Isaiah 60:1-6, "Arise, shine; for your light has come . . . "
So what did you eat on New Year's Day? Anybody have any black-eyed peas? Any greens? Did anyone do any laundry?
You may be like me having heard that whatever you did on New Year’s Day, you would be doing the rest of the year.
It got me thinking about all those New Year’s superstitions and I ended up running across a page on the internet that listed more New Year’s superstitions than I had ever heard of. One that intrigued me was called “the first footer” named after a superstition about the first person to enter a home after the new year has begun. You see, that person is supposed to influence the entire year you're about to have. And according to the superstition, this person, ideally, should be dark-haired, tall, and good-looking, and it would be even better if he came bearing certain small gifts such as a lump of coal, a silver coin, a bit of bread, a sprig of evergreen, and some salt.
Blonde and redheaded first footers bring bad luck, and female first footers should be shooed away before they bring disaster down on the household. According to the superstition, even if you have to aim a gun at them, don't let them near your door before a man crosses the threshold.
The first footer should knock and be let in instead of using a key, and he should leave by a different door than he came in. And no one should leave the house before the first footer arrives. And if all of that wasn’t enough, the first footer must not be cross-eyed or have flat feet or eyebrows that meet in the middle.
It’s amazing how complicated the turning of a year can be. Well, my wife and I pretty much ignored all of this good advice . . . well almost all of it. We did eat greens and black-eyed peas.
We don’t tend to be particularly superstitious people, although I must admit that it is tempting to be. I mean if we knew the right things to do, we could ward off all evil, bring only good luck to us, right? If we shooed away all those cross-eyed blonds that keep trying to get in the house, right? Or maybe . . . maybe if we just watched the signs, whatever they were . . .
You see, one thing that these wise men that we read about in Matthew, one thing that they had down pat was looking for the signs. And they had been looking for a long time. They had been anticipating the birth of this new king for quite a while. And now . . . finally, everything seemed to fall into place. The signs were right. The savior had come. Everything looked right, except that they didn’t find this king in the royal palace.
This new thing that was happening did not come in the form that these wise men expected, and not in the form of this “first footer” that is supposed to come walking in the door, tall, dark, non-crosseyed, non-unibrowed man with good arches to his feet. The bringer of good news, of salvation did not carry evergreen, silver, salt or bread. Instead of whoever it is we think God should be or come as, what these wise men found as they followed that star, was a baby in a cattle stall, laid in a feed trough.
This one did not bring bread; but Christ would become the bread of life for all of us. It is a great mystery when we find what we are looking for, but it isn’t exactly what we thought it was.
A monk in the fifth century wrote, “[on that day] the magi [these wise men] gaze in deep wonder at what they see: heaven on earth, earth in heaven, humanity in God, God in humanity, one whom the whole universe cannot contain now enclosed in a tiny body. As they look, they believe and do not question, as their symbolic gifts bear witness: incense for God, gold for a king, myrrh for one who is to die . . .”. This is what they found. This is what we find when we look.
“Arise, your light has come,” the prophet Isaiah tells us. And those wise ones looked up, saw that light, and followed it. Not to where they thought it should go, but to where it went.
But we so want to go where we want to go. We so want to have control of our lives, of the events that occur to us, of the people around us sometimes too! This is why superstitions are so powerful! They delude us into thinking that maybe if I don’t step on a crack I won’t break my mother’s back. Maybe, just maybe if I cross my fingers, or knock on wood or whatever it is that you know and do just in case.
After all, we’re not really superstitious, right? We’re just cautious. But we want to believe that we can control, that we can prevent, that we can make everything the way that we wish it to be.
This passage that we have read from Isaiah, with its call to rise up, with its announcement that the light has indeed come, this passage was written to the people of Israel, following the exile, upon their return to Babylon. This would have been a time of great promise, of starting over, of doing it right this time . . . as many of them saw it.
It sounds a lot like making New Year’s resolutions in a way. It is a time to rebuild, to be better, to have a new and fresh start.
And Isaiah is there, bringing to the people the sound of God’s voice, allowing them to hear God’s encouragement in this new beginning. God’s light has come to you out of the midst of a great darkness, Isaiah tells them. “The Lord will arise upon you, and God’s glory will be seen upon you.” Isaiah describes how the light of God, a light which many of the people would have thought may be gone forever, that in this new beginning, in this new start, that that light of God was with them, showing them the way, guiding and directing.
And new beginnings can be difficult and frightening. It can feel like we are groping in the darkness, desperate for some sort of light or guidance, and all we experience is the absence of light.
A woman named Roberta Bondi writes of an experience of darkness . . . and then light . . . and she and several friends had set off on a canoeing trip down the Flint River. She writes about how everything was going pretty well to begin with, but then they became stuck in the woods . . . and they noticed that the light was fading.
Before they knew what was happening, it was night.
They had not planned on being in the woods that long. There was no lamp, no flashlight, just darkness. She writes about those feelings of being so disoriented, of literally not being able to see your hand in front of your face, of groping about around trees and bushes, hearing noises that came from things that you could not see . . . maybe did not want to see.
We crave light. We crave the sense of security it brings, of being able to see around us . . . and there was no light until finally Roberta came to this slight break in the trees . . . and through that break in those dark leaves, she saw a star, a twinkling light, so small but it gave a sense that the whole world had not gone dark, that there was light, and that she and her friends would emerge from the woods . . . and they did.
In the middle of all that darkness, she looked up . . . and saw that light. She writes that that star was like Christ himself coming to them, leading them guiding them.
Arise, shine, for your light has come . . . Isaiah writes.
This past Sunday we celebrated a Sunday we call Epiphany, a word that mean in a way, “aha!” “I get it, I see it!” It is a day when we remember these wise men, these magi, these three kings coming to bring these gifts to the baby Jesus. It is a day when we acknowledge the light that Christ is to us.
We cannot always control the year that we have had . . . or the one that is in our future. But we can raise our eyes, not seeing the things that could go wrong, the things that ultimately are out of our control, but we look for that star, for Christ’s light, for the God that has promised to guide us and be with us, the one that led these wise men to Jesus, the one that leads us there still.
May we have eyes to see Christ’s light . . . and to follow.