How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!
(1 John 3:1)
“Rise and shine!” A mother says to her drowsy kids to get them out of bed and on their way to school. But they don’t want to hear it. All they want to do is sleep. “Rise and shine!” Shouts an intimidating drill sergeant to bunk beds filled with terrified boot campers. But they don’t want anything to do with him. They’d rather stay in the comfort of their beds. “Rise and shine!” It’s a bright and cheery phrase, so isn’t it kind of ironic that it’s almost exclusively spoken to people who don’t want to hear it? How would you react if, in the middle of the night, into your bedroom prances someone who’s obnoxiously awake for such an ungodly hour and tells you to “Rise and shine!” I don’t know which would be louder – the audible groan coming from the person in bed, pulling their covers back over their head, or the sound of the alarm clock flying in the direction of the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed wake up caller. Today, we’re celebrating the Festival of Epiphany. Epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning, “shine forth” or “appearance.” At Christmas, we celebrated Jesus as the Light of the world, born in our darkness. At Epiphany, we celebrate because that Light of the world shines forth as the Savior of the whole world - both Jew and Gentile. So, it makes sense that we’d say “Rise and shine” on Epiphany Sunday. But still, hearing those words is enough to make you cringe. They’re almost always spoken to people who don’t want to hear them.
If anybody didn’t want to hear about rising and shining it was the people of Judah during the prophet Isaiah’s time. The Assyrians, those ancient war criminals had deported 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel – a full 83% of the Promised People, wiped off the map. And now, there was another big bully on the block, the Babylonians were waiting in the wings to come in and crush the remaining 2 tribes of Judah, and cart them off into exile. This wasn’t just bad luck for Israel – they’d brought this trouble on themselves. The Lord had been faithful to his promises and his people. He led them out of slavery from Egypt. He parked them in the Promised Land complete with cities they didn’t build and fields they didn’t plant. Even after all of the Lord’s faithfulness, the people turned away from him and run after idols. Sure, they went to the temple and made offerings with their hands but their hearts were on another planet. They gave lip service to things like justice and mercy, but were more interested in lining their own pockets at anybody’s expense, even God’s. But in spite of their faithlessness, the Lord wanted his people back. He would use those nations of Assyria and Babylon to discipline his people, and it wouldn’t be pleasant. They’d be ripped away from hearth and home, family and familiarity, removed from the land, from the temple – those visible reminders of God’s presence among them – and plopped into a land not their own, surrounded by a people not their own. Things were not pretty. Into that pitch black scene of despair from the past and hopelessness for the future came the prophet Isaiah speaking the words of our Old Testament lesson, Arise and shine!
A lot of people might hear that and just think, “Great, here’s another Christian who’s too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good; always rattling on about how God’s got a plan and how things will get better.” It’s enough to make you cringe. Isaiah had it right, but apparently didn’t remember when he said, “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples.” He said it himself – things are bad! And now he has the nerve to tell me to rise and shine! Sometimes Christians get perceived that way, don’t we? Like people who walk around saying, “Don’t worry, be happy!” all the time, completely detached from reality, oblivious to what the lives of real people are actually like. And when that happens, the results are predictable: Are you really listening to me? Do you have any idea what I’m going through? Rise and shine?! You don’t know about my marriage; you don’t know what it’s like to have a son/sibling/parent I haven’t talked to in a decade; you don’t know about my addiction, my abuser, my depression. It’s a dark world, and Christians aren’t immune from it either.
That kind of dark cynicism creeps in and sets up shop in our hearts, too. Why bother with the word of God – it’s not like it’s going to change anything. Preacher, tell me one more time about hope in Christ and I’ll punch you in the nose, because you don’t know how hard it is out here! That’s the clever trick of the devil - it seems like a message of hope and a promise of God, spoken in the name of Jesus, is somehow invalidating the experience of the person we’re sharing it with. Almost as if the gospel can’t possibly be for me, because my life is such a testimony to its opposite! Pretty soon, we become used to the darkness, thinking that this is all there is. Here I am, just me and my problems, getting acclimated to my new normal, decorating the walls of my abyss, because nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows my darkness. Into your pitch black scene of despair form the past and hopelessness for the future comes Isaiah telling you to arise and shine!
What’s going on here? Are Isaiah’s words simply blind optimism for a silver lining? Hardly. Listen to what he says, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and he glory of the LORD rises upon you.” Rise and shine! This is what Epiphany is all about – rise and shine because the Son of God shines on you, yes even you living under a cloud of thick darkness. This is the Light of the world prophesied by Isaiah, preached by Paul, and presented gifts by the Magi - and this Light is for you. Jesus came not to demand something of you, but to be something for you – he came to be your substitute, living every moment of his life in perfect obedience to his Father’s will, because he knew you couldn’t and you wouldn’t. The Light of the world has dawned! Jesus came not to demand something of you, but to be something for you. Jesus came to be your Savior – the One to rescue you from your sins. Think of it – the very Light of the world slain by the darkness of death only to burst forth in the glorious day of his resurrection, for you. The Light of the world has come, not to demand something of you, but to be something for you. Jesus came to be your Light – to show you that even in the darkness of this world and the thick darkness of your sin, he shines on you with his perfect forgiving love.
Arise and shine! Isaiah says, not like an obnoxiously cheery wake-up call that gives you no power to actually do what it asks. Isaiah says, Arise and shine not to try to get you to do something, but to show you what you have received. Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. The Light of the world shines - for you. Do you see how that little phrase “for you” takes the discussion to a whole new level? Jesus is the Light of the world! Great. Jesus is the Light of the world who shines his forgiveness on you. That makes all the difference, doesn’t it? God so loved the world - that’s true enough. God so loves you – that’s the blessed point of the gospel.
Rise and shine, because the Light of the world is shining on you! Rise and shine, not because everything in your life will suddenly get better, not because the estranged will suddenly become the beloved. Rise and shine because his promise is true and it’s for you. Rise and shine because the Light of the world shines on you in your darkness. How does he do it? Jesus, the Light of the world, cuts through the dense fog of your doubt with a word spoken his name and carrying with it his full authority - I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The Light of the world pierces the night of your guilt by placing into your hands and on your lips his own body and blood for the forgiveness of sins, whose sins? Yours! Through the water and word of Baptism, the Light of the world reached his radiant hand into the dark abyss that was your life and pulled you out, calling you by name, and making you his own.
If any of you missed the first ten minutes of the service, you might not know that Rachel and I had a baby – well, Rachel had the baby, I was just there. As I held that newborn baby in my arms, she kept trying to open her eyes, but the bright light in the room and the sun shining through the window caused her to close them right away. And then it occurred to me – for nine months, she’s known only darkness inside her mother’s womb – sure there were the faint sounds coming from outside and the dull glow of a flashlight pushed up against the belly, but really darkness is what she knew – until she came out and saw the light and in that light saw her world in a whole new way. You might be tempted to think that the darkness of this world is all there is. The devil would like nothing more than to convince you of that. But listen to the Light of the world make promises with your name on them. Do you feel alone? Jesus promises, I am with you always. Do you feel like God’s forgotten you? The Lord of all creation promises, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands. Do you think you’re unimportant in God’s eyes? That your life is just a testimony to how little he cares, kind of like you’re just a sheep meant for the slaughter? Listen to your Good Shepherd’s promise, No one can snatch [you] out of my hand. Do you think nobody knows the trouble you’ve seen and nobody knows your darkness? Jesus does. And he’s defeated it for you.
Rise and shine this Epiphany because the darkness of sin and doubt must flee from the radiance of the Son of God who’s on your side. Rise and shine because the Son of Righteousness rises upon you with healing and forgiveness in his wings – not only for your sins, but also for the sins of the whole world. Rise and shine, because Christ shines his light on us, sets us free from sin, and sets us loose to shine his love to everyone around us. Rise and shine, because the dead, darkened, and despairing don’t stay down when Christ Jesus is in the mix. Rise and shine this Epiphany because Christ is here, and he’s here for you!
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power, and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.