“Arise, shine: for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
So begins our Old Testament lesson today. And, after reading these words from the prophet Isaiah and our gospel lesson, we understand why these two readings are paired together on the Feast of the Epiphany: they speak to each other.
So, considering these two passages, just WHO, do you think, is to “arise and shine?”
Given the story of the wise men in today’s gospel lesson, maybe these MAGI are the ones who are to “arise, shine.” Surely when the star appeared to them magi and they understood the star’s significance, THEIR light had come? This star cast a beam so bright, so penetrating, that the magi were stirred into action. They must have said, “Let’s get up, pack our bags, gather treasure, load the camels, and go see what this star is all about.”
Yes, the MAGI definitely arose at the appearance of the special star, and also were activated by the light. They moved out on a journey that turned out to be a holy quest. But were the MAGI the ones who Isaiah urged to “Arise, shine?”
If not the magi, then maybe KING HEROD? HE, at any rate, is the first person mentioned in today’s gospel lesson. Surely when the magi appeared in Jerusalem inquiring about the Christ Child, here was HEROD’s opportunity to “arise, shine.” The glory of the Lord, come to Earth, was all around Herod; he could have chosen to turn to the light. But, as you know, he turned to the darkness. History tells us that Herod even killed his own sons to keep his power. He lusted after power, was jealous of anyone else being bowed to, and feared losing his status. So Herod chose to NOT “arise, shone.” But don’t ever forget that he could have chosen otherwise.
If not King Herod, who?
Oh, I know: Isaiah was a Jewish prophet. So surely he meant that the chief priests and scribes should “arise, shine?” I won’t dwell on this possibility, but, remember, these temple leaders made a choice, as well as Herod had. And (as we all know the Jesus-story), the chief priests and scribes mostly took the Herod-option: THEY chose the darkness rather than the light.
But, before we dismiss the chief priests and scribes too quickly, I feel compelled to mention that this IS probably who Isaiah had in mind when he shared the messaged that God had given him. Well, as included in the “all of Jerusalem” mentioned in our gospel lesson today. Isaiah was both mourning the all of Jerusalem, of Zion, from former glory AND offering a message of hope to “all of Jerusalem.” The message was this: Turning to the darkness isn’t forever. There will be light again, and divine favor to be had, if only they would “arise Jerusalem, and shine.” Our Old Testament lesson is full of divine promises spoken to all the people of Jerusalem, ALL of which hinge on this new light that would come and how Jerusalem would respond.
And what was Isaiah’s instruction to Jerusalem? “Lift up your eyes and look around.” Look for the light, God’s light. Because there will be the signs that the light of God is here. These will be the signs: people coming from afar, from the East, bearing gifts, costly gifts, to proclaim the praise of the Lord.
We Jesus-followers know that the CHILD who the magi sought wasn’t the one Isaiah told to “arise, shine.” We know what John’s gospel proclaims, that Jesus IS the eternal light, the glory of God, that has arisen and who bids Jerusalem to arise also.
We Jesus-followers know what this prophecy meant. We know that the wise men from the East who came in search of the light were the very signs Isaiah had foretold. And if we look around, as the wise men did, we discover that this baby, Jesus, is the very light of which Isaiah had spoken. The Lord had arisen upon them, and his glory appeared over them. Upon the magi. Upon Herod. Upon the chief priests and scribes. Upon all of Jerusalem. “Arise, shone,” for their light had come.
They all—each and every one of them—had a choice to make: dwell in the darkness, or turn to the light.
In our gospel lesson the magi were the ones who chose to follow the light. They could have—as a popular seasonal Internet MEME suggested this year—they could have chosen to stay home and give each other gifts instead of taking gifts far away to the child. Instead, the magi followed the light.
I find the magi interesting because they weren’t perfect followers of the light:
- They thought the child was a king in the earthly sense. They didn’t seem to know that Jesus was and is the Christ, not a king but God-come-among-us. And yet, the magi still chose to “arise, shine.”
- The magi went to Jerusalem and not to Bethlehem. So they didn’t fully discern the course needed to follow the light. Maybe we can forgive them, because how else could Herod and the chief priests and scribes and all of Jerusalem have known enough to look around and make their choice in response to the light? And, even so, the magi still chose to “arise, shine.”
- They brought gold and frankincense to give to the child, as foretold, but they also brought myrrh, a costly funerary spice. They strayed outside the bounds of the prophecy. Was this really an error on the magi’s part, or did the magi discern that THIS child would need myrrh sooner in his life than in old age? Either way, the magi came bearing one more treasure than foretold, but they had chosen to “arise, shine,” as instructed.
When the magi, foreigners—Gentiles!—responded to God’s light, the promise given to those who “arise, shine” extended beyond all Jerusalem to ALL THE WORLD.
At this point every Sunday we look for the “so what,” the take-away for us today in these lessons. And in this case the implications are easy to discern. This is because light is eternal. The brilliance of God, coming into our world as Jesus oh-so-long ago is still astounding today. That light is shining on you and on me, right here and right now. We are going to ingest that light right here at this altar in a few minutes. We are going to sing to that light, joining our energy with the divine energy, resonating together praise for the light and life and second chances. And Isaiah’s promise is that we will be radiant, our hearts will thrill and rejoice. In a very real way, we too will become part of the light.
So we each have choices to make. Not just a one-time born-again choice to follow the light, but also a series of choices throughout life to continue to choose the light instead of the darkness.
- Will we stay home, or will we seek the light here at God’s altar?
- Will we wallow in the darkness and return to our old ways, or let the light change our very being?
Like the magi, our choices needn’t even be executed perfectly. All we need do is continue to “arise, shine.”