Since we’re in the middle of a nice January thaw, let’s imagine what it will be like six months from now. Imagine a warm July evening. It’s lazy, peaceful, quiet… Quiet, except for an occasional electric crackle in the distance. That’s your neighbor’s bug-zapper.
Bug zappers capitalize on the scientific truth that most living creatures are drawn to the warmth of the light, especially cold-blooded bugs. Mosquitoes like it to be 80 or higher. So even if it’s hot and humid to us, the bugs want even more.
Human beings are not mosquitoes. But there is a common truth that binds us: Like the skeeters, we too are repelled by the darkness and attracted by the light.
Think of your houseplants. If you have houseplants, you know that you have to turn the plants every few days because the leaves naturally turn toward the window. In thick forests, trees grow tall and skinny as they try to reach over each other to get to the light.
We’re no different. We’re also attracted to light. Doctors recognize a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder—abbreviated “SAD,” and that pretty much explains it. Just yesterday, the Journal had a front-page story on this. Some people get depressed in the winter months when the days are short. You drive to work in the dark and come back home in the dark, and after a while, it can get to you. The usual treatment is light therapy—literally having people spend extra time under artificial sunlight.
We’re not fond of the dark. As a species, humans don’t have great night vision. So in the dark, we can be confused and uncertain. And that in turn creates anxiety and fear. We don’t know what’s out there, so, just to be safe, we assume it must be bad. At night, even a place like this seems spooky. I’m a pastor’s kid. I’ve been going into dark churches all my life. And I’m not superstitious. I don’t believe in ghosts. But to this day, when I have to go into the church at night, I’ll admit that, at least for a moment, it creeps me out.
It’s not surprising, then, that we associate darkness with evil and the light with good. For instance, when Paul writes to the Thessalonians, he says, “For you are all sons of light and sons of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.” (1Th.5:5) Scripture consistently speaks of the night as the time when people plot evil deeds and carry them out. And indeed, most crimes are committed. On the other hand, we think of the daylight as a time of openness and safety. Laws mandating open meetings are called “sunshine laws”.
We find the same idea in our lesson from Isaiah 60, one of the traditional readings for this Feast of the Epiphany, the revelation of Christ to the nations.
Here we find the contrast between light and darkness: “See how the darkness covers the earth; how a thick fog covers the people.” That’s an interesting way to put it. Mere darkness covers the earth—but it’s a thick fog that covers humanity. Think about the last time that you had to drive somewhere on a rainy, foggy night. That’s the image Isaiah had in mind. God has to battle through a thick fog in order to find us.
On such a foggy night, people might say that it was so dark that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Sometimes it really does seem that you can barely see past the end of the hood. And that’s kind of how it is for people without Jesus Christ. In Luke 1, Zechariah hailed the birth of his son, John, as a sign that the promised Messiah was near. He said that the “day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” (Lk 1:79)
So we sit in thick fog, the thick fog of our own sin. We become obsessed with ourselves and our desires and urges. We want something, and maybe we don’t even know what it is. After all, the darkness around us is too thick to see anything clearly.
Then in the midst of this darkness, Isaiah says, “But the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.” The time has come to see something amazing. The passage begins by saying, “Arise and shine for your light has come.” Rise and shine! Think of the springtime, when a kernel of corn is buried under dirt, yet its sprout is drawn by the warm light of the sun to break through the soil and shoot up toward the sky.
So it is in our relationship with Christ. We sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” Christ has come, and so now it’s time for us to rise up out of our fog. Isaiah says, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
Matthew took that as prophecy: Wise men from the East had seen a new star in the sky. They weren’t Jews; they hadn’t read Isaiah. They couldn’t explain what they were seeing, but they sensed what it meant. They were drawn by the light, following it in faith until it led them to the child. Matthew says that it led them like a map utility, right to the very house.
Nations and kings today are still drawn to that light. It may not seem so, but history says otherwise. Every civilized nation is still drawn to that light. Civilized people objected when the Saudis sent a hit team to Turkey to kill a journalist. Civilized people objected when the Russians sent a hit team to England to poison a father and daughter. Civilized people were bothered when kids on the border died in captivity.
There is a general recognition that there are rules of law and decency that must be obeyed. Sometimes the pace is slow; sometimes there are detours. But the world is moving in the direction of the light. Christ is pulling us toward him; toward the Kingdom ruled by forgiveness and love, grace and generosity.
In 1960, when Israel captured the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, there some said that he should have been shot on sight. But the chief prosecutor said that the ultimate punishment of Eichmann was that he would be given the one thing none of his victims were given—a fair trial. Eichmann represented chaos and injustice—the powers of darkness. Israel could not follow in his path. Israel, the prosecutor said, had to stand for the rule of law, for order and justice. All of that is the work of Christ in our world. His light attracts even those who do not recognize him by name.
This is also happening in our own lives. The most natural thing in the world is to be drawn to Christ. After all, he’s the light that shines through the fog of our lives. The only way we can resist that light is to make a conscious decision to shut it out; to turn away from him. We ask, What would Jesus do?—–and do the opposite.
Sometimes we may think that life’s a constant fight, an uphill fight, like the mythical Sisyphus pushing the rock up the mountain only to have it roll down again.
But life doesn’t have to be a fight. When that marvelous light rose up from Bethlehem, God set out a course for us. In the fog of life, we may not always see it that way. We may think we’re worse off than everyone else; that our problems are unlike anyone else’s; that the hurdles we must clear are far more formidable than what all those people on Easy Street have to face.
But no matter what life dishes out from day to day or even year to year, Christ has given each of us the path of least resistance when it comes to finding our way through life and into the peaceful rest of eternity.
He requires no extra effort from us. He didn’t set a path by which we must work and struggle to win his favor. He’s already given us his favor as a free gift of grace. All he asks is that we accept his love in faith and trust him. Even then, if we get weary or distracted, God has sent his Holy Spirit to pick us up and drag us across the finish line.
In short, you don’t have to work your way into heaven. But that’s also good news about life today. There’s always so much negativity around us. The world is always telling you that you’re no good, you’re a failure, you’re doing it wrong. The world is always tempting you to cut corners on ethics—cheat a little, lie a little; it’s ok.
But Jesus says, No—you’re good enough for me, and that’s all that really matters. Forget what the world is telling you—I love you. And if you love me, Jesus says, you’ll trust me when I say that my way of forgiveness and sacrifice and unconditional love is not for suckers, but for a life that you can always be proud of, even when earthly things of the moment don’t quite go your way.
And so the Bible reminds us today: Our light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon us. We have seen the Lord. Our Holy Communion reminds us of what he has done for us. But more than that, through this bread and cup, the light of Christ shines as a beacon pointed at your heart. Stop trying to fumble through the fog of life on your own. Stop tripping over the furniture of life, or stubbing your toes on its toys. Let that light become a light within your soul; today, and shine that light into every dark corner throughout the year, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.