Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 2For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 3Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 4Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. 5Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 6A 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 proclaim the praise of the Lord.
I was doing some biblical research for my sermon this week when I had a bit of an epiphany. I was reading through Matthew and came to the story of the Three Wise Men, or the Magi as the NIV refers to them. We don’t know much about the Magi. We know that they came from the east following a star. And we know that they came to Jerusalem and asked where they could find this person who was born king of the Jews. And as I read that familiar scripture, I realized that the Magi were not Three Wise Men, they were Three Wise Women. If they had been men, they never would have asked for directionsJ.
This Wednesday much of the church around the world will celebrate Epiphany. Epiphany is traditionally said to be the day that the Magi, or the Wise Men, showed up in Bethlehem to worship and present gifts to Jesus. Now to be honest, I don’t have a clue as to why we celebrate Epiphany on January 6th, but we do, and that’s okay. In reality, the Wise Men could have shown up anywhere from the day of Jesus’ birth to two years later. The Bible isn’t clear as to the exact date when they showed up. And since we are being honest here this morning (always a good thingJ), we don’t know that Jesus was born on December 25th, so why not celebrate Epiphany on January 6th? It’s as good a day as any other day, and there is a 1/365 chance that we got it right.
The point of Christmas and Epiphany isn’t so much when it happened, but that it happened. The word epiphany comes from the Greek word epiphanaia, which means manifestation or appearance. We often hear people say, “I just had an epiphany” meaning that something finally makes sense to them. They had a realization and something that was confusing is now clear, as if it is sitting right in front of them. That’s an epiphany. And that is why we call the day on which we observe the Wise Men arriving to meet the baby Jesus Epiphany. The very thing that they had been searching for, traveling across the vast desert, now lies before them in a manger: God in human flesh.
Now if we look at our text this morning from Isaiah, and we didn’t know that this was in the Old Testament and written over 500 years before Jesus was born, we might think that this text is describing the Epiphany. Verse one speaks about the light that has come. Then in verse three we find that nations will come to the light, kings will be drawn to the brightness of the light. They will come from far away. And verse six tells us that they will bring gold and frankincense. Again, if we didn’t know any better, we might think that this was talking about the Epiphany, and maybe, in a prophetic sort of way, it is.
Our scripture from Isaiah comes from a period known as the Babylonian exile. The Israelites were living in the land that God had provided for their forefathers about 600 years earlier when this mighty nation came in and defeated them, taking the land that God had provided for them and carrying off the Israelites as slaves and captives, spreading them throughout the countryside so that they could not band together to rise up against the powerful Babylonians.
But Isaiah is bringing good news to those in exile. He is saying that their light has come to them. And that is Isaiah’s way of saying “God is here with you and bringing you back to the Promised Land.”
This has been our theme for the last six weeks as we have been celebrating Advent. We have been looking at the scriptures that tell us to be ready because God is about to break into our world and set things right. And our scripture for this morning is telling us that God has broken into this dark world as a beam of light. The very same God who created us and all of creation, the very same God who out of love gave us free will, the very same God that made a covenant with his people and promised to never leave them nor forsake them has once again shown his people his steadfast love. They will return to the Promised Land.
And verses 3-6 tell us how all nations will be drawn to the light that is God. They will come from far and they will come from near. They will come because of the beautiful light with which God breaks into this dark world. They will come because the people of Israel are to reflect the light of God to the rest of the world for all to see.
Now I want to ask you all a very personal question. How many of you looked in a mirror this morning? I would guess that most of us at least take a glance at ourselves on the way out of the bathroom to make sure our hair isn’t standing on end or that there isn’t any of our morning bagel in our teeth. I’m not suggesting that we be vain and spend hours looking in the mirror in the morning, but it is good to at least take a peak at yourself before heading out the door.
But have you ever really thought about how a mirror works? Have you ever sat down and pondered why you can see yourself when you look at that square thing that sits behind your bathroom sink? I’ll give you a hint. If you turn out the lights in the bathroom and cover the windows, you won’t be able to see anything in the mirror. Now, granted, you won’t be able to see anything, because it is dark. But even if you could see in the dark, you would not have a reflection in the mirror.
Mirrors are flat, smooth, and shiny. And because they are flat, smooth, and shiny, light waves bounce off them and back toward our eyes. The light comes from its source, bounces off us, hits the mirror, and then enters our eyes. You didn’t know it was so complicated, did you?
Well in our scripture, Israel is called to be a mirror, reflecting the light of God to the rest of the world. Israel is to be flat, smooth, and shiny so that all of the world can see God’s image in them. Just like you see your own image reflected in a mirror when you look into it, the nations are to see God’s image reflected to them when they look at the Israelites. That is why the nations, or the gentiles, will be drawn to Israel. Not because of the beauty of Israel, not because people think the Israelites are cool, hip, fashionable, or trendy. The nations will be drawn to Israel because they are beautifully reflecting the image of God. We could say that they are to be an epiphany, a manifestation, of God. The rest of the world was to look at Israel and say, “Wow, I get it! Now it makes sense! That is how we are to live; caring for the weak, giving to the poor, loving our neighbor.” Israel is to reflect God’s image to the world as an epiphany of God.
Okay, so let’s go back to the mirror thing for a few minutes here. We have all looked in a mirror at some point of our lives. Now how many of us have ever been in an amusement park and seen those “Hall of Mirrors” things? You walk through and there are mirrors that make you short and thick, or tall and thin. Some make you look far away and some make you look close up. And some might even make you look upside down! How do they do these things? Well, the mirrors in the fun houses have a few of the characteristics of a good mirror, but not all of the characteristics. These funny mirrors are shiny and smooth, but they are not flat. And because they are not flat, they distort the image that they are reflecting.
Such is the case with Israel. They were given the task of reflecting the light of God to all nations, and they failed. Instead of reflecting a good image, they reflected a distorted image. And this is one of the reasons that Jesus, God in human form, came to the earth.
Jesus said some pretty powerful and confusing things while on earth. He said things like, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” and “I and the Father are one.” To a monotheistic group like the Jews, this was either blasphemy and therefore Jesus could be put to death, or it was true. And we find people that believed both ways. But when Jesus said “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” he was saying that he perfectly reflected who God is, because he is God in human form. Because Israel failed to reflect God to all the nations, Jesus came and showed them how to do it perfectly. And do you know what? It worked.
Jesus, who is God in every way, perfect in every way, attracted all sorts of people to him. Jesus was always spending time with tax collectors, prostitutes, Sadducees, Zealots, the poor, and the poor in spirit. It is amazing to me that someone who was perfect in every way was able to connect with people who were fallen and sinful and make them want to spend time with him. He didn’t hold it over them, he loved them. He reflected God perfectly and he calls his followers to do the same.
Granted, none of us can reflect God perfectly, but we sure could do better. As we read through the New Testament, we find that in many ways, the followers of Jesus Christ are to take on the role of reflecting the image of God to the people and nations around them by reflecting the image of Jesus. And I’ll be the first to admit that I have often failed to reflect a true image of Jesus. Instead, I tend to reflect a funhouse distorted image of Jesus.
Jesus teaches us to love our enemy and pray for those that persecute us, yet I still hate. Jesus tells us to give generously, but I still keep more than my share for myself. Jesus tells us not to judge, and, you guessed it, I judge. Even worse, we do things “In the name of Jesus” that seem to be so far outside of what Jesus was teaching. How absurd is it when we wage war in the name of the Prince of Peace, the one who chose to lay down his life rather than pick up a sword and fight? How ironic is it when we condemn people to hell because they are not following the one who told us not to judge the speck of sawdust in someone’s eye while we have a plank in our own eye? How silly is it that we live in million dollar mansions and buy hundred dollar furs and call ourselves followers of a homeless, vagabond preacher who gave up being in heaven to dwell among us for thirty three years, committing himself to a life of poverty though he was the creator of all things. Are we accurately reflecting the image of Christ? Are we reflecting his light to the world? Are we a living, breathing, walking, talking epiphany?
Now I think I need to point out that we as Christians are doing some things right. The Staunton/Augusta Church Relief Association last year distributed about $250,000.00 to those in need in our area. The Valley Mission feeds, clothes, and employs people providing them an opportunity to get their feet under them. Over $300,000 was raised in October at the annual Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale and that money will be sent to support people abroad and near by as they seek to help others with economic development in various places throughout the world like my friends Lana and Andy that are working as area representatives in Cambodia working to teach sustainable agricultural practices in a third-world country. And just yesterday, Sonya and I went to a farewell party for Mark and Sarah as they leave for a three-year term with Virginia Mennonite Missions in Thailand. These people are offering a cup of cold water in the name of Christ and offering living water that can only come from Christ. Indeed, they are reflecting the image of Christ to all nations.
Yes we are doing things right in some ways. There are times that we do reflect the image of Christ well, and there are times that we give more of a funhouse image to those around us. I leave you today with a challenge. When you find yourself doing well and looking a lot like Christ, remember, looking like Christ is never about trying to make yourself look better to others. Looking like Christ is supposed to show of the beauty of the God who created us and loves us. Looking like Christ is beautiful and attractive because God is beautiful and attractive. It’s not about us. And if we find ourselves reflecting a distorted image of Christ, lets seek to become more Christ-like so that all nations, prostitutes, sinners, and tax collectors, Sadducees, Pharisees, and pastors will see not us, but Christ in us. On this Epiphany Sunday, may we commit to being an epiphany of Jesus to all nations.