Sermon preached by Revd Duncan Strathie

Sunday 7 January 2018, 10am & 11am, Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-6

The Ingathering of the Dispersed

60Arise, 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.

The warm fug of Christmas giving way to Epiphany invites us to picture lambs, their shepherds, lowing cattle, a star and three wise men from the East bringing gifts to the Christ child in a manger in a cow shed behind a pub in Bethlehem. The invitation is to consider the specific as we focus in, almost microscopically, on the manger, the Holy Family and the wonder of the greatest gift of all time. The invitation, if we are to follow Matthew’s gospel, is to gaze narrowly on the three kings and the nativity scene.

But what if we allow our thoughts this Epiphany, to be guided by Isaiah? Our verses from Isaiah 60 are the opposite. They are universal in their focus—they take the big, wide view. It is as though Isaiah steps back and looks at God’s design for creation and sees how salvation fits into the big picture.

Much of Old Testament prophecy—about 80% is proclamatory. That is, it proclaims God’s greatness, his love for his creation and his desire to see it restored fully in relationship with him. The remaining 20% of Old Testament prophecy is predictive—what we might expect a prophet to be saying—hidden messages about some future event.

So, here we are at the beginning of Isaiah chapter 60 and we are invited to engage with something that is both primal but also fundamental. Foundational to human experience. Consider that the first creative movement in both Jewish and Christian scripture is the creation of light, the second, the separation of light and darkness. So, the day was born and with it the basic movement of all life in the rhythm of light and darkness.

Because of the way the original Hebrew language works, we can see that in this passage, the prophet Isaiah is addressing a feminine “you.” Consequently, scholars identify the poem as belonging to a group of poems within this part of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66), which are written to Zion, who is personified as a human female (see also 49:14-26; 51:17-52:12; 54:1-17; 62:1-12).

Zion is Biblical short hand for the city of Jerusalem, the sacred home of God’s people. That’s why it’s such a big deal in international politics when President Trump recognises it as Israel’s capital when originally it was the capital of the Jebusites – or Palestinians—and originally called Jebusalem—the city of Jebusite peace. The city is also sacred to Palestinians and more widely to Muslims too.

“Arise! Shine!” the prophet calls to her, summoning Zion, to bear witness both to the wonder of God’s sudden appearance as well as to her own renewal and restoration. The original recipients of this prophetic word were Jews living in Judah or the Persian province of Jehud, in the period following the Babylonian exile. Their temple and city lay in ruins as they returned in dribs and drabs with, no doubt, hope of restoration to former glories in their hearts. However, living in reduced circumstances amidst the rubble of a wealthier time, the people’s historical visions of a glorious Zion might well have seemed a distant fantasy.

Zion, both the geographical location as well the idea of a sacred bond between people, place, and God, was in ruins. The Zion poems of Isaiah represent an attempt to rebuild the idea of Zion and to infuse her with a new vigour. This effort is not simply to make people feel better or to reclaim a theological idea for its own sake. The purpose of the rehabilitation of Zion is to inspire and empower the people to help make this glorious vision a reality. Isaiah 60:1-6 is, thus, not a simplistic prediction of a new age but contains a call, an imperative, to be a part of the restoration of Zion. It is the imperatives that drive Isaiah 60:1-6. The reader is propelled through the text by the two imperative pairs that occur at v. 1 and v. 4: “Arise! Shine!” and “Lift up your eyes and look around!” 

The liturgical season that Isaiah 60 inaugurates is not a season of fluffy lambs and kings with expensive gifts, but a season of revelation. Epiphany, in the early church, was not about the arrival of the magi but the revelation of Jesus Christ, at his baptism, to the whole world as God’s only and beloved child. If we were not marking Epiphany today, the lectionary would have given us a reading on the baptism of Christ.

Epiphany is God’s self-revelation to the world, the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. It was one of the three major feasts of the liturgical calendar around which faith communities organised the rhythms of their life: Easter, Epiphany, Pentecost.

When reading Isaiah 60 without also reading at least the preceding chapter, the dramatic nature of the sudden appearance of light and glory, consolation and joy is missed. Chapters 58 and 59 are characterised by gloom, by despair, by a call to repentance. They are also marked by a yearning for light and glory to come—we wait for the light but there is only darkness. The opening line of Isaiah 60 is like a thunderbolt of glory! What surprises us is the abruptness of the shift from doom and gloom to light and glory. Perhaps what is most surprising in this shift is God’s response to the people’s crooked ways and their sense of despair: they are not to mend their ways first out of fear, rather God comes, God interrupts, intervenes, interjects, God arises and shines forth in glory!

This coming, this shining forth is unconditional. God is always a God whose glory brings salvation, healing and peace. The people’s repentance, the mending of ways, the living out of justice is a response to this coming! It is not an attempt to be made right with God but it is thanksgiving for the one who comes, who reveals life and salvation in the midst of the community.

So, just as Isaiah brought a message of revelation to God’s people about their situation as they returned from exile, so he offers that same message of light to us here in Birmingham, in Moseley, today. I would therefore like to ask, what does that mean for us here in our United Benefice of Moseley? Epiphany invites us to reflect on the light God gave to the world in Jesus. What will our response be? For God’s people two and a half millennia ago, it was the prophetic voices found in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah that helped them project a hope for the future. Each voice, using poetry as a subversive and liberating way of speaking, painting a different picture of the door that will lead to hope and new life with God.

That was how God encouraged his people to continue to have faith and hang on in there—even in exile. Whose voices are the prophetic voices you hear today? You don’t need me to tell you that Birmingham as a city has changed unrecognisably in recent decades and so has the rest of our country.

The Church of England may still be the established church, but while Christian values and morals continue to largely underpin our society, they are being eroded and undermined by a liberalising agenda.

This is the fruit of the post-colonial era and rise of secular humanism and a selfish consumerism. In the face of this we must also flag up the Church’s inability to offer a coherent explanation of why it’s here in the emerging market place of faiths and ideas. We now live in a largely post-Christian culture.

The reality is that as Christians we are now exiles ourselves—exiled in our own homeland and so in need of a message that will help us to project a hope for the future that takes into account our sense of profound loss. Walter Brueggemann, a well known American scholar and preacher writes that "Only memory allows possibility," we need to remember what it was like to enable us to move forward and make a new way of being - with God’s help. The poet Isaiah attempts to create a "homecoming mentality" in the midst of exile. Isaiah appeals to the old memories and affirmations in an astonishing way to jar the way Israel thinks and so move them to discern a new reality. Even if their return was to be immediate, things would never be exactly as they were before the exile—things move on. What will it take for us, for you and for me, to think in a new way?

Much has been said and written concerning Western culture being in the throes of transition. It seems to me that exile may not be too distant a metaphor for our churches. So, we need to hear a message of hope made real by the revelation of Epiphany. God’s ability to remake our fractured world, and to reconcile on earth what has already been reconciled in heaven.

As we receive the light of God in Christ Jesus, how do we reflect that light into our lives each day? How do those whom we encounter, feel the warmth and glow of that light? That light enables the forgotten and hopeless to rise to their feet. That light prompts nations and kings to pay homage. It is to that light we make our way in midwinter, bringing all that we have, to kneel before God.

The Epiphany story of the magi with hints of the fantastic, draws the magnificent, vivid vision of Isaiah 60 into the orbit of a small child, to the light, to the glory of the Lord as revealed in the weakness of a child.

No fireworks, no fanfare, just a star to enable a simple encounter of those from afar with the Light who drew them to himself. By the most basic experience of darkness and light we are drawn to the very presence of God.

Welsh priest and poet, R.S. Thomas, penned a simple verse that resonates with this vivid vision of Isaiah on this Feast of Epiphany. Perhaps it will draw you in as well.

…Now
in the small hours
of belief the one eloquence

to master is that
of the bowed head, the bent
knee, waiting, as at the end

of a hard winter
for one flower to open
on the mind’s tree of thorns.

R.S. Thomas, “Waiting,” in Collected Poems 1945-1990 (Phoenix Press, 2001) p376

Thomas’ words here seem to come from the confluence of Isaiah’s vivid call, “...your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you,” and Matthew’s story of the revelation of the one in, by, and through whom the cosmos came to be drawing all people to the light, that is himself.

The Feast of Epiphany draws us deeper into the mystery of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Light in the midst of darkness. A flower on the mind’s tree of thorns. A swelling heart at the good news of the Lord.

So, as we live as exiles in our own land, allow the Epiphany texts to give you confidence that God is at work in his creation, redeeming it, restoring it back to himself. Allow these texts to empower your life of faithful witness as together we share God’s love and make him known in our world.

Arise, shine; for your light has come!

Amen