The prophet Isaiah wrote in the eighth century B.C. He worked in a setting where the nation was divided between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. He wrote about how Yahweh’s judgment was coming upon the northern kingdom as the Assyrians conquered them in 721 B.C.
Yet he also looked beyond his own time to the judgment that would come upon the southern kingdom of Judah in the sixth century B.C. They would be taken into exile because of their sin. Both the northern and southern kingdoms had rejected Yahweh’s Torah and worshipped false gods. God’s judgment would come upon both as they would be conquered and taken away from the land that Yahweh had given to them.
There is certainly law in Isaiah. But it is for good reason that Isaiah has been described as “the Fifth Evangelist.” The Gospel of God’s love and salvation shine through. First, through Isaiah Yahweh promises Judah that he will bring them back from exile. He will use Cyrus to do this. And indeed the unexpected victory of the Persian King Cyrus over the Babylonians resulted in his edict of 538 B.C. that the Judahites could return to their home and rebuild the temple.
But it soon becomes clear that this is only a part of something even bigger that God is doing. It is a saving action by God that points forward to something even greater. Yahweh will bring salvation to his covenant people. But Yahweh is not just the God of a small nation in Palestine. He is the Creator of all. As Isaiah writes in chapter forty five: “For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it to be inhabited!): ‘I am the LORD, and there is no other.’”
Yahweh is the Creator, the only God, and his saving will extends beyond Israel. It includes all people that he has created. After all, when he called Abraham he said, “and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
In our text tonight we hear the announcement of this amazing thing God is going to do. The prophet writes: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.” The world as we know it is a place of darkness. It is place of sin, sickness and death. It is a place of suffering and pain.
Yet in the midst of this Yahweh promises he will rise upon his people and his glory will be seen upon them. Throughout Isaiah we learn that the Servant of the Lord – the One anointed by the Spirit of God – will bring this about. In the very next chapter 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; to comfort all who mourn.”
God is going to act. And in our text, we learn that this final salvation will involve more than just God’s covenant people. Isaiah says, “And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” Yet this drawing near of the nations was not going to be caused by Israel. It would not be prompted by anything they would do. Instead, both the northern and southern kingdoms had brought dishonor upon Yahweh’s name through their sin.
No, as our text says, “the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.” It would be God’s doing. And he would do it through his Servant. As Yahweh had said in chapter forty nine: “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.”
God would bring salvation through His Servant. It would be salvation for Israel. But it would also be a salvation that would draw all peoples to join themselves to Yahweh’s people. In our text, the prophet describes the amazing character of what would happen: “Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and exult, because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 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.”
God did send the Servant of the Lord to bring salvation for Israel and all people. Listen again to the first words of our text: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you … the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.” And now think back to the words that we heard on Christmas Eve: “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.”
Yahweh’s saving glory was revealed in the birth of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. He is the Servant of the Lord - a fact we will see this coming Sunday as we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. He is the Servant who came to bring glory into the midst of darkness by passing through it himself. He entered into the darkness of this world. He came as the Servant who took our darkness upon himself - our sin and rebellion against God. He received God’s judgment in our place as he died on the cross.
But the darkness of the tomb could not contain the saving glory of God. On the third day God raised him from the dead. By his resurrection, Jesus Christ defeated death and revealed the glory of eternal life with God.
In our text, Isaiah says, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” We hear, “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD.” In the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord, we celebrate the very first time these words began to be fulfilled.
God used the light of a star at its rising to alert magi from the east – Gentiles – that the king of the Jews had been born. In the lands where the people of Judah had been taken into exile, the Scriptures of the Torah were known. There in the book of Numbers were the words of a pagan Gentile called by a king to curse Israel, but used by God to bless them and speak these words: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.”
The magi went to the place you expected to find a new born king: Jerusalem. But the word of God directed them to Bethlehem. And in a miracle, the star whose rising had started the whole journey, now actually guided them to place where the Christ child was. Matthew tells us: “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.”
The Epiphany of Our Lord is double good news for you. It announces that God’s salvation - worked through Israel’s Messiah – is for as well. Almost none of you descend from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Almost none of you descend from God’s covenant people Israel. Yet God is the Creator of all peoples, and his salvation is intended for all people – including you. Epiphany is a reminder that we can never take this for granted. You have been included in God’s people through the water of baptism. You are now part of God’s people that is both Jew and Gentile. But this is purely a matter of God’s grace. You are the one who didn’t belong. And yet God has extended his love and salvation to you.
And it is the good news that the darkness cannot separate you from God. Our text begins by saying: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.”
In your continuing struggle against sin, the darkness of your failures has been overcome by the light of the forgiveness won by Christ. As we look for the return of our Lord the darkness of sickness, suffering and death continues to be present. But it cannot separate us from God. Instead, it has already been overcome by the light of Jesus who rose from the dead and now reigns as the exalted Lord. And the light of the risen Lord gives us comfort, strength and hope as we face these things and look for his return.
Because of Christ you are God’s people! Because of Christ you are forgiven! Because of Christ eternal life is yours, and death can never change that. This is the good news of Epiphany. And it should lead us to consider the actions taken by the magi.
They expended great effort to visit the Christ. They brought valuable gifts that they offered to him. You have been blessed by Christ in these amazing ways. And so our response is exert the effort needed to meet Christ as he is present in his Means of Grace.
And like the magi, our response is to bring gifts. Certainly, this includes the offerings that we give to the Lord. But even more so, these are the gifts that we direct towards our neighbor. These are the ways that we help and support our neighbor because Jesus Christ has helped and supported us. Our Lord has saved and made us his own so that we can serve him by serving our neighbor. Jesus Christ is the light that has overcome the darkness so that we can be his own, and live in the world as his people.
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