There seems to be some debate as to whether 2016 was a good year or a bad year when you stack it up against others. I don’t know what do you think?
A shorthand list makes the case for a pretty disappointing trip around the sun: Syria, Zika, Haiti, Orlando, Nice, Charlotte, Brussels. Or take this angle: Bowie, Prince, Ali, Cohen, Fisher, Reynolds. There were quite a few people who weren’t too happy with votes in the U.S. and Britain, not to mention a few other places. We’ve had our share of personal tragedies and disappointments too. It can wear on us. Make us wonder about things, doubt, despair. I confess to this at times. I lose hope.
Of course, there are arguments for the other perspective. Take some 2016 headlines from a recent article:[i] British Columbia protected 85% of one of the world’s largest rainforests. In February, Peru and Bolivia signed a $500 million deal to preserve Lake Titicaca. In March, the U.S. government abandoned its plan for oil and gas drilling in Atlantic waters. After almost 13 years of negotiations, Malaysia established a 1 million hectare marine park. More than 20 countries pledged over $5 billion for ocean conservation this year by creating 40 new marine sanctuaries covering 1.3 million square miles. New research showed that acid pollution in the atmosphere is back down to the level it was before industrialization in the 1930s.
We’ve made some inroads politically as well. 93% of kids around the world learned to read and write this year—the highest proportion in human history, and the gender gap narrowed too. In 2016, for the first time ever, the amount of money it would take to end poverty dropped below the amount of money spent on foreign aid. World hunger reached its lowest point in 25 years. While there is still far to go, black incarceration rates fell this year in the U.S. Gambia and Tanzania banned child marriage. Canada announced a ban on transgender discrimination. Teen pregnancy rates declined in 2016 for the 24th year in a row. The Chinese government placed a ban on new coal mines, and doubled its renewables targets for 2020. For over 100 days in 2016, Costa Rica ran solely on renewable energy. It’s now aiming for an entire year with no fossil fuels.
We could go on. The world got less violent by many measurements. There were signs of hope for a life-sustaining economy. More endangered animals were protected. The world got more generous by many metrics.
I think the magi might have been looking for hope in their journey to the baby. Like us, they want to be a part of good news. They simply want to offer their own gifts to the Spirit that gives them light and life. They want to give thanks. They want to know that God is a God of possibility—that the thing we can imagine can actually be, that it already is.
That’s what’s going on in Isaiah 60, some six centuries before the baby that will become the light of the Christian faith is born. The people are refugees, returning from a generation in Babylon as exiles of war. And everything is gone. The towers of the city are torn down, walls flattened, homes destroyed. The temple is in ruins. The shining city of Jerusalem and everything it represents is an empty shell. The economy is in disarray and nobody knows what to do to fix it.
And a remarkable prophet looks to a people in utter despair and sees what they can’t yet see. There is hope; there is a future for you. The God you have known in the past is still with you and holds your future. You just can’t quite see it. The Spirit is alive in you. So arise. Shine. Your light has come.
The promise is in part about a political and economic reality: Jerusalem will once again become a commercial center, a world-class city of international trade. “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” says the poet. They’ll come from Asia, with caravans loaded down with goods to trade and they’ll bring prosperity. “The wealth on the seas will be brought to you. To you the riches of the nations will come.”
But even more it is bright because of the presence of God which never wanes regardless of the ebb and flow of history. Regardless of the entrance and exit of good and bad leaders, the best of times and the worst of times. God is present. God is here. There is always reason for hope, even as it faces squarely the presence of goodness and of evil. This hope shines in our potential to live for a better world.
And that’s what gets us to Matthew. It seems these Eastern seekers from another faith have taken the time to cross borders. They know their bible, so they follow Isaiah’s proclamation to Jerusalem. From Isaiah, they know they are to take rare spices, gold and frankincense. More importantly, they know that when they get there they will find a king of peace and prosperity; they will find the inspiration they seek.
But they don’t have it quite right. The light is not found in the halls of power. Herod has become too possessive, imagining the covenant is a zero sum game, a treasure to take from another for his storehouse. So the arrival of these searchers and the truth they announce becomes threat rather than promise.
And like any leader whose authority is based on something other than truth, fairness, justice, and authenticity, he will eventually be undone. Herod panics. In his fear, he arranges a consultation with the leading scholars in Jerusalem, and he says to them, “Tell me about Isaiah 60. What is all this business about camels and gold and frankincense?”
And then a remarkable thing happens. The scholars tell him, “You have the wrong text. And the magi in the waiting room got it wrong too. Isaiah 60 will mislead you because it suggests Jerusalem will prosper and be restored as the center of the global economy.” It suggests that salvation is found in wealth and privilege. It suggests that politics is king. But in that scenario, nothing ultimately changes. And it seems that the world is about to turn.
The right text, they tell him, is Micah 5:2-4: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephratha . . . from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old. . .”
Not Jerusalem, but Bethlehem. Little. Vulnerable. Bethlehem. This Bethlehem voice is not impressed with high towers and walls, with great arenas and impressive banks. It is a voice that calls all who hunger to the food that will really satisfy them. It has a heart that locates the light of God in all people, not just a few. It announces new life that is as old as creation. Good news for all the people as Paul comes to understand, reaching out to those he had once disparaged.
The Epiphany story invites the whole church to travel those hard, demanding miles away from self-sufficiency and toward vulnerability, neighborliness, generosity—spears turned into pruning hooks and swords into plowshares. As we sang earlier:
music to heal the broken soul
and hymns of loving-kindness.
The thunder of his anthems rolls
to shatter all hatred and violence
It seems true power is in the things that make for belonging and home and hope—neighborliness and mutual need, the forgiveness of sin, patience and generosity. True power, true goodness, hope that lasts is found in that Spirit in us that reaches out to others in love and sacrifice. This is the presence of God made known in baptism, that was born in a stable, spoke truth and promise to all who would listen, and gave its life for many.
This table is the perfect illustration of this truth. Rather than self-sufficiency, God calls us to sit at the table of self-giving where Christ’s own body and blood is offered up. We are welcomed into a place of healing and truth, sitting next to those, who by the virtue of God with us, we no longer call enemies or strangers or outsiders, but brothers and sisters—“fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
This is the astonishing hope that is offered to us, and to all of us. This is the covenant that truly saves. This is the light that shines in you and me.
So was it a good year or was it not? I suspect it was something of both, as is every year. And yet, as the Creator said, it was good. And so is this next one. Not because of who currently occupies the white house or any other seat of power, but because Christ’s light shines, because love reigns, and it has the power to save those who seek, and it is born in us today. So Arise. Shine. Let your light be seen. Let it welcome all who come searching. Shine for all to see.
[i] See “99 Reasons 2016 Was a Good Year” at https://medium.com/future-crunch/99-reasons-why-2016-has-been-a-great-year-for-humanity-8420debc2823#.olq0algg5. Accessed January 6, 2017.