Commentary on Isaiah 60:1-6
We often call it the “bridge.” We look at the gap, or chasm, between the text and the contemporary situation, while wondering how we can leap from the inspiring words of scripture to the present reality.
How do we treat the differences in customs, language, political situation, scientific knowledge between the biblical writers and the situation now? How do we maintain the hopeful expectancy after so many centuries? If we look at the distance between today’s reading and the contemporary situation, we will see a wide chasm, but one worth making the leap, or building the bridge. The chasm exists in the details and the emotions of the text. Yet the prophet gives us a word for today.
The prophet of this part of Isaiah fills his page with stirring, glorious promises. He combines imperatives with affirmations. He exhorts the readers to “arise, shine.” These words almost certainly came to dispirited readers. The problems of returning from the Babylonian exile had worn them down. They felt insignificant against the world powers. They seemed at the mercy of Persian bureaucracy. They couldn’t get along with each other. Into that mix, the prophet (known as III Isaiah) calls on the people to “arise.” From their despair, they should lift themselves up.
Next come the astonishing affirmations. The world and its people live in darkness. Even though the NRSV has darkness twice, the second term (“thick darkness,” NRSV) connotes a cloud over the people. The darkness and the cloud represent the separation of the nations from Judah’s God. The glory of the Lord will rise (different root than the imperative in verse 1) upon the people. If the Lord has seemed distant and unresponsive, the people will experience the Lord’s glory. God’s presence will be available to them. Then, the nations that have seemed to have the upper hand will come to the Judean people for light.
The second stanza also begins with an imperative, to lift up the eyes and look around. God will bring back the exiles, both sons and daughters. Although this passage likely was written after the Judeans had begun to return, this verse reminds the people of God’s act to restore the community. It promises that God will continue to build the community and bring it together, even if it seems in conflict now. This experience will cause such joy that the people will feel a glow from within. (If you have a chance to check the Tanak, the Jewish Publication Society translation, it renders verse 5a in a memorable way.)
The nations will then bring their wealth to the people of Judah. From both land and sea, the nations will bring their treasures. The nations will bring a multitude of animals as well as precious metals and spices. One suspects that the lectionary committee chose this passage for this Sunday because of verse 6, which promises “gold and frankincense,” the gifts of the magi to the young (but almost certainly not the new-born) Jesus. The committee left off verse 7, which adds the element of worship. The animals brought by the nations will become part of worship for the Lord. The temple, once destroyed, shall again offer worship to the Lord.
What can the twenty-first century preacher do with this passage? The grand promises the prophet made to the people never actually happened in history. The nations did not bring the treasure of the sea and all of their animals, along with gold and frankincense to Judea. We can’t promise our churches that the nations will bring their wealth today. The list of animals would not resonate with people today.
The passage sounds out of touch and unrealistic. It sounds terribly out of date. If we try to preach the surface meaning of the text, we would more likely elicit scoffs instead of deeper faith. The people know perfectly well that the world will not bring its wealth to the church. We are lucky to scrape up enough money to pay our bills and help a few people.
We have more here to work with than just “background” to the visit of the magi to baby Jesus, however. To get at that, we might notice that the poem reverses the movement we have come to expect. Usually sermons exhort the congregation to take the light to the world. This passage promises that the nations will come to God’s people for light because they find their darkness so oppressive. We can proclaim from this stirring poem that God remains at work in the world. If we lift up our eyes, if we arise and do our ministry, we will find the ways that God acts to dispel the darkness of the world. God works among the people of the world before the church begins its ministry. We have grace and hope that the world needs.
After Christmas, in the new year, the church arises to its mission and looks out at the world to see where God has been at work among the nations. However strong the darkness, we take heart. However powerful the rest of the world seems, God has chosen to work through the church. When we recognize the need of the world, the glory of God, we can arise out of any stupor and engage in our ministry.