Arise, Jerusalem! Let your light shine for all to see.
For the glory of the Lord rises to shine on you.
Darkness as black as night covers all the nations of the earth,
but the glory of the Lord rises and appears over you.
All nations will come to your light;
mighty kings will come to see your radiance. (Isaiah 60:1-3 NLT)
J and I decided that we would give each other the gift of light this Christmas. Meaning, we’d buy new light fixtures for our kitchen and sun room since the existing fixtures were varying shades of busted. As we searched and searched, explored light shop after light shop, I found myself also pondering Isaiah 60 and its joyful and hopeful proclamation that “light has come.”
I thought, “Here’s an easy and simple metaphor.” Talk about how dark and dingy the kitchen was before the new fixture. Have some before and after pics. Voila! Quick and fast illustration. Tie that in with Jesus and instant blog post.
But, life is not so simple.
Rarely do updates go smoothly on this nearly 80 year old house. The light fixture adventure is no exception. Four days after attempted installation we have less light than we started with, had to install a new electrical casing in the kitchen ceiling, and have two holes in the ceiling in need of plastering.
Plastering the ceiling is no easy task either — as we’ve discovered with multiple rounds of plaster splatting off the ceiling onto the floor and multiple trips to the hardware store for additional supplies.
Where I was hoping for joy and basking in the glow of new light, we instead have frustration, moderate under our breath cursing and darkness. We have guests coming in a few days and will live with embarrassment of holes in the ceiling (and darkness) when they arrive. Life is not held together perfectly and in control — much to my dismay.
I think faith feels like this sometimes too.
This year’s lectionary cycle (a prescribed set of Scripture readings for the year that many churches around the globe read aloud in worship) places the Isaiah 60 reading soon after we’ve celebrated the birth of Jesus and welcomed in the New Year. Here is an excellent opportunity to bask in what God has done, and to think about being intentional about our focus for the coming year. Celebrate the good news that has come upon us, and be a people whose light draws others toward the good news of Jesus. All happy and good things.
I like happy and good things. I tend to want to focus here. But this week, with the lighting issues, life is not so simple, nor so easy. Sometimes stuff gets in the way.
I think relating to God is that way too. My relationship with God is not always sunshine and roses. I mess up. Things are harder than I thought. I get in my own way. My life at times feels like my kitchen lights project. More difficult than expected with unanticipated failures and unwanted surprises.
I found myself looking backwards in Isaiah 59 for a little context. And Isaiah 59 starts in the dark place. Our brokenness, our addictions get in the way of us and God. I’m increasingly drawn to the idea of using the word addictions instead of sin. Sin feels like a churchy, theology word. It feels, to me at least, abstract and conceptual. Addiction seems more visceral.
Basically, sin is anything that we desire more than God, and as a result, our world gets turned upside down. Kind of like eating. Eating is a good thing, necessary for survival. But a broken relationship with food — eating too much to satisfy emotional needs or starving myself to be thin (or satisfy emotional needs) — wreaks havoc on my body and my relationships with others.
For Isaiah, what got in Israel’s way of experiencing God’s light was their lack of justice. A person can’t just worship God with her lips, and live a life that ignores or harms others (Isaiah 58). To do this leaves her waiting for light, but trapped in darkness (59:9).
Our relationship with God ought to have immediate and direct connections to the way we engage with other humans and the world. To be a follower of God is to also love those whom God loves. Micah 6:8 sums this up nicely. What God desires from humans is at root a simple (but, not necessarily easy) thing: do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God.
And lest you think I’m thinking that we save ourselves and earn salvation – Isaiah then tells about God’s activity. God looks out upon the mess (Isaiah 59:15). And seeing no one else to fix it — God will act to bring a redeemer (Isaiah 59:20). And to those who will acknowledge their brokenness, God has made a covenant and the Spirit of God is upon them (Isaiah 59:20-21). God heals and restores.
But, the healing and restoration only makes sense if we’re ready to acknowledge the mess in which we sit. In order for us to realize that we need light, we have to recognize the darkness in which we are held captive.
I’m helped in this area by Henri Nouwen. I tend to be a striver. Work harder. Be perfect by my own efforts. And that’s a recipe for shame and failure. Instead Nouwen writes, “Simply start by admitting you cannot cure yourself… Your willingness to experience your powerlessness already includes the beginning of surrender to God’s action in you (The Inner Voice of Love, 30).”
So, here’s the challenge.
As we think back on the last year and the darkness where we feel trapped, talk to God. Recognize those areas where we feel powerless to change and ashamed for others to see. Own it. Confess it. Pray about it.
Perhaps share it with someone we trust. There is something profoundly healing about confessing our brokenness to another person (provided that person is a healthy individual) and still being welcomed by them in relationship.
And as we think about the coming year and our hopes for God’s activity in our lives, do the same. Own it. Pray about it. Talk to someone. Trust that we have a Savior that loves us and is working toward our healing. We are not abandoned. Strive a little less out of our own perfectionistic efforts.
Nouwen talks about how a seed can only grow if it stays in the ground where it was planted. To keep digging up the seed to check its progress is to kill the plant. Be like the planted seed, and stay in relationship with God trusting that “everything you need to grow” will be provided to you. And rest knowing that “growth takes place even when you do not feel it (The Inner Voice of Love, 31).”
Progress may feel slow. Much like my kitchen light project. A little bit here. A little bit there. But progress does happen. The holes in my ceiling are shrinking. God will work in your life. Like my light fixtures, this healing may not happen on your timeline or according to your grand vision. But, God is still working in your story. Continue to invite God’s light to drive out your darkness.
God will. And as God does that, God shines in you. That light is beautiful and magnetic. Others will see it, and be drawn to it. Be not afraid. Presume that others welcome you, and extend welcome to others. The good news of God is for you. But, it is not only for you.
It is also for your neighbor who leaves passive aggressive notes on your doorstep. For the coworker who drives you insane. For the man on the street corner with the cardboard sign whom you pass on the way to the office. For the woman who treated you rudely at the grocery store. For the man who cut you off and gave you the “finger” during rush hour. For the gossip who said hurtful things about you.
The good news of God is for the world. For our neighbor. For our friends. For our family. But also, for those we consider our enemy. For those whom we hold at arm’s length. For those who seem different from us.
And God invites us to be beacons of His light upon the world. But, we can only do that as we are drawn toward God and allowing His light to chase out our darkness. Not easy. Not simple. But, beautiful. And worth it.
Let’s pray for that this year. That we become vessels that brilliantly shine in a dark, dark world. May God clean us so that our spots and smudges don’t hinder His brilliance from illuminating those around us. Let us trust in the God who works in us and rest in the love that has been freely given to us. May we love others as freely and generously as we have been loved by God. Amen.