January 5, 2014

Isaiah 60:1-6
Matthew 2:1-12

“Shiny Happy People!”

As I was reading commentaries on the passage from Isaiah 60 this week, a pop song from the 90’s started running through my head: “Shiny happy people.” Do you remember that lively song by the band REM? As I read and reflected on the prophet’s command to the people of Judah to “Arise, shine, for your light has come,” I couldn’t get the “Shiny happy people” song out of my head, so I gave in to it and looked up the video on YouTube.

It began with an old man riding a stationary bicycle in a dreary-looking room, and then on the other side of the wall the band – dressed in bright happy colours in front of a colourful mural of similarly happy-looking people – began to play, and sing, and dance. It was carefree, full of smiles, and by the end of the song the band was surrounded by people dancing, and laughing, and having a great time. Meanwhile, the old man has gotten off his bicycle, and he stands watching the shiny happy people as they dance and sing. He doesn’t exactly look happy, but somewhat curious about what is happening before his eyes.

I don’t know what the band intended to say with their video. Perhaps it was a hope that the grumpy old men of the world would lighten up and join in the party. Perhaps it was a subtle commentary on those who laugh, and dance, and sing for no particular reason, seemingly immune to the troubles and trials of the world around them. More likely, there wasn’t any deep meaning to the song or the video, and they were just having a lot of fun dancing around and singing their happy song.

When the prophet Isaiah told the people of his land to arise and shine, they were not exactly shiny happy people holding hands and dancing. Isaiah’s words are words of encouragement to a dispirited people who were trying to rebuild their community under the difficult circumstances of the return from Babylonian exile. Although there was initial joy when they were first able to come home to Jerusalem, that joy began to fade when the returning exiles faced obstacle after obstacle. They needed continued encouragement to maintain their hope and spirit.

Isaiah’s oracle begins with imperatives – commands instructing the people to arise and shine. The implication is that the people have been prostrate – they’ve been lying flat on the ground in desperate prayer or despair at their situation. But Isaiah wants to tell them that the time for despair is over because God is about to act.

What is interesting here is that the people are called to respond in faith even before God has acted. They are told to “lift up [their] eyes and look around” – a call to look around and see what is not yet true. The people should arise in expectation, trusting that God will fulfill the coming promises.

I wonder if you have ever changed your attitude like that. After a series of disappointments, or failures, or problems have come your way, the natural inclination would be pessimism, lowered expectations, or even giving up. But maybe with some words of encouragement from a friend, a spouse, or maybe just from yourself, you decided to embark on a new day, a new project, or a new relationship with hope and expectation.

A New Year seems like a good time to consider making such a change in attitude. In whatever area of your life (or our lives together as a church) we have given up hope and expectation for good things happening, let’s resolve to get up off the ground of our despair or disappointment, and look around for what God is about to do in us, through us, and among us.

Maybe it’s a frustrating situation at work. Maybe it’s an ongoing struggle in one of your relationships. Maybe it’s a personal temptation that you keep succumbing to over and over, and you’re giving up hope for ever being successful. In our church’s life together, it may be the tendency to compare the present to the past, to worry about numbers, or to give up hope for new leadership picking up where others have left off.

We are called to get up off the ground even before we see relief coming. We are challenged to arise even before there is an indication that God is going to do anything to help us. We need to get up, because that’s the only way that we are going to see change, and new possibilities, and new hope taking shape in our lives and in our community.

What we believe about ourselves has a big impact on who we are. If you believe that you are smart, attractive, talented, and worthy of love, you will approach life differently (and more successfully) than if you believe that you are stupid, ugly, and worthless. And the same is true for congregations. If we believe that we are friendly, caring, thoughtful, and that our life and ministry together has meaning and purpose that can impact the world, we will be more likely to embody those attributes than if we believe that our church is boring, out-of-touch, full of cliques, and meaningless. To a great extent, we become who we believe ourselves to be.

Earlier this week, I was talking to someone about why Christians come to worship every Sunday, or at least as often as possible. And I know that there are lots of reasons, and many of them are different for different people. But one of the reasons that I identified is that when I come to worship I am reminded of who I am. I am reminded and reinforced in the truth that I am a beloved child of God. I was made in God’s image, gifted in many ways, and called to be a follower of Jesus.

And when I come to believe that about myself – that I am loved, and blessed, and made to be a blessing to others – that is the moment when I begin to live according to that identity, when God begins to work in me and through me.

As soon as they get up, Isaiah is telling the people of Judah to shine. In the midst of their despair and their difficult circumstances, it may seem a bit far-fetched to ask them to become shiny happy people just like that. But the light and the joy doesn’t have to come from within them. They don’t have to manufacture it out of nothing, because as Isaiah tells them, their “light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon [them].”

The darkness that surrounds them in the world is very real. Isaiah is not denying the fact that there is war, and destruction, and oppression, and trouble all around. He’s not suggesting that they should just ignore or deny the problems and just become shiny happy people who are oblivious to the real world.

But Isaiah is also very sure of the reality of God and God’s presence in the world and in their lives. It is God who has already begun to shine a light into the midst of the darkness, and the people are just being called to reflect the light that God will give them. No, they cannot shine on their own, but Isaiah’s second imperative is a call to open up to becoming God’s instruments, reflecting God’s light to the world around them.

Today we are celebrating the Epiphany of the Lord – the day that God’s light shone so brightly into the world through the birth of Jesus the Christ. And the author of Matthew’s Gospel shows the worldwide significance of that shining light by telling about the wise men who came from far-away lands to worship the newborn King and bring him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The Gospel writer was probably thinking about Isaiah’s prophecy when he wrote his story declaring the amazing significance of Jesus’ coming into the world. This poor little Jewish child grew up to be the light of the world, who through his life, ministry, death, and resurrection would draw all people to himself and to God. The God of Israel became the God of all nations, and both Jews and Gentiles would come to follow the way of Jesus and worship the one God of the universe.

But I don’t think that Isaiah’s prophecy was just about the Messiah who would one day come and draw all the nations of the world to the God of Israel. I think that he was talking about something that was going to happen much sooner – that God’s own people would get up, and reflect God’s light, and bless the world right then and there.

Another passage from Matthew comes to mind… Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

In Jesus Christ, God’s light has shined brightly upon us, and we know that we are God’s beloved children, made in God’s image, gifted in many ways, and called to share God’s love with the world as we follow in the way of Jesus. So our call now is to become reflectors of that light – to shine that light into the darkest corners of our communities and our world, so that others may see the light and give glory to God as well.

We can be shiny happy people holding hands – not because we are unaware or oblivious to the challenges of our lives and in our world, but because Christ has shined into our lives and we are reflecting that light. I like some of the words of REM’s “Shiny happy people” song:

Meet me in the crowd, people, people
Throw your love around, love me, love me
Take it into town, happy, happy
Put it in the ground where the flowers grow

Everyone around, love them, love them
Put it in your hands, take it, take it
There’s no time to cry, happy, happy
Put it in your heart where tomorrow shines

REM’s song is an imperative also. The shiny happy people cannot keep their love and joy to themselves. They should throw it around, take it into town, plant it in the ground so that flowers will grow. They should take it in their hands and hold it in their hearts – not because everything is perfect today, but because tomorrow is shining and full of hope and promise.

I would like to end this morning by sharing a story from the author, Robert Fulghum. Fulghum was attending an institute in Greece on healing the wounds of war. The speaker was Dr. Alexander Papaderos, a doctor of philosophy, a teacher and politician. When Fulghum asked him about the meaning of life, Papaderos responded with this story:

 “When I was a small child, during the war, we were very poor and we lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place.

“I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone I made it round. I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine — in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find.

“I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game but a metaphor for what I might do with my life. I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of light. But light — truth, understanding, knowledge — is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it.

“I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have I can reflect light into the dark places of this world — into the black places in the hearts of men — and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.”

And then he took his small mirror and, holding it carefully, caught the bright rays of daylight streaming through the window and reflected them onto my face and onto my hands folded on the desk.

Let us give thanks today, for the light of Christ that God has shined into the darkness of the world and into the darkness of our lives. May our lives too, become like fragments of a mirror – not simply receiving that light for ourselves – but reflecting it in our church and in our community. Amen.