Sermon given at St. Andrew’s Ealing 5th January 2012, Revd Sue McCoan
Isaiah 60: 1-6
Well, here we are. 5th January 2020. The start of a new year; the start of a new decade. I wonder how you are feeling about it. Maybe you made a list of goals to achieve, of resolutions to make your life better? Or maybe you are approaching it with some trepidation, not sure what it will bring? Or is it for you just another date in the calendar and nothing to make a fuss about?
Because we are thinking about the Magi bringing gifts, I’d like to suggest we look on this year as a gift. A gift from God. We are all still alive, we are all here; that’s a gift in itself. And now the question we might ask ourselves is: what are we going to do with this gift?
Jamie and I have been given a National Art Pass. That has the potential to be a great gift. But it’s only great if we actually use it, if we make the effort and go to the galleries. If we just sit at home and do nothing with it, then we have made the gift worthless, and rather insulted the care and love of those who gave it. So: What are we going to do with the gift of this year?
Let’s think a bit about the gifts that the Magi brought to Jesus, the gold, frankincense and myrrh. On the face of it, these are rubbish gifts for a toddler. You can’t play with them; you can’t eat them; there was no eBay in those days for Mary to sell them on.
Young Jesus can do nothing with these gifts – for now. But we assume that his parents will tell him about them, later on, when he’s old enough; and that he will understand what this means for himself and his ministry.
Because, of course, that these are not personal gifts. They are symbolic gifts, diplomatic gifts – the kind of gift that trade delegations, or national ambassadors, might bring to a foreign head of state. They are gifts that say: we recognise your importance and your worth. We bring them to honour you and pay respect.
The Magi were treating this young child, probably not a baby by now but a toddler, as if he were a king or an emperor – even though, as they have now established, he is not living in a palace and his parents are not royal. This tells us that Jesus is important to the world. But there’s more to it than this. For people familiar with the Hebrew scriptures, like Matthew and his first audience, like Mary and Joseph and later Jesus, this royal visit will immediately ring bells – it will take their minds back to the prophecy from Isaiah that we heard in our first reading.
Isaiah says, in verse 3, ‘nations will journey towards your light, and kings to your radiance’, and in verse 6, ‘Camels in droves will cover the land, young camels from Midian and Ephah, all coming from Sheba laden with gold and frankincense, heralds of the Lord’s praise’. (If you’ve seen pictures of the Magi as kings riding on camels, this is where the kings and camels come in – Matthew never mentions them.) But the link is very clear: the Magi, coming from afar to bring their gifts, are a fulfilment of this prophecy. Matthew is saying, to those who would understand, that Jesus is the new Jerusalem that Isaiah is promising.
That’s a big claim to make. But I’d like to leave the Magi for now, and look more closely at what Isaiah is saying, because I think this will help us for the year ahead.
‘Arise, shine, Jerusalem’. In the NRSV it says, ‘Arise, Jerusalem, and shine like the sun’. Sounds lovely! But Isaiah was writing to people who were very far from wanting to rise and shine. These were people who were returning from exile. They were taken away, you remember, when the kingdom collapsed, to Babylon – away from their homes and livelihoods, away from Jerusalem and the Temple, the heart of their faith – away from everything that mattered to them. Away, as they thought, from the love and protection of God. And the one thing that has kept them going, through all this upheaval, all this emotional turmoil, is the hope that one day they would be back. One day, they would get home. One day, God would restore them to their rightful country, and to their rightful place. The image in their minds of the good old days kept them going through the current difficult ones.
Then, after some 60 years, the politics changed, the exile ended and they went back. You can imagine the hope and excitement – and then the dreadful realisation that it had all changed. Their homes were in ruins, or lived in by others; the people who had not been in exile had moved on, and didn’t particularly want them back. The good old days were gone. This was no triumphal homecoming – this was the start of the slow, steady and painstaking task of rebuilding.
What a blow. What a massive disappointment. The dreams that had kept them going, come to nothing – and so close to turning into despair.
It is to these people, these who are sorely tempted just to put their heads under the blankets and give up, that Isaiah says, Arise, and shine like the sun. ‘Oh, go away, Isaiah, and leave us in peace. Go and be hearty somewhere else.’
But no. Isaiah is a prophet; he doesn’t go away. They are not being asked to shine because everything is now all right and hunky-dory. They are being told to shine because God has given them a second chance. Isaiah has always been clear that the reason for the exile was their disobedience and turning away from God. Now they have paid the price; they have returned physically; and this is their opportunity to return spiritually too – to come back to God, to receive God’s forgiveness as a most precious gift, and to live as the people they were always called to be: the chosen people of God, shining like a model of God’s love and goodness in the world.
Get up and shine, and the nations will be drawn to your light. Get up and shine, and kings will come to bring you treasures. Get up and shine for others, until you see your shining reflected in them and you can shine from your own inner joy.
So the homecoming, which they had so looked forward to, wasn’t in itself the happy ending of their story. Instead, it was a symbol of the real happy ending – the return to the love and forgiveness of God – and the means of expressing that happy ending, by living as God intended.
This is where the link with Jesus comes in. For those of us who have not been in exile, whose faith is not linked with a particular geographical location, we still have the same story, of homecoming to God, but it is Jesus who both symbolises that homecoming – by coming to live amongst us in humanity – and who makes that homecoming possible.
We share in this gift, of coming home to God.
There might be many times, in this year, when we don’t feel much like getting up and shining: When our personal dreams and targets are not met; when national and international news fills us with anxiety and despair. But shine we must, for God, for the world, as well as for ourselves. Shine we must because we have received the gift of God’s forgiveness and homecoming, and the gift of this year, and we shine in gratitude. And shine we can, because we have the light of Jesus.
When I was preparing this sermon, I came across a poem by Maya Angelou, which says what I want to say but so much more elegantly and eloquently. So let me end by reading this poem to you now. It’s quite long, but it is really one we need to hear.
CONTINUE – By Maya Angelou
My wish for you
Is that you continue
To be who and how you are
To astonish a mean world
With your acts of kindness
To allow humor to lighten the burden
Of your tender heart
In a society dark with cruelty
To let the people hear the grandeur
Of God in the peals of your laughter
To let your eloquence
Elevate the people to heights
They had only imagined
To remind the people that
Each is as good as the other
And that no one is beneath
Nor above you
To remember your own young years
And look with favor upon the lost
And the least and the lonely
To put the mantel of your protection
Around the bodies of
The young and defenseless
To take the hand of the despised
And diseased and walk proudly with them
In the high street
Some might see you and
Be encouraged to do likewise
To plant a public kiss of concern
On the cheek of the sick
And the aged and infirm
And count that as a
Natural action to be expected
To let gratitude be the pillow
Upon which you kneel to
Say your nightly prayer
And let faith be the bridge
You build to overcome evil
And welcome good
To ignore no vision
Which comes to enlarge your range
And increase your spirit
To dare to love deeply
And risk everything
For the good thing
Happily in the sea of infinite substance
Which set aside riches for you
Before you had a name
And by doing so
You and your work
Will be able to continue