January 3, 2016
First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6
The whole world seems as though it is wrapped in darkness. The dark horrors of war, suffering and tragedy intensify the gloom. The pain of our own personal experience of loss threatens to overwhelm us. Even people’s thoughts turn away from the truth so that “their senseless minds were darkened” (Rom 1:21). The ignorance, the evil, and the obstinate selfishness of humanity appear as impenetrable darkness, as if nothing could ever change. History repeats itself. People make the same mistakes. “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool that repeats his folly” (Prov 26:11 RSV). The power of the darkness tries to envelop everyone and everything. And yet in the midst of the darkness, we are invited to hope.
The Redeemer Comes to Zion
In this Sunday’s first reading from Isaiah 60:1-6, we are greeted by the prophet’s summons to hope: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Isa 60:1 RSV). The prophet was speaking into a time of great darkness, with foreign powers and God’s judgment looming over disobedient people of God. And yet, out of that era of darkness, God’s light will shine. In this midst of the shadows, his radiance will come forth. Just before our reading, we are told that though God had abandoned his people to judgment, he is coming back: “And he will come to Zion as Redeemer, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression, says the Lord” (Isa 59:20 RSV). Once God comes back to his people, the power of darkness will be broken. Jerusalem, the site of the ancient Temple, will again be filled with God’s presence. And “the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory” (Isa 60:19 RSV). Since God lights up everyone around him, his people will come to glow with his glory. His light is contagious and he’s coming back.
Light vs. Darkness
The impenetrability of darkness can discourage us. It can feel as though it is more powerful, more awesome, more terrifying than the light. But the darkness retreats quickly at the light of one candle (or compact-fluorescent lightbulb, depending on what century you’re living in). Darkness appears to be powerful, but it is actually weak in the face of just a little light. The darkness tries to overwhelm us, yet it is easily overwhelmed by a small lamp. God comes and breaks through the darkness of sin, sorrow, and separation. He plants a little light in a little town, hidden from the public eye. But that little light will grow and shine and deliver us from the darkness once and for all.
That light draws not only Jews, but Gentiles as well. Isaiah depicts the Gentiles from many foreign nations bringing camels and gold and frankincense. The places Isaiah mentions, Midian, Ephah, Sheba, and Kedar, are in Arabia, to the southeast of Judah. As part of the politics of the ancient Near East, subject kingdoms would pay a heavy tax, called a tribute, to their overlord nations on an annual basis. (You can actually see an example of King Jehu bowing and paying tribute to the Assyrians in the Black Obelisk from the 800’s BC. Or you can also get a sense for what tribute looked like from the reliefs showing a tribute procession on the Apadana staircase at Persepolis, the Persian palace built around 500 BC.) While Judah had been accustomed to paying tribute to foreign nations like Assyria and Babylon, Isaiah points to a time when the tables will turn. Instead of Judah paying obeisance by bringing tribute, their former oppressors and many foreign nations will bring tribute to Jerusalem instead. It will be a return to the glory days of Solomon, the only time in Israel history that the nation actually received tribute (1 Kings 4:21).
Pilgrimage of the Gentiles
But the Gentiles don’t just come to pay their taxes, they come bringing “good news, the praises of the Lord” (Isa 60:6 ESV). The Gentiles, who had been living in darkness, will be attracted to the light of Jerusalem and will come to worship the true God in his Holy Temple. They will come on pilgrimage! They will actually make sacrificial offerings as well: “they shall come up with acceptance on my altar, and I will glorify my glorious house” (Isa 60:7 RSV). The return of the Lord to his temple brings not only a great restoration for his people, but actually brings the Gentiles into the worship of the Lord. Finally, God’s plan of salvation to “bless all the families of the earth” (see Gen 12:3) is starting to come to fruition.
While scholars can speculate all day long about the precise identity of the three wisemen, they clearly fulfill this prophecy from Isaiah. They bring gold and frankincense (Matt 2:11), the wealth of the nations, to pay tribute to the new baby-king of Israel. Not only that, but they come to worship, not at the old temple made out of stones, but at the new temple, the temple of Jesus’ body (John 2:21). They make the pilgrimage because they are drawn by the star (Matt 2:2), by the light of Jerusalem prophesied by Isaiah. Yet the three kings are only a foretaste of the conversion of the Gentiles. They too are a prophetic sign of what is to come after Jesus’ death and resurrection when the gospel is preached to all the nations: “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 RSV). The apostles will be the ones who implement the proclamation of the Gospel to the Gentiles and bring in a great harvest of souls who come out of the darkness and into the epiphany—that is the shining, the manifestation, of the Lord.