"Rise Up! God is Speaking" - Sermon, January 7, 2018

Community UMC, Quincy
“Rise Up: God Is Speaking”
Pastor Andrew Davis
January 7, 2018
Isaiah 60: 1-4
Mark 1: 4-11

        Happy New Year!!  Here we are in the first Sunday of 2018 and the new year has definitely gotten off to a running start as we got back into the normal groove of things and had a beautiful and moving celebration of life for Brooks Mabry yesterday.  Even amidst a running start to the new year, I do have to say that we had an awesome Advent and Christmas season as the choir, bell choir, Sunday School children, and extra readers all did a fantastic job throughout the entire Advent and Christmas season.  And even though the stores have since switched over to the Valentine’s Day stuff, I still feel the light and the afterglow of Christmas as yesterday officially marked the end of the Christmas cycle, as January 6 marks the Epiphany, or the moment when the Magi, or wise men followed the star to find the toddler Jesus and brought him the gifts they had.
            Today, we kind of find ourselves in another little what I call ‘preachers conundrum,’ as the people who put together the Revised Common Lectionary, or prepared, yearly selection of scriptures that I usually preach from have combined Epiphany with Baptism of the Lord.  So, why not have both, right?  On the other hand, a new season of the church year is a good time to begin a new series, and so this morning, we begin a six week series called Rise Up!  In my years of serving as a music director and now pastor, I have become familiar with the cycle and the scriptures this time of year between Christmas and the season of Lent (the 40 days leading up to Easter) tend to focus a lot on discipleship and what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  However, the main focus of Rise Up! Is to focus our energy 
on the kinds of internal work [we as] the church needs to do to get ready [to live as disciples and prepare for Baptism or living into our Baptism]. We need to be reminded that it is God speaking to us and among us. We need to listen to God’s voice. We need to be ready to move when and where the Spirit says move. We need to answer God’s call in the varieties of contexts we and those we’ll prepare during Lent will experience it.  We need to stay focused on our work and God’s call-­-­ the core work of discipling, not just fellowship or friendship. And we need to hear and help those we’ll accompany during Lent hear God’s call to go deeper, following Jesus where he leads.[i]

            Anytime we begin something new, a new year, a New Year’s resolution, a new ministry, or a have a desire to go deeper in our faith journey, we have to first listen to God’s call in our church and in our own lives.  God is speaking in our midst, although we will hear God in different ways.  God also speaks to us through light, just like the light of the star that the Magi saw when they found the toddler Jesus, or by shining light into the darkness which we have just read about in Isaiah. 
            As we engage with our text this morning, particularly Isaiah, God is speaking to Israel during a time of captivity in Babylon, as King Nebuchadnezzar had conquered the land of Judah around 587 B.C. and subsequently exiled the community to Babylon (which today, is in the very center of Iraq, about 53 miles south of Baghdad).  Until Cyrus the Great of Persia defeated Babylon and opened the way for Israel to return to their land around 539 B.C., the Babylonian Captivity was a dark time and we see this sense of darkness in Isaiah’s writings.  Isaiah is writing about how God will be bringing new light to the people even amidst the darkness, as God’s glory will be fully revealed at the end of the captivity.  According to Old Testament scholar Samuel Giere, what we are seeing in many of the verses of Isaiah and other texts that pertain to the exile such as chapters of Jeremiah, 2 Chronicles, or the end of 2 Kings to name a few,
In the exilic and post-exilic contexts the “glory of the Lord” was understood to be the presence of the Lord, which guided the children of Israel through the wilderness,1 was present in the tabernacle,2 and resided in the Holy of Holies.3 The prophet’s poetic parallel here equates the light which shines and the glory of the Lord. The light is the very presence of Lord.[ii]

            God is speaking through the light, which is much more powerful than the darkness, as God is much bigger than anything in this world whose light can overcome even the darkest of nights.  Furthermore, according to commentator, Rev. Dr. B. Kevin Smalls, whose work we are consulting throughout this Rise Up! series, our text from Isaiah that we read “speaks vividly about a people whose light leads to building community. In the first three verses, we read how the light to the Israelite community will not be just for them, but for the Gentiles as well.”[iii] God is speaking to the Israelite community in new ways while showing new light to an entire world.  Fast forward to today, God speaks to us still, although are we listening? 
            A couple months ago, a friend of mine from seminary posted on her Facebook page that “Jehovah is Speaking…are we listening” in the midst of a series of earthquakes, fires, civil unrest, etc..  My friend’s question gave me some serious pause.  I’ll admit that I’m not one who necessarily sees such events as God speaking through natural disasters and the like, although it does make sense that many of the texts we hear during Advent before Christmas advise us to stay awake and be aware.  I hope we are listening, as I find myself paying more attention to such the more I think about it.  On the other hand, I’m more of one who hears God’s voice speaking through other people, maybe even through dreams and little nudgings from the Holy Spirit.  When I consider my call to ministry and decision to attend seminary on the East Coast, I heard God speaking through other people, like our interim pastor at Rio Linda, Dr. Jim Roberts who told me in 2003 that I should consider seminary after competing my BA, or the many others who told me I should consider the ministry.  Or when I moved to Rancho Cordova UMC, it was Pastors Becky Goodwin and Tina Ballagh who saw gifts in me and encouraged me along the way, with Pastor Tina being the one who encouraged me to attend Wesley along with several others in that church, even though I was leaning towards Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley.  Whenever you hear such voices, or when someone you know well sees gifts and graces in you, pay attention because that might just be God speaking.  No matter how we believe, see, or hear how God speaks, God is a mysterious force that is at work in our lives and speaks to us in many different ways.  Or sometimes, God comes right out and tells us we are a child of God, just like what we heard in the account of Jesus’s baptism from the Gospel of Mark.
            Given the world we live in today, it feels like we are in a state of darkness with the threats of war and violence overhanging, the constant divisions, increasing mean-spiritedness among people, and overall brokenness, we need the light of God and to hear God speaking more than ever today and as we’ll talk more about next week, will need to listen more as well.  As I think about what Israel went through in their darkness of being held captive in a place they were unfamiliar with for 70-ish years, Isaiah’s “text conveys a God who nurtures a people that have been depressed for years, and in some cases, have given up on the notion of being delivered.”[iv] God can do the same for us today.
           God never left the people and while it may seem like God is a little distant at times today like it felt then, God is still with us, but it takes us to trust that God is here.  And it takes believing, even when it’s not easy to do so.  But when God does speak, are we listening?  Are we paying attention?  Are we listening carefully to the words of our neighbors, our family, our friends, or complete strangers?  It’s easy to get depressed, especially when we turn the news on, scroll our social media feeds, read the newspaper, or when the days are short and nights are long.  Yet, God will show up and shine a light to remind us that God is still present, sometimes in the deepest darkness, the lowest points in our lives, or in the times of chaos.  As B. Kevin Smalls puts it, “God's light is gentle, not always demanding, overbearing. It is strong enough to chase away the darkness, but gentle enough not to disturb a deep sleep. Once we awaken to the gift of a new day, we then must choose whether to walk into it or not.”[v]
            It’s up to us to follow that light and to listen carefully to what God is saying to us, whatever form it takes.  Who knows, maybe that light will be so powerful that you come away singing “blinded by the light” or “I saw the light, I saw the light…” Like a moth that is drawn to an open flame, the light of God “draws us deeper into the mystery of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Light in the midst of darkness. A flower on the mind’s tree of thorns. A swelling heart at the good news of the Lord.”[vi] That’s one of the ways we go along during this season of light, or the season of Epiphany, as we welcome and listen to God’s voice calling to us to rise up and follow whenever God speaks, or when Jesus comes to us, sometimes at random, and says ‘follow me’ or ‘come and see.’ So during this season of Epiphany, let us rise up and do the work of the church, as we renew our own faith and welcome others along on this journey of faith too and do the work of the church by putting our love into action. 
As we begin this new week and this new year, I invite you to listen this week.  Listen to what others are saying around you or to you, as that could be God Speaking.  At the same time, where in your life are you hoping to hear God speak to you?   
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the church say AMEN!! 

[i] 2018. Gbod-Assets.S3.Amazonaws.Com. Accessed January 4 2018. https://gbod-assets.s3.amazonaws.com/legacy/kintera-files/worship/Season-after-Epiphany-2018_YearB_RiseUp-Series.pdf.

[ii] "Commentary On Isaiah 60:1-6 By Samuel Giere". 2018. Workingpreacher.Org. Accessed January 4 2018. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3524.

[iii] 2018. Gbod-Assets.S3.Amazonaws.Com. Accessed January 4 2018. https://gbod-assets.s3.amazonaws.com/legacy/kintera-files/worship/Season-after-Epiphany-2018_YearB_RiseUp-Series.pdf.

[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid. 

[vi] "Commentary On Isaiah 60:1-6 By Samuel Giere". 2018. Workingpreacher.Org. Accessed January 4 2018. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3524.


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