Sunday, 8 January 2012

Epiphany Sunday: Arise, shine!

“Arise, shine; for your light has come.”

I love a good historical drama – Great Expectations, Downton, that was me sorted over Christmas. But there is one thing in these dramas which is guaranteed to annoy me. Sooner or later, as Philip will confirm, I am sure to start muttering “Too Many Candles!” The film-makers just can’t resist the temptation to put candles everywhere; candles on mantelpieces, candles on tables, candles in great candelabras, candles in wall-sconces in completely empty corridors. Even in the day time. Even in poor households. It looks very atmospheric, which is why they do it, but it drives me nuts because it just wouldn’t have been like that. Candles were expensive, especially wax candles.  Even wealthy people were sparing with them. The poor often made do with the light of the fire, or perhaps used home-made, smoky, smelly tallow candles or rush lights, or they simply went to bed when it was too dark to work. Lighting candles during the day - “burning daylight” - was regarded as the height of extravagance and irresponsibility. Only the very rich would have lit candles simply for decoration, and even then just for special occasions.

Rant over! But there is a serious point here.

Until the very recent past people regarded good light – light you could work by - as a gift. They didn’t take it for granted. You couldn’t just flick a switch and have light wherever and whenever you wanted it. We might feel gloomy in the long dark winter evenings now, but it would have been far worse for our ancestors, who couldn’t chase away the darkness with a blaze of artificial light. No wonder people longed for the dawn, and wanted to make the most of the daylight when it was there. No wonder, too, that light and darkness became such powerful symbols for hope and despair, joy and grief, wisdom and ignorance, and even life and death.

“Arise, shine; for your light has come,” says Isaiah to the people of Israel. The darkness they have endured isn’t the darkness of a winter night, but the darkness of a seventy year exile in Babylon. Jerusalem had been smashed to ruins. The light of hope seemed to have been entirely extinguished.

But it isn’t so, says Isaiah. The king of Persia, Cyrus, had conquered Babylon and was announcing that the exiles could go home.  This was the light Isaiah was talking about, the new dawn for his people. Cyrus’ triumph wasn’t of their making – it came to them as a gift, an act of God - but they did have the power to choose how they would respond to this new beginning.  “Arise, shine” says Isaiah. “Throw back the shutters, open your eyes, get onto your feet, and be ready to move. Make the most of this light that God has given you! It’s not enough just to enjoy it – it is there to be used, giving you the opportunity to rebuild the nation again.”

Today we celebrate Epiphany Sunday. Epiphany literally means “shining forth” – manifestation, revelation. We hear the story of those wise men who came to find Jesus, alerted to his birth by the light of a new star in the sky. But they didn’t just see the star. Nor, having seen it, did they just sit around discussing it earnestly or write a few learned papers about it. They got up, packed up, and set off. They took risks. They spent precious time, energy and money to find out what it meant and why it mattered, and they were never the same again. Their story ends with that tantalising detail, “they went home by another road.” This isn’t just about turning right instead of left at the first crossroads; it tells us that these men were irrevocably changed by their meeting with this child, by the discovery that God had bypassed the structures of worldly power in King Herod’s Jerusalem, and that whatever God was up to, it included ordinary people like Mary and Joseph, and foreigners, Gentiles, like them as well. For all the wisdom they’d had before they set off, they had learned something new by coming to Bethlehem, something they could never have known if they’d stayed at home and let the light of that new star just wash over them.

In my conversations with people over the years I have met many who have had moments of revelation, moments when they felt “their light had come” to use Isaiah’s phrase, moments when it was as if they had seen a new star in the night sky. Sometimes those moments were obviously religious – words from the Bible that suddenly connected with their lives in a new way, an experience in prayer or in worship – perhaps even in a sermon (we preachers live in hope!). Sometimes, though, the light dawned in the midst of a much more mundane activity – a chance conversation on a train, a sudden sight which thrilled or inspired or moved them, an apparent coincidence which made them sit up and take notice, or even a loss or a failure which challenged them. Sometimes an unexpected loving gesture could make all the difference.  Church communities often underestimate the impact they have simply through the welcome they give. Many people go through life with very little experience of being loved, noticed or valued for themselves. Finding a community where they matter can be a real revelation.

People are often understandably reticent about talking about these personal “epiphanies” – the moments when they feel connected to something beyond themselves, when they have had a  glimpse of a new world – but almost everyone I have ever spoken to at any depth seems to have experienced this at some point. For a moment they have known “the wisdom of God in all its rich variety” as St Paul calls it.

What varies though, is what we do next. Sometimes an epiphany can be life-changing. It may not happen instantly, but looking back, we can see that this is where new life began to grow in us as we responded to the call of that special moment. I don’t suppose those wise men had the least idea where their journey would take them when they noticed that new star in the sky, but if they hadn’t taken it seriously, if they hadn’t acted on the longing for God it triggered, they would never have found the Christ Child.

Often though, we let those moments of revelation slip away, and make no lasting difference at all. We enjoy the feeling of peace or reassurance, but we don’t let it move us on from where we are. Perhaps we feel embarrassed or afraid. People will think I’ve gone mad if I start talking about this? And what will it lead to?  Perhaps we think that we must have been mistaken. Surely God can’t be interested in me? What have I got to give? Maybe it was just wishful thinking, or indigestion? Perhaps we just get too busy, losing sight of the things that really matter amidst the crowd of competing pressures and temptations around us.   

Those glimpses we have of the mystery of God can be just like the candles I complain about in historical dramas. They look pretty. They create atmosphere. But they’re just for decoration. We don’t actually put them to use. Those moments of mystery are meant to change us, and through us to change the world around us. They are meant to draw us closer to God, strengthening us by his love, so that we are propelled out into our communities to spread that love. They are meant to help us find forgiveness and healing where we need it, so that we can bring healing and forgiveness to others too. They are meant to inspire us to work for justice and peace. But none of those things will happen if all we want is a warm glow in the background of our lives.

Isaiah doesn’t just say “your light has come!” He says “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” The epiphany moments, the moments when the penny drops and the light goes on are like the precious gift of daylight, given to us to use, not just to enjoy for a moment and then to forget as we turn back to the lives we had before.

I can’t give you an epiphany this morning; those moments are gifts from God and they can’t be provided to order. But I have given you a star… Not a real one, but one of these star shaped post-it notes. I’d like you to take it home and stick it somewhere you will see it. As you do that, think about your life. Think about the turning points you have known, the epiphanies, the moments when you felt close to God, the moments you felt called or challenged or consoled, the moments when light came into your life, however that happened. And as you recall them, ask yourself what you have done with that light. How has it changed you? How has it changed those around you? I hope we will find things to give thanks for when we do that, an appreciation of God at work in us, but I hope too that it will prompt us to ask ourselves a question. What am I doing today with the light God has given me? What am I doing today to “Arise and shine” so that the light that has come to me lights up the lives of others too.

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