Have you ever sat and watched a moth drawn into a light bulb? The moth simply cannot help but be drawn to the bulbs brilliance. The season of Epiphany celebrates a theme a little like this - only we are the moths and the bulb is Gods glory. Throughout Epiphany we encounter again and again the inexorable attraction of God. Whenever Gods glory is revealed in the world, people, from the greatest to the least, are drawn to its brightness. Whether they are the kings and nations of Isaiah 60:1-6, the Magi of Matthew 2:1-12, the people to whom John the Baptist speaks in John 1:29-42, or the disciples of Matthew 5:1-12, all are drawn to the glory of God.
This pull is strongest when Gods glory is most apparent, so the Magi and the first disciples cannot resist being drawn into worship and obedience. Throughout history the people of God have struggled to reveal Gods glory to the world. We seem to be much better at concealing it - by keeping it to ourselves, squabbling about it, and sometimes even ignoring it entirely. The season of Epiphany not only challenges us afresh to feel the pull of God on our own lives but to seek constantly for ways in which we can reveal God to the world. Just think about what the world could look like if we succeed!
Summoned by Glory
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
All three readings for Epiphany Sunday speak of the irresistible pull felt by those outside when they see Gods glory revealed in the world. Isaiah 60:1-6 foresees a time when "nations" and "kings" will be drawn to the brightness that emanates from the people of God. This prophecy was fulfilled in the person of Jesus when the Magi came to worship him, drawn from afar by the brightness of a star, but it needs to be taken up once more by the body of Christ- the church - as it reveals Gods glory and wisdom to the world (Ephesians 3:8-10).
In all three passages it is those in authority who are drawn by this brightness - whether they are kings, the Magi, or the "rulers and authorities in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 3:9). When the people of God reveal Gods glory as Christ himself did, these passages tell us, the rulers of heaven and earth will be unable to resist and will fall down in worship as the Magi did before Christ. How different things would be if our churches came close to fulfilling this vision!
Justice Through Gentleness
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
We seem to have little time for gentleness and humility. In our modern world, the person who does not shout and who tenderly nurtures bruised reeds, as the servant does in Isaiah 42:1-9, is likely to be trodden underfoot. The world of Isaiah was one in which vast competing empires fought with each other for rich pickings. The servant was as likely to be trampled by those stronger then as someone would be today. The values espoused by the servant in Isaiah are countercultural whenever they are practiced.
Jesus acts in the same way. We may think that the way to establish authority is to stand our ground and not to defer to people who are popular, as John the Baptist was. Yet Jesus publicly submits to John during his baptism. Gentleness and humility feature in Jesus life alongside passion and proclamation; contrary to what we might expect, they are powerful weapons in bringing in the kingdom. Isaiah promises that Gods servant will not "grow faint or be crushed" until "he has established justice in the earth" (Isaiah 42:4). The way of gentleness is not an easy one to take but, as Isaiah promises and Jesus illustrates, it is the path that leads to justice.
Which Way to God?
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
What counts as a successful ministry? In Isaiah 49:4 we encounter Gods servant struggling with apparent failure: "I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity." Anyone involved in ministry of any kind will know how he feels. It can so often seem that the labor is hard and the rewards few. You cant help wondering whether John the Baptist felt the same. John worked hard before Jesus arrived and yet as soon as Jesus came into view, John was expected to step back and point only to him. When he was in prison awaiting execution, did John consider his ministry to be a success or a failure? Its hard to know, but what we see of John in the gospel suggests that he understood the true nature of ministry. Hard as it can be, ministry is not about us and our success, but about God and revealing the glory of God on earth.
John spent his time expecting the coming of Jesus and drew peoples attention to him when he arrived (John 1:29). The servant in Isaiah was called from his mothers womb to be the one in whom God will be glorified (Isaiah 49:3). Whether the servant is Israel, a prophet, Jesus, or anyone else, the point is the same: We are called to point people to God. This is the only criterion for judging whether a ministry is successful.
Come, Follow Me
Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 4-9; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23
We know the story of Jesus calling of the disciples so well that its difficult to appreciate their amazing response. Matthew tells us that Jesus passed by and called them to follow him. They did, without a seconds hesitation. How many of us can claim such an immediate response to Gods call? Of course, we dont know what the disciples thought later - did they kick themselves for their impetuousness? Were they swayed at all by a distraught father who, in a single swoop, lost both his workforce and his heirs to the business? We cannot tell, but we would be wrong to believe that the swiftness of their response indicated that following Jesus was easy for them.
In the world of Jesus, as in many fishing communities, the possession of nets and a boat with which to fish could mean the difference between life and death. The first disciples were prepared to give up stability and security - for what? Unlike us, they did not know the rest of the story but were prepared to take a great risk in response to those simple words: "Come, follow me." One explanation for their impulsiveness is offered by our reading from Isaiah: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Isaiah 9:2). When faced with the brightness of God, who could fail to respond?
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12
Last week we saw the disciples rush headlong into an unknown future with God. This week we discover a little more about what this future entails"foolishness," according to Paul (1 Corinthians 1:18). How right he is! The kingdom of heaven, described by Jesus in the Beatitudes, ushers in a crazy world that turns everything on its head: The outcasts find a place in the center of things, the lowest in society become the highest, and those who are scorned become honored. In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul assures us that while this grand reversal, symbolized by the king dying horribly on a cross, is crazy to those "who are perishing," it is the power of God "to us who are being saved." It would be nice to believe him. Experience suggests otherwise. The mad world of the gospel is as hard for those who are being saved to understand as it is for those who are perishing.
We seem no more able to fulfil Gods radical vision of the world than the ancient Israelites did. As Micah puts it so beautifully, God doesnt want very much. All God asks is that we do justice, love acts of kindness, and walk humbly in faith - so straightforward and yet so difficult to achieve. Kingdom values run against all our natural instincts, but God constantly calls us to bring them about.
Paula Gooder studied at Oxford University before going on to teach in theological seminaries in Oxford and Birmingham, England. She also works as a freelance writer and lecturer in biblical studies.