On this Epiphany Sunday, most preachers will choose the Gospel reading for their preaching text. Matthew 2 shows us the very first Epiphany of Christ to the world. Born in a barn in a far-off corner of the world, Jesus is worshipped and treasured by his parents and those shepherds and, if some carols are to be believed, the animals. It’s a little family event, an event that will ultimately be important to the Jewish nation. But that glad event was unknown to the wider world. Now here comes the world in the form of three magi from the East to worship the one born King of the Jews. It’s a harbinger of all the Epiphanies to come. So most of you will choose to preach about the wise men.
I want to make a case for focusing on Isaiah 60, because in an uncanny way it anticipates that Matthew 2 event and shows us the deeper and wider meaning of that little family event and of “the one who is born King of the Jews.” Isaiah 60 shows us why Matthew 2 calls for world-wide celebration and deep reflection. The King of the Jews is the Light of the World, “the Lord rising upon us.”
For me, verse 2 is the key to preaching on this text in a way that will grab people. “See,” it says, and people can see. Many can’t believe the good news that the light has come, that the glory of the Lord has risen upon us. But anyone with eyes, even the blind, can see that “darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples….” Seeing the darkness is the key to believing in the Light.
This theme of darkness is found not only in verse 2 of Isaiah 60; it is the focus of the entire previous chapter. Isaiah 59 is full of sin and confession and judgment, as summarized in verse 9. “So, justice is far from us and righteous does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness but we walk in deep shadows.” We can talk about this dark time of year, the bleak midwinter where the days are short and sunless (at least where I live), and the nights are long and bitter. But Isaiah 59 and 60 are talking about a darkness deeper than night. This is a moral and spiritual darkness caused by the fact that “your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear (59:2).”
It won’t take much for you to convince your people that we live in a similar darkness. Examples abound in politics, in societal trends, in world-wide tensions, in personal experience. And that darkness is what makes Isaiah 60 such a glorious text. Verse 2 summarizes it powerfully: “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.” There’s the Gospel in three words, “but the Lord.” It’s a Gospel that needs preaching in this dark world.
But to preach it, you’ll have to wrestle with the multi-valency of this text. I mean, to whom is it addressed? It is tempting to simply apply it to the modern-day church, but that ignores the original context. So, was God speaking to Israel, right after the Exile, when they had come home only to find home in shambles? Or is this addressed specifically to Jerusalem, as verse 14 seems to suggest? If so, it doesn’t seem as though this prophesy has ever come true, given the on-going struggles of Israel and the conflict over Jerusalem.
Or can we legitimately apply this text to the birth of Jesus? That seems fitting, given the way this text is used in, say, Ephesians 5:14, and given the direct parallels between verse 6 and the journey of the Magi. And is it appropriate to see this as a prophesy about the church’s mission to the world in obedience to the Great Commission? In response to our light shining in the darkness, the world has come streaming to the Light of the World.
I think the answer to all those questions is, “Yes.” It’s about Israel and it’s about us. It’s about Jerusalem and it’s about Jesus. It’s about then and it’s about now, and later. It’s a text as pregnant with meaning as Mary was. Its good news is time-bound and timeless and timely. For every time and every place and every person, the good news is that “the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.” And that brings light into our thick darkness.
Out of the darkness two things emerge, according to this word from God. First, the sons and daughters of Jerusalem will come back home. Some of God’s people came home from Exile, but many others remained scattered over the Empire and the earth. Here God promises that when the Light of God’s glory shines into the darkness, “your sons [will] come from afar, and your daughters [will be] carried on the arm.” All God’s people will come back to God, drawn by the light. That’s good news for exiled Jews and for Gentiles who have exiled children.
I mention Gentiles, because that’s the second group that will come streaming to the Light. “Nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn…. All assemble and come to you… the wealth on the seas will be brought to you and the riches of the nations will come…. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.” What a marvelous promise for a people whose disastrous fall from grace might have made them forget that God had always intended them to be a light for the nations. And what a marvelous challenge to a church that has gotten mired in self-serving ministry and has forgotten that God always intended us to be outwardly focused. God means to save the world through us.
Well, that’s not exactly right. God saves the world through Jesus. There is hope for a dark world because the Light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon the world. He is the one who will bring the wandering captives home and the benighted Gentiles to the true God.
But no one will know about and believe in him, unless we reflect the Light into the world. Thus, this wonderful Good News begins with a clarion call to do two things:” rise, shine.” Rise from your prostrate position in the dust of sin, rise from your beaten down condition, rise from the mass of humanity that walks slump-shouldered through the valley of the shadow of death. And shine like a candle set on a bushel, like a city built on a hill. Shine with the radiance of redemption, with the brightness of the risen Christ on your face. When the church reflects the glory of God’s grace, we will attract the nations to Christ. When we are an Epiphany of God’s coming into the darkness, people from all over the world will see the Epiphany that began with three magi from the East.
Indeed, that has already happened, for the last 2000 years. Three magi have grown into over 2 billion people from every nation, race, tribe and tongue who bow before the one who was born “King of the Jews.” Isaiah 60:4 calls us to celebrate that fact on this Epiphany Sunday. “Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you…” In an increasingly dark world, where the light of Christ often seems to be growing dimmer, it is important to celebrate the partial fulfillment of this Word of the Lord.
And it is important to come to Christ again and again, so that we may reflect his glory. A careful study of this text will reveal the recurrence of the verb, “come.” The light has come and as a result, “nations will come to your light, your sons and daughters will come from afar, the riches of the nations will come, Sheba will come…. “ But for that to happen, believers must come to the Light daily, or we won’t be able to be an Epiphany of his glory. Here’s a powerful way to end your sermon. The light has come, but we must come to the Light, so that the nations will see his light in us and be attracted to the Light of the world.
Several friends in a ministers’ book group recommended detective novels by Michael Connelly, so I read one on vacation. Set in Los Angeles, it involved a couple of gruesome murders that seemed to be inspired by a famous painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch. The painting is a lurid, violent, demonic depiction of humans being tortured in hell. The hero of the novel is Harry Bosch, whose real first name is, not accidentally, Hieronymus. Again and again he observes how dark the “city of lights” is. The title of the novel is A Darkness More Than Night. As I read Isaiah 60:2, I thought of the dark plot of that novel as a picture of the thick darkness that covers the earth.
On that same vacation, I sat many a morning watching the sun rise over the Santa Rita mountains in southern Arizona. At 5 it was pitch dark; I couldn’t see even the outline of the mountains. At 6 the sky was beginning to lighten and I could make out the contours of the jagged peaks. At 7, the sun suddenly broke over the notch in the mountains and the room where I sat was flooded with brilliant sunshine. It made me think of the way Isaiah 60 describes the coming of the Lord: “your light has come, the glory of the Lord rises upon you.” God came into the world like a sunburst. No wonder a strange star led the Magi to him.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 6, 2019
Isaiah 60:1-6 Commentary