Good morning. Something
which I have not acknowledged from this pulpit, but which both Pastor
Elizabeth and I appreciate, is the many Christmas cards and blessings
we received from you at Creekside. Many of these cards were beautiful,
and a few were handmade. The notes and words of encouragement or
thanks are something we treasure. I know that many of you share
similar sentiments with other members of our church family here
at Creekside, and that’s a practice I would affirm for any
time of the year. I bring this up because I received a post-Christmas
card in the mail this week. There can be so many things to do in
the month of December that cards don’t get sent out until
after Christmas, and even into the new year. It made me think, as
a former greeting card designer, that maybe there would be a niche
in the market for an after-Christmas card. A sort of a belated happy
Jesus’ birthday card.
It so happens that this card had part of one of my favorite poems
on it. Perhaps the only after-Christmas poem that I know. It is
written by Howard Thurman, and I remember it because it was set
to music by Christian folk artist Jim Strathdee. It fits the season
of Epiphany so well that I’m going to sing the first verse
and chorus for you. If you want to hear the other verses after the
service, just ask me.
When the song of the
angels is stilled
When the star in the sky is gone
When the kings and the shepherds have found their way home
The work of Christmas is begun.
I am the light of the world
You people come and follow me!
If you follow and love, you’ll learn the mystery
Of what you were meant to do and be.
If you have been worshiping with us for the past two weeks of Epiphany,
you know that we have been talking about the wise men’s journey
home from Bethlehem after the joy of finding Jesus. We’ve
been talking about the Hero’s Journey: what it means to leave
home, what it means to discover our identity and purpose and to
grow up. These are journeys not only for warriors and princes --
maybe our image of heroes -- but for regular folks like you and
me. We each have our own journey to make: the path to maturity is
never a straight line, and by definition there is loss and pain
along the way. No one gets to be a grown up by having a pain-free
life. Christians recognize that we are on this journey because we
have made the choice to follow and imitate Jesus Christ. Christ
is our model for what God desires for us, as well as how we ought
to behave toward other people. The story of the gospels is the story
of what it means to be faithful. Faithful to death, even death on
a cross, and how when we are willing to lose our lives -- literally
and metaphorically -- we find new life in the kingdom of God. This
is the foundational story of Christianity.
So it may seem surprising that our text this morning is from the
book of Isaiah: an old Testament prophet writing several hundred
years before the birth of Jesus. I bet these words were familiar
to many of you, “The people who walked in darkness have seen
a great light. Those who lived in the land of deep darkness -- on
them has light shined.” These words may be so familiar that
you thought, “Wait a minute, I thought that was in the New
Testament.” And you’d be correct. These same words appear
in the 4th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Matthew is a Jewish
Christian, writing to other Jewish Christians, or to Jews whom he
is hoping to convert to Christianity. These words from Isaiah 9
appear in Matthew 4 because Matthew is quoting Isaiah to make the
point that Isaiah’s prophecy has come to pass. The light of
the world is here. The promise of the prophets has been fulfilled;
the light has come.
Both Isaiah and Matthew make it clear that this is not a light
merely for me individually or personally. Jesus did not come only
to light up my world, Jesus is a light to the nations -- Jesus is
the light of the world; all the nations and kingdoms. In a week
where we have seen the peaceful transition of power in the United
Sates government and considered what our witness will be to other
nations; I think it’s important to reflect on the claim that
Jesus is the light to the nations. That claim was made for a society
that had no separation of church and state. For the prophet Isaiah,
nation and religion were the same thing: to be part of the nation
of Israel was to be one of God’s chosen people, a Jew.
In the United States, as you know, we have a constitutional division
between the authority of church and state. But each of us is a single
person, and allegiance cannot be neatly divided -- say on Sundays
I’m a Christian, but Monday through Saturday I’m a citizen.
Loyalty which is compartmentalized isn’t loyalty at all --
it’s a work-around for something else. If I told my husband
that when I’m at home I’m his wife, but when I’m
not at home I’m something else, he could justifiably wonder
what I’m trying to pull. I think the same logic applies to
our life of faith: if we claim to be followers of Jesus Christ,
then that is our highest allegiance. That doesn’t prevent
us from being citizens of this nation or another nation: it should
not keep us from voting; it certainly won’t exclude us from
paying taxes; and there are any number of honorable ways in which
we can serve our country as Christians. But it is Jesus Christ who
is light to the nations -- not the other way around.
We are privileged to be in a country which allows us to follow
the light of Christ without persecution. As you know, there are
nations where this is not the case. It’s a privilege, but
it is also a responsibility. It means there are no easy excuses
for avoiding the hard work of behaving like a Christian, and believing
in Jesus Christ. This is not separate from our citizenship, it is
our identity. Being Christian should dictate who we are, what we
do, how we treat other people. Christianity is what sets the course
for our life’s journey. It should be the light which guides
our path, and it should be the light which guides our nation and
every nation. Jesus Christ came to us so that people of every nation
could be part of the kingdom of God. That is why Matthew places
this prophecy at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, after
Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness. It’s
like one of those product warning labels:
Jesus could lead to life-changing behavior and even death.
Do not attempt this gospel without Divine supervision; regular
application could be contagious.
If symptoms persist, apply prayer immediately.
I believe that the best measure -- perhaps the only measure --
of a nation that is under God is how the light of Christ is shining
in its citizens. The strength of our economy or our military or
our educational system or our health care system is important, but
these things are not measures of our faithfulness to Christ. The
strength of any community is how we treat one another, especially
the poor and the sick and the outcast -- the folks to whom Jesus
paid particular attention in his ministry. We might be able to get
there with legislation, but only if we begin with compassion.
I am not a politician -- praise God. Some of you may think that
a pastor and preacher has no business commenting on our nation or
national affairs. But I am a citizen of this country; I love this
country, and I care about the direction in which we go. As a Christian,
that is inseparable from my commitment to Jesus Christ and my understanding
of the kingdom of God. I pray that this nation and every nation
would be filled with God’s glory and with the light of Christ.
Isaiah tells us that when that happens, the people will increase
in joy and they will rejoice as at the harvest, and the burdens
which have been laid upon their shoulders will be lifted. May it
be so. Amen.