Isaiah 58, Psalm 112 and Matthew 5
(see slides in the middle of this post, or download the ppt at the bottom)
This winter has been mild in central Pennsylvania, but it has been seriously gray. Gloomy, to match many of our moods.
So today’s scriptures are a gift in the gloom of winter because they all bring us light!
From Isaiah 58:
Is this not the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to free the oppressed, to break every yoke?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…
(Isaiah 58:6, 8, NRSV and the Message)
From Psalm 112:
Blessed are the gracious, merciful, and righteous,
they rise in the darkness to light the way for one another.
From Matthew 5:
You are the light of the world!
Jesus goes on to compare this light to a lamp, which we shouldn’t hide under a bushel. Both Isaiah and the Psalmist are talking about the light of dawn, of sunrise, when light breaks into darkness.
In these short days of February, in the gray of mid-winter, in the gloom of cruelty and conflict all around us – we hear these sacred promises together, light breaking forth like the dawn, lighting our way for this journey, being light for one another.
It’s almost like someone planned it! And, of course, they did. These are the lectionary texts for this Sunday, for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, which means these scriptures are always read together in early February (every three years) and the people listening are probably living in gloomy winter with gray skies and short days.
(Unless you’re one of millions of church-goers in the southern hemisphere, where it’s summer right now – but we use the Revised Common Lectionary which was developed by North Americans.)
The gift of sunrise was chosen for us through these scriptures for today to give us hope. Sun and light are literally and metaphorically hopeful because all life on our planet depends on sunlight. And sun and light are hopeful in a unique way for Christians who celebrate the star in the night sky that guides us toward the light of God, the Son of God, in late December as the days are as short as ever.
As I’ve contemplated these passages through the week I’ve found all sorts of wisdom in the light of dawn.
In fact I’m so moved by the power of these scriptures for us in these times, I think the metaphors are so rich, that I’m going to try to share it in a way you’ll be able to remember. I’ll read everything that I’ve put on these slides, but if you can see them to read along I hope they’ll engage you in this wisdom of sunrise and scripture. I’ll tell you all five, then talk about each more.
1. Sunrise is dependable – even though we don’t always see the sun itself
2. Sunrise is universal – it happens everywhere on earth
3. Sunrise is particular – it happens differently in different places
4. Sunrise shakes up our perspective since we’re the ones moving around the sun
5. Sunrise calls us to balance as it is always balanced with sunset
Okay, back to the first.
Even on the grayest day when we never see the sun itself, daytime has returned. It will take a lot longer to get a sunburn and tomatoes won’t ripen, but even cloudy days are daytime. We have sunlight without seeing the sun.
Can we find hope without seeing good news splashed across newspaper headlines?
Can we find hope without any comforting words on the lips of our leaders?
It doesn’t feel as good! Yesterday I turned my face right into the morning sun and basked it in, I felt more alive, more energy, than I had in days. Sunshine is powerful, joyful.
And still: as people of faith, as people of perseverance, we must find hope on gray days and sunny days. With or without sunshine on our shoulders, with or without the warm sun kissing our cheeks, with or without Pennsylvania senators voting how we want them to.
We are strengthened not only by sunlight. Paul writes to the Colossians, you are “strengthened with God’s glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. May you be filled with joy, always thanking the One who has enabled you to share in the inheritance that belongs to God’s people, who live in the light.” (Colossians 1:11 and 12, NLT, inclusified)
And since the sun rises whether or not we can see it, our hope can rise whether or not we see any results. With or without sunshine on our shoulders, with or without visas restored for the people trapped in US airports, we can choose to live in the light as God’s people who welcome strangers and care for those in need.
As Margaret Wheatley writes, “Hope is not related to accomplishment. It is, quite simply, a dimension of being human. To feel hope, we don’t have to accomplish anything. Hope is always right there, in our very being, our human spirits, our fundamental human goodness.”
The sun rises for everyone on this planet – everyone in this solar system, in fact – so I guess it’s not officially universal, is it?
It’s solar systemic!
If we read ahead in Matthew 5 we get to Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies,
to be like our Creator God who “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45, ESV inclusified)
The sun rises on the evil and the good…and the rest of us who usually do good and often mess up. The sun rises on gaseous planets like Jupiter and rocky planets like Mercury and our planet where (virtually) all of life needs sunlight.
The sun rises where its praises are sung, the sun rises where no one notices, and we learn from the sunrise’s wisdom that we, too, should shine with compassion on people who say thank you and people who don’t notice. We must shine with love toward ourselves and one another when we’re doing good and when we’re doing terribly.
Sounds like the Psalmist’s call from this morning:
Blessed are the gracious, merciful, and righteous,
they rise in the darkness to light the way for one another. (NRSV)
Their hearts are firm, secure in God.
They lavish gifts on the poor--
A generosity that goes on, and on, and on.
An honored life! A beautiful life!
Someone wicked takes one look and rages,
Blusters away but ends up speechless. (The Message)
We can be sure as the sunrise, shining on one another universally, and finding hope in Light beyond a sunny day, finding hope beyond getting what we wanted. A generosity that goes on and on and on.
Even though the sun rises universally, it also rises particularly – the sunrise is unique in every place and each day.
I bet you’ve noticed that the sun rises at a different time each day. Sometimes the school bus comes when it’s still dark out, but other mornings the sun is shining when you get on the bus.
And maybe you’ve been somewhere and the sun seemed to come up all at once, and other places you’ve noticed the sun rises gradually. I’ll say more about that in a minute, but first I should be more particular about my language.
What do you consider sunrise?
When light emerges on the horizon? When a sliver of sun appears? When you can see the whole sun above the horizon?
Officially, astronomically, sunrise is only the instant when the sun appears on the horizon.
The light before you actually see a sliver of sun is twilight (dawn in the morning, dusk in the evening), then sunrise happens for one instant, then the sun has risen – even though you can only see a sliver of it.
But guess what I learned preparing this sermon? Sunrise isn’t just particular, it’s complicated!
Thanks to refraction, light shining through our atmosphere’s particles, the sun seems to appear on our horizon before it actually does. An average of 34 arcminutes before actually appearing on the horizon, we can see a sliver of the sun on the horizon. Arcminutes are angular units of measurement – like in geometry, not on a clock.
So I asked my astrophysicist uncle, and he explained how to convert between arcminutes and time minutes – turns out the difference between our visual experience of sunrise and the actual sunrise is about 2 minutes. Definitely an approximation, there are many factors to toss in, but as Uncle Stan says, “it’s good enough for ecclesiastical work.”
Oh I know it’s complicated – you may be wondering why I’m telling you all this! Here’s why: Those of us with clear eyesight assume that what we see is what actually is. Those two minutes, those 34 arcminutes, are a grand reminder that our vision is limited. Truth is more complicated than what any one of us can see.
Using our eyes, we can only see from where we’re standing, where we’re sitting. None of us will ever see the sunrise like this, from the International Space Station. But thank God we have figured out how to collaborate, how to share. We get to see beyond our own eyes.
The sunrise is different depending on where you see it from. Not only does it come at a different time each day, it takes a different amount of time depending on where you are.
Isaiah hears God’s longing that people would be “sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes, putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;
Your righteousness will pave your way. The God of glory will secure your passage.” (Isaiah 58:7-8, The Message)
Your light shall break forth like the dawn.
That’s the line that turned me toward all this astronomical research, actually, because I wondered: how long is dawn?
Closer to the equator, dawn is shorter – about twenty minutes between the first hint of light and sunrise. And at the poles dawn (and therefore dusk) can last weeks.
Isaiah lived pretty close to the equator, so maybe twenty minutes after the people shared their food, homes, clothes and time, their light broke forth like the dawn?
Well, maybe! Depends on what we expect the sunrise to mean. Gratitude? Peace? Those feelings come pretty quickly when we’re sharing our food, homes, clothes and time. If we read that our “light will break forth like the dawn” and expect that means the whole world is going to change, or our country is going to change, or our town is going to change, or our church is going to change…well, twenty minutes isn’t enough.
Not only does dawn take a different amount of time depending on the latitude you’re sitting or standing at, dawn takes a different amount of time at different times of year. These days when hope may seem like it’s taking forever to break into our world, it’s like we’re living in the Arctic Circle during winter, and waiting days – or even weeks – to see the sun.
That’s why we can’t wait for hope to act. We go back to the basics – the greatest commandments, to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. Do it in the dark and in the light, in the winter and in the summer, when the world seems charmed and when the world seems cursed.
Thank God for sunrise, which revolutionizes our perspective.
Because the sun isn’t actually rising – the earth’s movement in relation to the sun makes “sunrise” and “sunset.”
Calling it sunrise or sunset is left over from the days when humans believed everything orbited the Earth. Kind of like a culture of toddlers, who assume the whole universe revolves around them….and that was only 400 years ago! 400 years from now what will people look back on us and say, “how could they have ever thought that?!”
Architect Buckminster Fuller suggested that instead of sunrise and sunset, we call it "sunsight" and "sunclipse.” Even though these terms haven’t caught on yet, they teach us.
Because if we can only see hope in relation to ourselves, if we assume the sun is actually rising around us, we’re missing the big picture. If we can only believe in hope if it’s bursting forth right in front of our eyes, we’re going to miss so much good news.
Because it is always sunrise somewhere! The dawn is truly always breaking forth somewhere. This map shows where the sun is at 11:24am today, I thought I’d get to this point in my sermon around 11:24. The sun is rising in parts of Alaska and some Pacific Islands. And by the time we head downstairs for lunch, the sun will be rising in Japan.
Maybe you don’t see much hope these days, but maybe hope is breaking forth like the dawn somewhere else! Do what you know is right, whether or not you can see results. What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.
God’s view is so much bigger. Even though our sun isn’t moving around the Earth and literally rising, our sun does move. Our whole solar system is moving together, pulled through space by the sun’s gravity.
Our solar system is one of billions – billions – in the Milky Way galaxy. We’re all orbiting in this spiral. Each of those billions of solar systems has its own sun, its own sunsights and sunclipses. I can’t wrap my mind around it, but I can pause in awe and gratitude to be included in this dazzling creation.
Finally, sunrise calls us to balance.
Sunrise comes with sunset, every time. Just like inhaling comes with exhaling, every time. God loves balance, I believe. In our scripture’s first story of creation, God conceives day and night together, and calls them good. The balance between night and day is not a balance between evil and good. We often assume darkness is evil and light is good but that’s toddler thinking and we can grow out of it.
The balance between night and day is the balance between rest and work. Night is God’s invitation for us to rest. To practice Sabbath and restoration. Lord knows we need to believe in rest these chilly, gloomy, sad days.
The balance between night and day is the balance between mystery and clarity. What a genius, divine design – we can see the genius without understanding it.
We do like figuring things out – we’re blessed with curiosity. Yet knowing everything isn’t our deepest purpose. Live into a little mystery and keep working on the basics: let your light shine through kindness and generosity, resting in the mystery of just how your light will impact this world.
As we spin toward spring equinox our days are getting longer. Thank God, because there’s a lot of justice to do, and kindness to love, and humble journeying with God.
The days are getting longer! Our work is ramping up. Our clarity is amplified. We still need rest, we still need mystery, but we’re getting more sun – for such a time as this.
As Paul wrote to the Colossians nearly 2000 years ago:
As you learn more and more how God works, you will learn how to do your work. We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Creator who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful. Col 1:10-12
(The Message, inclusified)