Sermon Reflecting the Light
Good morning. Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the appearance of the Magi, the recognition of the Christ child as the light of the world. It may seem odd, then, that I’ve chosen to preach on this passage from Isaiah. Perhaps you were expecting to hear that story, and maybe a sermon that calls you to give your gifts to the Lord, too. In fact, you’ve probably heard some version of that sermon many times. It’s a good message and it needs to be repeated, but not today. These are very different times for the Church.
We want to be back in the sanctuary, worshiping with one another. We want to share in fellowship and love. We long to sing together—without masks! And we know we’re not there yet. The vaccine is coming, but very few of us have been vaccinated. We’re worshiping online today because, well, it’s January 3rd. We know that some people have had gatherings for Christmas and New Year’s. We don’t want anyone to bring the virus into our sanctuary.
We are close—tantalizingly close—to that point where we can return to our old ways of being the Church. Yet the closer we get to that reality, the more difficult it becomes. Why do we have to keep waiting? Why isn’t the future here? How long, O, Lord? How long?
Our reading from the prophet Isaiah reflects the hopefulness of a new reality. This is as true for us as it was for the people of Judah who heard these words from Isaiah. These words were proclaimed to the Jewish exiles who had returned home from captivity in Babylon:
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.
The exiles have returned and all the nations of the world can see God’s favor. The kingdom of Judah is restored. Wealth is about to stream into the nation: the abundance of the sea, as well as a multitude of camels. I mean, who can’t use a bunch of young camels this time of year, right?
Okay, maybe that last example doesn’t quite translate into what we would recognize as a blessing in 2021. Still, the rest of it sounds great! The nations can see God’s glory reflected in God’s chosen people. The light of God’s love will rise upon the people, be reflected by the chosen people, and draw others to that light. Wow! That’s amazing!
Except, it didn’t happen like that. Not exactly.
Remember, the exiles weren’t exactly welcomed home with parades and fireworks. The exiles were gone for two or three generations. Yes, they were the religious and political leaders of Jerusalem, but the people who remained in Judah found ways to survive without their former leaders.
The Jews who remained in Judah abandoned Jerusalem. They didn’t rebuild Solomon’s temple—the former center of the Jewish faith. They found ways to practice their faith without the temple. Also, Babylonian soldiers had settled in the land of Judah and intermarried with the Jews who remained.
To the exiles who returned, this was shocking. To them, the people who had remained in Judah weren’t practicing the faith properly. When the exiles returned, they found conflict with those who had remained. I imagine that Isaiah’s words must have resonated with the exiles. If they were to be a light to all the nations, then surely those who had remained in Judah would come to see the world and the faith as the returning exiles saw things. The remnant would ask the exiles to teach them the true faith. And then the remnant would thank the exiles for coming back and restoring things! And don’t forget all the abundance of the seas and the camels.