Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Light of the World Has Come (a sermon for Epiphany on Isaiah 60.1-6)


Everybody wants to be included. Nobody wants to be an outsider. Nobody wants to be left out.

You sometimes see it in family gatherings when someone new has married into the family. The new person hovers around the edge of the conversation, trying to make sense of the ‘in’ jokes and understand the customs. Some families are 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. They aren’t being malicious, they just don’t think of what it feels like to be on the edge of the 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. They’ve developed effective ways of welcoming and including newcomers.

The Feast of Epiphany which we celebrate 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. It’s interesting that Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels, but he’s the one who tells the story of how God summoned these Gentiles 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. It’s not just that he welcomes them when they happen to stumble in. He actually sends an invitation to them in language that astrologers can understand – a star in the heavens.

By the time Matthew wrote his gospel, perhaps in the late 70s or early 80s A.D., Christian missionaries were carrying the Gospel all over the Mediterranean world and Gentiles were flooding into the Church of Jesus Christ. I think Matthew sees the wise men as a symbol of this later Christian mission beyond the borders of God’s chosen people. Jesus isn’t just the light of his own people; the light of the world has come among us.

To anyone familiar with the Scriptures this wouldn’t 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 walking out and banishment. When people are angry at what’s happening in a meeting and want to completely disassociate themselves from what’s going on, 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’s especially powerful in cultures with a strong sense of community identity, such as First Nations communities.

Both 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 upper classes off into exile. The prophets explained that God had ‘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 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, 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. 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.

Interestingly, many modern biblical scholars think Isaiah chapter 60 was written after the 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 hadn’t fulfilled all their hopes. Life in Jerusalem was very hard, and many people had decided 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 in a new way: he was present as a human being and lived among them. Through his life and 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’s no accident that in Matthew’s story the wise men were drawn to Jesus by the light of a star. And it’s no accident 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. Of course, it would 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. 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, at the beginning of this new year – 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!” Real Christianity has always been attractive. 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 they’ll come humbly, to honour Israel and learn from Israel’s God. It won’t just be Israel attracting them, but her God.

This prophecy was never fulfilled in a literal way in the history of Israel, but the New Testament writers see the Church of Jesus as a major fulfilment of it. 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 hasn’t 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.

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’ve taken over the job of the star of Bethlehem! Many people today are on a journey to find Jesus, whether they know it or not. They’re looking for spiritual reality. They’re hungry for God. It’s our job 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).

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