In dramatic ways, the book of Isaiah contrasts Yahweh, the Creator of all things, with the false gods of the pagan nations. For example in chapter forty the prophet writes, “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? An idol! A craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains. He who is too impoverished for an offering chooses wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an idol that will not move.”
Instead of idols that are merely the work of human hands, Isaiah goes on to point to Yahweh: “Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.”
Like the rest of the Old Testament, Isaiah declares that Yahweh, Israel’s God, is the only true God. He is the Creator of the heavens and the earth. In his call, the prophet hears the seraphim calling back and forth to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Yahweh of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
Yahweh was the God of Israel. He had called them to be his people and taken them to be his own. Yet Israel was just a small sliver of this world that Yahweh had created. God had created it all. As the seraphim had declared, Yahweh’s glory fills the whole earth. It made it hard to avoid the question about whether Yahweh meant something for the people who lived in the rest of the world.
Isaiah addresses this directly in ways that go beyond anything else we find in the Old Testament. It is a theme that is announced in the second chapter of the book as he looks to the future and declares, “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’”
Isaiah describes a time when the nations will come to Zion and learn from God. He goes on to add, “For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” The future is a time when Yahweh will rule over all nations and peoples in perfect peace.
If we ask how this is going to happen, the answer is Yahweh’s Servant. In chapter forty two Yahweh says, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” And then a little later he adds, “I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
The Servant of the Lord in Isaiah is puzzling. Quite often he is identified as Israel such as in chapter forty nine where the prophet writes, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” But other times he seems to be an individual such as a little later in the same chapter when Isaiah adds, “…he says: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’”
This is the sort of thing that prepares us in the book of Isaiah for our text. The prophet says, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
The prophet describes our world as one of darkness. Do we really believe that? After all, our world is filled with so many flashy gadgets and wonderful technologies. We have so much to make our life easy – so much with which to entertain ourselves. Yet all of these things easily become distractions that draw our attention from what real life is. Created in the image of God, we are meant for life with God. Yet instead our focus becomes the creation itself – everything else except God. And in that there is darkness, the darkness of sin.
Isaiah diagnoses the true situation of life. It is one of darkness as we turn to gods of our own creation. What we need is light. What we need is freedom from this slavery. In the next chapter we learn again who is going to do it. We hear, “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” This One is not given a name, but after all that has been said, how can we not identify him as the Servant?
In the Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord we see this Servant revealed. He is revealed to magi by the light of a star at its rising. They go to Jerusalem looking for “he who has been born king of the Jews.” But there they find only Herod whom the world calls “Great.” Instead they are sent by Scripture to Bethlehem, the city of David. They are sent to look for a descendant of David. And in this the question of the Servant’s identity begins to be answered, because the Davidic king is God’s son, just as the nation is God’s son. He is Israel reduced to One.
These Gentile magi then follow the light of a star that leads them to the true light – the light for all nations; the light for the Gentiles; the light for you. They follow the star that leads them to Jesus Christ and they begin to fulfill Isaiah’s words in our text: “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 bring good news, the praises of the LORD.”
Isaiah words make lofty claims and are filled with soaring rhetoric. And it is therefore easy for us to overlook how much they contradicted the reality of the world. Yahweh was the true God and Creator of all, yet it was the nations of the false gods, like Assyria and Babylonia who had the power. Our text speaks of kings and nations coming to the light, but in fact it is only a few magi who show up and sneak home by different way.
Indeed, the Servant is described as the One upon him the Spirit rests – the One who is the light to the nations. Yet Isaiah also says about the Servant: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned--every one--to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
Jesus Christ is the light because he received the darkness that we deserved. He died in the darkness of Good Friday forsaken by God. But then when the light first dawned on Easter Sunday it was revealed that he had emerged from the tomb as the victor over sin and death. In him, the light of the immortal life that will be ours now shines.
Epiphany shows us that Jesus the light has dispelled the darkness. He has given us forgiveness, life and salvation. He has done it … even for us, Gentiles who were not God’s people. Because this is so, we join the magi in rejoicing exceedingly with great joy. We join them in worshipping Jesus and offering gifts – the gifts of our time, our talents, our treasure.
This light continues to shine in our midst. Yet like Isaiah’s words; like the few magi showing up in Bethlehem; like Jesus Christ hanging on a cross the current appearance of this light contradicts what it really is. The light appears as a Gospel that people can dismiss because “they don’t need religion.” It appears as the water and the word of Holy Baptism, and the bread and wine of the Sacrament of the Altar. These are things that appear to be weak. They don’t seem to match the grand claims made about them. But because they are the gifts of the risen Lord they give the benefits he has won. They give forgiveness and life – eternal life. They are Jesus’ light that drives away the darkness and makes us the people God.