“Arise,” so begins this morning’s reading from Isaiah. “Arise.” That’s easier said than done for some of us. Just ask Marg Willis or anyone who is recovering from back issues---anyone who has knee or hip or back surgery. I know how difficult it can be to get up, to “arise”, to take that first step. When I had my knee replaced back in 2005, getting out of the prone position and walking to the bathroom was about the hardest and most painful experience I had ever gone through. I would avoid it as long as I could, my knee, the size of a basketball, wouldn’t bend, wouldn’t support my weight. I would gingerly transfer my weight to the left side as I had been instructed by the physio, using the crutch to share the burden of my body with my well leg. In fact, months of painful physio and tremendous discipline and determination to regain the walking ability I had been born with, that I was used to. Walking ability is what we all have been born with, but we have to “arise”. I had to endure a similar torture when this same knee became infected ten years later. It had to be opened up , cleaned out and then the whole rehab process started once again. “Arise “was something I longed for but it just wasn’t there, at first.
We are walking creatures. Anthropologists call us homo erectus. We are designed to walk upright. But sometimes taking a step can be problematic. Recently we visited friends who have a one-year-old daughter—actually she was 14 months old. They are worried that she is not walking yet. She’s still crawling around, sometimes pulling herself erect with the help of a table or chair, but she has not found her balance.
She is having difficulty taking her first steps. Taking those first steps and continuing to build confidence in keeping the steps going is a major right-of-passage for every human being.
That’s probably why we use “steps” as a metaphor for following through a process or program. We say a recipe has a certain number of steps. We say that a plan to build something has a number of steps. Step 1, dig the foundation hole. Step 2, build the form. Step 3, pour the cement for the foundation into the form. Step 4, lay down your bottom plate and flour-joist schedule, And so on until you complete all the steps to build a house.
We also use steps to describe a program. We know of 12-step programs that lead to changing lives through the managing of our habits and addictions. Alcoholics Anonymous is a 12-step program: Step 1, “We admitted we were powerless…” Taking that first step, admitting powerlessness, is often the hardest step.
“Arise,” says Isaiah. “Shine for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Can you see in the language that the “glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” It’s as if the “Glory of the Lord” is role -modelling the arising. Isaiah continues by pointing out how darkness covered the earth and the people, but this darkness has been obliterated by a light. “Nations shall come to your light and Kings to the brightness of your dawn.” The light will attract others—from far away, says the prophet.
The images of warmth, the pictures of abundance and love just keep coming. “Your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms---all the sea—fishes, food, wealth, camels—and they shall bring gifts—gold, frankincense”—and lastly, praise. “All shall come to see the light.” But they must first “arise”—get up—take the first step.
Our reading from Matthew is the more familiar one for this Epiphany Sunday. It tells us a story of the wise men—who came from the East—from far away, in a search led by a light, a star. They were led to Bethlehem, following the words of another prophet, Micah – “ a ruler shall come, who is the shepherd to my people Israel.”
The wise men came after they had seen “a star at its rising.” They have “come to pay homage”—for this rising star could only mean one thing. Something very important had happened. They observed it. They acted upon their observation, their knowledge, their insights into the relationships between the star, the planets, the moon and the earth’s patterns of movement in relation to these heavenly bodies. Look at the words from Matthew, “we observed”; we have come “to pay homage”.
What if the wise men—we always think there are three, because of the three gifts, but it could have been more, our text doesn’t say. What if these men had only observed the wonderful star and done nothing more?
Let’s imagine what it might have been like the night they were watching the sky and something began to rise in the western sky.
Astronomers have studied the Bethlehem star phenomenon. They have concluded variously that an astronomical event did take place around the birth time of Jesus which is between 3 to 7 years before what we now calculate as CE, or Common Era, what we earlier called AD, Anno Domino—"in the year of our Lord.”
So one night the three wise men, or Magi—Magi means sorcerer, but their “sorcery” must have ‘worked’ . It was, no doubt, based on predictable patterns.
These patterns were formed through a deep knowledge of the regular movements of stars and planets—the ancient “science” of astrology. They are followers of a different belif system than the ones that are God’s chosen. They are Gentiles.
One clear night they are star gazing and the young Gaspar says, “Hey, look, there in the west. There is a coming together of stars and planets that we have never seen, there in the constellation Pisces. See, Saturn and Jupiter are lining up. Look at the brilliance! Look at the light!”
Old Melchoir strokes his white beard as he stares at the configuration that the young, keen eyes of Gaspar have isolated, “Yes, yes, that is truly remarkable. In all my years I’ve never seen anything like it. It can mean only one thing. Something really important has happened. I would venture it’s the birth of a King. Yes, there in the West—probably in Palestine—a King has been born.” Balthazar has been looking up and listening. He’s the dark one. He’s the one who has come from the West and the South from the continent where the people’s skin is various shades of dark. He has come to study and learn. He’s an experienced traveler.
“We should follow that star. We should go find out what It might be telling us.”
Melchoeir, who is old and settled in his ways, protests, “Are you crazy? Do you know how far away that is? It’s a full year’s journey, there and back, maybe more. The number of camels we need to take our provisions to get us there and back! It’s not possible!”
Gaspar knows Melchoir’s the elder among the. It’s his wisdom, his experience that has been their source of security. His ideas are reliable. But he feels the curiosity building. It’s the thought that they could really be witnessing something that has never happened before. Maybe this is no ordinary king. No ordinary king would have a special star forming for him. This is an extraordinary king must be a king whose realm goes beyond the bounds of earth. He is certain.
“No, Melchoir, we must go. We must take that step and move toward the star. We must move toward the light. I’m with Gaspar. Whatever it takes, whatever preparation we need to make, whatever else we believe, whatever monsters, misadventures and danger may be out there. We must go. Sure, you are getting old, Melchoir, but you must do this before you die. If you don’t, you will always regret it.”
And so they agree. They saddle up their camels, they pack up, and they mount up to take the first step to do something that none of them are really certain of.
Certainty, predictability, understanding patterns, that is their expertise, that is their wisdom. Yet the step out of their comfortable situations, their relationships, their family, their colleagues, other sorcerers, other stargazers—the probably experience some ridicule. But they step out. They take the step of faith. That’s what faith is, stepping out, stepping up into some place that you don’t know for certain. The step down from their high place, their hilltop observatory , to actually interact with the world.
They begin their journey, to follow the star. They begin their journey to find the king, to have their suppositions, their expectations, affirmed. They take the step of faith. A first step of faith.
The wise men, the magi, had an epiphany—a revelatory manifestation of a divine being. They were exposed to “the essence of someone or something” – a manifestation. Those are the definitions that we used last year when we talked about Epiphany, on this same Epiphany Sunday – remember?
They experienced a revelation—something was revealed. Something previously hidden from their understanding came to life—it was made manifest. Not just a mental process, however. They acted on this manifestation. They may not have been certain about what they had seen, what they had experienced, but their curiosity and commitment drove them forward. Despite the fact that they were astronomers, calculating, predicting, using mathematics and very sophisticated applications of patterns and relationships. This is their discipline—these men take a leap of faith. They step out into the desert, they step out into the dangers of the mountain passes between themselves somewhere on the border of today’s Afghanistan. They take a step of faith to follow the light.
And the subject of this step of faith is another Epiphany. An even greater Epiphany. The King, the baby, the Messiah, the promised one is revealed to them—made manifest—there he lies, there he is at his mother’s breast. They recognize, intuit, his divine nature, his sovereignty—the three kings, the wise men, the magi, see the true King, the King of Glory, and they lay down their gifts, fit only for a king—gold, frankincense and myrrh, an ointment to salve the body of a dead king. These worshippers of other gods, Zoroastrianism perhaps, worshippers of the eternal fire, from the East, they are followers of the “condemned” astrological sciences.
They are Gentiles and they are the first to acknowledge the promised one, the Messiah to the Jews. They are not the intended recipients of the salvation. Isaiah, writing 550 years earlier, cries out, “Arise!” He’s speaking to the exiled Judeans. He’s exhorting them to act. Get moving! God’s promise is real! The kings from the East are not the intended audience, yet they are the first to “Arise!” They go down from their hilltop observatories, their settlements, their comfort. They make a move. They’re not scared to admit that they don’t know it all, they can humble themselves and take the first steps of faith and move toward the light.
What are we to take from this Epiphany reading on this first Sunday of the New Year? What we are to take from it comes from words spoken later inadulthood by the baby that the three Kings worship?
“You are the light of the world…let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matt. 5;16) Jesus speaks these words to a hilltop audience, when he gave what we call “The Sermon on the Mount” and Jesus speaks them to us. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid . (Matt. 5:14) This light is the knowledge of God’s eternal purpose revealed in the Christ . The entire universe has been blessed with God’s providence. Not just ‘the chosen’ of the Hebrew Scriptures, but everyone and everything’ That is the “light.” And we are the vessels of that light. We are the light. We are the ones who are to carry the light of Christ. We , like the wise ones, the Wise “Men,” go back to from where we came and carry that light to tell the story of our journey and our own acceptance of God’s eternal purpose through our actions in the world.
We have taken the First step of faith simply by being here among other faithful ones. We are the ones to show that we have witnessed God’s “eternal purpose.”
We are the ones to whom people will turn when they are seeking the wholeness, seeking the peace and promise that is found in the Gospel. We are the ones who can help others take a step. A first step of faith. That’s what we claim in our statement on our Website: Under the heading :Why We Exist it says the following :
The goal of the church isn’t to produce ‘good’ people. The goal of the church is to make disciples of Jesus. It’s an important distinction. There are many ‘good’ people in the world around us, who are off chasing their own goals and ambitions. But those who are committed to Jesus have given up this self-direction and are following his Spirit's direction. They are enrolled in his trade school and are becoming his apprentices. Our church is part of God's trade school, and plays a crucial role in helping others become more like Jesus.
We are the apprentices , following in the steps of the Master. We are the ones to take the step of faith, to follow “the Spirit’s direction” and to help and show others. We are to be vessels of this light – God’s eternal purpose. That is what the wise ones of old did. That is what they did when they left and returned to their own country “by another road.” That’s what they sought to do.
That is what the wise ones still seek to do today. That is what we have to share.
Listen again to the prophet Isaiah: “Arise, Shine!” Get up! Show yourself to the world! Move outward, that’s what he’s saying. Isaiah is talking to a depressed lot of people in exile. Jesus says it another way, Ask and it will be given to you, search and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened. (Luke 11”9)
Arise, ask, search, knock—these are actions. These are the steps of faith.The door will be opened . The blessings await.
Today, can we on this first Sunday in the new year commit to taking that step, a step forward, a step down from our observation hilltop, not just watchers but actors. Can we come down and go down into the valley, to the roadways and streets and hallway where we travel in our daily lives. We are called to take a step of faith and like the wise men, the magi, abandon what we know, what we might be hanging on to, our sorcery, and humbly step in a new direction, and unfamiliar direction, but a direction that is guided by the light. Can we hear and act on the call of the prophet “Arise, shine your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you?” Can we hear that call and that blessing? Can we take that first step of faith in this Year of our Lord 2019? I pray that we can and that we will. Happy New Year! Ame