January 3, 2021   Turning 21: The Promise by Pastor David

Isaiah 60:1-6 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4  Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
5  Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,  the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 6  A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

January 3, 2021 Turning 21: The Promise St. Luke UMC

When I turned 21 I was in college - here in Pennsylvania, not far from here really. It was spring semester on an exchange and I was finding out how beautiful spring could really be, marveling at azaleas and rhododendron flowering bushes blooming all over the place. I was kind of lonely really, since I was away from my friends at school. And I was angry, because the Vietnam war was still dragging on, even though it was clear by then that I wouldn’t be drafted. 

My hair was getting long and I was having trouble getting along with my Dad, because I thought I knew better than he did about just about everything. I mentioned in my New Year’s Eve reflection that I was kind of arrogant and that I didn’t really know as much as I thought I did. That’s what I meant. 
If my dad was around, I would apologize (again) to him - and my mom too, even though we would still disagree about some things. Having been on the other end of 21 energy, as a dad, I would definitely give him a little more credit. 

Do you remember what you were like at 21? how you were trying to make sense of the world or be in the world? Maybe you remember more a young person growing up and what they were/are like around that age.

As we turn the calendar into the 2021 year, I decided to call my sermon series for January, “Turning 21.”  I may be wrong, but there are some ways in which our society and our country could be coming out of its adolescence - kind of like turning 21. This is my hopeful take on our growth. We may be at a different stage, but I think there may be some usefulness in thinking this month about what it would be for us to mature, to reach for knowing who we really are and what our calling is. I still have a little bit of 21 year old in me, I think.

For today, our reading is from Isaiah 60. We most often read this is our assigned reading on Epiphany, but it often kind of gets lost in the stories of the three kings, coming to kneel at the manger of the baby Jesus. Certainly phrases from Isaiah 60 are echoed in the story in Matthew of the coming of the kings, but let’s look at this passage on its own terms today.

We read Isaiah a lot at this time of year. It has a lot of wonderful celebration of God’s light in the darkness and God’s presence as enveloping darkness. Can I tell you a little bit about what was going on Isaiah’s time that made him write this? Bear with me. It’s a bit of history, but it’s going to help us. There’s actually three prophetic sections in Isaiah - probably 3 different prophets writing with similar messages. Isaiah 60 is from third Isaiah. First Isaiah wrote before the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Almost 600 years before Jesus was born, the temple was destroyed and the leaders of Judah were carried off to Babylon. First Isaiah warned about it. Second Isaiah wrote from the exile in Babylon.

And Third Isaiah - Third Isaiah wrote from the perspective of the leaders coming home after the exile in Babylon, coming back to Jerusalem. What did the leaders find when they came back to Jerusalem? Well, it was worse than they feared. They knew the temple had been destroyed, but seeing it was heartbreaking. They knew they had been away, but seeing the shape of the people who were left in Jerusalem was soul crushing. They knew it would be bad when they came back home, but this was hard to see.

And what does Third Isaiah write about this soul crushing reality? “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and God’s glory will appear over you.”

It’s even more beautiful when you put in context, don’t you think? It gives me goosebumps to think that Isaiah the prophet comes back out of exile in Babylon, after weeping at the loss of the temple, and then sees it in person and writes, “Arise, shine; for your light has come!” He insists that Jerusalem and the temple will be rebuilt and nations from all over the place will come to see it. It will be a center like it had never been, where rulers will come and bow and bring gold and frankincense. 

It is a broken up mess. But Isaiah speaks words of hope and possibility. “you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,  the wealth of the nations shall come to you.”

We might use Isaiah as a model in our time. As we come back after the difficulties of the pandemic in 2021, we may find things in worse shape than we can take in. We have lost so many people, businesses will not have survived. Many children and youth have lost most of a year of school. Climate warming continues apace. Things are really broken. And yet,we can look at the whole mess and say with Isaiah, “Rise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” 

Because even though the truth is harder than we can take in, the love and power of God is also much bigger than we can imagine. No matter how bad it looks, God is with us, and with our maturing faith as we turn the page on 21 we can start to see it: the healing work of Christ and the powerful presence of the Spirit will get us. “Your heart shall thrill and rejoice.” Isaiah says. And we are going to grow from the hard experience of the last year, and live into love in ways that we had not thought possible before. 

Today we begin the New Year with Holy Communion, taking into ourselves the very life and presence of the liberating one. You may even want to take this gift of bread and the cup of presence on your knees, ring a bell, to feel, to know, the hope that is coming to us in 2021, to know and sense the light that is available to us in a dark and difficult time. 

Before we go into this time of hope and offering and communion, I want to give you a benediction that I received over the holidays:

Do not be dismayed at the brokenness of the world.  
All things break.  And all things can be mended.  
Not with time, as they say, but with intention. 
So go. Love intentionally. Extravagantly. Unconditionally. 
The broken world waits in a long night for the dawning light you can be... 
(borrowed, slightly adapted, from L. H. Knost).