“Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”
The collect for the Second Sunday of Epiphany contains a theology of ministry, mission, and worship in miniature. More specifically: it contains a theology of the relationship between the church’s ministry, mission, and worship.
The primary imagery of the prayer comes from Jesus’ self-designation in John 8:12: “I am the light of the world,” a theme developed at length in John’s Gospel (1:4-5, 7-9; 3:19-21; 9:5; 12:35-36, 46; 20:1). The prayer also draws upon broader scriptural teaching about divine light, especially prophetic texts which testify that, in the latter days, God’s light will shine forth from God’s eschatological mountain, drawing all nations to itself.
For example, Isaiah 2:2-5 declares:
It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD.
In similar fashion, Isaiah 66:18-23 describes the centrifugal and centripetal forces of God’s glorious light which simultaneously propels God’s people to the ends of the earth in their eschatological mission and draws the nations into their ranks as priestly worshipers.
For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations. And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the LORD, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the LORD. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the LORD. “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD.
As these texts show, and as the collect summarizes, the driving and drawing power of divine light sets the church’s ministry of Word and Sacrament, its mission to the ends of the earth, and its worship within an ordered relationship. The ministry of Word and Sacrament, by which Christ’s glory is proclaimed, is ordered to the illumination of God’s people with the result that they reflect the radiance of Christ. The reflected radiance of Christ in his people, in turn, is ordered to making Christ “known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.” Ministry serves mission. Mission serves worship.
This prayer offers an important corrective to certain ways of ordering the church’s ministry, mission, and worship. It is not uncommon in Reformed and evangelical circles today to hear that the church exists “for the sake of the world.” The ministry of the church, on this understanding, exists in order to equip the church for its mission of fulfilling the cultural mandate, thereby bringing the blessings promised to Abraham to all nations. Building on such an understanding, one writer recently described the church as a wartime military hospital that exists to treat soldiers wounded in the work of cultural engagement so that they may be sent back out into the battle. Ministry, on this view, serves mission.
Of course, there is a sense in which the church does exist for the sake of the world. The church has a mission relative to the world that benefits the world (Gen 12:3). Moreover, the ministry of Word and Sacrament forms the church so that it might fulfill its mission of reflecting the radiance of the Lord’s Servant who has been appointed to be a “light for the nations” (Isa 49:6; 60:3; 2 Cor 3:18-4:5). However, if our description of the relationship between the church’s ministry and mission stops there, or if our primary or sole emphasis in describing the church’s mission is to describe it in terms of the cultural mandate, then we will miss important scriptural emphases. In fact, we may miss the scriptural target of the church’s ministry and mission altogether.
The light of Christ that moves the church outward to the nations is one that also draws the nations inward to its fellowship with Jesus Christ so that the nations too might become participants in the church’s worship of Jesus Christ. In the final analysis, both the church’s ministry and the church’s mission are ordered to making Christ “known, worshiped, and obeyed.”
This is how Paul describes the aim of his apostolic mission in Romans 1:5. Paul says he has “received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.” In describing the aim of his apostolic mission in this manner, Paul draws upon the language of Genesis 49:8-10, a passage devoted to the eschatological glory of the Lion of the tribe of Judah.
Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.
This passage promises that, in the latter days, Judah’s “brothers” (i.e., Israel) and “the peoples” (i.e., the nations) will “bow down” before him, bringing their praise and obedience to him as royal tribute. Paul views his apostolic mission as a means to this doxological end (Rom 15:16).
Insofar as the church continues to participate in this apostolic mission, it must serve this apostolic end as well. The church’s ministry does serve its mission. But the church’s mission, in turn, serves the greater expansion and increase of the church’s worship. The light that propels the church into the world ultimately draws the world into the church that the nations might know, worship, and obey Jesus Christ.
By ordering our thoughts rightly concerning the relationship between the church’s ministry, mission, and worship, the collect for the Second Sunday of Epiphany directs our affections toward that which we should seek from Almighty God through Jesus Christ his Son our Savior, the light of the world. “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him” (Rom 15:11, citing Ps 67:3).