EPIPHANY OF OUR LORD
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
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.
At Trinity we will be celebrating the Epiphany one day early on Sunday, January 5th. My rationale? I believe that Epiphany is a critical chapter in the gospel narrative. My chances of gathering a congregation to observe it on Monday, January 6th are nil. Faced with a choice between moving or neglecting Epiphany, I chose the former. Liturgical purists will no doubt wince at my taking such liberties with the church calendar. But it seems to me that if even the Ten Commandments written with the finger of God can be set aside for the sake of human well being (see Mark 2:23-28), how much more the liturgical calendar.
There is no shortage of subtle humor in the Epiphany gospel. Can you imagine the scene? Herod is sitting on his throne, swaddled in his kingly robes. The wise men are ushered into his court with pomp and high ceremony. Then they ask Herod, “So, where is the real King of the Jews?” It must have been all poor Herod could do to control his apoplectic rage! How ironic that these wise men, probably pagans with little understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures, have come to know through their pagan arts that Israel’s messiah has been born, but the Bible jocks who are supposed to be on top of things like this must go racing to the library to answer Herod’s questions. The outsiders find their way to the messiah. The insiders are clueless.
It is hard for us today to imagine a church that was entirely Jewish; a church that identified fully with the rest of the Jewish community; a church in which gentiles (which includes most of us) were outsiders. Though openness to faith among the gentiles appears to have been an aspect of Jesus’ ministry from the start, it was the Apostle Paul whose vision and missionary work opened the door of Israel’s covenant relationship with God to outsiders like us. So it is that Paul declares: “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all people see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 3:8-11. What is that mystery hidden for ages? It is that “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Ephesians 3:6.
Even as we celebrate this good news, however, we need to keep in mind the great cost of our inclusion. The conversion of the gentiles was not recognized as good news by everyone in the ancient church. To the contrary, it was probably one of the most divisive issues facing the earliest disciples of Jesus. We can see evidence throughout the New Testament of opposition to inclusion of the gentiles. Many sincere believers had serious doubts about welcoming gentiles. What would be the consequences of opening up the church to outsiders who knew little or nothing about Israel’s history, her scriptures and ancient practices? Would these newcomers bring with them false understandings and worship practices that distort or dilute the teachings of the church? Would their differing moral values undermine church discipline and order? These were, in fact, serious concerns. As early as the First Century, the church was being flooded with pagan religious doctrines, philosophical constructs and lifestyles antithetical to the preaching of the gospel. Radical hospitality is a risky business, but the Holy Spirit seems to have decided that it is a risk worth taking. As St. Peter learned from Cornelius and his family in the 10th chapter of Acts, when the Holy Spirit calls a person into the church, not even an Apostle has the authority to keep that person out of the church. See Acts 11:1-18.
I believe that the church faces much the same kind of challenge in every generation. There are still some among us Lutherans who can remember how the increase in English speaking members within our ethnic northern European churches necessitated translating our liturgies and hymns from the mother tongue into English. It is no small thing, surrendering the language of one’s faith into a foreign tongue that is, at best, secondary. Something always gets lost in translation. Many people today feel the same way about contemporary worship crowding out the hymns and worship styles we have grown to love. I expect that similar fears are, in part, responsible for the difficulty we have had in welcoming gay and lesbian persons into our congregations. The fear so often expressed comes down to the effect such welcome will have on our teachings, practices and values.
There is no question that the radical hospitality and openness to which the Holy Spirit calls us will change the church. But that ought not to frighten us as long as we remember that the church belongs to Jesus and it is for him, not for us, to decide what shape it will take in the future. Faith trusts the Holy Spirit to guide the church, correct the church and deliver the church as the bride of Christ. The celebration of Epiphany reminds us that we also were once outsiders, looked upon with suspicion, distrust and fear. We had no right to claim the riches of the covenant promises God made to Israel. But in the limitless generosity of Jesus, we have been drawn into the covenant so that we “are no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” Ephesians 2:19. Christ’s church most be no less generous than Christ himself.
Once again, we have yet another reading from the third section of Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). This section contains oracles spoken to the Jews who had returned home to Palestine from the Babylonian Exile. This return was authorized by the decree of Cyrus of Persia who conquered Babylon in 549 B.C.E. During the next two decades, waves of returning exiles made their way back home with high hopes of rebuilding their nation and Temple. These hopes were dampened by numerous hardships including the presence of hostile peoples in Palestine opposed to the rebuilding of Jerusalem. It must have seemed to these dispirited settlers that they had been deceived by the glowing promises of the prophet of the second section of Isaiah who had assured them of God’s support and a glorious future for Jerusalem. See Isaiah 40-55.
The Epiphany reading constitutes the opening of a larger section (Chapters 60-62) widely regarded as the “nucleus” of the third section of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1969 SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 552-553.
“Following the lead of not a few recent editors we may regard these three chapters as the basic nucleus of the matter gathered together in chs. 56-66. They form the corpus of a self-contained message of salvation quite distinct from that of Deutero-Isaiah [Isaiah 40-55], yet having at the same time, in many ways, a clear connection with it. If we may speak at all of a prophet called Trito-Isaiah [Isaiah 56-66], the chief support comes from the corpus contained in these three chapters. They lead us to presume that they are the legacy of a definite person, a prophet active in Jerusalem and Judah not long after the return [from Babylonian Exile].” Ibid.
Unlike the prophet of the second section of Isaiah, this prophet does not associate God’s promised act of salvation with a specific event, such as the fall of Babylon to Persia. The salvation of God lies in the indefinite future-though not on the other side of some apocalyptic, universe transforming judgment. The transformative event that will bring about Jerusalem’s liberation is to occur within history and within the framework of the world as we know it.
The prophet’s use of “light” as a metaphor in this reading is reminiscent of the frequent use made by St. John in his gospel. The glory of the Lord will be made manifest to the nations through Israel. The nations of the world will be drawn to Jerusalem and inspired to rebuild her ruined city, to worship at her restored temple and to serve her people. The prophet is short on specifics when it comes to describing exactly what will cause the nations to recognize in the remnant of Judah the glory of God and how that glory will draw them to Jerusalem. It may be that the prophet assumes we are familiar with oracles of the first Isaiah who prophesied at the end of the 8th Century B.C.E., such as Isaiah 2:1-5. There it is the Torah going forth from Zion which inspires the nations to declare, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of Jacob.” Isaiah 2:3. Our lesson declares that the nations will bring with them, in addition to their wealth and animals for sacrifice at the restored temple, all the Jews remaining in exile such that a full return from exile will be made. It should be noted that the initial pioneers returning immediately after Cyrus’ decree constituted a mere trickle-hardly the full scale re-population envisioned by the prophet of the second section of Isaiah.
This promise of salvation must have been a difficult sell to a people that had already staked so much on an oracle of salvation inspiring them to uproot themselves, make a dangerous journey across the desert and attempt to rebuild their community in what was now a ruined and hostile land. The prophet had the difficult task of prophesying hope into a dispirited and despairing community that might very well have felt that it had just such a prophesy of hope to thank for its present plight. Yet the prophet’s words must have done their intended work. You need not travel any further than the nearest synagogue to see their fruit.
For my general observations concerning this psalm and the first seven verses thereof, see my post for December 8th. I would only add that verses 12-14 are of particular importance as they spell out what kingship entails for rulers in Israel. The throne is not an object of entitlement, but a yolk of responsibility. As God’s agent, the king is to implement and enforce the terms of God’s covenant with Israel taking special care to see that justice is done for the most vulnerable members of the community. This understanding of monarchy constitutes a profound departure from that of the ancient near east generally, which viewed kingship as a matter of privilege. The question, of course, is what sort of king is capable of so ruling? Given our world’s history of violent and coercive rule, we find it nearly impossible to separate the doing of justice from the exercise of coercive power. We are incapable of imagining a powerless ruler doing justice. Yet that is precisely the kind of King Jesus turns out to be. As St. Paul notes, this “weakness” of God is precisely the wisdom and power of God. I Corinthians 1:25.
For some good background info on the Letter to the Ephesians, see the Summary Article on enterthebible.org by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul MN.
The Epiphany reading from Ephesians 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.) 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.
Of course, our witness has a global dimension. The church catholic transcends national borders, class distinctions, ethnic identity and racial classifications. Its primary loyalty is to God’s kingdom. A disciple’s deepest human bond is that of baptism into the Body of Christ shared with all other disciples. That is why “America First” is a patently unchristian slogan. Any disciple of Jesus who places his or her American citizenship ahead of his or her loyalty to the Body of Christ, even when that Body is located “behind enemy lines,” is committing idolatry. Putting loyalty to the Body of Christ first is how we demonstrate the “manifold wisdom of God…to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” Vs. 10. The principalities and powers, whether they be imperial Rome or some modern day nation state, need to be reminded that they are not Lord. They have no authority to direct disciples of Jesus to commit acts of violence against Christ’s own Body or to threaten the wellbeing of those for whom Christ died.
The editors of the Christian Century magazine recently published an article on Christian persecution. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, 40 churches in Bagdad have been bombed and two thirds of the formerly 1.5 million Christians living in that country have fled. Last August 40 Coptic churches were burned and looted during rioting in Egypt. In September a suicide bomber attacked a church in northwest Pakistan killing 85 people. In Syria Christians are being targeted by both sides of the brutal civil war that has been raging for nearly two years. Persecution of Christians is not limited to countries in the Middle East. Believers in Nigeria, Kenya, Burma, India and North Korea are also subject to persecution and often violence. See Christian Century, November 13, 2013 p. 7. In most cases, the plight of Christians does not threaten vital national interests. Indeed, bringing pressure to bear on the oppressors might be considered contrary to those interests. But as disciples of Jesus, our primary interests are “the peace of the whole world and the wellbeing of the churches of God.”
We have an opportunity to show the principalities and powers pretending to govern our world both that they are not Lord and that Jesus is. By creating a caring global network of prayer, support and advocacy, we can witness to the world that we need not be governed anymore by self-serving commercial and political interests. The conflicts of the past need not determine our future. The walls separating us one from another have already been broken down on the cross. However important they may still be to the principalities and powers, they are of no import to disciples of Jesus.
The image of the three kings has become enshrined in Christian art and hymnody-even though the visitors to the infant Jesus in Matthew’s gospel 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 east 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. Given that they were guided by a star or some celestial phenomenon, it is likely that the magi were practitioners of some form of astrology. Whatever their origin, the magi were clearly outside the scope of God’s covenant with Israel and had no claim on Israel’s messiah. That is the important literary point made.
There is an obvious echo of our lesson from Isaiah in the reference to “gold and frankincense” vs. 11 cf. Isaiah 60:6. It is perhaps the allusion to this passage, which is prefaced by verse 3 declaring that “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising,” that led to the traditional depiction of the magi as “kings.” As I said previously, there is no indication that Matthew understood them to be such.
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. That is not dispositive, however. Assuming, as the evidence suggests, that the magi were astrologers of some stripe, they would naturally have been scrutinizing the heavens with far more care than the general population. An astronomical phenomenon such as a faint comet might well have escaped general notice and thus historical notation, but not the careful gaze of the magi. This line of inquiry is missing the point, however. 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 followers of what Matthew would certainly 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. Stanley Hauerwas says it best:
“The wise men, heeding Herod’s advice, continue to follow the star that goes before them. The star stops over the place where Jesus is born, paying homage to the child and eliciting from the wise men overwhelming joy. These wise men, men schooled to appreciate the complexity of the world, see the mother and child, and they worship him. If this is not the Messiah, if this is not the one born to be king, if this is not the Son of God, then what these wise men do is idolatry. That they are able to see the worthiness of this one who alone can be worshiped was surely a gift from the Father. The same gift gives hope to all Gentiles, for though this child we have been called to participate in the alternative world signaled by his birth. Moreover, like the wise men, it turns out that God has given us gifts of bread and wine to be offered so that the world may know that there is an alternative to Herod.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. Brazos Press) p. 40.