January 2, 2011

Arise, shine; for your light has come

Passage: Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12, Isaiah 60:1

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

(Cartoon) Sheep named Gerald making New Year’s Resolutions (1) Eat Grass; the caption reads: “When it came to New Year’s Resolutions, Gerald was a realist.”

The title of the article read: “Resolutions further proof of humanity”.  I thought that this was likely an article about the human failure to keep resolves; apparently only 15% of people making resolutions are successful.  I guessed the author would tread the well worn path that such failure is all too “human”.  I was pleasantly surprised; the author’s point was intriguing.

He wrote: “A good friend of mine suggested not so long ago that New Year’s resolutions are merely further proof that we’re human. She may be onto something.  Our (pet) fish, when alive, showed no interest in ever improving on its swimming stroke. ... And our cat, ... never was much interested in anything. Very difficult to tell whether he was our pet or whether we were his.  But people are different. Far different. ...  even the most self-interested, self-indulgent, self-satisfied among us seem to be able to separate from their own little worlds to commit to some sort of change once a year.

Put in an amusing way the author has, I think, touched on something profound.  There is something in us that indicates things could be different, improved upon, or changed for the better; our cousins in the creaturely kingdom do not seem to share our need for change.  The Genesis story tells us that the distinction is because God speaks only to us humans; God, thus, created the human able to hear and respond to His address.  This is precisely what God is doing through the prophet Isaiah in this text; addressing his people: “Arise, shine; for your light has come.”

1. I can think of no greater motivation to make resolution than hearing God’s personal address—“Arise, shine”.  The call issued through the prophet Isaiah to God’s people is, in essence, to stand up and let us see you in all your radiant glory.  I know that it seems a counter-productive proposition for God that he intends his light to shine through his people; nevertheless it is what God indicates—‘arise, shine’.  To be sure, we can think of all those times we got up with great purpose that things were really going to be different this time; we found ourselves too soon stumbling.  We say to God—look I don’t want to embarrass you anymore so perhaps it would be better to simply stay out of sight.  Nonetheless God calls us; Arise, shine.

This text from Isaiah is believed to have been first addressed to the people of Israel who returned from captivity in Babylon; returning to rebuilt their ancestral home; a Persian King named Cyrus having made possible their return.  You can imagine the great hope in their hearts inspired by the fact that what they longed for was actually going to take place; much like our excitement as we launch out in the initial stages of reaching for some longed for goal of objective; the strength of our resolve is at a peak.  As time went on and the magnitude and difficulty of the task of rebuilding among the ruins of Jerusalem sank into these replanted exiles, discouragement set in.  The timeline for the accomplishment of worthy goals and objectives passed; reset more-realistic timelines came and went with downsized goals still unmet; it seemed useless to even try anymore.  It was to just such a moment that this word was spoken; “Arise, shine.”

Is this prophetic word only for difficult moments?  “It’s when things are brightest—when you have everything and still don’t feel satisfied—that disappointment is most frequent and acute,” contends psychologist David Brandt, author of Is That All There Is? and a 20-year student of disappointment. “Today, we suffer from an unparalleled case of inflated hopes and dreams,” he writes. “We expect medical advances to keep us healthy and well into our 80s. We expect the economy to keep rolling along . . . We expect new technologies to save the Earth’s ecosystems and protect us from ourselves. Disappointment flourishes in this kind of ‘everything’s possible’ environment.”

It seems that no matter the circumstance—in difficulty or when we have everything—disappointment and discouragement have a way of undermining resolve.

I have always been a little cynical of what sounds like over-the-top motivational slogans; such as “releasing the giant within you” or “designed for greatness”.  (The only things that seem “giant” or “great” are the royalties from the book and CD’s I need to purchase.)  When these Israelites, struggling to make a go of life among ruins, leave alone the extra it takes to rebuilt a city, hear this call to arise, shine with the promise “the wealth of nations shall come to you”; I wonder if some felt this a little over-the-top.  This was simply to remind them of what would never be again—the heady days of Solomon.  Indeed, we Christians often read this text as predicate of the world to come—it is true that scripture has more than one horizon.

Still, about 500 years before Jesus these people rebuilt the temple known to us as the second temple; this is the temple Herod added large courtyards too which stood in Jesus’ day; the one Jesus drove moneychangers from.  In 70 AD (CE) Jerusalem and this Temple were destroyed by the Romans; it is said that the price of gold fell dramatically as the wealth of this Temple was released on to the imperial markets.

2.  Perhaps you have never connected the call to “arise and shine” with the exercise of articulating New Year’s resolutions; we may not typically think of making resolution as a discipline of faith, yet there is a sense in which it is profoundly so.  To imagine making behaviour change is very much to hope for something we do not yet see; it is to believe for a future that is yet to materialize.  The book of Proverbs (23:7) declares “as a man thinketh in his heart; so he is.”

Have you identified some resolves for 2011—we may call them goals and prefer to think it as the exercise of setting annual goals.  There is a creaturely wisdom that is very helpful to be found in the practice of writing annual goals. It is a common theme from the leaders in life leadership skills that it is very important to write these goals down.  Writing is that gift we have through which we can take our thoughts and ideas and make them actionable. The pen (or keyboard) is indeed a mighty thing.

I am in the habit of setting annual goals; it is part of wider vision for implementing a personal mission statement for my life.  I was looking back as I set goals for 2011—in 2001 I wrote this goal: to explore study possibilities for doctoral work.  I had to work for a living so I needed a programme that would fit the reality of my life—at least in this respect.  In 2010 I finished what I set out to then explore; these are not heroic accomplishments, some years I met targets others got rolled into future years.

The challenge most people find is that while they can write the goal; implementation is another matter.  There is truth to this observation.  What I found was this; if I would write those goals and once per week made an appointment with myself to review them it made a profound difference in what I got done.  There is any number of good methodologies or systems you could follow for getting things done; this creaturely wisdom provides much benefit for life.

Perhaps you also have found that you can be armed with the very best system for getting things done; possess clearly articulated goals and objectives; what seem to be lacking is the willpower to get it done.

“Simply clenching your muscles can increase your willpower, found Aparna A. Labroo at the University of Chicago and Iris W. Hung at the National University of Singapore. Over five studies, the researchers found that people who intentionally firmed their muscles, by making a fist, for example, could shore up their willpower to endure short-term pain for the benefit of long-term gain. One caveat researchers found is that the person must really want the long-term goal – of saving money, for example. If you don’t have that goal, clenching won’t do much for you.”

3. It is the challenge I found with all goal setting and implementation systems; whence is the desire to really want the goal.  I never found that the impetus from the promise of wealth, or of well tuned work/home balance, or of a better functioning me to have much staying power.  If the text in Isaiah ended with “arise and shine” then this is precisely where it would leave us; without the willpower.  But Isaiah does not leave us there; and this is one point where I think we vastly underestimate the gospel of Jesus Christ. Arise, shine; for your light has come.  The Apostle John takes up this theme of Jesus as your light when he wrote: “What has come into being in him was the true light that enlightens everyone coming into the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

We vastly underestimate the light Jesus is to the whole of our existence.  Notice how the text holds these two things together—our “arising and shining” with “your light has come”.  It is true that the emphasis belongs on what God has done—for your light has come—but this is never to diminish the importance of God’s own people as agents in themselves—arise, shine.  For God’s light in Jesus to shine through us requires our participation of arising and shining.  I know of no impetus for life that compares to living life for his sake; to set goals motivated by our desire to do the best we can with the gifts he has given us for his sake.
The story of the Magi coming in search of the one born king of the Jews includes the sighting of a star.  Much ink has been spilt over what it was these Magi saw in the sky; one thing is clear—the star is a symbol that we need divine revelation to find the Christ child.  Even the wise of the world need to be led to him.  There is much wisdom possessed by humans that gives rise to many creaturely goods (furnaces for example).  But there is a wisdom we can never have by human powers of cognition alone because our sin blinds us to our condition; we would never discover the need of a saviour except that he comes to us and shows the way; he apprehends us.

I enjoy the study of philosophy.  One of the premises that the philosophers of history all share— Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Hume, Kant, Hegel—is that philosophy would bring happiness to humanity.  The true meaning for life was to be found in the work of philosophy.  If this were true then philosophers ought to be an universally happy lot—such is not the case.  Thinking can produce much good but it is not the true Light who has come to is in Jesus.

In recent decades psychologists have discerned a link between a lack of light and depression. Some of the most melancholy people in the world live in the northern reaches of places like Finland and Norway where, during many months of the year, sunlight is restricted to a few scant hours per day. In other parts of the world something called "Seasonal Affective Disorder," or "SAD" for short, has been discovered in people who drive to work in the morning darkness of winter, work all day in a windowless office or factory, only to drive back home in the evening darkness. When people go without natural light long enough, something goes awry and they begin to slip into depression. For some, a most striking remedy has been prescribed: light therapy.

Light therapy is what we all need—that is the therapy that is the light that has come in Jesus.

4.  Jesus once told a parable of two homes; one built on sand the other on a rock. I read recently of a modern day parallel.

On October 19, 2010, a test was conducted at the Institute for Business and Home Safety in Richburg, South Carolina. Researchers constructed two 1,300-square-foot houses inside a $40 million laboratory and then observed how a simulated hurricane would impact the homes.

The first home was built according to conventional standards. The second home included reinforcement straps that connected every level of the building, from the foundation all the way to the roof. Then the researchers turned on giant fans, creating gusts of wind up to 110 miles per hour (equal to a category 3 hurricane). In the first two experiments, which lasted under ten minutes, both homes survived the intense winds. But when they tried a third experiment, turning on the fans for more than ten minutes, the conventional home began to shake and then collapsed. In contrast, the home with the floors and roof reinforced to the foundation sustained only cosmetic damage.

Tim Reingold, an engineer working on the experiment, summarized the results with a pointed question: "The bottom line you have to ask yourself is, which house would you rather be living in?"

The storms will come; a life where every level is connected together by the true light that is Christ Jesus is a life prepared for such storms.  “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”