“JOYFULLY JOIN THE QUEST”
Have you ever walked down a dark road at night carrying a lantern? It doesn't matter whether your destination is a mile down that road, or ten miles, the only light that you can see is the light shed by that lantern a step or two in front of you. The way you make progress is stepping into the edge of that light. As you take a step the light moves on.
That is the case for you and me on this day. We stand on the first Sunday of a new year. We stand on Epiphany day, a day when we celebrate the light of God. However, not even the light of God can show you and me what it is that's going to take place in this year to come. Not even the light of God can reveal to us what life will be like at the end of this year. The only way we can live is to take a step at a time, to step to the edge of the light as we have it, and trust that more light will be given.
In the passage from Isaiah we have those wonderful words, "Arise, shine; for your light has come." Those are often used as a Call to Worship. That is most appropriate, because they are a call to worship in the context in Isaiah as well. Most scholars today say the words are directed to Zion. The question is, who is Zion? Zion has numerous identities in the Old Testament. Zion is the mountain in Jerusalem upon which the Temple is built. Sometimes Zion is the designation for the Temple itself. Sometimes Zion is the designation for the Temple community: the priests, those who serve there, and those who gather to worship there. There are times when Zion is the designation for all that is good and rich at the very soul of Judaism, the core of that faith tradition. There are occasions when Zion is used to denote all of the Jewish people.
The call here is for Zion to come and worship. The word that is used is "arise." That word comes out of the Jewish tradition, out of a call for those who are grieving, for them to cease their mourning and to physically get up and get back into life. It is a call for them to leave behind the heavy, weary, burdensome task of carrying depression and a sense of loss, and move forward, because God is moving forward. The call to "arise" is a literal call to stand up and get on the road again, the road of life.
The call to "shine" is a call to be joyful. That word comes to us because of the understanding of the Jewish people that God was in their midst. Certainly it is the call of the early Church for us to shine and to be joyful because God is in our midst in the person of Jesus. This call says, "Arise, shine; for your light has come." Get up. Let go of all that would kill your spirit, all that would lead you to death, and accept joyfully the life that God is giving you day by day, and the light that God is giving you to live that life day by day. "Arise, shine; for your light has come."
What is implicit in the fact that this call is offered is an understanding that no matter how good our faith is, no matter how much the people in Isaiah's time were at the very core tradition of Judaism, no matter how much you and I are satisfied and filled with our faith, there is yet more. God has more to offer. You don't have it all. I don't have it all. No one has it all. Only God has it, and God is giving it to us. So "arise, shine; for your light has come." It is a powerful word. A word to move us beyond complacency, beyond satisfaction, and be open and receptive to all that God is giving.
In the New Testament passage from Matthew, we see those who are living out this call. Tradition, not the text, says there were three wise men. The reason tradition says that is because there were three gifts. Most scholars say that those wise men were Zoroastrian scholars or astronomers, probably from the area of Persia (what we would call Iraq today). They were those who at the very core of their belief had a significant dualism, a division between good and bad, between the spirit, which was good, and the body or physicality, which was bad, between the spirit world and the physical world. They studied the heavens because there was a belief central to their understanding that we would see in the heavens what was coming to the earth. It was a kind of precursor to the events taking place here.
Friends, you can be sure that their scholarly socks were knocked off of them when they got this message in the first century. Their scholarly socks were knocked off of them because this message said that which is good, that which is spirit, that which is divine, is coming to live in a human body, in this world. There is a merging together of that which was assumed to be bad with that which was known to be good, and now it is all meshed. That which was divine is now human. These followers moved not only beyond the light of their own country, they moved beyond the light of their own faith tradition. They moved out and took a great risk.
Thanks be to God for them, for they witness to you and me what we are called to do. It was amazing that they were able to follow the star. Physically, it was amazing. It probably took two years. That's why when Herod has the Slaughter of the Innocents, it's boy children two years and younger that are killed. Think about what those wise men did. The very foundation of their faith was this duality, and they were able to shelve that and receive new light, explore new possibilities, and find new life. Oh that you and I can do that too, open ourselves to the newness that God is providing for us this day.
As the wise men came and worshiped the Christ child, we have a picture of how it is that we are to be opened to God and God's leading. But there is so much more here for us as well on this day, this Epiphany day. One of the things that we recognize is that the wise men followed that which led them to life. But not every new idea leads to life. There are many ideas that lead to darkness and to death. We see that all about us. One of the things that we have to constantly do is test these claims to new revelations from God, these new lights that keep cropping up in new kinds of expressions of faith. How do we do that testing? What is the guide for us to do that?
A Wesleyan scholar by the name of Albert Outler, in studying the inquiring ways of John Wesley, developed what has come to be known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, four points that are used to test new concepts, new ideas, new revelations, and new light. Those four points are scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. You take this new idea, whatever it is, this new revelation that has come to you, and you test it on the old revelation, the revelation that we have in scripture, the surest thing we have about our faith. How does it compare with scripture? Scripture is always the primary test, the foundational test.
The second of those is tradition. What has the Church said through the ages about this subject? Has the Church said anything about it? Does it contradict anything that we have experienced before?
John Wesley was a product of the Enlightenment. He was a student of reason, a very logical thinker. Wesley says we need to test this idea by human reason. What does the very best of human thinking have to say about such an idea? Is this new idea congruent with that, or does it run contrary to the best of human thinking?
Finally, how does this new idea compare with your personal experience of God to this point? Not just your personal experience, but other people's personal experience as well.
We have four tests, scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, four means that will help us look at what is being revealed to us, to see if it truly is from God. It appears that Matthew would like to add a fifth, and I think that is significant. Remember last week we said that Matthew portrays Jesus as the new Moses. A part of this understanding comes from just the way the whole book is organized. There are five major teaching sections to correspond with the five books of Moses.
The first of those major teaching sections is the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' most famous teaching. A significant part of the Sermon on the Mount is about human relationships, and how we are to live with each other, how to have healthy human relationships. You are never to call your brother or your sister by a derogatory name. Don't call them fool, the hardest name that they could think of in that day. When you realize you are at the altar worshiping God, and there is somebody who has something against you, go and reconcile with that person, then come back. Only then can you truly worship God. Don't use people of the opposite sex. Don't use your sexual being as a tool to manipulate other people. All of our relationships should be relationships of honesty and justice and compassion. That's all in the first sermon by Jesus, the first teaching.
In Jesus' last sermon, the story of the Last Judgment, what is key is relationships. Jesus says to us, we will be judged on our relationships. We will be judged on whether we fed the hungry. We will be judged on whether we clothed the poor. We will be judged on how we have cared for those around us. Matthew is saying to us, if it is a light from God, it is a light that will help us see our neighbor, and it will help us see that neighbor's need.
As we stand on this Epiphany day, the call to us is to joyfully join the quest, the quest to see God's light, the quest to receive that which is new from God. The promise given to us in Matthew is, if it is of God, it will help us see our neighbor.
Today is the day that the Christmas Train goes from Campo, here in California, down to Tecate, in Mexico. The anticipation is that today there will be between five and six thousand children to welcome the train when it arrives. Perhaps you know this tradition. It started back in 1996. On September 15, 1996, Bekki Stewart died. She died of injuries from an automobile accident. It had been her tradition with her mother to do something for children at Christmastime. At Christmas '96, Bekki's parents gave to each of their remaining children $20 a piece, and said, "Go do something for a child. Do it memory of Bekki." They did.
The next year the parents did the same thing. The kids decided that they would band together. They took all $60 that they had and decided they would buy scads of candy. They planned to distribute the candy to the kids in Tecate who gather around the train when it pulls into town. Somehow that word got out, and others began to help them. Clothing, school supplies, and fruit were gathered as well as the candy. A great network built up. Word also went south. That year over 2,000 children showed up to receive the train. The next year over 4,000 were there. They anticipate between 5,000 and 6,000 this year.
The important thing about this story is here is a family in grief, and they heard the call from Isaiah: "Arise, shine; for your light has come." They too are a model for us.
You are invited to come to the Table of the Lord today. You will receive the bread and the cup, signs of the love of God for you. When you arise from this table and go forth from this sanctuary may you shine, because your light has come.
Thanks be to God. Amen.