Opening The Old Testament
The Winning Light of God: Reflections on Epiphany
"Lift up your eyes all around, and look; all of them (kings and nations) have gathered, and your sons and daughters from far away have also come, and they shall be established" (60:4). Isaiah paints a vivid portrait of what YHWH's will is for the dispirited Israel: YHWH's light will shine so brightly and so beguilingly that nations and kings will be drawn to it like moths to the flame. In addition, those children of Israel who are still living in foreign lands as a result of their displacement after the wars of the last century will also return to the light emanating from the holy city.
"Then you will see and you will shine. And YHWH will show power, will stretch your heart so that God may visit you with a veritable sea of nations that will come" (60:5). The result of the light of YHWH is that Israel will have its heart broadened and stretched in order that they might receive a sea of nations that will be coming to the light of YHWH. You have to love this verse! YHWH's light always "stretches hearts" in such a way as to open them to those who are other and different. Without such a stretching, we cannot receive those who are not like us. Our current immigration debate could be helped by hearing and receiving what this verse implies.
Now the camels and gifts as found in Matthew show up. When the nations and kings stream to the light of YHWH, they will come, as they always do, on "herds of camels," so many that "they will cover you." There will be camels from "Midian and Ephah," along with vast numbers from Sheba. "They shall carry gold and incense and shall carry praises of YHWH" (60:6) This verse is why Magi became kings bearing specific gifts. Two gifts, mentioned in Matthew, are here, while the third, myrrh, turned the kings into the familiar three kings. By such biblical legerdemain are traditions created.
But now that we know how the traditions of three kings and their gifts appeared, we must ask, so what? Is there nothing more here than traditional religious lore, the stuff of trivial pursuit? I think there is. Just as Isaiah spoke to a people in darkness and promised them the saving and winning light of YHWH, just as Matthew spoke of generous Magi, acknowledging in a place of darkness the surprising and winning light of God in the gift of Jesus, so those of us who preach are still in the same business, offering to our people who walk in various shades of darkness the surprising and winning light of God. Isaiah's listeners had a difficult time imagining that YHWH was bringing light to them; Matthew's readers and hearers had an equally difficult time imagining that in a time of Roman empire the light of God can still come, especially in the form of the simple birth of a baby; and we too in our dark 21st century world at times have a very difficult time imagining that the light of God might still come.
My first granddaughter was born on December 20, 2012 on a cold and dark afternoon (5:08 to be precise) in New York City. She is now a beautiful nearly four-day old baby. As her mother, my daughter-in-law, cuddles and caresses her, as my son, at 38 a rather old first-time father, makes silly sounds to her as he rocks her to sleep, I can only imagine that the light of God is still shining in the darkest of places. And that is why we need to celebrate Epiphany, no matter if they are kings or Magi, no matter what gifts they bring. We celebrate the light of God that is for all of us the best gift of all.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.