A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
January 3, 2016
University Baptist Church
Here we are in a New Year. It’s amazing how fast we change from Christmas to New Years with Valentine’s Day around the corner—so says my local drug store. We build up for Christmas for months and then once the day has arrived, it’s like we can’t wait for it to be over. We take down the tree, we pack away the tinsel, we get back into the familiar humbug of the endless election season. Who really wants that? But like lemmings we follow the next news cycle about the next obnoxious thing a candidate says. Can’t we bask in the afterglow of Christmas for just a little while longer?
I don’t know about you, but there is something comforting in seeing tiny electric lights illuminating the snow that covers them in our yard, or on our deck. Can’t we extend Christmas just a bit? And even if the holiday is gone, can’t we at least enjoy the lights? We still can picture this sanctuary bathed in candlelight. All those faces, all that wonder, all that tranquility and beauty. Can’t we let it last a while longer? We see glimpses of light when we really need to be bathed in light.
I think Isaiah wanted that too. He was writing after all to a people who were starting something anew. It was a new day, a new season for them. They had endured sixty years of exile and now were coming back to their homeland to try to see if they could keep it this time. And Isaiah pleads to them to embrace the light. “Arise, shine for your light has come.” There was plenty of bad news. The temple was destroyed. Sixty years of exile had left their homeland an overgrown wasteland. They hardly knew the distant relatives to whom they were reuniting. Some, I’m sure, preferred the predictability of life in their Babylonian exile. Isaiah gave them a choice. Go back or move forward. “Arise, shine, your light has come…”
We had a wonderful Christmas in our family. We celebrated here with all of you. Came home, put on our jammies, ate a dinner of appetizers, played a board game together as a family and then went to sleep, awaking a lot later than in earlier years. Gifts, a family dinner followed by the annual drive to visit more family in Cleveland, Ohio. I got to officiate at my older sister’s wedding in Cleveland, while other parts of the family watched via Skype. We got back in time for Becca’s play rehearsal on Wednesday and rested among the Christmas tree and lights.
And we celebrated the snowy New Year and the miniscule increasing light and we all wonder what the coming year will bring. For me there will be a trip to Nicaragua in just three weeks, the normal routine of our kids’ swim meets and musical endeavors, the rhythm of the liturgical year, the making of maple syrup and a long awaited sabbatical beginning in May. What will your year hold? What light will there be? There is enough bad news to go around. What do we have to look forward to?
We have a choice, each of us. We can focus on the gloom and doom that surrounds us, or we can turn our heads toward a new story being written in our very lives. A story of darkness or of light.
Take the Magi from today’s scripture reading. They have four encounters. And with each encounter, they had choices to make. They had the encounter with the star, the encounter with Herod, the encounter with the Holy Family and then the encounters with their families and friends back home.
The Bible does not tell us how many Magi there are. It doesn’t tell us their names, nor their genders. Those are the things of Christmas carols. We do know that they were foreign scholars who decided to go on a pilgrimage because of the light they had seen in the east. I hear there were northern lights to be seen this past week. One of these years I think I’ll actually see them, maybe on my sabbatical. Anyway, the Magi set off to Bethlehem in search of the prophesied new king. They could have stayed put. But their wander lust, their scholarly pursuit, their sense of adventure made them choose their path—following the light. I’m not sure they knew what they were looking for when they started out, but their other encounters revealed the reason behind their quest.
On the way they met the old king. He apparently had not seen the light in the sky. In fact no one had, or they didn’t pay an attention to it. But these foreigners could read the signs of the times and knew a light when they saw it.
A sacred harp singer gave me a comic the other night that had the magi heading to Bethlehem but finding a sign there saying foreigners go home. The king was threatened by what the Magi might reveal. Kings are always scared about losing their grip on power. So they scapegoat those different from us. It gives them an illusion of safety.
I saw a PBS special last night. It was recorded six years ago on Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday. Bruce Springsteen said that Pete was the stealth dagger in the hearts of our country’s illusion about itself. All while he sang “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” Bruce said Pete possessed a stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism that we ought to emulate.
The old King Herod wanted the Magi to point the way to the child king. Did Herod not see the star? Could he not consult his own astronomers or even his census takers?
The Magi famously chose not to bow down to the king and reveal the holy family’s whereabouts. And they kept on their journey, found the holy family and gave them costly, but impractical gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Choosing to go home a different way, they no doubt told about their odd encounters in the Holy Lands: Paranoid kings who couldn’t read the stars, and new kings born in stables away from power. Surely something is waiting to break through in that backwater piece of desert.
The beautiful Christmas carol O Holy Night contains the beautiful poetry:
“O holy night! The stars are brightly shining.
It is the night of the dear Savior's birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear'd and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
We love that carol. Especially when the tenor or soprano soars the octave jump of “O night divine”.
But it’s the second verse that really gets me. It’s the verse that breaks us from our complacency and gets at the real meaning of Christmas. It’s about bringing light after the holy night.
Truly He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.”
Jim Wallis of the Sojourners community wonders if perhaps we should sing that during the next presidential debate. Isaiah 9 says:
“The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
… For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9:2, 5-7)
The Christmas story, really the Christian story is the kind of story that holds out hope and vision for a better future. Embrace that light. And may it carry you toward a new tomorrow.
Three weeks from today, eleven of us will be worshipping at First Baptist Church of Managua. Later on in the afternoon, we will be worshipping at Second Baptist Church of Leon. I’m reminded of the poem written by Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario over 100 years ago. It was recited by American Baptist Missionaries Joan and Gus Parajon every day as a talisman toward how they wanted to live their lives. I believe it brings us light. Hear it as we enter this New Year:
We've Got to Be Fair - by Ruben Dario
We've got to be fair, we've got to be good,
We've got to be drunk with peace and love
And carry our souls with an easy grace
With hearts naked and clean.
We've got to forget all hatred,
All lies, all meanness;
We've got to hold each other in the fire
Of big holy love, sweet and fraternal.
We've got to fill ourselves up with holy optimism,
Open our arms to those who hurt us,
Embrace all our enemies
In a disarming hug of love and forgiveness.
Forget passions, bitterness and bile.
Be strong, be kind, giving only good for evil;
For this is how good souls get even
By taking the high road!
We've got to be joyful, so said
Paul, the chosen voice;
And walk down every cold path
Wearing the soul of God as our coat.
We've got to remember that we are brothers.
We've got to remember our sweet Pastor
Who, crucified, bleeding and broken,
Begged forgiveness for his executioners.
(New York, 1915)
Sisters and brothers, as we gain a minute of daylight for the next six months, embrace in kind the gift of light so that you may have life and those around you might experience a bit of God-infused hope. Because that’s what we’re here for. To reflect the light of God to a people in need. As John Henry Newman penned in 1833:
"Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.”