Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-6
Tom Bodett has been the voice of Motel 6 for more than three decades. He was already a known voice, doing humorous color commentary for “All Things Considered” on NPR, when he was hired to do the voice for a new marketing campaign. He was playing around in the studio when he coined the enduring tag line, finishing his set with: “I’m Tom Bodett for Motel 6, and we’ll leave the light on for you.”
The first time I heard that phrase, I imagined the exhausted end of the work day, when the light was gone before the work was done, arriving home and seeing the light on in the kitchen. The light meant food, comfort, company, the end of a long tiring day. A perfect image for a motel company.
I wonder if God felt this way. Back in the beginning. When there was only darkness. God was sitting there in that black, dark universe. Suddenly, an idea turned on like a light bulb in the mind of God and there was light. And God said, Oooooohh, that’s nice! That is so much better. I imagine God leaning back in the divine recliner, saying to Godself: Good job!
Imagine yourself in a totally, deeply dark place. Close your eyes now to help your imagination, but notice how you are aware of light, even with your eyes closed. My first experience of no-light-at-all darkness was in a mine shaft. My dad prepared us for the experience: “I am going to turn off the flashlight, but first, get in touch with the wall of the tunnel. Three points of contact – both feet, weight evenly distributed, and another point of contact with the wall.” Then the light went out. It was dizzying! There was no longer a sense of up or down. Sounds bounced around from who knows where! When the flashlight came on, it was like the world was back. Oooooohh, that’s nice! Safe again. A sense of place. Some of you may have had this experience in an underground cave. Remember the feeling?
It is with this mood that we hear Isaiah’s words today, as his listeners felt completely disoriented in chaos and darkness. “You who walk in darkness, arise. Shine. Your light has already come. The glorious presence of God is already upon you.”
Isaiah’s people lived in a land of deep darkness. This time, in a metaphorical sense. The people of God had just returned from their prisoner of war camps in the east. They were in shock. I know they had not named “post traumatic stress disorder” then, but this is what the people felt. Think about the deep darkness that some of our own prisoners of war, or veterans of active warfare experience. We know that many are traumatized and broken, can’t hold jobs, their health deteriorates and we meet them living on the streets.
So too, the people returning to Jerusalem. They were forced to live on the streets because everything was rubble. They came home and no one had left the light on for them. They were fortunate if they could find enough firewood to cook, much less find fragile clay lamps to hold precious oil to light the night! “Darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples.” Thick darkness. Remember your cave darkness?
Back in their own land, it felt foreign, unknown, dark. I imagine they were depressed. You would have been depressed too if you had seen their homes, farms, and country when they came back. Everything had been gutted by war. … How would you have felt if you came back to London after World War II and so many of your cathedrals and homes and factories had been bombed out and rubble was everywhere! Everybody was depressed in the face of what life had given them. These words were for people who felt like quitting, who felt like giving up, who felt like tossing in the towel. In a land of deep darkness, as Isaiah describes it.
Into that depressing situation of the aftermath of war, the prophet Isaiah wrote: “Those of you who walk in darkness, arise. Shine. Get up. Get going. Your light has already come. God’s light is already shining upon you.” God has left the light on for you. Open your eyes. Look up.
The magi looked up. And they noticed that indeed, God had left the light on for them. They were watching for it.
The term magi means astronomer or astrologer, and probably refers to Zoroastrian priests. And, they may not have been male.
My friend has a towel hanging on her oven at Christmas time: “Three wise women would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, brought practical gifts, cleaned the stable and made a casserole.” …So, maybe they were men, after all!
Zoroastrian priests were well known for telling fortunes and preparing daily horoscopes. They were scholars of their day and enjoyed access to the Persian emperor. Zoroaster was their prophet. Zoroastrians believe that he was miraculously conceived in the womb of a 15-year-old Persian virgin. Like Jesus, Zoroaster started his ministry at age of 30 after he defeated all Satan’s temptations. …Here it gets interesting…. He predicted that “other virgins would conceive additional divinely appointed prophets as history unfolded.” Zoroastrian priests believed that they could foretell these miraculous births by reading the stars.
So, like the Jews, Zoroastrian priests were anticipating the birth of the true prophet. It is interesting to me that the homeland of the magi is where Isaiah’s people had been living in prisoner of war camps. Perhaps the captors were influenced by the teaching of their prisoners. Some scholars believe that Zoroaster was born in the era when Israel was captive in Persia. They heard…, and kept watching.
And so the stories of Isaiah and Matthew touch each other. From Persia came the seekers, who had noticed the light. From the land of the captors came hope. Not many of God’s people saw it. Most kept their heads down. It was a small event, in a small town. But it was the light dawning upon the world again.
I wonder if this isn’t the way light speaks to us most powerfully. When it is small. When it is a beginning, a twinkling, a glow. When we are in full light, we don’t tend to notice, but in the first beam of a flashlight in a mine shaft, light is everything. Or one candle in the darkened sanctuary on Christmas Eve.
On my flight to Southern California last week I watched the sun rise from the airplane window. When the pinprick of light came over the horizon, it sent shafts of gold everywhere! It was like something brand new, glorious. The glory of the Lord was dawning upon us.
As I listened to my friends and family this week, I could sense that we are living in another dark time. There is so much change going on around us that it feels like we are living in chaos. Conversations which dallied in politics revealed deep discouragement about the direction our country has taken – among both Democrats and Republicans. There is a sense that things are not going well. The government is shut down. People are not being paid for the work they do. Leaders are weak or manipulative. Who can we trust? Money doesn’t stretch as far as it used to, and our children have little hope of retiring. College debt is sinking them. Many are choosing not to have children because they see no hope for them.
We are in a time when we can relate to the deep darkness the people felt when they returned to Jerusalem from captivity. We are in a time when we have glimpses of the same kinds of oppressive regimes Jesus’ parents experienced.
The story of the magi reminds us that God has left the light on for us. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you…. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
And people are drawn to the light. The light is not just for us – it never has been! People from outside the Covenant, people with no knowledge of the Law or the Prophets, have recognized the importance of Jesus; and they have recognized this importance from a source outside the Law and the Prophets, from the dawning of a light. They are doing what the prophecy said would happen. This light is a light for the nations. A light to share.
This is an element of the Taborspace ministry here. So many church buildings are vacant and dark much of the time. But we have chosen to leave the light on to welcome our community.
I have recently crossed paths with an organization called, “Better Angels.” The name comes from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address. With the nation on the brink of civil war, he implored us to act from ‘the better angels of our nature.’ On their website they say:
“The United States is disuniting. The last presidential election only made clear what many have feared – that we’re becoming two Americas, each angry with the other, and neither trusting the other’s basic humanity and good intentions. Today Americans increasingly view their political opponents not only as misguided, but also as bad people whose ways of thinking are both dangerous and incomprehensible. This degree of civic rancor threatens our democracy.
Better Angels is a nation-wide citizen’s movement working to depolarize America by conducting workshops that bring liberals and conservatives together for moderated conversations. These events allow conservatives and liberals to get past the destructive stereotypes we have of one another so we can have civil conversations about real issues that lead to productive problem-solving.” [https://betterangelspdx.org/]
Perhaps by introducing this kind of conversation, we can leave the light on for our neighbors, no matter where they are from or what their opinions may be. We can shine through warm windows the hope of comfort and nourishment.
The story of the magi reminds us that when the light is on, people come. We may be surprised by who shows us, as I am sure Joseph and Mary were! Now is the time to light the world!
Invite people up to light a candle from the Christ candle as a sign of our commitment to “leave the light on.” Stand in a circle of quiet. Just let light and love be among us.