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Mark Trotter ~ Get Up and Go

Consider today Matthew 2: 1-12.

Matthew borrowed heavily from the Old Testament, especially from the prophet, Isaiah. That may come as a word of comfort to writers, and especially to preachers, who borrow heavily from other sources and hope nobody finds out about it. You can get in trouble doing that. In some places it is called “plagiarism.” It is at the least embarrassing, and perhaps even expensive, if the material you borrowed has been copyrighted. But in Matthew’s case, borrowing is not felonious, it is felicitous. Matthew, along with the other New Testament writers, believed that if you want to understand what God is doing now and here, then you look at what God was doing then and there, and it will be the same. Matthew turned back to the time when God revealed himself to the Jews, back to the prophets, to Isaiah, to the prophet who wrote to the Jews when they were in captivity in Babylon. He came across this passage in the 60th chapter of Isaiah.”Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”Matthew said, that is what happened at Christmas. The light came into the darkness of our world, and the light was the glory of God’s presence with us.

When Isaiah wrote these words the Jews were in captivity, being held hostage in Babylon. Cyrus, from Persia, came down from the north and besieged Babylon, defeated the Babylonians, and then freed political prisoners, including the Jews. He told the Jews, “You can go home now.” The Jews just sat there like caged animals who all of a sudden find the door to their cages open. They have been so habituated to confinement that they don’t know what to do, so they just stay there. After Cyrus had defeated Babylon and said to the Jews, “You all go home now,” many of them just stayed right where they were.

Many of them, in fact, had bought property in Babylon. Perhaps you can understand that, for Babylon was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, with its hanging gardens and all that. Being held captive in Babylon would be something like being trapped in La Jolla for a while. They thought, we’re not going to get out of this, so we might as well make the most of it, get comfortable. Then Cyrus came. Isaiah said, “Cyrus was sent by God to set us free. Now get up and get going.” Only he put it poetically:

“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”

Later in the 60th chapter Isaiah predicts that the nations will come and marvel at the glory and greatness of the new Jerusalem. He said if you rebuild the city, all these nations will come to you to celebrate what God has done for you. They will bring you royal tribute, as was the custom when a new king was crowned. Kings from all over the world will come to you, or send their representatives, and will bring gifts to you. Isaiah writes this in the later part of the 60th chapter.

“The abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you” (that is a reference to nations bringing these royal tributes to the new city and to the king that sits on the throne).

“A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come.”

Then, listen to this.

“They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”

Matthew, when he read that, remembered the report of wise men coming from various parts of the world, bringing gifts to the Christ child. He said it was like Isaiah, bringing gold and frankincense. Only Matthew said they also brought myrrh, as we sang in the hymn. Myrrh was used in preparation for the burial of the dead, a reminder that this child will die for the sins of the world.

Matthew decided to make the story of the three wise men a part of his nativity story, and included it as the conclusion of the story. He wanted this to happen: when people read the story of Bethlehem, they will hear the story of Babylon, and how God freed the Jews from captivity, and know that what has happened in Jesus Christ is just like that. Once again, light has come into the darkness, and people who have been in darkness, or in bondage, are now free to begin a new life.

“Arise, shine; for your light has come.”

You are supposed to understand what happened at Bethlehem by remembering what happened in Babylon. The door is open now for a whole new future for you. You are free now. Get up and go. Why do you sit there so despondently in the shadows of your old world? You are free now. You have a glorious future ahead of you. All of us do.

“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”

What is most significant about this passage is that it is in the form of a command: “arise, shine.” It’s a command. How can Isaiah do that? How can you order somebody to start a new life?

We live in a time when the wisdom of the day tells us that we are the product of our past, or of our environment, or our genes, some kind of destiny placed upon us, and we can’t do anything about it. In that kind of world therapy consists of accepting who you are. Sometimes that is all right, it needs to be said. But sometimes it sounds an awful lot like “settling down in Babylon.” We may not have the life we want now. Things may have happened to make us feel that we are stuck where we are. But do you know what happens? When you live with anything for a while, it doesn’t seem so bad. Especially when you are asked to change, because then you can see the advantage of even being in bondage. At least you know what to expect. At least your life is familiar to you.

Richard Rohr, in a brilliant analysis, says that what has happened to us is that “the subjective self has become the objective truth.” What a terrific analysis. We are told that what is most real about us is our internal life, our feelings. Our feelings become the objective truth, the only reality there is.

Christian faith stands strongly over against that, and says that the most important fact about your life is not what has happened to you in the past, and not the way you are right now. The most important fact about your life is what God is offering you. God has given you the future. God has given you a new life. But you’ve got to get up, and move toward it.

For most of us, that is going to take a lot of discipline. It’s not fashionable to talk about discipline. It is going to take discipline to change a lifetime of habits, and to begin a new life. But in a time in which the subjective self is the definition of reality, we will do pretty much what we feel like doing, and feel good about it. But to have discipline in your life is to say, what is real for me as a person of faith, is not the way I am now, but the way I know I can become.

A student was crossing the campus of a college on a cold, rainy day, raining cats and dogs. He saw the college president walking across the campus. The student asked the president what he was doing out so early on a rainy Sunday morning. The president said, “I’m going to church.” The student asked, “What made you decide to go to a church on a day like this?” The president said, “I didn’t decide to go to church today. I made the decision many years ago.”

What discipline means is that you will do those things that you should do even if you don’t feel like doing them. People say you ought to be honest about your feelings. I believe that. Your feelings are a part of you, and you ought to take your feelings seriously. But there is more to you than your feelings. There are also your hopes, your aspirations, your dreams, your visions, your responsibilities and your obligations, and there is now, because of the gospel proclaimed to you, a new life that is being offered to you. That is a part of your life, too. You ought to be as honest about those things as you are about your feelings. It is like John Wesley, who went to Peter Bohler and complained he couldn’t preach grace because he said he had never experienced it. Bohler told him, “Preach it until you do experience it.”

“Arise, shine; for your light has come.”

Do it even if you don’t feel like it, even if you don’t believe, or can’t imagine, that the promise that is offered can come to you. Get up and follow it anyway, because you are a person of faith, and you believe that what is real is not only the way you feel now, but the promise offered to you in Jesus Christ. So “arise, and shine.”

It is offered to you in grace. That is what Wesley discovered. But the paradox of the Christian life is, you won’t receive what is given to you unless you get up and go get it. That is what Wesley did. He followed Bohler’s advice. In a few weeks he experienced grace by preaching it, by seeking it. It changed his life. It turned him around.

That is probably why he left as a legacy for us Methodists this definition of the Christian life. He said the Christian life is “growing in grace.” Being a Christian, according to Wesley, is not just sitting in grace. It is “growing in grace,” doing something about your life. It is a mixture of grace, what God has given to us, and our own initiative and discipline, what we should be doing with our own lives. Wesley called it “sanctification.” What it really is, is hearing the command, “arise, and shine,” and getting up and going.

As a part of that spiritual discipline, Wesley wrote a service called, “The Renewal of the Covenant.” It calls us to remember the promise that God has given to us, and pledge ourselves to live the kind of life that would realize that promise in our own lives. He got the service originally from the Puritans in England and placed it on New Year’s Eve. He thought a renewal of the covenant at New Year’s Eve, a watch night service, would be the most appropriate place for it. Later it was also used on the first Sunday as an opportunity for us to remember what God has done for us, and to pledge our lives in response to grow in grace.

His brother, Charles Wesley, wrote the hymn which we will use to conclude this service:

Come, let us use the grace divine,

And all with one accord,

In a perpetual covenant

Join ourselves to Christ the Lord.

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