Years ago I learned that not a few friends in the ministry label the Sunday after Christmas, a “Low-Sunday” or more descriptively, a “Low-Energy Sunday.” The Christmas rush is history, the let-down from diminishing adrenaline levels is taking its toll. If family came over, they might have already left, leaving us with a sort of wistful sadness. If you had traveled to be with family, then you might still be wishing the vacation could have extended a few more days but at the same time glad that you’re home. Sometimes indeed, the Sunday after Christmas feels like the drudgery of having to clean up after a huge dinner party.
It’s different in my country of birth, the Philippines.
The Christmas season in the Philippines is officially 3-months long, or so many claim. It stretches to the Feast of the Christ Child in late January. In reality, the shopping malls of Manila dictate the beginning of the Christmas season: they begin piping in Christmas music in early September. It is in effect, a 5-month Christmas season. I think the year-round Christmas stores such as the “Just Christmas Emporium” in Niagara-on-the-Lake will truly do very well in Manila.
But perhaps the faithful in countries like the Philippines have a point: Christmas shouldn’t end on December 26th. We also celebrate the arrival of the Magi, Epiphany Sunday.
“Epiphany” is “epi” and “phaino” put together: “Epi” is the prefix that means “upon.” We see it in English words such as epidermis or epilogue. “Phaino” means to shine or to appear, appearing in English words such as “phenomenon.” Strictly speaking thus, “epiphany” means a manifestation or an appearance: literally, “upon shining.”
Epiphany in the Christian sense celebrates the revealing of the Christ Child to the Gentiles. Let me defend the celebration in this way: About a quarter of New Testament text is attributed to Paul. Paul calls himself the apostle to the Gentiles. A significant proportion of Paul’s letters address the place of Gentiles in the kingdom of God. Gentiles, the non-Jews, must therefore be an important concern for God.
This morning, the first Sunday of the New Year 2020, I will refrain from talking about New Year Resolutions and how we inevitably break them; instead, I would like for us to consider the beauty and majesty and amazing reach of God’s grace to all: Jew and Gentile, Westerners and Easterners, no matter the ancestry, ethnicity, or colour of skin.
Let us consider our Scripture passages today, readings assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary to Epiphany Sunday.
Our text from Isaiah requires that we understand the historical context in which these extraordinary promises were proclaimed by the prophet.
Isaiah lived in Jerusalem during the 8th-century BC, a horrific time for both Israel to the north, and Judah in the south. The prophet had been warning the people of both north and south that terrible disasters will surely be the consequence of their corruption, godlessness and lawlessness that were knifing through all layers of both their societies. Then Isaiah witnessed his prophecy come to pass: the Assyrians conquered and brutalized the north in 722 BC.
After the disaster to the north, Judah to the south survived for a few decades under the good king Hezekiah. Except for the reign of Josiah, it was downhill. As Isaiah warned, Judah’s depravity resulted in Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest and destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, the city’s best and brightest exiled to Babylon.
But Isaiah was not all doom and gloom: he foresaw that under Cyrus the Persian king, the exiled Jews would be permitted to return and to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. This historical arc from exile to return is beautifully traced in Isaiah chapters 40 to 66, but introduced much earlier in Isaiah 9:2
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
Isaiah 40 to 66 interweaves sorrow and joy, despair and hope, dismay and well-being. And in this long stretch, Isaiah 60 is the watershed: a dramatic turn from darkness to light – “Arise, shine, for your light has come!” Isaiah symbolically heralds the 180-degree abrupt change from the absence of God to the presence of God; from hopelessness to eager anticipation; from dispiritedness to confidence, from sadness to happiness.
Zion or Jerusalem, the city of God, is a metonymy for the people of God within the boundaries of the kingdom of God. Isaiah wrote that her years of exile will surely end. The glory of God will shine upon her and she will reflect and radiate the brightness of God’s glory to the nations. Like a flock of moths to the candle flame, the nations – us Gentiles – will emerge from the thick darkness and be attracted to and come to the radiant light of God hovering above a shimmering Zion.
Perhaps we can visualize this event albeit approximately by the burst of intense light during the final moments of a fireworks competition in La Ronde at the Old Port, when the dark sky is filled almost unbearably with a myriad combination of bright streams of colours rivalling even the sun.
But while fireworks displays are fleeting, God’s infinitely more majestic radiance is forever. Isaiah 60 leads us to Revelation 21, the New Jerusalem:
“And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it…”
As the light of Isaiah’s Zion brought the nations out of darkness and into its light, so shall the radiant light of God through the Lamb bring the nations – us – to the New Jerusalem.
I’m sure you have noted that the nations attracted to Isaiah’s Zion brought with them gold and frankincense. And this my friends is our link to our text from Matthew – the arrival of the Magi bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
As an aside, we don’t really know how many wise men came to worship the Christ Child. We only think there were three because of the three gifts. The Eastern churches believe there were twelve. Secondly, we don’t know if their names were really Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar: these names appeared in the 6th-century. Just so we’re clear about this.
What is important to take away from this is that God in Isaiah whose radiant glory shone over Zion, attracted the nations from out of darkness and into light. This is paralleled in the text in Revelation, where God’s radiant glory emanating from the Lamb – Jesus – as the Lamp illumines the New Jerusalem, attracting the nations from out of darkness and into light. And thirdly, the light from Bethlehem’s star brought the kings of the earth, the nations, to the place where they found and worshipped the Christ Child – the infant Jesus, the Redeemer, the Messiah. Jesus is truly the Light of the world.
So indeed, the Philippines has it right. Epiphany Sunday is a day to celebrate, particularly for us who are not descendants of Abraham by blood but by adoption. For Epiphany Sunday obliges us to remember and to more fully comprehend the beauty and majesty and amazing reach of God’s grace. First to the Jews, then to us non-Jews – the nations. Whether we move in the circles of kings and queens or whether we count among the plebeians it matters not: this is made abundantly clear in the reading from the Psalm 72 today.
Lastly, we note that whereas our readings portray the nations moving and congregating towards God’s light, the paradigm described in the Acts of the Apostles go the opposite direction. The apostles, symbolizing Israel, go out into the nations bringing the light of Christ from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.
Matthew 5:14 and Ephesians 5:8 describe us followers of Jesus as bearers of the light of Christ. Like Isaiah’s Zion, we reflect and radiate God’s light to those around us because God’s glory shines over us, over this church, over all the other communities whose faith is in Christ. We are magnets for Christ even to those who may dislike us, hate us, those who might have considered enemies.
The powerful tonic to lift our spirits up after Christmas fatigue is the message of Isaiah: “Arise, shine! For your light has come, and the glory of God has risen on you.” How can there be anything better than these words of life!
I encourage each one of us to think deeply, pray fervently – that God would indeed shine on us, and give us the strength and energy to be God’s light to those who remain in darkness; that they too will be attracted to Jesus Christ because we reflect who God is – One who loves and cares for all.
To God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, be all the glory.