Each year Matt. 2:1-12 and Isa. 60:1-6 are set as readings for the feast of Epiphany, which does not always fall on a Sunday. The word Epiphany comes from the Greek verb epiphaino, which means ‘to appear, give light’. The corresponding noun means ‘appearing, appearance, or coming’, and the adjective ‘glorious’. No ordinary appearance is indicated but one that brings light, both literally and metaphorically; in theological terms ‘revelation’ of some kind.
The feast of Epiphany is associated with the visit of the wise men from the east who, in the Gospel of Matthew, came to Judea in search of the new born king of the Jews. They are said to have observed his star or portent at its rising. His coming has been ‘revealed’ to them, and in the star light has literally shone forth. We can, therefore, see why this passage is set for Epiphany. There is no little irony and revelation, however, in the fact that when we get to the story of the crucifixion at the end of Matthew’s Gospel we will hear of the sign ‘This is Jesus, the king of the Jews’ placed over Jesus’ head on the cross (Matt. 27:37). We will return to this below.
It is also understandable that the Old Testament reading set for Epiphany is Isa 60.1-6 which begins ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come’, and continues telling of the glory of the Lord coming upon the people. Lots of light and plenty of ‘seeing’ fill this passage. Like the passage set as the first alternative for Christmas Day, and the one set for Christmas 1, this text comes from Third Isaiah, Isaiah 56-66, a set of texts usually dated to soon after the return of the exiles from Babylon in the late 6th century BCE. In that context, the radiance, thrill and joy (v. 5) are understandable. Today’s passage comes from Isaiah 60-62, usually regarded as the core of Third Isaiah, and a group of passages from very early in the post-exilic period when there were still high expectations. These chapters are similar in theme and expression to Deutero-Isaiah, Isaiah 40-55.
In particular, Isaiah 60 is concerned with the glorification of God’s house, the temple, in the new age. The chapter is addressed to the city of Jerusalem, which is here pictured as a woman forsaken and hated but who is now promised a new, restored life. This woman will be adorned and have her children restored to her (cf. Isa 49:14-26). The chapter moves toward a crescendo, building up an image of great glory coming to Zion. After an introduction (vv. 1-3) the chapter divides into three sections, each ending with an aspect of the praise of God. The lectionary selection for today cannot be fully appreciated without giving some attention to the whole chapter.
Verses 1-3 is a general summons to the city to arise and shine, for the Lord is rising on Zion (like the sun). This will dispel the darkness over the earth (cf. Isa 9.1). At this dawn nations and kings will come to the light in Zion.
Verses 4-9 then describe the coming of the nations, who are mainly pictured in this section as Zion’s children (vv. 4, 9), as they pour into Zion (v. 5; cf. Isa 2:2-4). The section begins in v. 4 with a quote from Isa 49:18a. There is also a flow of wealth into Zion. The animals which will be brought from foreign regions will be acceptable on God’s altar (v. 7). To those of us unfamiliar with images of sacrifice, it is easy to miss the radical nature of what is being proposed here. What was formerly declared unclean and hence unacceptable as an offering to the Lord, is now acceptable (cf. Lev 11:4 and Deut 14:7). It is clear that the image being developed here is an eschatological one, i.e. one for the end time. And yet this same passage is meant to give hope to the people returning from exile.
Verses 10-16 focus much more on the foreigners who will come to Zion and who will serve the returned exiles. The wealth of the nations will come to the restored Zion. The image need not indicate that the foreigners are captive as gifts flow freely to Zion in the chapter. Verses 17-22 then portray the eschatological vision of the city. It will be beautiful with all precious materials replacing the usual lesser materials (v. 17a) or possibly materials of the old city. Peace and Righteousness will be its builders (v. 17b). Salvation and Praise will be its walls and gates (v. 18b). It will be a place without violence etc. (v. 18a). The theme of light returns at the end of the chapter but with a difference for the Lord will be the light of the people (v. 20). He replaces the sun and moon, thus picking up the dawn motif from vv. 1-3. The people too will be transformed. They will increase in accordance with the patriarchal promises of Genesis (v. 22; cf. Gen. 12:1-3) and possess the land (v. 21) and they will all be righteous (v. 21).
The image from Isaiah is not dissimilar to that given in the story of the wise men in Matthew’s Gospel. That story stands at the beginning of the Gospel to point the way to the end; to reveal at the start that Jesus is the king who has been awaited, and that in him a new light has dawned. But just as the wise men do not understand in the story at first what that fully means, so we do not fully understand it until we hear of the sign above Jesus on the cross. His kingdom is not of the type we might normally expect, one marked by power, strength and authority. It will in the end be marked by a cross, a tool of oppression and injustice meant to indicate failure and rejection. As we read of the crucifixion we are reminded of the wise men’s testimony and hope, and we read with new insight.
Isaiah’s story is like their story. It points to a truth which will shape how the events to follow will be understood, a truth that will help the people of Judah and Jerusalem face disappointment and hardship. Isaiah’s wonderful vision of the light coming, the light which in the end is the Lord himself (v. 20) helps maintain their hope, and shape the way they will live their life. The story of the birth of Jesus the Christ can easily be seen in and of itself as an end, an end of the waiting of Advent, the coming of the one expected. It is just that, for Jesus is Immanuel, ‘God with us’. But it is more. It is itself a light that points us toward another end, the fullness of the kingdom of heaven as Matthew calls it and it helps shape how we live our life toward that end.
In preaching this week it would be worth exploring what light the story of the coming of Jesus the Christ sheds on our pilgrimage toward the kingdom of heaven. We remember his birth in the form of a vulnerable and thoroughly dependent baby, born to unremarkable parents in social terms, cast into an animal shelter at birth, and whose parents are forced to become refugees in order to save his life. The wise men did not look for these things, but this, after all, is a description of the one they found.
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