Commentary on Isaiah 60:1-6
Every prophetic oracle is spoken within a historical context.1
I believe that, as preachers, we must always begin from this simple but poignant realization. Too easily can we craft the words of proclamation by slipping beyond the limit imposed by context. We shape an overarching narrative to bolster a particular viewpoint (our own viewpoint, our own cultural bias), applying the story to ourselves without much disruption of practice. The prophetic voice, however, always calls for disruption of some sort, even in its most jubilant and comforting exclamations.
Too simplistically, we can read Isaiah 60 on Epiphany and conjure up images of the three magi bearing gifts, finally making it to the manger. We can reduce epiphany to a cute story that satisfies our deepest longing for narrative integrity. And yet, epiphany is so much more than a story of three magi. Even of that story, T. S. Eliot writes, “I should be glad of another death.”2
The liturgical season that Isaiah 60 inaugurates is a season of revelation. Epiphany, in the early church, was not about the arrival of the magi but the revelation of Jesus Christ, at his baptism, to the whole world as God’s only and beloved child. Epiphany is God’s self-revelation to the world, the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. It was one of the three major feasts of the liturgical calendar around which faith communities organized the rhythms of their life: Easter, Epiphany, Pentecost (not Christmas or a nativity scene or magi!).
Isaiah 60 is part of Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66). Rather than being the voice of one prophet, it is assumed that this prophecy arises out of the Isaianic school, a school of disciples dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the prophecies of first and second Isaiah, as well as speaking those prophecies to a new and complex situation. There are several passages in Third Isaiah that are almost direct citations from Second Isaiah (including the text for today — see Isaiah 49:12, 18).
Third Isaiah is situated in the sixth century BCE as the exiles from Babylonian returned to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, a major conflict had arisen between those who remained and those who returned. Living conditions were extremely difficult. Jerusalem was in ruins. The people were now divided again not against some outside threat or enemy but among themselves.
The remnant associated with the Isaianic school were on the margins of power. They were a small group. It is possible that they were embattled against those who had much more narrow, exclusionist understanding of what it meant to serve God (rather than the inclusive position argued in Third Isaiah where, for example, even foreigners and eunuchs can serve at the altar).
When reading Isaiah 60 publicly, without also reading at least the preceding chapter, the radical irruption of light and glory, consolation and joy is missed. Chapters 58 and 59 are characterized by gloom, by despair, by a call to repentance (the ways of the wicked are crooked, our transgressions are many, our sins testify against us). They are also marked by a yearning for light and glory to come (we wait for the light but there is only darkness).
The opening line of Isaiah 60 is like a thunderbolt of glory (exegetes, of course, interpret this sudden change of tone to different editorial sources). What surprises the reader or hearer is the abruptness of the shift from doom and gloom to light and glory. Perhaps what is most surprising in this shift is God’s response to the people’s crooked ways and their sense of despair: they are not to mend their ways first (out of fear) rather God comes, God irrupts, God arises and shines forth in glory!
This coming, this shining forth is unconditional. God is always a God whose glory is salvific. The people’s repentance, the mending of ways, the living out of justice is a response to this coming! It is not an attempt to be made right with God but it is thanksgiving for the one who comes, who reveals life and salvation in the midst of the community.
God’s glory in the Hebrew scripture is always God’s presence. The glory of the Lord appears in the wilderness when the people complain about lacking food and God promises manna; when the Arc of the Covenant is completed, the glory of the Lord descends and fills it so that even Moses could not enter it; when Moses asks to see God’s glory, God responds, “You cannot see my face”; it is the glory of the Lord that fills the sanctuary in Isaiah 6 (Holy! Holy! Holy! Kabod in Hebrew – Glory! Glory! Glory!). Throughout the Hebrew scriptures God’s presence, God’s very own face, is designated by glory. God does not possess glory — God is glory.
Now this glory and light arises among the people, it is the Lord who arises among them, giving what the Lord gives: life and salvation. But this giving is not just for the remnant of Israel, it is not just for those who have returned from exile, but for all the nations. Now, all the nations will come with what is specific to them — their own little “glories” — and bring them to the Lord. Just as in Isaiah 6, the Temple could not contain the glory now also here, the people of Israel cannot contain it. The presence of God expands outwards toward the whole cosmos.
A sermon based on today’s texts might want to embody this glory in a doxological manner. Who is this God who now enters into our midst? Who is this God who now actually shows us God’s face, the face of a child? God’s glory is no longer far off in some heavenly realm, experienced as a cloud, but it is calling all people together. Even the story of the magi is a call of a radical responsibility toward all those who have been excluded from our classical narrative. All are swept up in singing a cosmic doxology.
- Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 6, 2013.
- T.S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi” in Collected Poems: 1909–1962 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1963). See and hear the poem at http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=7070
January 6, 2020