The first two times it’s mentioned, you wouldn’t have known it unless you’d seen it. When God’s glory passed like a blazing firepot between the animal parts Abraham had prepared at God’s command. Where God promised to secure for Abraham the land of Canaan and all his descendants after – by grace, not of Abraham’s work, for him to trust – but only after 400 years of suffering in slavery…
400 years passed until the next time equally strange. A bush is all aflame but not burning, and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is brightly calling an old man in the foreground with his forehead to the sand. He calls that the old man Moses should deliver God’s people from captivity in Egypt and bring them back to Canaan – Abraham’s own. Moses was afraid and reluctant. But he had only to trust the word and watch God work; “I will be with you,” God said.
And it happened many more times after he walked his people out of Israel that the “glory of the Lord” was with his people – in inscrutable cloud and blazing firelight – to process before them, to provide for them with miracles and might, to show them majesty and true holiness and his will, to make them his people.
The glory of the Lord appears in human history, it seems, always to do something momentous. Just as God said about his glory in Exodus 33: “the Lord said, ‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you [Moses], and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’” “The glory of the Lord” appears to show God’s goodness to Israel in the best possible way: according to the promise of the Lord – from his promise of the seed of the woman to crush the serpent, to his zealous blessings through Abraham for all nations, to his planting a people from whose weak stump would branch forth a triumphant shoot – the glory of the Lord appeared to bring about his best for Israel.
Israel waited long for those promises to be secured and sometimes ventured into the dark meanwhile. Like colors that tint the black to grays, like rays that gild the clouds, those appearances must have seemed after a long, dark night like barest hints of dawn. But Isaiah’s speaking of the full light of morning in chapter 60. “[Y]our light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.” It isn’t as though Israel had done something to bring it either. In chapter 58, all their fasting and sacrifices couldn’t earn God’s favor and their own inconsistency would prove their inability. In chapter 59, their sins had erected an impassable barrier between them and God with “no one to intervene”. But God responded: “His own arm worked salvation for him” – light in the darkness.
Could any two church festivals be more like standing in the warm light of a radiant dawn than Christmas and its Epiphany? God’s glory wasn’t made known in other generations as brightly as we have seen it. “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” A Savior has been born – he is Christ the Lord – and as he ministers, the glory of God’s light shines in the best possible way. By grace and not by our work – as it has always been – God gives his salvation away – showing mercy to generations and generations by forgiving their sins in his Son. The sky radiates with angel-light at his birth, the heavens open bright at his baptism, later the luminous cloud and God’s voice will approve him majestically, brilliantly to be God’s Son, loved and perfect at his Transfiguration. Every glorious appearance is a preparation for God’s promise to be fulfilled – a Savior who would enter the darkness of sin that we know by experience, to receive the wrath of God against sin that we fear. So that finally, his empty grave and risen body will shine out the truth of his glorious life – that sin and death’s darkness cannot hold against God’s risen Son in whose light we live.
Rightly, this Epiphany season, we’ll explore how Christ shines like brilliant dawn after a dark night. And as we stare into that bright dawn, Isaiah would have us do two things: he would have us see that the “light has come!” and then pay attention to it, “Lift up your eyes and look about you.” Because, like the Magi, Gentile people are coming – streaming in to the glory of the Lord. Non-Jewish people like us who have no place in a Jewish promise but every part in a promise to all nations, we come to worship this king and we bring our gifts.
In the dark world, we might wonder whether what Isaiah says is true – we are here but others don’t always seem to be coming in droves. In the dark world, we might long for the “glory of the Lord” to shine like a luminous pillar, to cut a fiery path, to miraculously work, to beat back the darkness we fear and the enemies there. But let’s look around us in Epiphany – that miracle’s already happened! You could say that the “glory of the Lord” is already shining, always shining. Isaiah says, “Then you will look and be radiant…” people who give off glorious light as he said at the beginning, people who “Shine!”
This morning St Paul called it the “administration” of the salvation mystery – “that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known” as you shine here on earth. We talk sometimes about how to get our friends to church, how to reach our community, and there are ways – there are things to say, to try, to not do… But we might also just remember this: Isaiah says we radiate the “glory of the Lord” and that people will come to see his light. Could it be more compelling to people in debilitating darkness and uncertainty when they see and interact with Christian people who “approach God with freedom and confidence” not because they’re perfect, but because they have a brilliant Christ? Could there be a better light than when “your hearts throb and swell with joy” in your Christian lives? When you “do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure…[so that you] shine among [this generation] like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life”? By God’s mercy, we have a ministry in which we can share Christ’s light with anyone in this dark world. And by his promise, though we may not always see it, many will come to see his light…just as we have.
It seems so dark and unkown and complicated out there. But God’s promise is very clear: in the hearts and lives of crowds of people, “the praise of the Lord” will be proclaimed. This Epiphany once again, remember that Christ shines. And as we enjoy his warm Son-rise, he calls us to stand up and do the same.