Meditation on Isaiah 60:1-6
Epiphany of our Lord
Jan. 5, 2020
The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton, OH
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 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.
3 Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 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.
5 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.
6 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.
I was looking out the kitchen window yesterday, and my husband asked me, “Are you going to watch the birds all day?”
And I said, “Yes!”
We put up our first bird feeder in our Coshocton yard the week of Christmas. Since then, we’ve added 3 or 4 more feeders of different kinds, with a variety of food to appeal to the tastes of a variety of birds. It’s complicated, isn’t it, feeding birds? Sunflower or safflower seeds; suet or thistle, mealworm blend, corn or peanuts? I have seen cardinals and blue jays, finches and chickadees, wrens and sparrows, nuthatches and tufted titmice. I’ve seen crows large enough to carry my Pomeranian away. I’d be OK if the crows didn’t come back! And yes, I have seen some squirrels.
And is it my imagination or are my neighbors’ cats spending more time in our yard than before? Could be!
I haven’t had a bird feeder since Minnesota, maybe 6 or 7 years ago. I had a kind of traumatic experience in Minnesota with my bird feeder. My husband remembers that day well. I was watching out the kitchen window at a beautiful bird eating on the feeder on a cold, rainy day. I called out, “Jim, come quick and see this bird!” And then, I let out a blood curdling scream. Aaaaaaaaaaaaa!! A hawk had swooped down, grabbed the little bird off my feeder, and took him down into the bushes. Never to be seen again. It took me a while to get over the shock that my offering food to birds was luring some of them to their death.
God has rekindled in me a passion for watching and feeding the birds since we came to Ohio, especially in the winter months. I don’t know about you, but the dark and gloomy weather has been dampening my spirits. I can handle the cold and snow of living up north again; I sure do miss the sunlight of the south.
But there’s something about the birds—maybe it’s their bright colors and their energy—that lift my spirits. Especially the cardinals. They are SO cute. Whenever I see them in my yard, fluttering at the feeders or perched on the branches of shrubs and trees, I just feel better. Don’t you?
I know that this is one of the ways that God speaks to me. He is reassuring me that just because the world seems dark and gloomy, at times, the sun is always shining. Redemption is present with us because God is here! He’s not going to abandon us, no matter what.
And redemption is personal. To be sure, the Lord speaks to each one of us in ways that only each one of us can understand. This is something John Calvin talks about in his 16th century work of systematic theology, Institutes of the Christian Religion. God accommodates himself to us—that’s why he came to us as one of us. If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t have listened and understood. And if he didn’t continue to speak to us, then we wouldn’t be able to survive. As the writer of Hebrews tells us in the first chapter, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”
The theme of the day is redemption on Epiphany, when we remember the first revelation of Christ to the Gentiles—to the wise men from the East. Redemption that is present and personal, but also surprisingly inclusive. For these are foreigners, not raised in the faith of Abraham. They are seekers of God, drawn to a mysterious, irresistible light, as if they were responding to Isaiah’s prophecy in 60:1, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” This is the word of God written on their hearts, for the magi could not otherwise know of the prophet’s encouragement to God’s people in the 6th century BCE, when they return from exile in Babylon to discover that their once beautiful home land is filled with decay and corruption. The call to arise and shine is a spiritual awakening, a call to return to the God who loves them and is present with them, wherever they are. The language of becoming radiant in the light of the glory of the Lord brings to mind the radiant face of Moses after he had spoken with God on Mount Sinai in Exodus 34.
Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 40 that God’s people would “mount up with wings like eagles” and “run and not be weary” has come to pass. This God is faithful to His promises. The descendants of God’s people in exile return home in glory, while the descendants of those who made them captive return in humble praise. Surprisingly, or not so, if you understand how BIG God really is, the Lord uses a Gentile, the Persian king Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE, as an instrument of healing and peace, restoring the exiled Judeans to their homeland. The construction of the second temple in Jerusalem, as described in the book of Ezra, begins 2 years later.
The divine light in the gospel of Matthew has brought the magi a long distance; how far, we don’t know because we don’t know where their journey began. But we can be sure that they have come in faith that they will see the Lord. They have brought with them precious gifts to offer the one who will bring salvation as a gracious, free gift to all. These are standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil. Some scholars believe that these three may have been chosen for their special spiritual symbolism about Jesus himself—gold representing his kingship, frankincense a symbol of his priestly role, and myrrh that prefigured his death and embalming—an interpretation John Henry Hopkins Jr. made popular in his 1857 Christmas carol, “We Three Kings.”
The wise men’s coming to Jesus is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision. The glory of the Lord won’t just be for Israel; strangers from every nation will travel from near and far and be drawn to the light that changes hearts and transforms lives. “Then you shall see and be radiant,” Isaiah says. “Your heart shall thrill and rejoice.”
With all this divine guidance, do you wonder how they end up in Jerusalem? Did they take a wrong turn? If only they hadn’t gone, lives would have been saved. Their arrival alerts the one man who would be the fiercest enemy of the child born King of the Jews, as the wise men say. These foreigners aren’t so wise that they are acquainted with Herod’s evil ways. Their arrival in Jerusalem sets off a deadly chain of events that results in the loss of the lives of many young children. This serves to emphasize the terrible darkness into which the light of Christ has finally dawned.
But Herod is the one who directs the wise men to their divine destination—Bethlehem, after his chief priests and scribes read from Micah 5:2, “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” The wise men accept Herod’s lie, at first, that he wants to join them in worshiping the child who would be king. Then they are warned in a dream not to return to him.
So, they leave for their own country, whatever country it is, by another road. Could that be symbolic of the transformation of their entire life’s path? Who could help but be changed in the presence of the Christ child? I suspect that the gospel writer purposefully keeps us in the dark about the origins of the wise men, so that whoever would hear the story would see them as foreigners. This is the point! God wants to break down all cultural, geographic and religious boundaries—every kind of wall that human beings use to divide people. As God proclaims in Isaiah 56:7, “…my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
The magi take with them the story of God having come to us, as one of us. Salvation is present, personal—and inclusive. It has been opened to all—even strangers and aliens from afar.
Do you know the God who is with us now? Have you heard God’s voice? God is still speaking to you and to all the church! He wants to accommodate himself to us so that we can see his light, experience his love, and know his will.
Your redemption is here! It may feel to you sometimes like it’s far away—with a sudden health crisis, accident or loss of a loved one, job or home. It may be cold, dark, and scary in your world sometimes, but the Son of God is always present and will never leave us alone.
The Word became flesh. And what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Arise, shine; your light has come!
Let us pray.
Holy One, thank you that you continue to speak to us with your powerful Word, sustaining us and all that you have created. Thank you for speaking to us first through the prophets and then through your Son, who is the Savior for all people. Lift us up, now, Lord and fill us with your light and love so that we may be radiant and shine brightly for all to see. Help us, Lord, reach out with compassion to those who still walk in darkness. May we reveal your glory so that all may come to know your present, personal, and surprisingly inclusive redemption. In Christ we pray. Amen.