This is the sermon I’m preaching on Epiphany Sunday, January 4, 2009, from Isaiah 60:1-6.
Your Light Has Come
Isaiah 60: 1-6
1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the LORD rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
3 Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you:
All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters are carried on the arm.
5 Then you will look and be radiant,
your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
to you the riches of the nations will come.
6 Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.
Epiphany Sunday is here
Well, here we are at Epiphany Sunday. You’ll notice that all the Christmas decorations are gone today – the Chrismon tree, the candles, the advent wreath, the greenery that represents life even in winter. And if you are like we are, you have already packed away the trappings of Christmas at your house, including the nativity scenes and the Wisemen.
But, if we were a really observant liturgical church, we would recognize this Sunday as the visit of the Magi to the Christchild. Or, if we were Eastern Orthodox, we would celebrate this Sunday as the Baptism of the Lord Sunday. We’ll do that later, but today is Epiphany Sunday, which means “appearing.” Now, it wasn’t that the babe born in a stable hadn’t already appeared, but now it has become apparent who he is. The Magi – the wisemen – schooled in ancient celestial arts have recognized the star of portent. A star in the heavens with great significance has heralded the appearance of a new king.
But, Isaiah over 600 years before speaks of another light. A light that will shine on all, a light that will bring the nations into its brilliance, a light that will be reflected in the lives of those who see it and understand it. And as they come to this light, Isaiah says, they will bear gifts of “gold and incense” – a prophecy fulfilled in the gifts of the wisemen.
A Look Back at the Light
But, how are we to understand what Isaiah is saying? Isaiah, of course, is writing to a people who need encouragement. The people of God have been defeated, disbursed, taken captive, and are in great difficulty. To them the prophecy of God comes through Isaiah –
Arise, shine, your light has come!
And, as if to explain what this light is, Isaiah says –
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
In other words, this is God’s light! God’s light, not just better days. Not just happier times, but God’s light shining on God’s people, again.
So, what about this light? This light is the same light God spoke into existence at creation:
1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. – Genesis 1:1-3
Into the unformed mass that was heaven and earth, God speaks light. Not shape, not character, but light. “Of course,” you’re thinking, “that’s when God created the sun.”
Wrong. The sun, called the greater light, and the moon, the lesser light, don’t get created until the fourth “day.”
14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, 15and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day. – Genesis 1:14-19
The sun and moon and stars were the physical luminaries, but the light God speaks into existence in Genesis 1: 3 is God’s light. God’s light that banishes darkness from a chaotic world. God’s light that sets the tone for all that is to follow – God’s approval that every day of creation is a “good day.” God’s light that comes into the world, and by its entering the world changes everything.
Now, if all this sounds very mystical and mysterious, it is. We get the part about the sun and stars, and we know the moon reflects the light of the sun. But, spiritual light, the light that is the glory of God, we’re puzzled by. Well, let’s keep looking at God’s light some more.
Light Along the Way
The next time we encounter God’s light is when the people of God are trying to escape the captivity of Pharaoh of Egypt. Remember the plaques God has Moses pronounce on the land of Egypt? One of those plagues is the Plague of Darkness. But, an amazing thing happens; in the homes of the Israelites, they have light –
21 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” 22 So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. 23No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived. – Exodus 10:21-23
Pretty amazing, huh? Of course, there are lots of folks who might say, “Well, they just lit their lamps.” And, of course that could be it. But, the Egyptians also had lamps. The point the writer is making here is that the presence of God illuminated their homes even amid the darkness of Egypt’s sin. Sounds very theological doesn’t it? Which of course, it is.
God also commands that the symbols of his presence among his people – the lighted candlesticks in the tabernacle and temple – be continually lit, for God is always present with his people.
We don’t have time to review every instance of light in the Old Testament, but here’s one more. The psalmist recognizes the continuing presence of God even in difficult times as he writes –
Many are asking, “Who can show us any good?”
Let the light of your face shine upon us, O LORD. – Ps 4:6
Which brings us again to Isaiah’s prophecy that God’s light is coming, indeed has come to his people. And, Isaiah tells them they are to be reflectors of that light just as the moon reflects the light of the sun –
Arise, shine, your light has come!
They can shine because their light has come. Isaiah had previously talked about a people who walked in darkness seeing a great light. Now that light has come, and 600 years later, wisemen perhaps riding camels, will bring gifts of gold and incense – frankincense – to this newborn king.
The light of the star in the east became a beacon to those who sought this newborn King. And, while the wisemen do not divulge their own theology, they bring the Christchild gifts and worship him. All because they have seen the light of God in a star.
The Light of the World
It is no wonder then, that when we come to the story of the birth of Jesus, it is attended by light. Shepherds are dazzled by the light of God, reassured by angels, and then they find the child who has appeared in their midst.
Wisemen see the star, follow it, and recognize the significance of the light of the star heralding a newborn King.
John writes of the appearing of the Light as he mimicks the Genesis account of creation –
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning.
3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5
Jesus will teach his followers that they are reflections of this light of God themselves –
14“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. –Matt 5:14-16
Why does Jesus jump right into this in the Sermon on the Mount? Here’s why:
· Until the first century, Jews would have understood the light of the world to be found in the temple.
· A giant menorah stood above the temple compound, all nine branches lit to the glory of God, while inside the temple the sacred candlesticks burned with the light of God’s presence.
But now, Jesus tells his followers they are the light of the world. Not the temple menorah. Not the sacred candlesticks. They are, because they reflect the glory of God in their midst. That glory is now personal, not symbolic. That glory is not contained in a person, not a place. That glory is now Jesus – the light that came into the world.
On the Mount of Transfiguration, we see the glory of God in Christ. Some theologians have speculated that Christ’s presence is always radiant as it was on the mountain top. But, in deference to the limited ability of mankind to stand in the glory of God, Christ cloaked his radiant glory with his human body. Peter, James, and John – as had Moses and Elijah who were present with Christ that day – got a glimpse of the light of God in their midst.
The Light of God Looking Ahead
But, our interest in the light of God doesn’t stop with the appearing of Jesus, as significant as that is. We get another glimpse, this one also from John. As John was given a glimpse into eternity by Jesus himself in the vision we know as the book of Revelation, here’s how John sees the new heaven and the new earth –
1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
5He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
And so the new heaven and new earth appear. Brand new, just as they had been at creation. But, now something else appears. The new Jerusalem. The new Jerusalem is the throne room of heaven descending to the earth. It is God with his people again, in their midst. Just as he had been in the tabernacle and temple. God with us. Immanuel. Comforting, healing, restoring, loving. After describing the indescribable beauty of the new Jerusalem, John goes on –
22I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. 27Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Not only is there no more crying, or pain, or death, there is no night either. The light of God, spoken onto earth at creation, now illumines the new Jerusalem. Nations will walk by its light – meaning recognize the presence of God. Kings will bring their splendor to this new city where God is the light. All of that, just as the prophets had spoken.
I introduced you to Sundar Singh last week. Sundar Singh was a Hindu who saw a vision of Christ when he was 14, became a Christian, and then at age 16, set out in the garb of a Hindu holy man to tell his people about his new Master.
Sundar Singh was not only a great evangelist, he was also a mystic. A mystic is simply someone who sees beyond this world into the world to come. For Sundar, his visions came during times of extended prayer. Listen to his vision of heaven –
“In heaven, no one can ever be a hypocrite, for all can see the lives of others as they are. The all-revealing light which flows out from the Christ in Glory makes the wicked in their remorse try to hide themselves, but it fills the righteous with the utmost joy to be in the Father’s kingdom of Light. There, their goodness is evident to all, it ever increases more and more, for nothing is present that can hinder their growth, and everything that can sustain them is there to help them. The degrees of goodness reached by the soul of a righteous man is known by the brightness that radiates from his whole appearance; for character and nature show themselves in the form of various glowing rainbow-like colors of great glory. In heaven, there is no jealousy. All are glad to see the spiritual elevation and glory of others, and, without any motive of self seeking, try, at all times, truly to serve one another. All the innumerable gifts and blessings of heaven are for the common use of all. No one out of selfishness ever thinks of keeping anything for himself, and there is enough of everything for all. God, who is Love, is seen in the person of Jesus sitting on the throne in the highest heaven. From Him, who is the “Sun of Righteousness,” and the “Light of the World,” healing and life-giving rays and waves of light and love are seen flowing out through every saint and angel, and bringing to whatever they touch vitalizing and vivifying power. There is in heaven neither east or west, nor north nor south, but for each individual soul or angel, Christ’s throne appears as the center of all things.” Visions of Sadhu Sundar Singh of India, pg 26.
The light of God, introduced at creation, present with his people, and incarnated in his Son, is the true light that comes into the world. Arise, shine, your light has come!