Epiphany can easily become a lost liturgical season. It is a season lodged between the splendor of Advent/Christmas and the well-known stories of crucifixion and resurrection related during the seasons of Lent and Easter. As a result, we recognize Epiphany as a season in Ordinary Time. Yet, Epiphany’s message to the church remains both potent and important. Epiphany is far from ordinary, as we typically use the word. Epiphany’s good news concerns not only Jesus’ baptism, but also the manifestation of the gospel to the nations or Gentiles. Epiphany is a season that tells the story of a faith that spreads to the globe’s four corners. “Ordinary time,” by the way, comes from the word “ordinal.” Ordinary Time consists of Sundays that are counted, such as the 23rd Sunday in Pentecost, for example.
The lesson from the Hebrew Scripture for one of the Sundays in Epiphany is a post-exilic text. It is a hope-filled text because, for Israel, the text signals the coming of light after the exile’s long darkness. The message also endows Israel with a great responsibility. Israel offers itself as a model of people upon whom God’s light has shined. Hence, Israel is to lead others to the light that God offers. Israel is to steward the gift of light that only God can offer the world. By extension, now the church becomes the bearer of God’s light.
I heard a speaker once say, “What America does today the world will do tomorrow. This means Americans will have a lot to answer for.” In a sense, this is Isaiah’s message to the people of Israel. Isaiah tells Israel that “Nations shall come to your light.” Strictly speaking, of course, “your light,” to which the nations and kings are drawn, is God’s light. But now God, who gave the world its original light (Genesis 1:3-5), re-gives the light to Israel. Light therefore becomes a gift of trust. But Israel participates in the gift of light by accepting responsibility for it. Isaiah implies that Israel exchanges its previous existence in darkness for God’s light. As Israel shares the light with others, Israel leads the nations toward God’s light. Consequently, Israel exercises its stewardship of God’s light by modeling what a holy people look like when illuminated by God’s light. Perhaps this idea of modeling faith was behind Jesus’ words: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
We ask, “How is Israel a ‘steward’ of the light?” The answer to such a question begins as we recognize the gift of light that Israel receives is not self-generated. Those who employ stewardship never apply stewardship with respect to the things that they own. Rather, stewardship is always a management of another’s property. In this case it is God’s light given to Israel as a gift to oversee. Accordingly, Isaiah seems to mandate what the people’s proper response to the gift shall be. Isaiah writes the command: “you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice.” Isaiah also seems to mandate the nation’s [Gentiles] response as well. The prophet writes that “the wealth of the nations shall come to you.” Isaiah also adds the kinds of wealth about which he writes: “camels, gold, frankincense,” and the proclaiming of “the praise of the Lord.”
The gift of light that Isaiah promises Israel is in obvious contrast to the decades of darkness which Israel had so long endured. Nevertheless, a new day dawns and Israel is to become a steward of God’s gift of light. We Christian believers also manage the gifts that God has given us in Christ. Epiphany is a season in which we believers can show our neighbors the gifts that came our way this past Christmas: grace, mercy, forgiveness, and the light of Christ. These are God’s gifts that we manage as stewards.