just to receive the light, but also to respond to it. “Arise! Shine!” cries Isaiah. “You have the light … now show it! Get into that darkness and start shining.”[6]
    • Perfect e.g. of this in the magi visiting the Christ-child
      • Magi come to King Herod (ruler of the southern kingdom of Judea in which Bethlehem is located) because being astrologers, they have read the signs in the stars and seen the birth of the new king → unaware of just how ruthless and violent Herod could be
      • Herod confirms Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Christ child through his own chief priests and legal experts (foreshadowing side note: these are the Pharisees and Sadducees – same group of people who will try to kill Jesus when he grows up) → tries to get the magi to do his dirty work for him – text: Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.”[7]
        • Herod’s true plan = kill the child whom he believes to be a threat to his power before the baby can even grow up
          • Precursor to the passage we often call “The Slaughter of the Innocents” when Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt with Jesus just in time to escape Herod’s decree that all baby boys under 2 years old be killed
        • Magi follow the star and find the Christ child with Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem – text: They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. They opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.[8]
        • But instead of returning to Herod as the king had requested, the magi are warned in a dream not to return. God shines the light on them to open their eyes – open their eyes to the situation in which they have found themselves, open their eyes to the true nature of King Herod and his devious request, open their eyes to the danger. And in the light of that knowledge and awareness, the magi choose to act. They choose to arise and shine – to act in good faith on the tug that God placed on their hearts. They choose to do the right thing – evading Herod’s court on their way back east and keeping their knowledge of the Christ child and his family to themselves – instead of doing the easy thing – returning to the evil king and betraying Jesus and his family, offering them up to Herod’s jealousy, wrath, and malicious intentions.
  • In this world in which light is so readily available at our fingertips, it’s easy to forget just how powerful, just how life-giving a single light can be. A light in the darkness can brighten the way. It can lift the spirit. It can encourage the heart. And that baby in that manger – that Christ-child who birth was heralded by Light itself – brings the light of God’s love and hope to our lives anew each and every day. Through the grace of God, Jesus brings that light to us, and by the good news of the gospel, we are called to take it out into a dark and weary world. Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Mt 2:1-2, 9-10.

[2] Is 60:1-4a (emphasis added).

[3] Is 60:4-6.

[4] Terriel R. Byrd. “Epiphany of Jesus – Isaiah 60:1-6” from Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 51.

[5] “It’s a Wonderful Life,” released Jan. 7, 1947 by Liberty Films.

[6] Karen Pidcock-Lester. “Epiphany of the Lord – Isaiah 60:1-6, Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 198.

[7] Mt 2:7-8.

[8] Mt 2:11.

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