Friday, January 11, 2008

Sermon for January 6, 2007

Arise and Shine
Isaiah 60:1-5, 9, 19-22

With a new year ahead of us, I thought it would be interesting to look up the top 10 under-reported news stories of 2007. These stories come from Story #1 – There is a refugee crisis in Somalia that rivals that of Darfur in Sudan – over 1 million Somalis fled their homes in 2007 due to civil unrest. Another story: 41 countries have confirmed cases of extensively drug-resistant TB. And the region with the highest level of TB treatment failures is Europe. Here’s another story from Africa: Tensions are once again building between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea. Each country has at least 100,000 troops poised for battle on their borders. This story comes from CNN. Trafficking in human beings – slavery, in other words -- is the third biggest criminal industry on the planet. Only the trade in guns and drugs exceed the sale of people on the global scales of illegal enterprise. Two million people are taken, or sold, from their homes into a life of forced labor. An estimated 30,000 girls are trafficked into the sex industry every year. A few years ago I ran across a story about another group we rarely hear about: the Bajadores of Nogales, Mexico.

Nogales is a dusty Mexican town about 60 miles south of Tucson. A tall steel and concrete fence marks the border, barring illegal immigrants from the US. This town has ballooned from a sleepy village of 13,000 to its present population of approximately 160,000 in the last 45 years. 80% of its inhabitants live in wood and cardboard settlements with no services of any kind.

A few years ago, The Economist, the international news magazine from London, printed an article about the abandoned children of this town,
Some as young as six, who live in old storm drains 20 feet below the ground amid the sewage and garbage that seeps downhill from Mexico to Arizona. Abandoned, abused, doing whatever it takes to stay alive, the children have made these sewers and the streets around the sewage outlets their own. There are estimated to be at least 200 of them. Many are brain-damaged from the stolen additives, spray paint and other substances they use in a constant effort to stay high and escape their wretched reality. Disease and violence are a fact of life . . . Known as bajadores, or tunnel rats, they run drugs for the cocaine cartels, rob unwary passers-by, and attack people being sent through the tunnels and across the border by the smugglers of illegal immigrants.
What despair and hopelessness! But these children are not alone in their despair. How many more thousands and millions of people are there in similar situations. The other day I was reminded of the movie Requiem for a Dream. That movie scared the beejeebers out of me as I watched the self-destruction of good people who are hooked on drugs. I was reminded of how many seemingly normal teens and adults will totally destroy their lives in vain attempts to escape reality. How will they find a way out of their darkness?

How many people do you know who find life worthless and meaningless, and find now way of escape? How many here at Trumbull Congregational Church this morning, beneath a veneer of smiles and calm, are frustrated, angry, feeling trapped

in a marriage that is not at all what was anticipated,
in a dead end job, hopes for advancement dashed,
in a home where you feel unmotivated and misunderstood?
How many have feel betrayed by those they trusted?
How many have received some terrible news and don’t know how life will go on?

Today God has a word for those who are caught in traps, to those who feel despair; to those who think there is little worthwhile left in their lives.

Chapters 60-62 of the prophet Isaiah present a glorious vision of the promises to God’s people, to those who turn and depend upon God. These chapters picture a God who will bring light out of darkness, who will cause those who were lost in darkness to shine. God will substitute freedom for the prisons that bind us, gladness for mourning, shouts of joy for humiliation. All tears will be wiped away, all wrongs righted and paid for, and God’s people will be the delight of the Lord. Here’s my question: How can you be sure that you will share in this glory? How can we make sure that we are among those who experience this hope?

Let’s try to put this passage in perspective. Seventy or so years before this word, God’s people were taken over by the armies of Babylon and marched into exile. Babylon’s armies destroyed the land, and smashed the temple in Jerusalem to the ground. Some Israelites remained in their devastated homeland, but most were forced to live as vanquished slaves in a foreign land. When Cyrus, King of Persia, conquered the Babylonians, he let the Jews go back to their homes in Israel. It was taken as a sign of the Lord’s favor, and the third generation exiles eagerly began to go home and rebuild what was taken from them.

However, in the years immediately following the rebuilding, there were signs that the path to reconstruction would not be as smooth as they thought. Rebuilding foundered in the midst of partisan bickering. And the number of those returning was more of a trickle than a mighty stream. On one hand, the people had the promises of the prophet Isaiah who predicted a magnificent return of God’s chosen people. On the other hand, the reality was that they lost hope.

For the Jews, it was a disappointing time of hardship. They felt lost in darkness. The situation was so bleak that many people predicted the death for all the returning exiles. I can just hear the people asking, “Where is God? Does God even care about us? After all of these pie-in-the-sky promises, where is God now when we are facing death and darkness? Does the Lord care?”

It’s a good question. Does God see the injustice and hurt and pain of the bajadores and the homeless victims of disaster? Does God bother to notice those who are depressed and despised, those who are sick and surviving, those who are in the darkness of dying? Does God hear the cries of those who are lost and alone? Does God care about you this morning?

Today God speaks to the darkness. “Arise, shine, for the light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.” To people who walk in darkness, God gives a great light. To those who are lost in shadows and gloom -- to those who are moaning in pain, God replaces that darkness with the brightness of God’s presence. In today’s reading from Isaiah, there are images of the sun, of God rising and shining on his people, resulting in the same folks who were lost in darkness becoming light themselves!

In fact, in 60:5, we, God's people, are said to be radiant. Radiant! Whenever I hear the word “radiant” I have to think of Wilbur the Pig in Charlotte's Web. Remember, Charlotte, the clever spider, saves Wilbur from becoming pork by writing words in webs above his stall. She first weaves “some pig” to the astonishment of everyone around. But her second word is this one: “Radiant.” Radiant: shining, glowing, beaming, brilliant. Giving off light. God says this radiance is characteristic of all of us together, of the entire people of God. And as Isaiah writes in 62:1, our righteousness will then shine like the dawn. God replaces the gloom in which we are lost with light. We ourselves, individually and corporately, become light, as God works to save us.

God does some thing else in the passage. God replaces sorrow with joy. The contrast with earlier chapters of Isaiah cannot be more striking. Grief, humiliation, sorrow, weeping will all be changed, as we will be overwhelmed with joy and gladness.

God’s word is not just blind idealism in the face of pain. God is not just telling us to buck up and get on with life. God is offering transformation. God says, “This is my promise. Turn to me and I will transform your sin into righteousness! Turn to me and judgment will become mercy! Turn to me and I will exchange your sorrow for joy and turn your darkness into light.” And you know what else God says? It will happen swiftly. The fulfillment of the promise come at just the right time.

Return for a moment with me to the bajadores of Nogales. The same news article I quoted earlier tells of a ministry to these forlorn children, a ministry that provides shelter, food, education, and listening ears to these who are in despair. The name of the ministry: Mi Nueva Casa, my new house. A shelter from the storms raging around the lives of these children, a place of refuge for those who have never had a real home.

God offers us a nueva casa, but one that provides much more than relief of our physical needs. God’s message to those in despair is here: “ARISE! SHINE! I will substitute good for bad, I will redeem the lost! Justice will be done, evil will be beaten, and I will set all things right!”
~ Do you sometimes feel like a bajadore, a tunnel rat, when God has a new home prepared for you? Arise and Shine!
~ Did you come here discouraged this morning? Arise and Shine!
~ Are you disappointed with what life has thrown at you? Arise and Shine!
~ Did you come here with a heavy sadness on your heart? Arise and Shine!
~ Are you enslaved by sin and longing for righteousness? Arise and Shine!
~ Are you crying out for justice? Arise and Shine!
~ Are you lonely? Arise and Shine!
~ Are you sick? Arise and Shine!
~ Do you yearn to find some peace in a fallen world? Arise and Shine!
~ Are you longing for God to do something new and wonderful in your life? Arise and Shine, for the Light has come!

New life begins today. God’s promise to us today is that God brings us light and life. Sin and darkness will be obliterated. God will put all right, and we will share in the greatest joy imaginable. Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more. The Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end.

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