Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 6, 2013

Isaiah 60:1-6 Commentary

Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

Oh how we love Isaiah 60 these days!   But I wonder if the full sweep of these half-dozen verses really sounded that great to the folks way back when who first heard this.  Israel had lately been held captive by foreign types.   Their land and Temple had been sacked.   And anyway, the Israelites (and later the Jews) had become pretty insular, pretty focused on making sure that only certain types of folks got in good with God.   Jonah’s disdain for the Ninevites was hardly a blip or an exception to wider attitudes in Israel.   Jonah’s covenantal ethnocentrism was typical.

So just how encouraging was it to hear Isaiah predict that the scope of God’s people was one day going to include so many foreign folks?   By the time you get to Matthew 2 and see the first hint of the fulfillment of these words in the form of astrologers from Baghdad visiting the long-awaited Messiah, you’ve got to wonder how the buttoned-down types in Israel reacted.

But Isaiah is clear as clear can be: this will all be great because it will all be bathed in a radiant, holy, shining light.   In the beginning God’s first order of creation business was to create light. According to Genesis, God did not create the sun first, nor the stars, nor any proximate source of light, but he created just light. Pure, radiant light. It is one of several features of Genesis 1 that accords quite well with the widely accepted scientific theory of the Big Bang. Whatever else the Big Bang was, it was most assuredly one gargantuan burst of light. The cosmos began in the light.

The universe was born when into the deep darkness of the primordial abyss, light flashed. And from God’s first light came, eventually, life. Indeed, Genesis tells us that God made humankind from the dust of the earth, and science tells a similar story. Near as we can tell, after that first burst of cosmic radiance, eventually stars were born. They blazed their light into space but eventually died out. And from the ashes of those dead stars was created the very stuff of life itself: carbon. God created us out of the dust of long-dead stars. Something of their radiance has passed into our very life. We are stardust beings, created by God to bear our own kind of brilliance as he fashioned us in the divine image.

We were created in the light, from the light, and we still need light.   Some years ago I heard Neal Plantinga tell the story of the farmer whose wife went into labor one dark night in the nineteenth century. As the doctor tended to the woman, he asked the husband to stand near the bedside with a lantern. Soon the woman delivered a healthy baby boy. But then the doctor called out, “Wait a moment–another one is coming,” and the woman then delivered a twin baby. That was surprising enough until the doctor called out that yet another was coming. Suddenly the farmer began to move out of the room. “Hey,” the doctor exclaimed, “come back here with that lantern!” “Oh no,” the man replied, “it’s the light that attracts ’em!”

We are drawn to the light. Yet light remains a mystery.  Isaiah 60 is also somewhat mysterious. On the one hand, this chapter famously opens by telling the people, “Arise, shine.” A little later Isaiah predicts that other nations will be drawn, “to the brightness of your shining.” But that makes it sound as though the source of the light is Israel itself. If I tell you to “put on a happy face” and then remind you that “when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you,” then it is clear that it’s your face and your own smile that I’m talking about. So also here: when Isaiah tells Israel to shine and talks about the brightness of their shining, it sounds as though the light in question emanates from the Israelites themselves.

Yet this same chapter talks a great deal about the fact that it is ultimately Yahweh who shines upon his people Israel. “The glory of Yahweh rises upon you . . . The sun will no more be your light . . . for Yahweh will be your everlasting light.” So who is doing the shining in this chapter: the people or God? It looks as though it is both.

It is because the Lord God Yahweh shines on Israel that they themselves can likewise shine. Curiously, however, the way Isaiah puts all this does not make it appear as though Israel were no more than a mirror. He does not say, “Arise, reflect, for your light has come,” but rather “Arise, shine.” He does not say that nations will come to the brightness of what bounces off them as a result of God’s light but he says those nations will come to the brightness of your light.

It all seems a bit mixed up and yet maybe it hangs together in a larger sense. Maybe we need to be so radical as to say that because of who God is, we ourselves possess our own luminosity. We are not just mirrors that reflect but our own source of light. At one time or another we’ve maybe all heard the phrase “reflected glory.” There are people in life who like to bask in the light of others. They themselves are not the president but they like to stand near him, get captured in the same photo as the president. They can then tell other people how close they are to the president, they may even brag a bit about their proximity to power. These are people who exhibit a kind of fake casualness when they drop things like this into a conversation: “The other day I was talking to the president and I said, ‘Barack . . .'” And once you hear that, you know what’s going on.

But maybe some of us have also felt the desire to capture some reflected glory. Have you ever been asked to introduce someone famous at a lecture? Have you ever had the opportunity to sit at the head table up on the dais at a banquet where the guest of honor was a celebrity of some kind? If so, then you know how special you can feel being that close to someone well-known. True, no one came to hear you introduce the speaker and no one paid a hefty price for his or her seat at the banquet to stare at you sitting up on the dais, but still you feel like maybe some of this other person’s celebrity rubs off on you.

Some years ago Philip Yancey asked me to help him with a book he was writing, and as a result he thanked me by name in the “Acknowledgments” section of the book once it was published. I am certain that more people read my name there than have ever read my name on the spine of any book I wrote! Yet still I confess to having enjoyed being associated with someone as talented as Mr. Yancey is. A little reflected glory goes a long ways!

But it’s still just reflected glory. But a reflection does not have much substance of its own. I’m told that reflected sunlight has very little heat to it–something always gets lost in the reflection process. So also those who like to be seen in the company of the famous and powerful may get a buzz out of that reflected glory, but the fact is that such people will likely never be very powerful themselves. There is a big difference between being associated with a person who does a lot of good and actually doing something good yourself.

But I suppose that when the light you are talking about—when the “reflected glory” you are considering—has as its source no one less than Almighty God himself, all of these typical categories of reflection get turned on their head.  In this case the original light is SO intense, SO radiant, SO holy, and SO good that it has a substance all its own—a substance and a righteousness so powerful that one cannot reflect that light without simultaneously being caught up in and even transformed by that light.  So perhaps that is the sense in which we can be at once shined upon and yet be said to shine in our own right, too.

But as noted at the head of this sermon commentary, for Israel that meant getting used to something they were not accustomed to: namely, that holy light was going to attract far more than just folks who looked and acted and thought just like the rest of Israel.   The God who created this richly diverse world by saying “Let there be light” was going to prove magnetic on ALL the various peoples who eventually spun out of that primordial burst of creative light.

Being part of that Creator God’s creation means welcoming them all when they show up even as we ourselves wish to be welcomed.   That’s the deepest challenge and the dearest message of the day we call “Epiphany.”   Here’s hoping we all have enough wideness in our hearts and in our minds and in the grace given to us as to find this a welcome Epiphany always.

Illustration Idea

In the beginning there was light. And almost from the beginning, evil and sin and all things unholy have been depicted as darkness. To this day people describe depression as rather like slipping into a dark hole. Author William Styron once told his own tale of battling depression in his memoir titled, Darkness Visible. In fact, in recent decades psychologists have discerned a link between a lack of light and depression. Some of the most melancholy people in the world live in the northern reaches of places like Finland and Norway where, during many months of the year, sunlight is restricted to a few scant hours per day. Even in other parts of the world something called “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” or “SAD” for short, has been discovered in people who drive to work in the morning darkness of winter, labor all day in a windowless office or factory, only to drive back home in the evening darkness. But when people go without natural light long enough, something goes awry and they begin to slip into depression. For some, a most striking remedy has been prescribed: light therapy. By exposing some depressed people for a few hours every week to sun-like light, doctors have been able to lift the fog of depression.


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