6 January 2012Isaiah 60:1-6
"Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you." (v. 1)
Today, many parts of the Christian Church celebrate the Epiphany
- that is the appearing of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles (non-Jews).
It is normally associated with the Magi, believed to be the first
non-Jewish people to worship Christ, and today's passage has
special relevance to that. The word Epiphany also means 'dawning' -
the light of the sun rising over the horizon, bringing an end to
the darkness of night.
This passage is part of the final 'act' of Isaiah. After the Exile to Babylon, some of God's people have begun to return to their homeland, under the rule of conquering Persian king Cyrus. The exile was a humiliating period of great "darkness" (v. 2) for the Jewish people: many were carried off to strange lands, including most of the ruling classes, while others stayed put in the occupied land. As they started to return home, life back in Judea was far from easy. The people were still not their own masters and their way of life had been altered by foreign influences. Forming a community of God's people was extremely difficult. The traditional ways were no longer accepted by everyone, and the temple had to be rebuilt. There was light at the end of the tunnel, but there was still a long way to go. Their hopes and salvation were caught in the tension between 'now' and 'not yet'.
While they were in Babylon, the exiled Jewish people took heart in remembering their history and faith. They would recount the creation story to help them retain their own identity - who they were, and who God was, in the midst of so much that was strange to them. Theirs was the God who said, "let there be light!" (Genesis 1:3) and light appeared. They sang songs of lament, that they should have fallen so far into darkness that God's light (represented by their beloved homeland, their holy city Jerusalem, and the temple) seemed so far away from them, both spiritually and physically. They would also remember longingly the impressive sunrise over Jerusalem as the daylight flooded over the horizon catching the white stone of the city: such stark contrast to the black of night. Here the prophet sounds a call of hope, invoking those images.
Earlier in Isaiah, the call had been to 'wake up' - rousing them from a slumber (51:9, 17; 52.1) - now it's even more positive: 'get up and shine like the dawn - God's glory is shining on you!' There is more gloom to come (verse 2) - a spiritual darkness covering the earth - but God's light shining in the midst of people would be a beacon that would attract all nations. This time, though, it won't be nations coming to conquer, but to worship their God - bringing praises to Yahweh. As part of this, they will see their still-exiled sons and daughters return, and prosperity and joy will increase. And here we get a glimpse of the camels that accompany our nativity sets, complete with gold and frankincense - symbols of right and proper worship! God's commitment to his people continues, and promises abound in this vision of a bright new dawn that will reach the whole earth.
Think again about the Magi following a light to Jerusalem, and then Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-12). What connections can you see between these passages?
How remarkable is it, that from one small movement of disciples (like a little spark) Christianity should spread the light and love of Israel's God to every nation on earth?
Can we hear the challenge to our churches today: 'Arise, shine; for your light has come'? How do we live as people of the light?