Rise and shine

November 19th, 2014

Isaiah 60:1-6

An atheist was upset with me. It started when I wrote a response to an article in the local paper about the growing number of people with no religious affiliation who consider themselves spiritual. I gently suggested that spirituality without God is empty, and that what many people who claim to be spiritual without going to church really want is to be spiritual without taking any responsibility. I implied that some use their lack of faith in the church as an excuse to not give money to the needy or work for social justice. I argued that true spirituality leads people to feed the hungry, listen to the lonely, and join with others who are doing the same.

What I wrote made perfect sense to me, but a self-described “hard-core atheist” in Colorado sent an email informing me that I am “painfully ignorant.” He helpfully pointed out that those who attend church can be just as greedy, cheap, and unfeeling as those who don’t. This is not news to a Baptist preacher.

One of the disadvantages of emailing preachers is that it’s easier for us to send a sermon than a thoughtful response. So I attached a sermon on why it makes sense to believe in God, and the debate was on.

My atheist friend responded with a lengthy rebuttal that led to an exchange of opinions on heaven, hell, prayer, faith-healing, easy answers, difficult questions, astronomy, awe, skepticism, curiosity, the death penalty, black holes, quantum gravity, warped space-time, fifteen billion years of evolution, Carl Sagan, Jerry Falwell, which one of us had the worse experience in Sunday school, subservient wives, and wives who aren’t subservient at all.

As you would guess, neither of us has changed the other’s mind. My atheist pen pal wanted verifiable proof—“no evidence, no belief” is how he put it. Ultimately, I had to admit that what I hold is impossible to prove. I believe that once in a while I see a glimmer of light. It’s not much to go on as tangible proof.

Isaiah cannot prove he has seen a flash of light in the middle of a stormy night. The prophet lives in dark times. Palestine is forever being overrun. Wars between the countries to the east and west bring those foreign armies to Israel. When battles take place Hebrew parents watch their children be carried away. The days are even darker because the people’s hearts are far from God. No one pays attention to anyone who thinks God matters. An enemy army has wiped out Jerusalem, the temple, and the economy of once-proud Judah. The tiny remnant of Israel, those who were not killed or carried off to Babylon, is again threatened with destruction.

In the middle of the night, the prophet sees a light. “Rise and shine,” Isaiah shouts. “Get out of bed. God is here.” Jerusalem is in ashes, ruin, and despair, but just when it looks as if the sun will never rise again, dawn is about to break.

“Your sons will return from far away, and your daughters will be carried in their mothers’ arms again,” Isaiah continues. “The sight of the exiles coming home will make your face break out in a grin, your heart pound, and your eyes light up. The whole world will come riding camels and bringing gifts. People will march in from the South and sail in from the West. They will bring gold and frankincense, and they will bow down and worship God’s light” (author’s paraphrase). Isaiah saw that one day the darkness would be overcome by the coming of the light.

The world is still dark with ignorance, hatred, and death. We know that during this new year children will starve, terrorists will strike, and armies will retaliate against the innocent. Hard workers will lose their jobs, sick people will die, and drunk drivers will commit murder. Preschoolers will be abused, women will be molested, and older adults will be mistreated. Wealthy people will find it hard to give, lonely people won’t find the friends they need, and lost people won’t find their way home.

If it’s not dark for you this minute, be grateful even as you recognize it will be dark again. The day always turns into night. The dark shadows of the past never go completely away. Not all your dreams will come true. You won’t always love your job. Your family will have problems you haven’t imagined. Someone will leave too soon and you’ll be praying for a sunny day.

When life seems hard we need to remember that no matter how dark it gets, there’s a flickering light that tickles the retina just enough to give us hope. The light shines on, into, and through us. Some of the places we go are shadowy. Some of the people we know haven’t seen any light in a long time. We are the lights in our homes, neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and church. God’s light illumines everything we do—the way we treat our employees, serve our employers, and speak to one another. We are candles that keep others from cursing the darkness, candles on birthday cakes that celebrate life, flashlights that make emergencies less terrifying, searchlights looking for those who’ve lost their way, lighthouses leading sinking ships to shore, and traffic lights pointing out when to go and when to stop.

Do you remember singing, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine”? Who can forget “hide it under a bushel, no!” Like most children’s church songs with motions, it was fun to sing. Our greatest joy comes in shining our little light. Light is the joy of a doctor giving sight to the blind, a lawyer protecting someone who is innocent, and a follower of Christ shining light where there was only darkness. Joy comes in being what we are meant to be, doing what we are meant to do, and shining as we are meant to shine.

This child of light whose birthday we just celebrated—who Isaiah dreamed was coming, who the magi traveled so far to see—took on the darkness so we could see the light. It’s hard to explain and we can’t prove it, but if we look carefully we may see a flicker of hope even in the darkest night.

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