January 15, 2017—2 Epiphany
About 500 years prior to his coming to the earth, God announced to his beloved Son: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
God privileged the prophet Isaiah to overhear this announcement. Isaiah in turn shared this inspired word with the people of Israel. It was a word of great hope. It was a great promise. The promise implicit in this prophecy was that God would send someone to Israel who would not only inspire and enlighten the Jewish people, but whose wisdom would enlighten the whole world. It would be through Israel that the entire pagan-idol-worshipping world would at last see who God really is. It was the mission and honor of Israel to be the home of God’s servant, the one through whom the entire world would at last be blessed with knowledge of the one true, eternal, and living God. God would do this and Israel would be the nation to whom he would come.
Jesus identified himself as the servant of God to whom this prophecy was addressed. “I am the light of the world” he said as he stood in the Temple, “who follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8.1-2).
A man who could make such an exalted claim about himself would have to be one of two things. He would either have to be who he said he was or he would have to be insane. You can’t make a claim like that lightly. You can but it would be ridiculous. I could say, “I’m the light of the world” to which I can imagine my wife replying, “Well, that’s wonderful, but it’s Saturday and you have Christmas decorations to take down so, Light of the World, let’s get going.” Just because you say you’re the world’s true light doesn’t require anyone to take you seriously.
So unless you are crazy, conceited, intent on embarrassing your family, or you just hunger for attention, why do this? There are only two possibilities. Either Jesus really was the servant of God to whom God said in heaven, “I will give you as a light to the nations” or he was insane. If he was who he said he was then he was God’s man in our midst. If he was not God’s man, he was a madman, because who but a madman would say, “I am the light of the world,” expecting to be taken seriously and believed if he wasn’t? Was Jesus insane? Those who deemed him guilty of blasphemy thought so. But does anyone really believe that the man who preached the Sermon on the Mount, whose many sayings from that sermon have inspired millions of people the world over to live better lives, was nuts? Was the man who proclaimed, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” insane? Was he, who by the power of his personal charisma alone restored movement to the legs of a paralyzed man, out of his mind? His critics charged that he was wrong to forgive that man his sins. “God alone has authority to do that,” they said. But what if he was God’s servant come down from heaven, what then? Was he out of his mind when he called Lazarus to come out of the tomb? Some at the time thought so, until Lazarus, four days dead, walked out of his tomb. So who was Jesus if he wasn’t insane? There’s only one possibility: he was who he said he was. He was the one appointed by God while he was still in heaven to be a light to the nations, the servant prophesied by Isaiah whom God had promised to send to earth, through whom all the people of the earth would come to know God.
That’s who he was. And yet, many then and many today find it hard to believe that a man from Nazareth could be God’s man. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” the incredulous Nathaniel asked (John1.46). Implicit in his question is an intellectual skepticism that transcends the centuries. There are many thinking people in every age who cannot believe that God would stoop so low as to come into the world through its back door. How could a peasant from a small rural town in Galilee, a man of no distinction, be God’s man, the world’s savior? On its face, it’s preposterous. And yet, that is what God did. “He has put down the mighty from their thrones,” his mother said, “and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away” (Lk.1.52). If the intellectuals would think about it just a little longer, they might realize that it’s as preposterous for us to anticipate God as it is for a turtle to imagine what the hawk will do next. God is so far above us, what could be more pretentious than for men to judge him who judges us? “My thoughts are not your thoughts nor are your ways my ways” says the Lord. We learn about God by listening to Jesus, not by tuning him out.
When Jesus was executed, Pontius Pilate nailed a sign to the wooden beam on which he was being crucified. And the sign that hung above his head read: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John.19.19). This was to indicate the crime of which he was found guilty: treason. The irony in that sign is that he was not guilty of treason; he really was the king of the Jews, the chosen one foreseen by Isaiah who was anointed by God in heaven to discharge that office on earth. He was not conceited. He was not a megalomaniac. He was not a madman. He was what every prophecy fulfilled inherently is: hard to believe, but true nevertheless. He was who he said he was: the king of Israel whose authority to rule came from heaven. Pilate mocked him and thought he was mad. But that is just the point, he was not a madman. It was therefore Pilate who committed the crime. Pilate was guilty of judging him who, by divine right, is the judge of us all.
It is a crime that governors and kings, presidents and the nations of this world commit day after day after day, whenever we ignore Jesus Christ and fail to pay homage to him who is the true king of all mankind. He is the one to whom God expects us to look for true religious wisdom and for moral leadership. That is what the saying means, “I will give you as a light to the nations.” God’s expectation is that men will be guided by the light; that every nation will look and listen to Jesus Christ as to a true light. He is the one who has made God known. God has revealed himself in Jesus. You wonder who God is and what God is like, look to Jesus on the cross. There God is visibly suffering to fulfill his scriptures, keeping his promise to save us from our sins, and praying for our souls—“Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” His gospel is not the personal opinion of a marginal Jew. It is the word of him of whom God said,“This my beloved Son. Listen to him!”
We live in a very wealthy and amazing nation, a nation that has done some great things and aspires to greatness. We defeated the Japanese Imperial Army and the Third Reich and we compelled Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down that wall.” That’s some major stuff. But those aren’t even our finest accomplishments. We invented the World Series, the NFL Playoffs, the Hersey bar and buttered popcorn. No wonder almost everyone wants to live here. This is a great place. But after we put our patriotism and cultural pride aside, we see that there is in God’s eyes only one measure of true greatness. A nation is only great to the extent that its people and its leaders look to the world’s true Light for guidance. A people that believes every man is a light unto himself and every woman a reflection of the Great Spirit that animates the Universe is a people lost in darkness. But this witch’s brew of religious pluralism and syncretism that characterizes faith in the modern age only proves that what the Psalmist said of the ancient pagan world is still true today: “all the gods of the peoples are idols; but the Lord made the heavens” (Ps.96.5). The secular humanist culture in which we live preaches to us relentlessly that an enlightened mind is an open mind and that a free nation is one that is free to draw upon the wisdom of every deity. Saint John said of a man who looks at life this way, “the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John2.11). God has spoken and his Word is light and there is no question as to who that true Light is, “the true light that enlightens everyone has come into the world” (John1..9): the Light of the nations is Jesus Christ. And great is the nation who sees him for who he is.