A Light to the Nations

Isaiah 49:6 The Lord said, “It is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the ones I have kept in Israel, so I will appoint you to be a light for the nations so that my salvation may be known to the end of the earth.”

When God created light on the first day, He didn’t banish the darkness entirely. He established the regular cycle of night and day, darkness and light. This framework gave us time to work and play, as well as time to rest and sleep. But even in that time of darkness, God provided lights to shine in the darkness by creating the moon and stars on the fourth day.

When our first parents, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God’s command, a new kind of darkness came into our world. It was a darkness that caused Adam and Eve to hide from the glory of God by camouflaging themselves in the foliage of the Garden. It was a darkness in Adam’s soul to blame God for his fall, “The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit and I ate it” (Genesis 3:12). It was a darkness that would corrupt their every thought and action, for now they knew the difference between good and evil (Genesis 3:22).

This darkness did not remain confined in Adam and Eve. Rather, the darkness in the soul was passed on to every child born from our first parents. This darkness has swept over God’s creation like a perpetual eclipse of the sun. It consumed everything in its path. It is a plague of spiritual darkness like the plague of physical darkness that swept over Egypt. It is such a powerful darkness that it can be felt (Exodus 10:21). This darkness distorts our hearts and minds. It corrupts our desires and wills. It has made us enemies of God, friends of the devil, captives of death, and prisoners of hell.

This darkness is seen in the eyes of the terrorist. This darkness is felt in the hearts of the elderly abandoned in the nursing homes. This darkness is experienced by children living in broken homes. This darkness is suffered by parents who lose their child to drugs or cancer or death. This darkness is endured by all of us as we live in a broken and desperate world.

God did not leave the earth wrapped in darkness. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light that pushed against the darkness (Genesis 1:3). Nor did God abandon His children to sin’s darkness, either. God sent His Son into the world to overpower this darkness. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4,5).

But the spiritual darkness was not about to go quietly. It stirred King Herod to try to slaughter the young child among the young boys in Bethlehem. Throughout the days of His public ministry, it tried to silence Jesus through threats and persecution. Finally, on the cross and in the sealed grave, it looked as though darkness had snuffed out the Light. But on the third day Christ arose, shining His light of victory over sin, Satan, death, and hell forever.

Jesus was born in the darkness so that He could die in the darkness. He was betrayed, arrested and denied in the darkness so that He might overcome the plague of darkness that allowed this injustice. The darkness of anger grabbed hold of the Jewish religious leaders so they demanded Jesus’ crucifixion; the darkness of fear gripped Pontius Pilate so that he handed Jesus over to be crucified; the darkness of unbelief seized the Roman soldiers as they crucified the Son of God. But Jesus endured all of this spiritual darkness so that by His innocent suffering and substitutionary death, He could pay the price for anger, fear, and unbelief. He could shine the light of His salvation upon those who put Him to death. He was raised to life on Easter dawn, so that the dawn of a new resurrection day would shine its light on all those who believe.

But this light of salvation did not just dawn among the Jews. This light was meant for all nations over the entire world. The Lord said to Christ, “It is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the ones I have kept in Israel, so I will appoint you to be a light for the nations so that my salvation may be known to the end of the earth.” God had bigger plans for displaying His splendor than merely restoring the believing Jews from captivity. The work of this Servant of the Lord would be for people all over the world. At Christ’s birth, the angels announced this wonderful news: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). Jesus came for a light for the nations.

An Epiphany had dawned!

This darkness was just as prevalent in the 1920’s as it is today. That was when plans were made to start a new mission church to bring the light of Christ to West Racine.

Our congregation had its beginnings at First Evangelical Lutheran Church in downtown Racine. One story on our beginning is that some members of First Evan became upset when their voters had decided to build a parsonage behind their church in 1924. Perhaps they disagreed with the splendor and size of the parsonage. So, some members left to start a new church two miles away – which was a long way 90 years ago.

The apostles Paul and Barnabas once disagreed vehemently about whether or not to bring John Mark along with them on their missionary travels. So the two apostles went their different ways. But God allowed that disagreement to then double and expand their mission work. And eventually, the two reconciled and God’s kingdom work was better for it.

A more sanctified version of the story is that in the 1920’s, First Evan was still conducting their worship services in German. There were mission-minded members who wanted to do outreach to the English-speaking population of Racine. So, in October of 1926, the Mission Board of the Joint Synod of Wisconsin (before it became known as only the Wisconsin Synod) decided to launch a new church in the mission field of Taylor Avenue. A vacant shop at 1861 Taylor Avenue was soon converted into a chapel, complete with altar, pulpit, pews, and piano. The mission church held its opening service on Sunday evening, January 30, 1927.

The church was started during the Epiphany season – the season of the church year when we celebrate Christ revealing His glory to the nations. The festival of the Epiphany, is one of the most ancient of the Christian festivals. At the Epiphany festival, Christians praised God for the newborn King worshiped by the Magi; they witnessed the Christ anointed in the waters of the Jordan River; and they marveled at Christ’s first miracle of changing water into wine. It was an epiphany in the womb, an epiphany in the water, and an epiphany at the wedding. 

Since the church started during the Epiphany season and was created to do mission work to the English-speaking residents of Racine, the official name of our congregation is “The English Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Epiphany.” An interesting item is that we are the only church named “Epiphany” in the WELS. And we might just be the only “English Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Epiphany” in the world.

The fledgling congregation appealed to the Mission board for a loan to purchase its own church property. Five lots were purchased between Olive and Bate Streets at the cost of $5,000. On June 19, 1927, ground was broken for the new church. At that time, this section of the city was newly subdivided and at the cornerstone laying on July 31, there were no paved streets nor cement sidewalks in existence. Members who attended the dedication relate how they walked on planks to enter the church.

The church was completed on November 6, 1927 at the cost of $16,000. It was estimated to seat 300. (I think people must have been skinnier and willing to sit more closely together than they are today.) The church stood ready to be dedicated to the service of the Triune God, with the purpose of proclaiming the light of salvation to the nations gathered in West Racine.

The new church was designed in the Old English style of architecture and was in keeping with the small homes of the vicinity. It was purposely built to look like a large English Tudor home to visually express the mission work to the English, but also to express invitation and friendliness by making it appear like a home. The original tapering pinnacles and crosses on its gables, declared the purpose of the church was to proclaim Christ the Crucified and lead souls heavenward.

The original plans for the church called for a large room adjoining the east wall. That room was used for Epiphany’s Christian Day School the very next year. Six grades were taught together in the one room school. It wasn’t until the spring of 1973 that Epiphany and First Evan churches decided to form a joint school calling it Wisconsin Lutheran School. The joint school opened its doors in the fall of 1973. At that time, Preschool through 3rd grade were at the Lower School campus at Epiphany, while grades 4 through 8 were at the Middle School campus at First Evan.

The mission of Epiphany Lutheran Church remains the same today as it was 90 years ago – to share the light of Christ to the nations.

Since the darkness in the Garden of Eden is not disappearing, but has been seen in the 1920’s and still today, Jesus stepped into the darkness. “[God] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13,14).

Against Christ, evil does not stand a chance. Against Christ, our sins cannot prevail and our fears cannot rule. So, when the gloom of your great guilt depresses you, when the dimness of your small faith saps your energy, and when living in the land of the shadow of death causes you to cower in fear, remember in whose kingdom you work; recall in whose name you have been called to follow, and recognize in whose light you now live. The Bible encourages: “You were once in darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (Ephesians 5:8).

The Light of the world shines on you with the rays of His strength so that you can continue caring for that special someone or continue carrying that extra responsibility day after day. The Light of the world shines on you and brightens your day by chasing away every shadow of guilt and fault. The Light of the world shines on you and in turn makes you shine out with a dazzling display of a Christian work ethic or Christian optimism or Christian character that others notice and appreciate. 

Jesus once explained to the people. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Our forefathers felt this darkness shortly after the start of this congregation. The Depression sapped their will and their incomes. Then World War II caused a great darkness and evil to descend upon the whole world. Still today, the news trumpets that there is a lot of darkness in the world. That cannot be denied. But the angels lighting up the night sky, the star leading the Wise Men during their evening travels, Jesus praying for us in dark Gethsemane, Calvary’s cross standing tall in the darkness of midday and the open tomb breaking forth at the break of daylight – all these events proclaim that there is a Light in the world. It is a light that is too great for just the nation of Israel. It is a light that shines forth to the nations. And where the Light is present, darkness cannot remain.

It is an Epiphany Light that – by God’s grace – has been shining and revealing the Savior here at Epiphany Lutheran Church for 90 years. It is a Light, that God willing, will continue to blaze from this pulpit, will illuminate in our classrooms, and will reflect in our daily lives as Epiphany Christians. It is a light that shines here at 2921 Olive St. and shines forth to the nations. It is an Epiphany light to the nations. Amen.