Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Light of the World Has Come (a sermon on Isaiah 60:1-6)

The desire to be included is a natural part of our makeup as human beings. You sometimes see it in family gatherings when a new member has been added by marriage; the new person hovers around the edge of the conversation, trying to make sense of the ‘in’ jokes and understand the family customs. Some families are very good at including newcomers; they have their unofficial ‘gatekeepers’ who explain the customs and traditions, and they reach out and welcome the new member. Other families aren’t so good at this. Most of them aren’t being malicious, they just never think of what it feels like to be on the edge of the family circle. Some churches are like this too – people find it hard to get into them because they don’t find a welcome and a way of learning what the congregation’s customs and traditions are all about. Other congregations have given careful thought to this and have developed effective ways of welcoming and including newcomers.

The Feast of Epiphany, which we are celebrating today, is all about outsiders being welcomed into God’s Kingdom. The Wise Men, or Magi, were astrologers from the east. They were not Jewish and were unfamiliar with the Hebrew Scriptures. Matthew is the most Jewish of the four Gospels, but he is the one who tells the story of how these Gentiles were summoned by God to greet the birth of the one born to be King of the Jews. Apparently the God of Israel wants to reach out to outsiders. He doesn’t only welcome them when they happen to stumble in – he sends an invitation to them, in language that astrologers can understand – a star in the heavens.

By the time Matthew wrote this story, Christian missionaries were carrying the Gospel all over the Mediterranean world, and Gentiles were flooding into the Church of Jesus Christ. For Matthew, the wise men are a symbol of this later Christian mission beyond the borders of God’s chosen people. Jesus is not just the light of his own people; the light of the world has come among us.

But to anyone who was familiar with the Scriptures this would not be a surprise. It’s a common theme in the prophets: when God restores the fortunes of his people in the Messianic age, foreign nations will come to be included in the blessing. This is very clear in our Old Testament reading for today, Isaiah 60:1-6:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawning.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

Let’s look at this passage under two headings: first, the light has come, and second, the light draws people in.

First, the light has come. In human communities, two powerful symbols of anger are, first, walking out, and second, banishment. When people are angry at what is happening in a meeting, when they want to completely disassociate themselves from what is going on there, they sometimes walk out in protest. Banishment, when a community sends offenders away in penalty for their crimes, is also a powerful symbol of the community’s displeasure. It is especially powerful in cultures with a strong sense of community identity, such as First Nations communities..

Both of these illustrations are used in the Bible to explain the disaster that happened to Jerusalem in 597 BC when the Babylonian armies sacked the city and took the leaders and literate folk off into exile. The prophets explained that God had in fact ‘walked out’ on his people because of their persistent refusal to obey him; it was this departure of God from among them, said the prophets, that led to their defeat and exile. And then the people were banished from their own land, just like Adam and Eve being ejected from the garden because of their sin.

Given these ideas, how would the people know that God had forgiven their sins? The answer was obvious – if God returned to Jerusalem, and brought his people back there, they would know he had forgiven them. We can see promises of both these things in today’s passage.

First, in today’s passage God is seen as returning to his people like the sun rising after a dark night. Jerusalem is a city built on a hill, with other hills around it. As you may know, in the Mediterranean world sunrise and sunset are very quick; it can be very dark one moment, and then light the next. In Old Testament times the white buildings of the Temple were high up in the city; the sun would shine first on them, and then later on the lower parts of the city. So for a time it would still be pitch dark in the lower quarters, but bright up in the Temple and the buildings around it. It’s possible that Isaiah has this picture in his mind when he talks about the contrast between darkness and light in verses 1-2:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the LORD will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.

Then in verse 4 we read about the return of God’s people from exile:
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.

Now the interesting thing to me is that many modern biblical scholars think Isaiah chapter 60 was written after many of the Jewish people returned from their Babylonian exile. Why would our author prophesy these things as still in the future? I think it was because the return had not fulfilled all their hopes. Life in Jerusalem was very hard, and many people had in fact elected not to return at all. So the prophet looked forward to a further visitation from God, which would bring about a true return from the community’s spiritual exile in sin.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is described as ‘Emmanuel’ which means ‘God is with us’. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God came to his people as never before; he was present as a human being and lived among them. Through his life, death and resurrection, God was acting powerfully to forgive our sins and bring us home from our spiritual exile into the life of God’s family. It is no accident that Matthew records that the wise men were drawn to Jesus by the light of a star – or that Jesus calls himself ‘the light of the world’. In Jesus Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled – God comes to live among his people like a great light. Even today, when we no longer see him physically, the prophecy is still fulfilled, because he promised us that he would be with us always, to the end of the age.

Think back for a moment to the picture of sunrise in Jerusalem, with the lower city still in darkness but the upper city in the light. It would of course be possible to move into the light, by simply climbing a little higher!

We can make this move from darkness to light in a spiritual sense as well. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). If we follow Jesus there is no need for us to stay in darkness; we can have the light of life. This is God’s invitation to us this morning – to follow Jesus, to trust him, to build our lives around his teaching, to look to him for help each day. This is what it means to ‘walk in the light’.

So we’ve seen that in Jesus, the light of the world has come. The second thing this passage tells us is that the light draws people in. In Dennis Bennett’s book Nine O’clock in the Morning he tells of his wife Elberta’s comment when she first met some Christians who had experienced God’s Holy Spirit in a new and powerful way. She said, “I don’t know what these people have, but I want it!” True Christianity has always had this compelling attractiveness too it. People are drawn by the sense of the presence of God.

The Old Testament scriptures tell us that when God returns to his people and restores their fortunes, it will not just be for their benefit but for others as well. In Isaiah chapter 2 we read these words:
In the days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths’.
We can see the same theme in our passage for today, in verses 2 and 3: ‘but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawning’. Instead of the nations coming as conquerors over Israel, they will come humbly, to honour Israel and to learn from Israel’s God. It will not just be Israel attracting them, but her God.

This prophecy was never fulfilled in a literal way in the history of Israel. However, the New Testament writers see the Church of Jesus as a major fulfilment of this prophecy. The wise men who came to Jesus were the first of millions of Gentiles who have come streaming to Israel’s God as he has been revealed in the life and teaching of Jesus. Thomas Cahill has written a fascinating book called The Gifts of the Jews, in which he documents all the Jewish ideas which have been adopted into mainstream culture and are now widely accepted. Many of them have been accepted through Christianity, and so it can be said that in a true sense Judaism has been a blessing to the world through Christianity. The idea of one Creator God rather than many gods – the gift of the Ten Commandments – the idea that time moves in a line rather than being circular – in these and many ways Christianity has taken Jewish ideas and presented them to the whole world. In Jesus, Judaism has been fulfilled, and his light has drawn the Gentiles to faith in Israel’s God.

That movement has not ended today. Today, still, we need to remember that the light of Christ was not given to us just for ourselves, but to share with others. As we truly follow him and pattern our lives after his teaching, others will see his light in us. It’s up to us to tell them where that light comes from and to love them into his kingdom.

Let me close by reminding you of the two ways that Jesus uses the symbolism of light in his teaching.

First, as we’ve seen today, he says, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Jesus is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy; in him, God comes to live among us as a light. As we follow him, we do not walk in darkness, but we have the light of life.

But there’s a second way Jesus uses this symbolism as well. In Matthew 5:14 he says to us his followers, “You are the light of the world”. You and me – flawed, imperfect disciples as we are – we have taken over the job of the star of Bethlehem! Like the wise men, there are many people today who are on a journey to find Jesus, whether they know it or not. They are looking for spiritual reality. They are hungry for God. It’s your job, and mine, to draw them to the place where Christ can be found. So, as Jesus says, ‘let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:16).

1 comment:

Mr. Mcgranor said...

Being Jewish was not necessarily a prerequisite to the familiarity of Hebrew Scripture. There were gentiles that were knowledgeable; usually through a Rabbi.
A place for the gentile was made outside of the Temple.
If Isaiah had written his wishes and not God's; Scripture would be a lie.
Jews are fulfilled in Christ,
and the State of Israel and Jewish culture will fall to Christ! He has risen!

A Verse

Light of the world,
though men prefer darkness;
you shine.