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Go to the Light!

Isaiah, the Exiles, and a Multitude of Camels

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Old Testament Reading:  Isaiah 60:1-6

For Sunday, January 6, 2013—Epiphany of the Lord

Ah, Epiphany. It’s the season that we in the church should probably give more attention than we do. If only we weren’t so tired from the Clergy Superbowl, aka Christmas Eve. Meanwhile, we feel Lent creeping up on us, capped off by Holy Week—the Clergy World Series.

It’s not exactly an ideal moment to fully explore the season of light. Epiphany feels like a lull in the action, the palate cleanser between the manger and the cross.


Today’s words from Isaiah feel especially post-Christmas passé.

We’ve done the whole “light in the darkness” thing: we’ve lit candles on the Advent wreath, a new one each week until the whole thing is ablaze on Christmas Eve, along with scores of candles burning in their tiny paper tutus during the singing of “Silent Night.”

Post-Newtown, we’ve preached our hearts out about the darkness that lurks in places we once considered safe. And we’ve prayed our guts out for the light to come. Is there anything new here?

Vicarious Illumination

A minister I know gets the Christmas Eve candle-lighting going by saying “Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world.’ But he also said, ‘You are the light of the world.’” Perhaps Epiphany, and Isaiah’s words, provide an opportunity to explore that peculiarity. The first words here are commands: Arise. Shine. “Go be the light of the world,” to use Jesus’ parlance. But then after those commands comes Isaiah’s “because.” Your light has come!

Let’s be clear about the source of the light. This is no inner radiance, no Quaker “divine spark” emanating from us.  For Isaiah’s listeners, the darkness of exile will come to an end; sons and daughters will return to their motherland; the people of Israel will once again rejoice.

From Light to Livelyhood

It’s easy for this passage to turn into a feel-good, give-God-the-glory-glory message. But there are economic implications to Isaiah’s message as well. Nations and kings will be attracted to this light. “The abundance of the sea… [and] the wealth of the nations” will come to Israel.

Is this a prosperity gospel wrapped in Old Testament language? Surely not. Perhaps Isaiah’s words remind us that the world for which we wait, the world for which we hunger, is a world in which God’s abundance is evident to and for all. God’s light reveals a radically inclusive and justice-soaked reality, in which everyone has enough and nobody has too much.

And About Those Camels…

I really puzzle over the phrase: “A multitude of camels shall cover you.” Who is the “you?”  The people of Israel? That’s quite a disturbing image: God’s chosen ones, trampled by stubborn hump-backed beasts.

No, it appears that Isaiah is addressing the land here: a multitude of camels shall cover the region where the people of God live. I don’t want to press this image into a political statement about the current nation of Israel. Rather, I want to suggest that God’s light-filled shalom is not just good news for a people, but for the entire created order.


Those abundant riches that will flock to the light? hey are not ours to exploit. They are part of God’s ministry of care for all things. So, how does God’s epiphany shine a light on the ways we’ve exploited nature and one another?

And if we shine, isn’t it because we’re being shined upon? We aren’t the lamps; we’re the mirrors. I recently attended a worship service in which the leader had lit votive candles and placed them on a long sheet of aluminum foil. The foil not only made the candles brighter—they seemed hotter as well.

Make no mistake: without the flame itself—the light which we are called to magnify—the whole thing is nothing but a waste of Reynolds Wrap.

The Hardest Question

How have we domesticated Isaiah’s words into a sunny superficiality? How can the light shine more energetically—hotly, brightly —through us as we seek shalom for the entire world in real and embodied ways?

MaryAnn McKibben Dana is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church, a small and growing congregation in Falls Church, VA. She is the author of Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time (Chalice Press) and is a frequent conference and workshop leader on church transformation, faith formation and spirituality. When she’s not training to be the slowest person ever to run a half marathon, or keeping up with her three kids, she likes to blog at The Blue Room.


  1. [...] This coming year I’ll be an occasional contributor to The Hardest Question, which is a weekly resource on the Revised Common Lectionary. I’ve got the texts for this Sunday, and wrote about the Gospel and the Old Testament texts. [...]

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