The terrifying light of Epiphany

Text: Isaiah 9.1–7; (Matt. 4.12–23); Luke 5.1–11

The weeks between the feast of the Epiphany and the beginning of Lent are treated by some Christian traditions as ordinary time. Ordinary time for the church has always been more an extraordinary time in which the ongoing reality of the kingdom of God and the gospel are explored, never untethered from the anchoring feats that preceded them—Epiphany and Pentecost. In that spirit, the readings for this brief season advance the themes of the feast of the Epiphany itself, the most ancient on the Christian calendar. This is the season of the celebration of the appearance and revelation of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and our readings today are those from the 3rd week of the Epiphany season.

Epiphany, by definition, is a disclosure of something hidden, a revealing of something that was once obscure or unknown. To have an epiphany is to have one’s eyes opened, to see the true nature of something for the first time. To be an epiphany, as Christ was, is to make something known through one’s own nature and way of being.

Epiphany has its opposites—obscurity, blindness, and darkness. It is not hard to find descriptions of the darkness that preceded the epiphany of Jesus Christ. Most of the prophets spent the best part of their lives trying to identify and dispel this darkness. Today we will reach back a little before our Old Testament reading in Isaiah for a sense of the darkness the prophet Isaiah attempted to lift with the light of God’s revelation.

Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity,
Offspring who do evil,
children who deal corruptly,
who have forsaken the Lord,
who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
who are utterly estranged. (Is. 1.4)

Your country lies desolate,
your cities are burned with fire;
in your very presence aliens devour your land;
it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. (1.7)

Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. (1.13–15)

Therefore says the Sovereign, the Lord of Hosts, the Mighty one of Israel:
“Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes!
I will turn my hand against you; I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove your alloy.” (1.24–26)

Rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together,
and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.
The strong shall become like tinder,
and their work like a spark;
they and their work shall burn together, with no one to quench them. (1.28, 31)

Enter into the rock, and hide in the dust from the terror of the Lord, and from the glory of his majesty.
The haughty eyes of people shall be brought low, and the pride of everyone shall be humbled; and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day. (2.10–11)

Ah, you who call evil good and good evil,
who put darkness for light and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

Ah you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight!
Ah, you who are heroes in drinking wine and valiant at mixing drink,
who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
and deprive the innocent of their rights!

Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble,
and as dry grass sinks down in the flame,
so their root will become rotten, and their blossom go up like dust;
for they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of Hosts,
and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.

Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people,
and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them;
the mountains quaked, and their corpses were like refuse in the streets.
For all this his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still. (5.20–25)

Such was the darkness in Judah when Isaiah first prophesied. In fact, so dark with disobedience and injustice was Israel’s history, that Israel had divided, the Northern kingdom had fallen, and Judah was now also exposed to the threat of invasion and destruction. The continued apostasy of their current king, Isaiah knew, would do nothing to avert the Lord’s punishment or lift the impending doom. Their past was riddled with guilt and shame, and the result was a darkness of their own making, of their own sin. For those who were astute enough to heed the prophets, it was a time of great fear and foreboding.

In chapter 9 of Isaiah, in our Old Testament reading for today, a word of hope appears much like the epiphany of the messiah himself.

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (9.1–7)

Light, joy, peace, justice, righteousness—what a contrast with the darkness of Israel’s past. From the destitute land of Zebulun and Naphtali, a region already lost to Judah and occupied by the Assyrians, will come a great light. (Isn’t it so like our God to bring hope out of the place of deepest darkness!) For the people of Judah, this is a light dimmed by a present darkness, a hope for a distant future as the darkness deepens, the Assyrians plunder, and the people are scattered. When Isaiah speaks these words, Judah has much yet to face. As Isaiah has already said, “his anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still” (5.25).

Isaiah was a great prophet crying for repentance in the midst of gathering gloom, holding up the light of a distant hope to which the destitute and scattered Israel would cling for hundreds of years. More than 700 years later, another prophet forseen by Isaiah, John the Baptist, cries alone in the wilderness for repentance. In a land of darkness and oppression, of sin and injustice—in the very land of Zebulun and Naphtali, known as Capernaum in Galilee—the light Isaiah described appears to establish the kingdom of God and “uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore” (9.7).

Ah, but this light is still hidden.

This light comes in the unexpected form of a man named Jesus who begins his ministry quietly in a remote seaside town. This light is no longer distant, for it is with us in the person of Jesus, but few recognize it for what it is. The light itself is not dimmed, but the eyes of the people have been dimmed through centuries of disobedience.

Blessed are those who do see, who are graced with epiphany and witness the great light:

– the shepherds in the hills;

– the wise men, gentile princes from far off lands;

– an old man, Simeon, at the temple;

– Anna, a little known but faithful prophetess;

– Mary and Joseph, simple folk and unexpected parents of an amazing child;

– and John the Baptist—a filthy religious fanatic in the dessert (known as a prophet to those who listen) who saw the great light, and the lamb.

Jesus is the great light in the darkness—wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.

But he was born…in obscurity;

circumcised…just like any ordinary Jewish boy;

dedicated at the temple…with all the rest;

baptized…in the wilderness;


and began to unfold the glorious truth of the eternal kingdom of God…in a small, God-forsaken region called Galilee (can anything good come from Galilee? someone later asked).

Jesus’ coming was not the way most expected the messiah to make his appearance, and so only a few witnessed this epiphany of God for what it was—but what a blessed few!

Those who experienced the true epiphany of Christ were changed forever:

– The shepherds remained shepherds, but returned to their flocks “glorifying and praising God” (Luke 2.20).

– The wise men, “overwhelmed with joy,” worshiped the great light and returned to their countries in secret to protect the newborn Lord (Matthew 2.10-11).

– Simeon glorified God and entered his eternal rest in peace, having seen the salvation of the Lord, the “light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of the people of Israel” (Luke 2.32).

– Anna rejoiced, having seen the “redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2.38).

– Mary and Joseph wondered and marveled at what they witnessed, and who they nurtured. When Joseph was gone, Mary would follow her son as Lord, even as she witnessed the fullness of what that meant. She would witness everything—even the resurrection!

– John the Baptist knew what he saw perhaps better than anyone else, and in his awareness recognized that he was not even worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals (Luke 3.16).

Our gospel reading this morning, tells us of a few others who encountered this living epiphany only to leave all that they were to be changed forever.

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Matt 4.18–22)

Let’s focus this morning on one of these and turn to Luke 5 for a more complete picture of his own encounter with the light in the darkness.

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5.1–11)

Peter had his own epiphany, the first of many, we know.

His reaction to Jesus might seem at first a reaction to the miracle of the catch of fish. But we know from other accounts in Luke and the other gospels that Peter had been around Jesus for a while by this time, perhaps almost a year. In fact, Jesus had spent some time in and around Peter’s home in Capernaum and had even been a guest in his house. We know that this was not the first miracle Peter had witnessed. It was not even the most spectacular.

In Peter’s own home, Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law from a fever, and it was in Peter’s home that people from around the region brought their sick to be healed, including many plagued by demons (Luke 4.38-41). While staying in Capernaum, presumably still in Peter’s home, Jesus also taught at the local synagogue, gathering crowds and eliciting amazement from those who heard him (Luke 4.31-37).

So what was a small catch of fish to a man who had already witnessed so much? Why was this day, when Jesus taught the crowds from Peter’s boat, any different from any other for Peter? What was it about this very simple miracle that lifted the veil enough for Peter to realize who Jesus was?

We cannot know for sure, but we might be able to guess.

We could start by looking at Peter’s reaction—and what it tell us about him. His fear is obvious, as is the fact that it is directed at Jesus. He fell at Jesus feet—something a servant would do before his master, or a worshiper before his God—but his words were not words of praise for the miracle or thanksgiving for the fish. Something in what he witnessed made Peter see beyond the veil of his own darkness to the light of Jesus, and it made him afraid.

What he saw made him realize how truly unprepared he was to face the great light. What he saw caused him to face up to the darkness of his own past, and in an act of pure desperation, Peter confessed his sinfulness and begged Jesus to leave.

But we still might ask—what triggered such a reaction?

Notice that all of those with Peter were equally amazed at the catch of fish, but only Peter reacts this way. Perhaps it was the fish themselves, something Peter knew well as a fisherman. As only Peter would, he very nearly scolds Jesus for suggesting they try to catch more fish. After all, he is the expert (and of what we know of his personality and the leadership he takes later on, he was likely the fisherman in charge that day). Perhaps it was the unexpected abundance. Maybe Peter was confronted not only by miraculous ability of Jesus by the full force of his gracious generosity. “…they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break” (5.6). And after they called over another boat, both were filled until they began to sink.

Whatever it was, like when a curtain in a dark room is thrown open to reveal the bright, even harsh radiance of the sun, Peter stood face to face with the overpowering brilliance of the light of the world—and he was afraid.

Afraid of what might be asked of him?

Afraid that he was not good enough to respond?

Afraid that his sin, his past, would be shown for what it was?

Afraid of that all that he had been doing to cope with life would prove to be inadequate?

Consider this moment for Peter from the perspective of songwriter Michael Card. Put yourself in Peter’s shoes. Let the Lord speak to you through Peter’s story.

In response to the miraculous catch, Peter asks for what he really does not want—he asks for Jesus to leave. He has become the frightened fish, thrashing in the net, wanting to get away, or at least for Jesus to get away from him. Peter has come face to face with the frightening possibility of complete success. Failure, like their earlier empty nets, seems so much safer and predictable.

…often in the presence of Peter, when Jesus reveals his true nature in a new way, the first worded from his mouth anew “Don’t be afraid.” When he calms the storm (Mark 4:40), when he walks on the water (Mark 6:50; John 6:20), when he is transfigured into blazing light (Matthew 17:7) and when he is raised from the dead (Matthew 28:10)—each time Jesus comforts and calms Peter with these words. In each instance, when the veil is temporarily lifted and Peter has the terrifying realization that he, a veteran sinner, is in the presence of undiminished Deity, it totally undoes him (as indeed it should).

…But what’s so terrifying about a net full of fish? Though this kind of volume was certainly a rarity for Simon and his partners, they had seen lots of fish before. Even the miraculous fact that they had come from out of nowhere, out of a lake they know was empty, is an occasion for wonder certainly, but fear?

Simon fears because he is a man who, thanks to the preaching of John the Baptist, has become aware of his sinful state. And now he has become the beneficiary of Jesus, who has graciously filled his nets in spite of himself. There was nothing in his experience, nor in ours, that could have prepared him for this kind of frightening generosity. We are forever asking for things we think we deserve. Simon knew then what we need to learn now: what we deserve is only death and separation from God and all his goodness. If we, for one blink, could step back and glimpse the awesome generosity of the One who should, by all rights, destroy us, we would join Simon on our knees with same confession on trembling lips.

Fear is what has driven Simon to his knees. He has heard the preaching of John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom is at hand.” His heart has been preconditioned by that preaching; he has been pricked by an awareness that he is, in fact, not ready for the kingdom’s coming. We should all be rightly afraid for the whole world to be on fire. But now, behold, it has so obviously come. Jesus’ miracle language provides the perfect message for the fishermen. You speak to Magi with a star. You convince a fisherman with fish! What he has waited, prayed and longed for all his life is here! And the thought of it absolutely scares Simon to death. The overflowing nets are the sign. (Card, Michael. A Fragile Stone: The Emotional Life of Simon Peter. Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, Illinois, 2003, 39–41)

Look at Peter. He’s afraid. He’s very aware of his own sin. And Jesus is very aware of Peter’s sin.

Peter’s going to screw up again and again. He’s impulsive, headstrong, and cowardly. He’s going to deny his Lord and friend. Even later as the foremost apostle and leader of the church, he’s going to screw up and have to be called to account by Paul as we read in Galatians (2.11-14).

But this makes him the very person Jesus is looking for!

Jesus’ word is crucial. “Fear not!” Our sinfulness will ultimately be dealt with. Now, because of his coming, our sin can never stand between us and Jesus. Peter’s confession of his sinfulness means he is precisely the man for whom Jesus is looking. In fact, he is the first person to confess his sinfulness to Jesus.

“They must burn their boast and plunge into absolute insecurity to learn the demand and the gift of Christ” (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 53).

Jesus has come, and the line between the world of the Old Testament and the New is now clearly drawn in the sand beside the lake. In the world of the Old Testament, having faith meant waiting faithfully for God to make good on his promises. In the New Testament world, faith means only one thing: following Jesus. Not only did the four of them walk away from their nets and boats, the left behind a net full of fish to follow Jesus! The promises have all been fulfilled; the Promised One is here. Now having faith means following the One in whom God has spoken his “Yes!” to every pledge he ever made to us. The fishermen really have no choice: if they are to be faithful, they must follow. We too really have no choice. Waiting is no longer an option. (Card, 41)

Fear not!

In Peter’s most honest moment of fear and confession, when he is the most vulnerable, most aware of his weakness and sin, his brother and Lord reaches out to him and says, “Don’t be afraid—I want you for something important, and I’m going to help you do it.” Jesus meets Peter at the point of his fear and his sin and calls him to be unsettled, to become part of God’s story of redemption for the whole world, to put his fear and his weakness into the service of the kingdom, and to abandon himself to the will and the care of Jesus.

And Peter—he goes. No questions, still full of fear, still aware of his own inadequacy, still wondering what will come next, still terrified at the prospect of letting go of all he knows and holds dear, and he follows Jesus to seek others who are in darkness and afraid.

“Fear not,” Jesus said. “Follow me.”

If we are to be honest, we’ll admit that to follow—to really leave everything behind—is an absolutely terrifying prospect. Our most natural response would be, like Peter, to fall down and say, “Go away! This is more than I can deal with. I couldn’t be the person you’re looking for.”

We stand before these terrifying possibilities—to let go of our security, to open ourselves to the frightening possibility of complete and utter success, to leave all that is familiar and safe for an unknown world. But then we notice that standing beside us is Jesus. He confidently whispers, “Don’t be afraid. Let go of the nets. Do not be afraid. After all, it’s me.” Jesus has shown Simon that the sea he thought was empty was in fact full of fish. And Simon has begin to learn what it means to become partners with Jesus. A new kind of fishing lies ahead.

There comes a point in our lives when al the pieces of our past, both good and bad, come together to make a meaningful whole. It came for Peter at this point. All this time he had been fishing for fish, with varying success. Now Jesus tells him it is men and women he will be fishing for, and it makes such complete and perfect sense to Peter that he simply walks away from his old life and embraces the unknown new. Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, was also, it seems, a fisherman. And it was Simon Peter who got caught that day. (Card, 41–42)

You know, Peter, and those with him (Andrew, James, and John) left everything to follow Jesus—their homes, their livelihood, and their families. We know that Peter was surrounded by his family in Capernaum, and he was married. His wife was later to join him on his ministry to the church. One wonders if she also followed him to his death when he was, as tradition suggests, crucified upside down for serving his friend and Lord. Everything Peter knew, everyone he knew and loved—everything he held dear—was in Capernaum. And he left it all to follow Jesus.

Peter was not perfect, nor was he well-prepared. He was not fearless. He was not the “super apostle” we make him out to be. He had his epiphany, and it brought him to his knees.

But he was willing to trust Jesus and to follow him without reservation and without knowing what came next. Because of Peter and others with him who together followed Jesus, “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the shadow of death, light has dawned” (Isaiah 9.2)!

Look around you. You are living near someone like Peter. The person you know as friend and neighbor, no matter what you have heard them say, is scared to death. The person you sit nearby in church has done some pretty terrible things in his or her past, and might do so again. And the person sitting in your seat—that’s right, you—is terrified of what might happen if you really left everything to follow Jesus.

We have all had the frightening privilege today in this place, here in the presence of Jesus and through this story of Peter, to lift the veil and to glimpse the true nature of the one who calls you. And yes, we should all hang our heads in shame. We should all quake in our shoes. We should be afraid before undiminished deity. If we are not, we need to get our heads out of the sand and realize just who it is we are facing!

And then we should hear and heed his words—“Fear not!”

The world lives in darkness and the Lord God, its creator, has moved in a mighty way to provide for the salvation of the lost and to shine the light of his glory and righteousness where death has had dominion. He breaks into the dark and sin ridden lives of you and I to call us to become a part of his redemption. Though we are terrified by his power, his reality, his glory, his light, he says, “Fear not! Follow me.”

Though we would want to throw ourselves at his feet and demand that he leave us alone; though we might throw our fear and our sin in his face as good reason that we cannot possibly do what he asks and cling ever more tightly to all that we have created for ourselves as a way to cope with life; and as we hang on for dear life to what we think will see us through—jobs, money, homes, family, friends, or anger, grief, self-pity, resignation—Jesus says, “Fear not! Follow me. No matter what you fear, no matter what you value, no matter what you have done, I have a place for you.”

He loves us enough to grant us the epiphany of who he is, to calm our fear and forgive our sin, and to call us to look outside ourselves to get caught up in his kingdom!

And we have nothing to do but respond and abandon ourselves to his care.

This is what epiphany meant for Peter and for us. In the abundance of the fish Jesus had them catch that day, Peter saw the true nature of the great light, and he was caught forever. What do we see in the abundance of Jesus’ grace for us?

“Fear not,” Jesus says. “Follow me.”

And now I pray that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess 11–12).

Leave a Reply