The gathering of the dispersed. That’s what this scripture reading from Isaiah is called in those quaint little headings our Bibles use to divide scripture into manageable sizes. The gathering of the dispersed. We have been dispersed all over the country, some in places all over the world, like Costa Rica.
Isaiah is talking to the people of Judah who have not been all over the world, but mostly in Babylon, 500 miles away—as the crow flies. It’s a long way from Babylon back to Jerusalem, like walking from here to New Haven, CT, to go visit your friends at Yale. And the Israelites actually take the long way home so they can stay near the rivers and not die of thirst, making their trip nearly 800 miles long. So, it’s more like going all the way to Kennebunkport, ME, to visit the Bushes, Yale alumni that they are.
The Israelites are not in Babylon for a friendly visit; they are in Babylon because they were conquered by that country a generation earlier and carted away as exiles. But like most of scripture that’s really good, Isaiah is not talking only to them. He could be talking to anybody who has been away for any number of reasons. He could be talking to us. We have been dispersed because Duke closes the dorms over the Christmas Break. I still call it Christmas Break because this is a Methodist school after all. When my parents were in college they had to come back and take finals after Christmas, so it really was the Christmas Break and not the semester break. And if we lived in Australia, it wouldn’t be winter, so we couldn’t call it the winter break. We’d have to call it the Christmas Break. Christmas just ended 4 days ago…and until today, we have been dispersed.
Like any scattered community, as we contemplate gathering, we have great expectations.
- Everybody still has a 4.0 for the semester.
- No one has missed a single Wesley Worship.
- Both basketball teams remain undefeated.
- And the winter solstice has passed; the light is coming back.
Isaiah spends a lot of time talking about light in this passage. You might want it to be a metaphor, but for people who lived in a land of deep darkness—Isaiah 9— on them light has shined. This is not just a metaphor; this is winter. On Dec. 21 there were 9 hours and 43 minutes of sunlight; but it was cloudy, so there weren’t really that many minutes when it was light. The sun set officially at 5:06, but it was already getting dark by 4:30. We have been in darkness, literally.
It is the literal darkness that gives the metaphor meaning, so when Isaiah tells us way over in Chapter 60, the reading for this week, “your light has come,” we know what that looks like.
- It looks like the days getting longer one minute at a time.
- It looks like my friends coming back to town, one person at a time.
- It looks like the first day of classes, the first weekly Eucharist, the start of something new, with all the potential and possibility that comes at the beginning.
In the beginning, the first thing God did is say, LIGHT, and light happened. Light points ahead, even while nothing that happened before this moment will disappear.
- Israel-Judah was still sacked by Babylon.
- Those grades you made in the fall are still your grades.
- That gift you didn’t get for Christmas this year…well, maybe next year.
The past doesn’t go away, but when the “light shines in the darkness”—John 1— the future looks brighter. We’re in the Season of Epiphany right now; in fact, this is the Old Testament lesson for last Sunday, the Day of Epiphany. You may know that in most parts of the world the Day of Epiphany is way more important than the Feast of the Nativity, Christmas Day. Christmas Day is pretty specific—birth of the baby Jesus—but Epiphany is far richer, calling out for us deeper meanings of Jesus as Lord and Savior, broader understandings of light returning both literally and metaphorically.
People who wrote scripture didn’t make such neat and tidy divisions between what was happening in the world physically and what was happening in their souls spiritually. It was all part of a whole. People who struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder can tell you something about the whole, about what happens when the sunlight goes away and how they feel when it starts to return. Light matters. That’s why Isaiah makes the direct connection between the gathering of the dispersed and the return of light.
There’s another very important aspect to this light described by Isaiah. When it illuminates you, people can see you. When people see the light, they come to it. When people come to the light, they are also illuminated. So, we are not passive light recipients. We are also active light reflectors.
You would expect a good Methodist to say that:
- Light dwelling, light shining
- Personal piety, social holiness
- Right belief, right action
Let your light shine. Makes me want to burst into song: “this little light of mine…”
What does it mean in the dead of winter to know the light is physically returning? What does it mean for us on the first day of class that we are physically gathering? It means, we’re back, the same way the children of Israel came back from Babylon. Their return signaled something true about God and about them. Like the circling beam of a seashore lighthouse, word got out and moved around the countryside. The nations around them heard and believed, this God is for real. We thought they were goners for sure, but they’re back.
Nobody thought we were goners; we only went home for Christmas. But as we come back we have the same opportunity the people of Israel had in the 4th century before the common era. We have the same opportunity the people of God have had from the beginning of time. We have the opportunity to live as those blessed by the light. We can do that with some very simple acts:
- Count blessings instead of list short comings
- Talk about opportunities rather than complain about omissions
- Make time for doing nothing rather than fill our lives with nothingness
These are practical tips for reflecting light, but the truth is, we can’t reflect anything we don’t absorb into the depths of our souls. The light is shining on us. God has provided this illumination. Even when everything about our lives looks and feels dark, we have this certainty.
Is it too simple for us to say, what we do is what we think? If we think God has gifted us with light, gathering us back together to celebrate and worship, then what we do becomes automatic. We simply react as those for whom the light has come.
Arise and shine, for your light has come. Amen.