Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 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. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 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. 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. 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.
“A banana phone?”
“What am I supposed to do with a banana phone?”
My family was sprawled out around my parents living room, all in matching pajamas, as we patiently awaited the first gift of Christmas.
My mother, having her progeny surrounding her, ripped the wrapping paper with precision, and inside… was a banana phone.
It was yellow and curved, as you’d expect, and it just sat there in her hand as she looked across the room at my father.
“What am I supposed to do with a banana phone?”
“It connects via bluetooth,” he said, with just the hint of self-justification in his voice. “It’s for those times that you can find your cell phone in your purse, you can just grab the banana and bring it to your ear and have a normal conversation.”
“There’s nothing normal about talking into a banana.”
And in the brief moment of awkward silence as all of us took in the scene of not only the first gift of Christmas, but the first strange gift of Christmas, my toddler promptly jumped up and, diffusing the situation, he declared, “I play with the banana phone.”
We didn’t see him for the next ten minutes as he walked around the house having a pretend conversation about who knows what.
I love asking questions, particularly those that even out the playing field and those that give everyone a chance to respond.
What’s one of your favorite Christmas presents of all time?
That’s a great question, because it immediately gets people thinking nostalgically about the past and inevitably it draws people closer to one another as they share collective memories from the past about toys long forgotten, or no longer created.
But there’s an even better question than the best Christmas present… What’s one of the strangest Christmas presents you’ve ever received?
People will normally furrow their brows in response as they think deeply about an out of left-field gift from days long ago, but usually somebody will start laughing before they even start the story.
I know that for the rest of her life, my mother will consider the banana phone one of the strangest gifts she’s ever received.
It’s certainly practical, to some degree, thought it’s not something she needs and, more importantly, it’s not something she will ever use.
Sometime after Jesus was born, though we’ve not entirely sure when, magi or wisemen or astrologers from the east came to visit the newborn Messiah. They conspired with King Herod to discover Jesus’ location but when they discerned his fear and/or jealously, they set out ahead of him until they arrived in Bethlehem.
They were overwhelmed with joy and entered the house where the little family was huddled together and they opened up their treasure chests: gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Scripture doesn’t tell us a whole lot more than that. We don’t read about Mary and Jospeh’s conversation with the magi, or even if they picked the little baby up in their arms, or even what their names were!
And yet, over the years, I’ve found myself wondering about this particular scene from scripture.
What did Mary and Joseph think about the gift?
Where were the magi with the diapers, and pacifiers, and formula?
Did anyone offer to give the new parents a night out on the town without baby duty?
Who brought the casserole to put in the refrigerator for late night meals?
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh – Are they the gifts that keep on giving?
Today is Epiphany, an often overlooked moment on the liturgical calendar. It marks the conclusion of the season of Christmas and it celebrates the extension of the gospel to the gentiles.
In the magis’ moment at the manger we witness the great scope of God’s mission in and through Jesus Christ insofar as it will not be limited to a particular people in a particular place, but will indeed fulfill the words from the prophet Isaiah.
Arise, shine; for the light has come! Darkness cover the earth and all of her people, but the Lord has arisen, and his glory has appeared.
Nations will come to the light, and even kings will be beckoned to the brightness of God’s new dawn.
Just open your eyes and look around, all have gathered together, and in the seeing we rejoice with radiance because the gifts have arrived.
There is a strange temptation in the season of Christmastide, better known as the time after Christmas, in which we still faintly revel in the music and the lights and even the presents that once sat under our tree. But now, 12 days later, the luster is starting to diminish as the real world catches back up with us.
Some of the things we opened have already been returned, others have been regifted, and some have been placed in a box never to see the light of day!
Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh were, and are, gifts that go far above and beyond the recipients. Mary and Joseph were of a certain way of life such that that was probably the first, and only time, they ever saw, let alone held, those kinds of items. They demonstrate the paradoxical subversion of the status quo.
Up until this manger moment, it was the poor and the marginalized who were expected to present presents to those in power – people like the magi.
But now, in Jesus, the first are becoming last and the last are becoming first. That’s the power of the light that shines in the darkness, it draws us in like flies on a hot summer night to a florescent neon glow, and we can’t help ourselves.
The gifts of the wisemen were not particularly helpful to a pair of new parents – they weren’t going to make Jesus fall asleep or quit his crying or even pacify his hunger, but they do point to one of the things that’s right with the church.
The church is the place where the power of the light that shines in the darkness is made intelligible through practices like being the church in worship!
When we gather to sing and praise, when we hear the good news of the gospel, we are living into the drama of the multitudes that Isaiah is describing.
Here in this place at this time we are in the great company of people from all nations and all ages.
And to be abundantly clear, our church lives into this in a way that many others do not. If you take a look around our sanctuary we are not nearly as monolithic as other places of worship are. Thanks to the hard work of those who came before us we are one of the more diverse churches in the area and we are therefore a foretaste of the vision Isaiah describes.
But, lest we walk out of here with heads too big to fit through the door – we certainly have room for improvement.
The light of Christ shines among us so that we can see ourselves as we truly are, but the light also shows us a glimpse of what can be.
Isaiah’s powerful words about the light made possible in Jesus remind us that the healing and solace we find in a place like the church is not the ultimate reason the church exists. Otherwise we would be just another self-help group among the many others that exist. Instead, God restores us to a newness and a wholeness in and with the church so that we can take our place among the people of God while making room for more to join us.
One of the things that’s right with the church is the fact that it is the powerful place in which we are uplifted in the recognition that we belong to something bigger than ourselves, and that we belong to something different than ourselves.
I’ve said it many times before but the church seems to be the only place left where people willfully gather together with others with whom they fundamentally disagree on a number of issues except for the fact that Jesus is Lord.
We, as the church, are part of a multitude that includes the magi, and the saints, and the martyrs, and the sinners, and everyone in between. There is no other place that can quite build us up while also pointing toward the difficult truths we’d otherwise ignore.
In Jesus we are made perfect, but we are still the fallible sinners in need of Jesus’ saving grace. The church is indeed the better place God has made in the world and God is still not quite done with us yet!
The beginning of Isaiah’s proclamation, Arise and Shine!, is not a suggestion, and it’s not even an invitation – it is a command. Get up! Shine! Go!
Here, on the day of Epiphany, as we celebrate the total scope of the gospel extending to the gentiles, we are challenged by Isaiah’s words to move out of the waiting of Advent darkness, and beyond the mystery of the Christmas incarnation, toward the brilliance of the brightness in Christ the Lord.
But the brilliant brightness is only necessary because of the thick darkness that covers the people. During the time of Isaiah the darkness was nothing new to the people Israel. They truly knew what it means to dwell in thick darkness while exiled in Babylon. And today, we too dwell in our own version of exilic darkness.
We are far more persuaded by the talking heads on television than we are by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We are regularly fearful of the other and anything that appears strange and yet Jesus Christ is the strange incarnation of God in the flesh.
We are more likely to turn our heads away from the suffering in the world around us even though Jesus regularly walked into it again and again.
So what’s right with the church?
If we are broken people in need of grace, if we routinely make the wrong choices or avoid making the right choices, if we perpetuate the thick darkness that Jesus came to destroy can we really say there is anything right with the church?
Jesus is what is right with the church, not us. Jesus is the one great gift that really keeps on giving. But he does not bring us prosperity and peace and preferential treatment.
The great gift of Christ, the light that shines and never fades, is nothing but the cross upon which he was killed.
As I said on Christmas Eve, the same baby in the manger is the one who was hung for the sins of the world. The same child to which the magi brought their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh is the same one who broke free from the chains of death.
Jesus Christ will forever be the gift that keeps on giving because he gives himself for you and me, knowing full and well who we are who and who we are meant to be. Amen.