January 5, 2014

Your Light Has Come

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

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

“Wise men came from the East to Jerusalem;” it is a story we know well. They have come to worship the child born King of the Jews. By now Joseph and Mary and Jesus have left the stable birthing room and have rented a modest home in Bethlehem. (Matthew tells us that upon “entering the house” the wise men “saw the child with Mary his mother.”) We take a moment or two to consider a reflection on this event by one of these wise men.

(The First Christmas: Wiseman video 2:52)

“It was four hundred years,” said our Wiseman. The four hundred years is the time between the last prophet of the older testament, Malachi, and the events that the first book of the New Testament, Matthew, describes. The time between God’s last word through a prophet and the coming of the Word made flesh.

It has been about five hundred years since the prophetic word in Isaiah was uttered, “Arise, shine; for your light has come.” Five hundred years since this word was given that is linked to the visit of the wise men; “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” This prophetic word “your light has come” picks up the theme of light of an earlier Isaiah text perhaps penned one hundred years before this one; “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 a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:2-6)

But now the silence has been broken, the long wait brought to an end, by the cries of the Son of God. The Apostle John describes God coming among us in Jesus from a different angle of vision than that of Matthew or Luke. Listen for this theme of light from John’s lofty introduction. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)

As you stand on the threshold of another new year—with all its challenges and possibilities—is there any better news that we could have than “your light has come?” As we take our first steps into this year of our Lord 2014, reaching forward for what we hope will unfold, I can’t think of a better companion with whom to walk than the one who said, “I am the light of the world.”

During the sermons of Advent and Christmas we have been considering out Christmas decorations, that is the Christmas furnishings of our mind and heart. We have strategically placed our Lord’s promise to return, the title Messiah, the name Jesus, the “good news” banner, Bethlehem’s reality, and today we place the “light”. The truth is you can’t hang enough lights with adequate wattage, nor are there electricity plants sufficient to power enough lights, to compare to the one who is the light of the world.

I invite you to reflect with about these wise men. As Matthew tells their story he shows us how we ought to respond to this great reality in which we live—that our light has come. Matthew shows us the actions of the Magi—they come to worship (our text says “to pay him homage”). We often get focussed on the gifts they bring—and indeed they are revealing about what these wise men thought about Jesus. But before they presented their gifts we are told they worshipped Jesus. The purpose of their perhaps-two-year journey was to worship. The light of lights has come into the world. Worship is the appropriate response.

1. When you read the story of Wise Men one theme that runs through the story with respect to worship is this; it matters who you worship. One could read Matthew’s account as the juxtaposition of two kings—King Herod and “the child born king of the Jews.” It is clear which of these two the wise men have come to worship. When they show up in Jerusalem they do not ask for a meeting with Herod to pay him due homage. Matthew clearly wants to tell us that one of these kings is worthy of worship—the other is not.

According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Herod’s cruelty and paranoia reach epic proportions as he aged. Herod was responsible for the murder of many family members, including sons and his beloved wife Mariamne because he perceived they were a threat to his power. In his old age, Herod had sons of Jerusalem’s leading families incarcerated with the instructions they were to be killed when he died so people would mourn at the time of his death. Herod is about seventy years-of-age when Jesus is born. The slaughter of Bethlehem’s children that Mathew writes about following the wise men’s visit is completely in keeping with the character of Herod Josephus describes.

Herod also knows which king is worthy of worship. Herod was frightened; afraid of the one who could inspire people to undertake such a strenuous and costly journey to an unknown location to worship. The magnitude of the efforts the wise men expended to come and worship the child born king of the Jews is not lost on Herod. It suggests to him that the established powers are at risk; this child is a rival and Herod knows to fear him. Herod can only inspire loyalty by threats and intimidation and violence. For the child born king of the Jews people offer themselves willingly.

On November 29 (2013) viewers of the CBC’s The Fifth Estate learned about Lucia Jang, a Toronto single mother who is originally from a small North Korean city near the Chinese border. North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, referred to as “our eternal father,” died in 1994 and his son Kim Jong-il assumed his father`s mantle. During the 1990s, the country was ravaged by famine. More than a million North Koreans are believed to have starved to death. At the time, Lucia was married to a man she had met in her government job. He turned out to be abusive, and sold their first-born son to a wealthy couple. Facing starvation, Lucia began going back and forth into China, exchanging petty items for rice and oils. China, which does not recognize the legitimacy of North Korean refugees, but rather sees them as illegal work migrants, sent Lucia back to North Korea, where she was imprisoned in labour camps. When she was released, she found her way back to China, before getting re-apprehended. In 2003, pregnant again, Lucia found herself in another prison camp. North Korea did not recognize the legitimacy of children conceived in China, and moved to abort the child. But Lucia managed to escape once again; and this time, she found a way through an underground network to refuge in Mongolia and eventually asylum in South Korea, and from there to Canada. In a forthcoming book, The Stars In Between the Sun and the Moon, Canadian author Susan McClelland tells Lucia Jang’s story, with Toronto-based immigration lawyer Soohyun Nam acting as translator.

One of our newspapers published and excerpt from that book and to say that Lucia was treated inhumanly by her own government would be a significant understatement. As I read this excerpt one particular paragraph caught my attention. Lucia is describing what life in the labour camps was like. In describing the evening activities following the day`s work she wrote the following: “After a light meal, we all would have to spend the evening worshipping our eternal father and supreme leader, reciting the commandments and being hit and abused by the guards if we drifted off to sleep or slumped under the weight of our fatigue.”

When Lucia speaks of worshipping “our eternal father and supreme leader” she means Kim Il-sung and son Kim Jong-il. The only worship permitted in North Korea is that of the Kim family dictators. Christian faith, however, is on the rise in North Korea. According to a Wall Street Journal article, on November 3rd, 80 North Koreans, including a group of Christians, were executed by firing squad. The child born king of the Jews threatens the powers of this world today.

It matters who you worship. Western democracies, like Canada, have forgotten the influence of Christian belief that brought much good for us. This is not to say that everything Christians did or that was done in the name of Christ was good. But, for example, the widespread belief that God created humans and that a personal God takes active interest in human affairs has improved humanity’s lot significantly. Last Christmas Conrad Black made this astute observation that “ a much larger number of people that those of us who believe that Christ was divinely inspired and told St Peter to found a church, are the beneficiaries of a level of civility that society would not have attained without Christianity.”

Think about Herod and these Wise Men. Who would you say will be more likely to contribute positively to civility in society? It matters who you worship. Who you worship stands at the heart of the trajectories for living of our lives. You light has come; the trajectory he sets is for your glory.

2. In not only matters who you worship, it matters that you worship. Matthew tells that it was following worship that the Wise Men gave their gifts; it was following worship that they had the dream warning them not to return to Herod; we then read that clause bursting with significance—“they left for their own country by another road.” Life changes after they worship Jesus—they travel another road. (A whole month of sermons waiting to be preached from this text). It is not insignificant that worship of Jesus leads them away from the corruption of Jerusalem. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. As corrupt and despotic as Herod was people are still drawn to power. These scribes who inform Herod that Bethlehem is the place the Wise Men are to look for the child born king are powerful and influential people. Notice they do not go to Bethlehem to see nor worship. They like their power and influence.

In a September 2013 news story it was reported that the annual median household income in the United States was $51,000. Median being as many above that line as below. There are four counties in the United States where the annual median household income is $100,000. Three of these four counties are suburbs of Washington DC. The lure of power and influence is as strong today as it was in first century Israel. People like the money that seems to accompany power. Please note that the Wise Men returned to their country by a different road following their worship of the Saviour.

In the worship of our Lord we grow in our awareness of to what and to whom we give our power or the allegiance that accords power. Let me ask—to who do we give the power to tell us who we are? Who has the power to tell us whether or not we are valuable or successful? Who or what has the power to shape our moods and our minds, influence our decisions, tell us whether we are safe or unsafe, and help us discern what is important and what is not? In Jesus Christ your light has come! In our worship of him he becomes for us the one who sets the trajectory for all these influences that impact our living.

In a 2013 interview, actress Megan Fox talked about her connection to church and worship. She said, “I can't stand pills. I don't like drinking. I don't like feeling out of control …. You have to understand, [at church] I feel safe. I was raised to believe that you're safe in God's hands. But I don't feel safe with myself.” I thought her comment “I don’t feel safe with myself” to be insightful into the human condition. In our era of “whatever is true for you” the worship of self is a dominant pattern for many. Each year the Oxford Dictionary chooses a “word of the year” from new words that have entered the English lexicon. The 2013 word of the year was “selfie”; for those not familiar with social media, a “selfie” is a self-taken photo. It seems a fitting choice for word of the year for a generation increasingly defined as much by self-focus as the technology used to capture it.

Like all other idols, worshipping self is ultimately limiting and sometimes unsafe—occasionally as unsafe as Jerusalem under Herod. This is not to say that you and I are unimportant—just not worthy of worship. It is true that in relationship with Jesus Christ, in life lived in service of him, we become who we truly are. This is not the same sentiment nor trajectory of “I did it my way,” as there were some inherent virtue in individualism. Becoming who you truly are in a life lived in worship of Christ is a trajectory for life that leads from life to life to life. As we take on this year of 2014, I know of no better shaping for our life than the shape that unfolds through a pattern of life that makes worship of the one who is our light a priority. It matters that you worship.

If you were to come to the life management seminar I have lead here at Central, at one point we would talk about developing a pattern of planning where the most important activities of our life would get scheduled first in our calendars and then all the others stuff around. Hence the saying “first things first’; of course easier said than done. Here is my very best counsel for 2014. Take your calendars—if you use an electronic one the repeat function makes this very easy—and block a time every Sunday morning for worship; maybe with the words, “appointment with Jesus.” Of course keeping the appointment is more of a challenge than planning the appointment, but at least it is there. I know that some of you travel; my travel experience is that if I can find a restaurant to eat in in a new city, I can usually find a church to worship in. I remember a visit to Dublin where I visited the Church of Ireland’ cathedral church, Christ Church. Every day at noon a Eucharist service takes place—a service that has happened daily for over 800 years. It was joy to gather with a few folk and share that day in this long-standing tradition of worship.

Arise, shine; for your light has come. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.