Some activities might be considered risky business. Tightrope walking. Wildcat drilling. Swimming with sharks. Crossing Antarctica seems a dubious proposition, though a few have viewed it as an adventure not to be missed.
One activity that never seemed particularly daring before is the choice for hope. Even in hours when the blues felt more appropriate to the situation I was facing, I couldn’t help but hope that things would get better, that love would return, that opportunity would knock once more. Hope wasn’t a choice so much as an involuntary reaction that rose from the gut, flooded through the heart, until it captivated my thoughts with its tantalizing best-of-all-possible-worlds future scenario. Hope, it seemed, was an instinctive internal offer I could never refuse.
After the events of this past year, however, hope may feel for some of us like a precarious walk across paper-thin ice. How could we “go there” again, after where we’ve collectively been? Hoping may seem as dubious as Charlie Brown imagining that Lucy won’t yank away the football as soon as he heads toward it. It may appear that we’re down to only two things that last: faith and love. And we may not be willing to bet the farm on both.
Into this jaded religion of pessimism comes Isaiah, bursting onto the scene with his vision of luminous transformation. Doesn’t this guy know the devastation we’ve just been through? In fact, he does. The prophecy we read for Epiphany was written at the end of the sixth century BC—a generation that shared our suspicion that one shoe has clattered to the floor and another still hangs in the air. An earlier prophecy in Chapter 9 had described a people living in darkness being delivered into the great light at the end of the tunnel. Those words were written before anyone had stepped one foot inside that tunnel.
Next, of course, Jerusalem was visited by disaster, its citizens dragged into a dark and hostile Babylonian world, exiled from the beloved and the familiar. Crawling out of the tunnel at last, the community returns to Jerusalem, only to survey the ruins of their once-great society. From where they stand, the view’s not encouraging. This is the hour into which today’s prophecy is delivered. The dawning of a great light is again predicted. But this time it’s not God’s glory, shining down from a holy elsewhere, that defeats the darkness. The prophecy aims a double imperative at the people themselves: “Arise! Shine!”
Isaiah’s words are unmistakable. The people must be moons to the divine sun. They must become a luminous community reflecting the light they receive. If Jerusalem is to be rebuilt, the nations must come together. There can be no more “us” and “them,” for mutual salvation is a cooperative effort. Such transformation is doable, but a restored society won’t just drop down from heaven. Transformation, like hope, is an inside job. Arise, and glow, if you want the light to return and to dance in the eyes of the children again.
There are kings enough, and treasure enough, to propel any restoration. The one thing for which there is no substitute is a heart full of light and hope.