Sunday, January 6th Epiphany of our Lord

Epiphany of Our Lord

January 6, 2013

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 (11)
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

Prayer of the Day
O God, on this day you revealed your Son to the nations by the leading of a star. Lead us now by faith to know your presence in our lives, and bring us at last to the full vision of your glory, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

A blessed Epiphany to one and all!

About a month or two ago I was in the sanctuary late on Wednesday evening when I heard a timid knock at the main doorway facing Palisade Avenue on Linwood. I opened the door to a little who could not have been more than twelve or thirteen. She had just moved into the neighborhood and had gotten off the school bus one stop to early. She had left her cell phone in her locker and could not remember he home number. She knew her address but had no idea how to get there. Fortunately, she lived just a few blocks down Palisade Avenue and so I was able to walk her to her destination. During our short walk, I learned that her parents recently divorced and that she was living with her mother in a rented home. She had little in the way of a religious upbringing, but told me that an aunt had once said to her, “If you ever find yourself in trouble, go to a church.”  That is what brought her to our doors.

I had forgotten about that incident until I read the lessons for this week and began reflecting on Epiphany. Like that little girl, the magi in our gospel lesson likely had little or no understanding of Israel’s messiah or its hope for salvation. Yet somehow they found themselves at the manger worshiping the newborn king. Isaiah foresees the day when the nations of the world will come to Jerusalem not for conquest, but to seek the wisdom and understanding God mediates to the world through his covenant with Israel. Paul speaks of his insight into the mystery of Christ-that the Gentiles (those outside of Israel’s covenant relationship with God) are now brought into the commonwealth of faith through Jesus and that through reconciliation within the church God reveals what is in store for the whole world. The church has come under a lot of criticism over the years for failing to be the reconciling and hospitable community of faith described in Ephesians. Much of that criticism is justified. Yet it gives me much hope that one child understood that the church is a safe and welcoming place to go in times of trouble. I only hope that she will remember her aunt’s counsel in the coming years as life becomes more challenging and complex. I also hope that when she turns to us again, we will not fail her!

Isaiah 60:1-6

As I have pointed out before, the book of the prophet Isaiah is regarded by most Hebrew Scripture scholars to be the work of three different prophets. Chapters 1-39 are attributed in the main to Isaiah the prophet who lived and prophesied in the 8th Century during the reigns of Judean kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Chapters 40-55 are attributed to a prophet who preached toward the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews around 537 B.C.E., declaring to them God’s forgiveness and God’s promise to lead them back from exile to their homeland in Palestine. Chapters 56-65 are the words of a prophet addressing the Jews who in fact returned to Palestine and were struggling to rebuild their community under difficult circumstances. The prophet’s utterances are addressed to Jews living in their Palestinian homeland, but it is clear that the temple of Jerusalem has not yet been rebuilt. Thus, we can confidently date the work of this third prophet as taking place between the return from exile in  537 B.C.E. and the dedication of the reconstructed temple in 515 B.C.E.

Chapters 60-62 are believed to contain the nucleus of the message attributed to “Third Isaiah.” They contain a message of salvation to the disillusioned Jews struggling to rebuild some semblance of their community under difficult and dangerous conditions. The land to which the exiles returned was inhabited by peoples who considered it their own, principally, the Samaritans. Political instability in the Persian Empire created a tense and uncertain atmosphere under which the Jews were reluctant to undertake any project that might ignite hostility with their neighbors or the empire. Consequently, the work of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem begun soon after the return from exile was abandoned. The temple would not be rebuilt until the arrival of the scribe and prophet Ezra.

Our lesson today constitutes the opening line of a jubilant announcement of salvation to Israel. Israel’s “light” has come. The glory of the Lord will rise upon Israel. While “darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness upon the peoples,” the Lord will “rise upon” Israel and God’s glory will be upon her. The nations that now oppress Israel will be conquered and come to serve Israel, but this conquest will not be accomplished through violence. Rather, the nations will be drawn out of their darkness into and the Light of God shining forth from the restored Zion. The kings of the earth will be won over to the praise of Israel’s God and contribute to the rebuilding of Jerusalem. While this prediction might sound a little far-fetched, it is thoroughly grounded in history. According to the book of Ezra, Cyrus the Emperor of Persia both supported and helped to financed the rebuilding of the temple. This work, which was abandoned after the death of Cyrus, might never have resumed without the support of the Persian emperor Darius whose reign began in 522 B.C.E. The prophet might well have seen in this patronage the beginning of this great turning of the nations to Israel’s God.

I cannot read these words without recognizing that, so far from becoming a center for reconciliation between peoples, Jerusalem has been and continues to be a flashpoint for conflicts having global ramifications. It is easy to spiritualize the text and get around the messy historical reality by claiming that the prophecy now refers to the “New Jerusalem” where all will be made new. While there is surely some validity to this application, I don’t believe we can divorce these words from the brick and mortar Jerusalem that stands in the heart of Palestine today. Are we not still called upon to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem”?  Psalm 122:6

I am not a fan of what passes for interfaith dialogue these days, much of which tends to degenerate into New Age mush.  But I am convinced that Christians share with Jews and Muslims an interest in the well being of Jerusalem. For Christians, it is the place where Jesus made his final stand of unconditional faithfulness to God and love for us. For Jews, Jerusalem is the city where God caused his name to dwell. For Muslims, Jerusalem is the site of Muhammad’s miraculous ascension into heaven. All three faiths have generated prayers for the peace and well being of this holy city. I believe that dialogue among Christians, Jews and Muslims focusing on how together we can bring peace to Jerusalem might well lead us to a better understanding of each other’s faith traditions and take us a long way toward healing some old and deep seated conflicts. This is particularly so if such dialogue is followed up with concrete action on the part of our respective faith communities to make the peace of Jerusalem a reality

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

This psalm might have been used in coronation ceremonies for the anointing of a Judean king in the line of David or for the annual commemoration of such an occasion. Stylistically, it resembles the coronation liturgies typically used for the ascension of kings in the surrounding Canaanite cultures of the Near East. With respect to content, the psalm is strikingly different from such rites. What is noteworthy here is that the king does not rule for his own sake. He must exercise his power only in the cause of “justice and righteousness.” This notion would have seemed remarkable to typical Near Eastern monarchs who considered themselves “gods.” They would have had a difficult time understanding why David found it necessary to cover up his act of adultery with Bathsheba. He was king, after all. Why not just take the woman? Who has standing to argue with a god? David knew, however, that he was no god and that he was not above the law. That is why he went to such great (and ultimately unsuccessful lengths) to cover up his crimes. As pointed out by Old Testament scholar, Artur Weiser, “…behind the reign of the earthly king is God’s rule as King; the righteousness of the king is a function and the mirror-image of the righteousness of God which he has promised to his people in their need for protection (‘thy needy’ in v.2) and to those individual members who depend on his assistance, and which does not allow the weak to become the prey of the mighty.” The Psalms: A Commentary, Artur Weiser, (S.C.M. Press, Ltd., c. 1962) p. 503.

As I noted in last week’s post, Israel’s view of monarchy was ambivalent. Some of the literary sources making up the Books of I and II Samuel affirm the Davidic monarchy as a saving act of God on a par with the Exodus. But other sources express deep skepticism and
outright hostility to the notion that any human ruler should assume the role of “king” which rightfully belongs to God alone. The 8th and 7th Century prophetic critiques of the Judean and Israelite monarchies and their unfaithfulness to the covenant of Sinai, their tolerance of idolatry and their frequent abuses of power suggest that the weight of the crown is more than any human being can bear. This, by the way, is a favorite theme of William Shakespeare. Most of his kings, even the good ones, are eventually undone by their all too human character flaws. Perhaps this very insight is what led the prophets to yearn for God to take matters in hand and “cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David.” Only a person thoroughly imbued with God’s Spirit can be expected to “execute justice and righteousness in the land.”  Jeremiah 33:15

Once again, to say, as disciples of Jesus do, that Israel’s messianic hope is fulfilled in Jesus raises more questions than it answers. The juxtaposition of Jesus, the crucified one, with the title of “king” can only place in graphic relief the radical difference between God’s exercise of sovereignty and how sovereignty, authority and power typically are exercised among the nations of the world. If Jesus is King, if he really is God’s messiah, then we must rethink everything we think we know about power, authority and might. Indeed, we need to rethink everything we think we know about God and the way God operates and exercises power.

Ephesians 3:1-12

For some background on Ephesians, see my post of  July 15, 2012. See also the article by Mary Hinkle Shore, professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary at

This is an incredible passage that ascribes a tremendous amount of importance to the church. It is “through the church [that] the manifold wisdom of God [is] now made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” Vs. 10.  If that is true, then the single most important thing the church can do for the world is simply to be the church. Or, to borrow the phrase of Jonathan R. Wilson, Professor of Theology at Carey Theological College, “Just getting together is accomplishing something.”  (If you have the inclination, you can listen to the full presentation by Professor Wilson at the 2012 Ekklesia Gathering this past summer at )

For years I have attended clergy meetings where the first question asked by everyone I meet is, “So what is your church doing?” or “What’s happening at Trinity”  I always feel pressured to start enumerating all that we are doing (and thankfully, I always have a formidable list). Yet I sometimes think that our focus on “doing” and our emphasis on “programming” and our seeming lust for “measurable results” are all dangerously misguided. After all, there isn’t much that we do that someone else cannot do as well or better. But if we are not the community that mirrors God’s reign on earth, who else will be? If we are not communities in which people are shaped into the image of Christ through the practices of worship, prayer, confession, forgiveness, compassion and hospitality, what other institution will pick up the slack?  I submit that from the standpoint of the witness from Ephesians, there is nothing more important we can do than gather for prayer, praise and the breaking of bread together. If everything else we do does not flow from that, we are just spinning our wheels.

Matthew 2:1-12

The image of the three kings has become enshrined in Christian art and hymnody-even though the three visitors to the infant Jesus were not kings and we have no idea how many of them there were. We also have no idea where they came from. Matthew tells us only that they “came from the East,” In theory, that could be anywhere west of Palestine. The term “magoi” which Matthew uses to describe the “wise men,” is an imprecise term referring generally to persons engaged in occult arts. It covers astrologers, fortune tellers, priestly augurers and magicians. The Greek historian, Herodotus describes a priestly cast of “magoi” among the 6th Century Medes that had special power to interpret dreams. This has led some scholars to suggest that the magi in Matthew’s gospel might have been Persians. There is little in the way of evidence, however, to support the claim that this was Matthew’s understanding. Whatever their origin, the magi were clearly outside the scope of God’s covenant with Israel and had no claim on Israel’s messiah. It is therefore highly ironic that these outsiders are somehow drawn to seek this new “king of the Jews,” whereas the scribes, the scriptural experts are caught completely off guard and are “troubled” along with Herod and the rest of Jerusalem.

A further irony comes in the question placed to Herod: “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?” That title belonged to Herod. Though not a Jew, he had received the designation “King of the Jews” from his Roman overlords-a fact that was not lost on his truly Jewish subjects who mostly hated him. One can well imagine the apoplectic rage inspired by the magi as they entered Herod’s throne room and asked, “So where is the real king?”

There has been no end of speculation concerning the origin of the star that caught the attention of the magi. Supernova, comet and even a planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn have all been suggested to explain the astronomical event. As far as I am aware, there is no astrophysical support for any of these explanations and no historical testimony from any source other than the gospel for the appearance of the star leading the magi to Jesus. But perhaps this entire line of inquiry is missing the point. We know that the gospels are not intended to be historical reports, but rather faithful testimony constructed from the early church’s preaching and teaching. So the better question would be: what part does the appearance of the star and its draw for the Magi play in Matthew’s story of Jesus?

Matthew has by far the largest number of explicit citations to the Old Testament in his gospel. He believes emphatically that Jesus is the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of Israel to which the scriptures bear witness. Yet from the very outset he also wishes to make clear that God’s reign reaches beyond Israel. The magi, though outside God’s covenant with Israel and informed by what Matthew would clearly have regarded as a false religion, are nonetheless drawn by God’s grace to worship Israel’s messiah. This brings us full circle to Isaiah and his declaration that the nations of the world now shrouded in darkness will be drawn to the light of God to seek Israel’s covenant wisdom. The story also echoes the lesson from Ephesians which boldly states that through the church the mystery of God’s saving work in Jesus is made manifest to the world.

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