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Isaiah 60:1-6

Epiphany is the day the Church remembers the visit of the Magi (see the Gospel lection for this day). So it is natural to see a connection with this text from Isaiah 60. The arrival of nations and kings bringing gifts of gold and frankincense seems a natural foreshadowing of the narrative of Matthew chapter 2. But more instructive than this connection with the Magi is the theme of light that permeates this text. Epiphany is the season of light, and for the purpose of preaching on this day, let’s keep our focus on this theme.

Most scholars agree that the literary-historical context of the poetry of Isaiah 60 is post-exilic Jerusalem. Indeed, the turning point of Isaiah 40:1 indicates a shift from the voice of Isaiah of Jerusalem (8th century Judah) to the vision of Isaiah’s disciple(s) who brings words of comfort and hope to a community on this side of exile. The “dark” days of exile are over… a new day is dawning and it is time for Israel to “Arise, shine; for your light has come!

In her wonderful book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that some of life’s most important faith lessons occur in seasons of darkness. “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”[1]

The years of exile had been devastating for the people of God. Loss of land, temple, leaders, indeed the loss of confidence in God’s ability and will to protect God’s people had left them in a season of spiritual darkness. There are no songs of joy to sing by the rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137), only funeral dirges, lamenting the loss of everything that once “secured” their future. After years of denial that this could ever happen to the chosen people of God, they had sunk into despair – crushed dreams, hopes, and futures.

And yet, during these years of darkness, the robustness of Israel’s faith truly rose to meet the occasion. With no temple to be the locus of worship, they began to meet in houses, and the synagogue was born. Having lost their land, they had to re-center their identity in their origin stories. During exile, a good portion of what we now call the Old Testament was collected and compiled into written form. With no “son of David” on the throne in Jerusalem (which now lay in ruins), the hope of a coming Messiah ignited among the faithful. And even as they sang their songs of lament and questioned the reliability of God, their songs and prayers were compiled and edited into the Book of Psalms – a book whose theological structure celebrates the story of God’s abiding faithfulness, even as the Davidic kingdom has failed.[2]

I would invite the preacher to think through the implications of “darkness” as a theological metaphor, used often in Scripture and in the history of the church (St. John of the Cross and the dark night of the soul comes to mind). Our current preaching context is filled with such images of darkness – a raging pandemic, a divided politic (for those living in the US), unprecedented climate crises, reports of terror and war, and systemic racism that threatens people on the margins, both foreign and domestic. Our world is shrouded in darkness, and that can be a very scary place to live – much less to preach. Darkness as a theological category reflects the human experience of loss, hopelessness, and divine abandonment. Darkness as a human experience is a state of fear and despair that can lead to spiritual paralysis and resignation.

But that is not the end of the story. St. John affirms this: “If a man wishes to be sure of the road he’s traveling on, then he must close his eyes and travel in the dark.[3]And this is the promise of the poet in our text: “…your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Isaiah 60:1-3)

There are several ways for a sermon to reflect and participate in the genre of the text itself.[4] This poetic text, suggests to me that we should allow the central image of the text (light penetrating the darkness) to become the central image of the sermon. An image-rich sermon on light penetrating darkness evokes lots of imagery from the Bible itself – creation (Gen 1:2); God’s abiding presence with the Hebrews departing Egypt (Ex 13:21); the promise of dawning light (Isa 9:2), the song of Zechariah (Luke 1:79); Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:39); John’s Prologue (indeed his entire gospel is saturated with the theme of light); John’s First Epistle (chapter 1 in particular); and the vision of new creation in Revelation 21-22. One might string together a sermon on light simply by using biblical imagery.

But there are other images and experiences of light breaking in on the darkness as well – personal memories of sunrise at the beach; literature such as Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher in the cave; movies like Freedom Writers where Miep Gies exhorts the students in Erin Gruwell’s class that “each of us, in our own way, can turn on a small light in a dark room.” Take notice and pay attention to your life, preacher. The world around you will give you multiple parables and examples of light that has power to penetrate the darkness.

Isaiah 60 is a text of hope and assurance. We do not deny the grim reality – this world is filled with darkness. We must tell the truth as preachers. But we must also tell the hope – into this dark world, the light of God has dawned.

One way to preach an image-centered sermon from this text is to follow the method of Paul Scott Wilson in his “Four Pages” format. [5]

  1. Intro: This week, we experienced a power outage in our neighborhood. It was chilling and rather disorienting when the lights went out. Luckily, seasonal candles were already burning. But the power of the sudden darkness was quite real. Fear (why did this happen), uncertainty (how long will this last), and paralysis (no power means no internet, no television, no productivity)… these sensations became our reality for a short season.

  2. Move to Trouble in the World – it is not hard to identify with and describe this current season of darkness. In my local church, we have experienced a slew of funerals in the last few months. Pile on the rest of 2020’s legacy – the Covid crisis, political division, racial tension, a fly-by asteroid, an invasion of murder hornets, and a record hurricane season. Your people know that our world is broken and filled with darkness.

  3. Next comes Trouble in the Text: the trouble of Israel in a post-exilic Jerusalem – struggling to rebuild – not only a city and a temple, but an identity and a renewed sense of vocation and purpose in a world that has changed. The dark days of exile still hold our imagination captive. The doubt and despair of the Babylonian years are not easily relinquished.

  4. Introduce the Grace in the Text: this beautiful poetic vision of Isaiah 60. The good news of Isaiah promises light, glory, regathering/reunion, radiance, thrill, rejoicing, restoration. The text preaches itself at this point. Get out of the way and let the Word of God reimagine this world made new by the utterance of God.

  5. Finally comes Grace in the World: Invite your congregation to reimagine their current world of darkness flooded by the light of a faithful God. The temptation is for you, the preacher to make the application for the listener. But how much better to entrust such appropriation to the listener. Feed the congregation without chewing the food for them.


[1] Taylor, Barbara Brown. Learning to Walk in the Dark (p. 5). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[2] For more on the theological structure and meaning of the Psalms, see McCann, J. Clinton. A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms: The Psalms as Torah. Nashville: Abingdon Press. (1993)


[4] For more information on genre-sensitive (or form-sensitive) preaching, see Long, Thomas G. Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989. (pp. 128-135)

[5] Wilson, Paul Scott. The Four Pages of the Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching (Revised and Updated Edition). Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018.


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