Moths seem to be drawn to the light. They congregate around streetlights and frequent torch-lit garden parties. But what is it about the lamp on your porch that moths find so irresistible? Is it the warmth? The pleasing glow? Why are moths attracted to light? Well, according to Mike Saunders, a professor of entomology at Penn State, the answer is simple: They’re not.
Drawn to the Light
Deep in the backwoods country, a woman went into labor and a doctor was called to assist in the delivery. Since there was no electricity in the house, the doctor handed a lantern to the
father-to-be and said “Hold this high so I can see what I am doing.”
Soon, a baby boy was brought into the world. Then… “Whoa there,” said the doctor, “Don’t be in such a rush to put that lantern down. I think there’s another one coming!” Sure enough, within minutes, the doctor delivered a baby girl. And twice more after her the doctor had to tell the new father not to put the lantern down because more babies were about to be born.
Before the arrival of the fourth baby, the bewildered dad asked the doctor: “‘You reckon it might be the light that’s attractin’ ’em?”
Moths seem to be drawn to the light. They congregate around streetlights and frequent torch-lit garden parties. But what is it about the lamp on your porch that moths find so irresistible? Is it the warmth? The pleasing glow? Why are moths attracted to light? Well, according to Mike Saunders, a professor of entomology at Penn State, the answer is simple: They’re not. It is his theory that moths naturally use the moon to orient themselves during night flight. In visual terms, the moon is far enough away that the rays of light it reflects toward Earth are parallel as they enter a moth’s (or a human’s) eye. This makes an excellent navigational tool. “Using the moon as a reference, moths can sustain linear flight in a given direction.”
But technology and urban light pollution has been unkind to the moth. “Artificial lights seem brighter than the moon,” Saunders notes, “and moths end up orienting to them even though the artificial light is not at optical infinity.” The moon remains safely out of reach, but a candle or lamp is a different story. As the moths get closer to the light, their ability to triangulate is thrown off. Saunders says that “Maintaining a constant frame of reference to the artificial light results in the moth circling the light over and over again.” So the moth winging around your kitchen light is doing so more out of confusion than desire. “Blinded by the Light, composed by Bruce Springsteen’s was unsuccessful. The Earth Band’s recording changed lyrics and it went to the top of the charts. Maybe there is something there for us to consider.
That might be understandable for moths but why is it that when blindfolded we human beings can’t walk in a straight line? Jan Souman, a research scientist in Germany reported on a recent study about this pronounced tendency people have to walk in circles. In the Sahara Desert and then on a beach he wrapped the heads of some people and told them to try to walk in a straight line for up to an hour. As the subjects walked, Jan mapped where they went. They could not keep to a straight line. He also ran the experiment in a forest in Germany, this time apparently without blindfolds but with the same results. Evidently human beings slip into circles when we can’t see an external focal point, like a mountain top, the sun or the moon. Without a corrective, our insides take over and there’s something inside us that won’t stay straight.
Before we read this passage from Isaiah we need to get a secure grip on the context. Some 600 years before the time of Jesus a significant numbers of Israelites were deported to Babylon, especially the leaders and highly educated people. Isaiah 57 and 58 spell out in detail the idolatrous behavior of the people for which they were told that judgment will befall them and their adopted idols will not rescue them. Two major areas of sinful behavior in the eyes of God were cultic impropriety and unethical behavior. However, they were promised that if these behaviors were reversed the people would be saved. When the people acknowledged their sins, the Lord said that he would put on righteousness, with the result his enemies will suffer his anger and those who turn from their sins will be redeemed.
It appears that the Babylonians were pretty progressive, allowing the exiles to own land, continue their brand of worship, participate in trade and to remain in tribal groups with their leaders. They even allowed these Jews to serve on royal projects and in the military forces. The exilic community appears to have been well organized, able to enjoy the benefits of Babylonian life and free to maintain its own religious life and worship. Although the people were not able to worship at the temple and offer sacrifices, it lay in ruins in the land of Judah. But they learned about their past traditions and the requirements of the law.
The proclamation is unconditional and states how God will act towards Zion and his people. Images of light and glory rest on Zion which attract the foreigners. God will make an everlasting covenant and their descendants will be known among the nations. Later, after giving details of their heinous crimes God promises a new heaven and new earth in which God is described as a comforting mother.
By the time the prophet proclaims that God wants the Israelites to return to Jerusalem most of the older generation had died, those who remained would have heard the stories of Jerusalem, but this generation would be very comfortable, settled, well off, living in a fertile and cultured country. They were safe, had freedom and many obtained wealth. The question is how do you get a group of people who are comfortable, settled, and whose children were born in this new country to move back to a rocky and barren landscape, where there was no immediate opportunities for making a living and try to live in a wreck of a city now populated by people from the surrounding countries. It wasn’t long ago that we had the experience of Kosovar refugees who were only in Australia a few months, not 50 to 60 years, had no desire to return to probable hardship and possible death. This is the task we find that God has given to Isaiah in chapters 40:-55: – to convince the people to return to Jerusalem and build the temple and city again. The experience of the exile made them realize that they have only the grace of God to rely on and that it is only by God’s loving kindness they can know forgiveness.
Through the Prophet Isaiah, God addresses the city of Jerusalem, Zion, the city of God.
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 2For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 3Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 4Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. 5Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 6A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. 7All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall be acceptable on my altar, and I will glorify my glorious house. 8Who are these that fly like a cloud, and like doves to their windows?
9For the coastlands shall wait for me, the ships of Tarshish first, to bring your children from far away, their silver and gold with them, for the name of the Lord your God, and for the Holy One of Israel, because he has glorified you.
Our text today takes up the prophecy from the end of the 59th chapter which proclaims that God will come to Zion as redeemer. “Arise, shine” the text starts and then in the fourth verse, the prophet commands Jerusalem to “see”. Wealth and abundance will accompany these returnees, both Israelites and the nations. These people needed the hope of a glorious renewed Zion to keep their spirits alive after the trek home from Babylon and seeing a ruined Jerusalem which their forbears had left three generations before.
The glory can be interpreted as God’s presence which has returned to Jerusalem. In Ezekiel 8, we were told that the glory had left Jerusalem and was present with the exiles in Babylon. The darkness which had descended when Nebuchadrezzar invaded and took Jerusalem will now be lifted and the light, which is God’s glory/presence is now shining out and apparent to all peoples. Now that God’s presence has returned it is like when David brought the ark into Jerusalem when he became King – God’s presence is here with us. A picture of the rebuilt glorious Zion is described, one who will draw all people to her splendor. The nations will be subservient to Israel bringing their wealth and themselves as builders to be used by Israel. This gloriously rebuilt Jerusalem with God’s presence has been the ideal of hope and salvation throughout all the history of the Jewish people which is been echoed in the liturgy at the end of the Passover meal, ‘Next year in Jerusalem’!
This new Jerusalem is no political state put in place by an agreement among nations. For us it is the ideal of the Kingdom of God. It is the light of God’s presence.
The story of the Magi following the light to Bethlehem and worshipping the new born Christ comes directly from this idealized Jerusalem. God’s presence is now that light which has come into the world. In the history of God’s people God’s presence was with Moses on Mt Sinai, it traveled with the people symbolized by the cloud and pillar of fire as they traversed the wilderness, present in the Ark which David brought into Jerusalem and the glory/presence leaving Jerusalem to abide with the exiles in Babylon and now returning in Isaiah 60. The light of God now present in Christ is that which the Magi saw in the heavens and followed. The Magi are symbolic of the nations/gentiles who come to the Jerusalem/Bethlehem attracted by the light. The worship of gentiles is accepted by the Christ and are fully included within the gospel of Jesus Christ as indeed the foreigners are accepted fully into the worshipping community of Israel.
The theological essence of Epiphany is found in 2 Timothy 1:10: “And now he has made all of this plain to us by the appearing of Christ Jesus, our Savior. He broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News.” In John 1:18 we read, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” This comes after we are told of the light coming into the world, a light that makes God visible by dwelling with us and making us children of the light with “grace upon grace.”
When we ask how the Kingdom of God becomes visible to us I’m brought back to the story of the moths. The heavenly lights that should become our guide get lost in the light pollution of our culture. We get distracted from the light that is there to guide and we begin a moth like pattern of behavior, flying in circles until we are exhausted.
We Quakers make a big deal about the light of Christ – same light divine light that the prophet speaks of as the divine presence in the idealized Jerusalem, the same light represented by the Christ child that drew the wisemen to Bethlehem. And it is the same light of Christ that we encounter in our own hearts, the very presence of God within as promised in the Gospels. Instead of being distracted by the lights of our world, our eyes must be opened; our vision must be corrected so that the blur that we were once unable to comprehend becomes clear. This comes not so much with theological corrective lenses as it does with a community that helps us to see God, a community within which Christ is present and through which God reveals God’s own self.