Nations Will Come to Your Light

Rev. Dr. David D. M. King, OSL
Epiphany of the Lord

Isaiah 60:1–6, Matthew 2:1–12

Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. So what does that mean? As with so many things in the church, it comes from Greek. Epiphany means to appear, or to appear in the flesh. It was a word often used in relation to the appearance of a god, synonymous with the related word, theophany.

But it takes on a specific meaning in Christianity. It refers to the appearance of God in the flesh of Jesus. In the eastern church, it celebrates the baptism of Jesus, when he first appeared on the scene as an adult, at the beginning of the story of his ministry. But in the western church, of which we are a part, it celebrates the visitation of the magi, and is often called Three Kings Day. Celebrated on January 6th every year, it marks the end of the twelve days of the Christmas season.

In many parts of the world, Epiphany is celebrated with special festivals. Many cultures bake some kind of special cake or bread, often called a king cake. And often there is some kind of object hidden in the cake, like a ring or a bean, and whoever finds it gets to be king or queen for the day. In some traditions, it’s epiphany that is the gift giving day, not Christmas, and instead of being visited by Santa, children receive presents from the three kings. So, on Epiphany we celebrate the three kings who came to visit Jesus shortly after he was born, and brought him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

But have you ever noticed that there aren’t three kings anywhere in the story? It’s Matthew that tells the story of Epiphany, in the passage we read this morning. It talks about magi, wise astrologers from the east. But it never says anything about there being three of them, and it never says anything about them being kings. But it’s “We three kings of orient are bearing gifts, we traverse afar.” Why?

Well, they bring three gifts, don’t they? Gold and frankincense and myrrh. So, if you’re putting on a pageant, you know you’re going to need three of them, to carry the three different gifts. That makes some logical sense. It’s not precisely what we see in the text, but it’s easy to see how the tradition would develop that way.

But why kings? Where does that come from? Well, it comes from Isaiah 60, that we also read this morning. Christians were reading through Isaiah, and they came across Isaiah 60: “Countless camels will cover your land, young camels from Midian and Ephah, They will all come from Sheba, carrying gold and incense, proclaiming the Lord’s praises.” They saw that bit about gold and incense, and they knew those magi had come from somewhere in the east, and they made a connection. And then they read verse 3: “Nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning radiance.” That sounds like the magi coming to see Jesus. They must have been kings. That’s where we get it. The same theme is echoed in the Psalm we read together today, Psalm 72: “May the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.”

And we get more added to the story from this Isaiah text. From this same verse three we imply that Jesus must have been radiant. That makes it into the carols, too. Radiant streams from thy holy face. And then back in verse six we get the mention of camels, and we know that makes it into the story. It’s the three kings who come riding camels. Matthew doesn’t say anything about kings or camels or radiance, but they come into the story because of the connection that later Christians make between that story and the passage from Isaiah.

And so, early Christians identified the light at the beginning of this Isaiah passage with Jesus himself. “Arise! Shine! Your light has come; and the Lord’s glory has shone upon you.” They decided that that light was Jesus. Methodius of Olympus, a 4th-century bishop wrote of this passage, “Hail and shine, O Jerusalem, for your light is come, the Light eternal, the Light forever enduring, the Light supreme, the Light immaterial, the Light of same substance with God and the Father, the Light that is in the Spirit, and that is the Father; the Light that illumines the ages; the Light that gives light to mundane and supra mundane things, Christ our very God.” So for Methodius, this light to which the nations come is most certainly Jesus. And that’s how many other Christians have read it too.

So, we have a particular problem whenever we as Christians go back and try to interpret a text from what we call the Old Testament. And the problem is this: it’s very easy for us to assume that everything in the Old Testament is somehow a foretelling of what is going to happen in the New Testament. It’s easy to read the whole Old Testament as if it’s talking about Jesus.

But, of course, all of it was written hundreds of years before Jesus. It was all written before there was such a thing as Christianity. In fact, even calling it the Old Testament is a bit misleading. Jews were using it long before Jesus came around, and they continue to use it without any reference to the New Testament. Because of that, we often refer to it now as the Hebrew Bible, acknowledging that for many, it stands on its own.

If we read the Hebrew Bible as if it all refers to Jesus, we would have to assume that it made no sense to the people who wrote it and who preserved it as sacred scripture for hundreds of years. We would have to assume that its real meaning was hidden for hundreds of years, that the people who lived and breathed the Hebrew Bible were only understanding some kind of fake meaning. And that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

But you know, the funny thing about scripture is that it doesn’t seem to have a fixed meaning. It can have different meanings depending on the context. What it means in one generation may not be what it means in another generation, and what it means in one part of your life may not be what it means in another part of your life.

Writing about this passage from Isaiah, a fourth-century bishop named Theodoret of Cyr argued that it had at least three different meanings. First, it meant what it did to its first audience. It had to do with Jewish refugees returning from Babylonia and Persia to rebuild Jerusalem. It talked about the rebirth of Jerusalem, of being restored from desolation. Second, Theodoret said, it talked about the church. The nations that were coming to the light of Jerusalem were Christians who were being drawn to the light of God through the message of Jesus. Finally, he said, it told the story of the life to come in heaven. Then believers would be drawn to the light of the New Jerusalem, “the immortal and pain-free existence, the life unsullied by worry.” One passage of scripture, but referring to at least three different sets of events.

Isaiah prophesies in a time of trouble. For the last 70 or so years, Jerusalem has been laying in ruins. Many of the people had been carted off to Babylonia. Now, generations later, some of the people have returned to rebuild the city, to rebuild the temple, to rebuild the nation. But it is tough going. It is not easy to recover from such great devastation. But Isaiah foresees a time when things will be better. Not only will Jerusalem be able to support itself, but it will be a draw for other peoples. Jews from all over the known world will come back to the holy city. But not only that, even Gentiles will be drawn to it. They will bring with them their trade goods and their pilgrims. Jerusalem will once more be the center of a flourishing society, not just the broken husk of a once-great city.

And Matthew also writes in a time of trouble. In his time, Jerusalem has been destroyed again, along with its temple. The Jews had rebelled against Rome and established their own independent government. For a few years, it looked like they might succeed. But then Rome came in with renewed force and crushed them. The temple, one of wonders of the ancient world, was burned to the ground and its treasures hauled off to Rome.

And yet, Matthew sees reason for hope. He tells the story of the new thing God is doing in Jesus. Not only does it bring new hope for Jewish Christians, but it brings hope for Gentiles as well. Even foreigners from the east are able to see that God is doing something new. They don’t know anything about Israel’s God, but they know just by looking at the stars that something new, something important has happened. Something important enough to make them travel hundreds of miles to offer gifts to a newborn king. 

And in our own time of troubles, we have the hope of the light of Christ. When we feel lost or hurting, our God is there. When we feel that the obstacles are too difficult to cross, our God is there. When we feel paralyzed by the success of the past and anxious for the future, our God is there. No matter what we might face, no matter how great our fears, our God is there, always, to stand beside us, to guide us, to see us through.

Arise! Shine! Your light has come;
the Lord’s glory has shone upon you.
Though darkness covers the earth
and gloom the nations,
the Lord will shine upon you.
God’s glory will appear over you.
Nations will come to your light
and kings to your dawning radiance.