About a month ago, we were gathered for Youth Group, and the activity was assigning parts for the Epiphany pageant. When we started, no one was particularly excited about the exercise, many committing to reading the parts for the night but not necessarily to performing the parts at church. By the time we were done, youth were repeatedly asking when they should plan to be in church for the pageant, where they would get costumes, and when to schedule the dress rehearsal so they could coordinate the rehearsal with their other sports practices and commitments. Their sparks of enthusiasm release a glint of hope in me: maybe, after almost two years, with vaccinations for kids 5 and up, and with masking, maybe we would be able to finally have our beloved Epiphany Pageant. And over the Christmas season, hope bloomed in my heart.
And then, five days ago, everything came apart at the seams. We moved not along a spectrum of restrictive options, but completely shut down gathered worship altogether. And although we have survived shutdowns before – even thrived in them – this one, on the Feast of Epiphany, is hard. A day that is designated for the last of our Christmas celebrations instead feels like a day to recognize we are not yet done with this pandemic. Instead of marveling at gifts and epiphanies, we feel like we are sitting in ashes.
I think that is why, even though we are celebrating the epiphany that occurs when the magi arrive in Matthew’s gospel, I am instead drawn to our lesson from Isaiah. To understand why, we need to remember the context of this Isaiah lesson. The lesson is a lesson proclaiming the favor of Jerusalem. The lesson claims that although darkness covers the earth, nations shall come to Jerusalem, bearing gifts, and wealth, and abundance. Maybe none of that sounds too remarkable – Jerusalem has always been the favored city of God. But here’s what we might not realize about this passage of favor and blessing. This passage is written to the exiles from Judah as they wait in Babylon. As one scholar explains, “In the middle of the sixth century before Christ, things seem as dark as they have ever been, with little left to sustain the hopes of the Judeans. They are exiled from their land; the temple has been destroyed; and the dynasty of David has come to disastrous end.” But, Isaiah says, “…the poverty and shame of exile will be overcome when all the wealth of the world pours into Zion and the city of exiles becomes a light to the nations. Isaiah bids the people, ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come.’” [i]
We know all too well the darkness of exile. If anything, this pandemic has been an exile of sorts – an exile from the physical plant of our church, an exile from family and friends, an exile from a way of life we probably never fully appreciated. Into this darkness, Isaiah dares speak to the people a word of light: not just the promise of the presence of light, but an instruction to be light. “Arise, shine,” Isaiah says. “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you…you shall see and be radiant.”[ii]
On this feast of the Epiphany, the first revelation of God to the Gentiles (the Gentiles being those magi that come from another land to see the Christ Child), we do not get to watch our children reenact the epiphanous moments of Christ’s birth narratives. But maybe this year that is okay. Because the story of the magi is not a story about sitting back and watching. The story of the magi, as Isaiah reminds us, is not about observation but about participation. This year, the question to us is not just how the magi or the exiles of Judah are epiphanies, but as Karoline Lewis asks, “how are we epiphanies of God’s glory?”[iii]
When Isaiah says, “Arise, shine…be radiant,” our question and invitation is to consider how we can be radiant epiphanies of God’s glory in a time of darkness for our communities. We mourn the lack of our youth and our children not being here to lead us in a pageant not because they are endearing, but because they model for us what embodying God’s light means. The pageant is a physical reminder of the embodiment of faith we are invited into every day. And without the pageant today, we lean into Isaiah who does not give us a free pass. Even as we gather across the internet, we are invited to be light, to shine, to be radiant in the communities around us: to our families who maybe we’re a little tired of spending time with, to our neighbors who despite proximity may feel deeply alone, and to the weary world around us who needs Christ’s light more than ever. And Isaiah reminds us we do not have to make light – the glory of the Lord has risen upon us already. Our invitation is to not cover the light, but to let God’s light shine through us – to be radiant for others. Maybe as nations come to our light, we might be able to lift up our eyes and look around and see the radiance they see in us. Arise, my loves. Shine. For your light has come. Amen.
[i] Kendra G. Hotz, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 196.
[ii] Isaiah 60.1, 3-5.
[iii] Karoline Lewis, “Sermon Brainwave #822: Epiphany of Our Lord – January 6, 2022,” January 3, 2022, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/podcasts/822-day-of-epiphany-jan-6-2022 on January 8, 2022.