Scriptures: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Let us pray:
In the divine silence of our souls, help us, O Spirit Wisdom, to discern the calling of our Lord’s voice, that, with you, we may follow and do God’s will. Amen.
We entered into a new year and a new decade this week. Is our ministry here and abroad ready for it? One challenge, as always, is to bring ancient scriptures to life, breathing life into them in and for new contexts. One way to do that is to facilitate movement from preaching and prayer to action and spiritual formation.
I chose to bring to light the Epiphany passages, used for January sixth, today as we begin to identify how this congregation will live into its new year. Epiphany passages illuminate the greatest gift we can bring to the world around us – the love of God shining for others. “God’s transformative light appears in this passage in at least three ways,” Commentator Emily Askew reminds us:
“First, we are reminded of the place of the prophetic imagination in the work of hope, as the prophet’s voice helps prepare the human heart for God’s transformations. Second, we are reminded that power, to be truly of God, is attractive rather than imposing; God’s light shining through us will be a beacon to all nations and will bring forward to good and sacred use the gifts of the earth. Finally, we remember that the darkness shall not last, neither as the dark days of winter nor as the dark days of the soul, for the light rises now just over the horizon.”
Two salient points of caution are worth holding up to the light in today’s passage from Isaiah. First, “all churches struggle to avoid having their labors become bogged down in the difficult realities of communal life.” Second, “Far from escaping politics and discord, the church often seems to embody their most virulent forms.”
Despite these words of caution, Matthew Flemming reminds us that today’s passage is one of hope. When taken through the lens of Christ’s teachings,
“the church’s work continues in the knowledge of God’s faithfulness…however humble the reality of our ministry may appear…, participation in the work of God casts us in the full radiance of God’s light in the world…[thus] there is no failure, no waste in the service of God.”
Digging a little deeper, we must ask: To whom for what purpose is Isaiah presenting this in his historical time frame? Scholars consider this passage to be a part of Third Isaiah, the one that witnesses Israel’s return from Babylonian Exile as freed people. Of course they return to their homeland and their capital city, but most importantly, they return to their Temple in Jerusalem; the central point of their faith’s shared memory and identity. At this point in the text, scholars surmise the initial joy of the remnant community has faded as they struggle, facing obstacle after obstacle to repair and rededicate the Temple and reestablish their livelihood in their promised land.
As some of us may know from personal experience, once downtrodden and faced with challenges, goals that initially are exciting visions become harder and harder to realize, requiring continual encouragement to maintain hope and spirit in the upward struggle toward transformation and new growth.
There are several key differences for us as Christians reading this Hebrew text. “Perhaps the prophet [Isaiah] proclaims a kind of spiritual return in which the exiles reclaim their faith and allegiance to Jerusalem and the temple,” writes Commentator Charles Aaron. He continues,
“The prophet promises not just that Judah’s fortunes will be reversed, but that the chosen people still matter in God’s plan to bless the whole world. By leaving out verse 7, the lectionary committee omits the promise that the rest of the world will participate in sacrifice to the Lord. The poetic oracle is not just about a transfer of wealth, but about reconciliation in worship.”
In the Jewish Study Bible, to be true to the prophet’s intent, “God’s glory is completed in the glorification of God’s people….” Which is a surprising turn around from the expectation of a single Messiah king descended from David to rule them. “…their [corporate] radiance is essential to any bright future of God’s own imagining.” This is a prophesy not for a descendent of the royal house of David, but for the city of Zion, [that is, Jerusalem] and Israel as a whole. [Quoting the Jewish Study Bible, we find] “The prophet does not look forward to the arrival of a human Messiah to liberate the Israelites or a human king to govern them. Rather, God will rule the nation directly in the future, and the whole nation will enjoy royal status.”
For Christian believers reading this text, the spiritual return is exponentially magnified to mean Christ’s coming. It was chosen for an Epiphany text for this very reason.
“This poem calls the church and the synagogue to use our imagination to see what is not yet true and act as thought it already were true. In spite of the world’s indifference to it, the church can arise and shine, acting under the assumption that God is still at work through both church and synagogue [if not all three Abrahamic faiths I might add] offering light, healing, and reconciliation to the world…”
A world in much need of all three. As Barbara Brown Taylor notes, in the end there is no contradiction between Jewish and Christian interpretive epiphany proclamations here.
“Jesus comes to bring God’s own light into the world, not to keep it for himself. He comes to set other people on fire, not to burn like a torch all on his own. In the same way that Isaiah declares the rising of God’s glory on all God’s people, it is possible [for us] to declare the shining of Christ’s light in all Christ’s kin.”
What will this particular Christian community become in this new year? How will we embody (dare I say “incarnate?”) God’s light, healing, and reconciliation in our time, in this valley and beyond? The answer is up to all of you. But I am convinced that together as community continues to be built among us, God’s light will shine.
May all glory be unto the one who lived, died, and rose again for us, even him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.
Questions for Reflection
In Epiphany when the magi make their great journey to see the Christ Child, we see Jesus drawing all creation to the divine life revealed in him, and we see the realization of God’s dream of reconciled creation. In our own way, we are each endowed by the Spirit with unique and precious gifts for sharing God’s healing love in a good but often divided world. What spiritual practices do you engage in that allow you to stay peaceful, courteous, and develop a respectful regard for difference? How do you stay present and create openness for finding, revealing, and activating God’s reconciling love in the world?
Household Prayer: Morning
Glorious God, each day provides opportunity to awaken to the radiance of your presence, and to welcome your blessing into my life. How often I forget that I am your home! Help me to draw more closely to you, that I may manifest your love more deeply in the world. May every bright place and darkened corner grow ever more luminous as I bear your light this day. Amen.
Household Prayer: Evening
Holy Jesus, I thank you for sharing your life with me today. As darkness comes and blankets the earth, be with all who suffer from sickness, hunger, or lack of shelter. Kindle in them the warmth of your presence, and surround them with your steadfast care. I am grateful for the blessings of this day. And in the light of your love I rest this night. Amen.
 Emily Askew, “Theological Perspective, Isaiah 60:1-6” in Feasting on the Word – Year A, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
 Matthew Flemming, “Pastoral Perspective, Isaiah 60:1-6” in Feasting on the Word – Year A, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
 Charles L Aaron, “Exegetical Perspective, Isaiah 60:1-6” in Feasting on the Word – Year A, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective, Isaiah 60:1-6” in Feasting on the Word – Year A, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
 The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 903.
 Charles L. Aaron, “Exegetical Perspective”
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective”