The Epiphany of our Lord
January 5, 2020
Rev. John R. Larson
Ascension Lutheran Church
Within a few months my father will be 94 years old. (Or as he puts it, the 55th anniversary of his 39th birthday.) I am sure that he told me many things during my years – with a few of them he probably wasted his breath. But he told me something when I was a teenager, some years ago now, that I still remember– he said, “John, you don’t do anything for the only time, you do it for the first time.” It was spoken in the context of a warning, something that this teenager needed. As I began making choices about good and evil, right and wrong, what path I would take in life, I needed to understand that the choice I would make would have lasting consequences upon my life. There are some sins I have avoided knowing that if I did them once I could be doing them again and again. But there are some sins that I didn’t avoid and I now know the truth of his prophetic voice – “You don’t do anything for the only time, you do it for the first time.” There was a big “watch out!” to his words.
There was another man, even older than my dad, who issued a warning to God’s people. Isaiah speaks, “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples.” (Isaiah 60:2) The people of Israel were like a refugee sitting in a pile of dust outside their home. They were malnourished, hopeless and without any direction for their future. In the previous chapter this is a picture of them, “We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like men without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead.” (Isaiah 59:9b-10) Thick darkness is over all the peoples.
A few years ago my wife took ownership of the TV remote control for a short while. AMC was having a marathon on their series “Breaking Bad”. In the show a high school chemistry professor starts to use his talents with chemicals in a bad way – he gets involved in cooking Meth – a terrible and addictive drug. Walt, the teacher turned bad is married to Skyler. In the episode that I saw she had just found out his little secret and had kicked him out of the house. She was not going to live with such a man and she wouldn’t let their two kids have anything to do with him.
But he came back to the house. He decided that he didn’t want to be kicked out. So Skyler calls the police to report his breaking into the house. She tells Walt, her husband, that if he doesn’t leave she is going to tell the police everything. Everything!! But when they arrive the police are limited in what they can do in removing him from their house. They were still married. This was also his house. There was no restraining order. He hadn’t raised his hand to her or the kids – no domestic violence. The officer says to her, “Help me out, here. Is there anything that he has done that we can use to take him from here?” She says nothing. Uneasy silence.
The episodes that I watched show an awful growth of acceptance in her (and of course, a harder heart in him). Skyler, who initially detested what he was doing, slowly grew to accept it. In fact, when one of the “business partners” tried to burn down their house she was the one who told her husband that something needed to be done about that partner. With a good euphemism she called for that guy to be dead – just like so many others had become.
What I saw, and I know some of you have watched every episode, and could tell me much more about the development of the characters in the show, was a picture of how darkness and evil begins so small and soon becomes so big. That is what sin does. That is how evil grows. When we choose to let the devil in, it is apparent that we don’t do something, anything, for the only time – we do it for the first time – with many other times to follow. Isaiah tells us, “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples.”
What is quite amazing is what God does for us who live in this darkness. Isaiah writes about God’s great and saving work. He begins, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.” (Isaiah 60:1) Then in the coming verses it reads, “But the Lord rises upon you and His glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Isaiah 60:2b-3) The people of God, like refugees sitting in dust and dirt, are given the word of hope, “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” God came to such people, in such situations, to bring His brilliant light. When we repent, seeking a new way, God brings a new beginning.
He has come to you. Instead of captivity; we experience freedom. Instead of violence and an unsettled life; we possess peace. Instead of devastation; we have fullness and joy. Isaiah is the Messianic Prophet, always pointing people to Jesus. In Jesus God has revealed Himself to us. In Jesus, we who could just sit there in dust and shame, are told to rise. God’s light has come upon us.
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12). That is why we can rise. Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, has worked the forgiveness of all sin and overcame the gates of hell and has defeated death forever!! How can we sit in the dust, dispirited and mourning forever? Arise!! Shine!! In Hebrews we are told, “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees.” (Hebrews 12:12) We are assured, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31b) Arise!! Shine!!
When we read this section from Isaiah it reminds us of the Magi who came from the east bearing gifts of gold and incense and myrrh. We read in Isaiah, “The wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.” (Isaiah 60:5b-6)
This verse is about what God would do for His people. He took them from dust and ashes, from hopelessness, and allowed them to stand. And now He calls them to shine. Little Israel – small and weak!! And now all nations would be coming to them. All would see how God made them so bright and strong.
That is what God does for us. For me. For you. We arise. We shine. The season of Epiphany is a season of evangelism and outreach. We see that Jesus desires all people to stand, to rise and shine. He wants all people to know His saving work in Jesus and all people to live by the power of the Gospel. Our epistle for today says, “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to His eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In Him and through faith in Him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.” (Ephesians 3:10-12)
Shine!! As Paul says, “For once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.” (Ephesians 5:8) The light we have is not our own light, it is His light. We shine with a reflected light. When people see us they should see the light of Christ. We are to show Him to the world.
Back in 2014, I was reading in The Reporter, the monthly newsletter of our Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, concerning the work that our sister congregation, Shepherd of the Hills in Centennial did following the shooting at Arapahoe High School. Shepherd, which is only a few blocks from Arapahoe was the logical choice for the 1,800 students who needed to evacuate the building. Pastor Brad Stoltenow, Senior Pastor at Shepherd said, “Literally within minutes, and by minutes I mean two or three minutes, our facility was packed. At any given time, we had upwards of 3,000 people on our campus.”
Pastor Stoltenow knew that in this awful time of great anxiety and fear, his church and the staff had the opportunity to shine. “We all had the opportunity to be God’s own hands and God’s own feet, working through the service of so many of these people. We are very, very glad to be part of the community.” On their website that day was a picture of parents waiting for their children and these words, “This was the scene outside our school and church today. What was happening inside was the love of Jesus being shown by our staff to many scared students and parents. Please pray for all the students at Arapahoe and for our school children who experienced a lock-down.”
Shine. That is what they did. Hooray. As John writes, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5, alternate translation)
We live in a world with too much darkness. We live in a world with too little hope. We live in a world where we can deceive our own hearts and minds into thinking the wrong is actually the right. But God comes to direct us in a new way. He comes to us now and says, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.” Amen!!
(This sermon, with some minor changes, was first preached at Ascension on January 5, 2014)