Every year, at approximately this time, I begin to wonder why it is that I live in Michigan.
Winter in Michigan seems to hit us like a ton of icy-cold bricks.
In January, in Michigan, you have to get motivated to go outside to take out the trash, let alone brave going to the grocery store.
And we wonder why we don’t live in someplace like Georgia, or Florida instead—but of course, sometimes it snows there, too, we tell ourselves.
But the worst part of winter in Michigan, to me, is the lack of sunlight. Thrillist recently rated Michigan winters the second worst in the country, after an intensive period of research of every state in the country (but the website also rated Michigan the #1 best state in the country!) This is the website’s explanation of why we have the second worst winters:
“Winter in Michigan begins well before Thanksgiving and stretches far past Easter, which makes for four-to-six wearisome months of always-gray, always-cold, always-drizzly, but-rarely-snowy-in-a-good-way misery. Some other states may see colder temps or more snow, but Michigan winters are unrivaled for their utter lack of sunshine. The ceaseless cloud cover begins in October, and envelopes the state in a daily sense of gloom that only worsens when the apathetic sun slouches below the horizon at quarter-to-five.
For the Michigander, this is winter: you leave work at 5 or 6, already in the dead of night, and fight your way down 94 or 96 or 75 or whatever Godforsaken stretch of highway. You can’t even tell if it is drizzling rain or snow, because the brown salt sludge that sprays up off the road coats your windshield more completely than anything that falls from the sky. Overnight, the road freezes. In the morning you wake up and it is still dark.”
Isaiah’s audience was living in physical sunlight, but political darkness. Overshadowed by the empires of Egypt, then Assyria, then Babylon, forced to pay tribute to pagan kings, it became hard for God’s people to believe God really was with them. What about God’s promise to give them a land of milk and honey? What about God’s promise to give them a king who would provide them with safety, power, and strength to defeat all their enemies? Where was God? Where was the light?
The passage we heard today from Isaiah comes right at the end of the bleak midwinter of Isaiah 59:
- Isaiah 59:9-10NRSV:Therefore justice is far from us, and righteous does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! There is darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead.
Amidst this background of darkness, the light comes as though from nowhere, a shock, like a lightning bolt stunning God’s people with its power and brilliance:
- Isaiah 60:1 NLT “Arise, Jerusalem! Let your light shine for all to see.
For the glory of the Lord rises to shine on you.
The glory of the Lord comes as a great, shining light; reminding us that the first thing God says in all of Scripture is: Let there be light!
On Epiphany, we celebrate God’s light coming into the darkness of our lives as Christ is born and revealed among us. We say we have an “epiphany” when we finally see something for what it is, when a light bulb goes on in our heads, and epiphany is when we finally realize that Jesus is the King of King, the Lord of Lords, Immanuel, God with us, and in him is light and life and truth and our salvation. This is what the magi realized, and why they traveled so far to lay their treasures before him. A miracle has occurred; light has broken into our darkness; life in the bleak midwinter.
But the miracle is not just the act of God, but also a call for us to act. The words of Isaiah 60 are in the imperative—the text doesn’t say, arise! God is shining! But rather, You! Yes, you! Get up! Start shining! The Message paraphrase captures the sense of the text:
- Isaiah 60: 1-2 The Message Get out of bed, Jerusalem!
Wake up. Put your face in the sunlight.
God’s bright glory has risen for you.
The whole earth is wrapped in darkness,
all people sunk in deep darkness,
But God rises on you,
his sunrise glory breaks over you.
Nations will come to your light,
kings to your sunburst brightness.
Look up! Look around!
We are called to be the light, even in the midst of darkness, to shine for others to see. As Christians, we are called to be a beacon of hope for others living in this frozen tundra, to shine for them, and bring them hope. This is why our church provides the warming shelter ministry—not only to help people in body, but also, hopefully, to help them in spirit, by providing a bright smile, a cheery word, a little moment of light in what must be dark and difficult days.
It’s also why we are embarking upon the Year of the Healthy Heart in 2018. As Christians, we want to show the world that God matters, that church matters, that Jesus actually changes our daily living. When we don’t take care of our bodies, that harms our witness to the world. And the same with our mental health. There’s no shame in going through periods of sadness, mourning, and depression. But we are called to get up, to get out, to get moving, so that our journey can inspire others to come through the darkness that encompasses them.
I’ve become one of those people on social media—a person who posts pictures of food. But every time I do it, I mention that our church is doing the Year of the Healthy Heart. I don’t do it to say I’m so great, I’m so wonderful, but rather that God is doing a new thing in me, and in us, by leading us into a brighter and better life.
Today’s woes are tomorrow’s witness. Whatever struggle you are facing, whatever hill you have to climb, whatever darkness covers you—shine through it:
- Isaiah 60:3 NRSV: Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
- Isaiah 6:6 NRSV: A multitude of camels shall cover you, and 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.
When I think of the magi, and their gifts, prophesied here in Isaiah, it strikes me that when the Magi set out, they weren’t sure what light they were going to find. They brought their gifts, not knowing who the king would be, or where they would find him. They had to arise even before the light had shone upon them; they had to have faith before they had seen Jesus for themselves. Why do we remember these wise men? Because they got up, they did something, and they witnessed to the light.
Will someone remember that you got up, that you did something, that you witnessed to the light that has arisen upon you? Would someone point to you and say, Jesus is shining through that person? Now is the time. There is no other. Take the bushel off and let God’s light shine. In the bleak midwinter of Michigan, who can you shine on today? How can you share the light of the world?
You and I are here to shine, like Michigan’s iconic lighthouses, in the middle of winter; to bring hope, to guide others with the light, to share the message that life is a gift, that God is real, that the light has shined among us, and, if we are looking for it, a star still shines.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.