Sunday, January 3rd

THE EPIPHANY OF OUR LORD 

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
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 or Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

At Trinity we celebrate Epiphany on the nearest Sunday to January 6th. We do that because this pastor believes the feast day is a critical piece of the gospel narrative too important to consign to a weekday service that few are likely to attend. I know that, in the view of some of my learned colleagues, I am violating liturgical protocol here. So sue me. I am going to talk about and preach from the Epiphany texts. If your congregation will be celebrating the Second Sunday after Christmas instead, I invite you to read the fine commentaries on workingpreacher.org., a site maintained by Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, MN.

So who were the magi that came to visit the Christ child? Where did they come from? What was the mysterious star that led them to seek out the one born “king of the Jews”? How did they know about the Jews? Why should they care about the Jews and their messianic hopes? Biblical scholars have struggled with these questions for centuries. Some of the possibilities are laid out in my discussion of the gospel lesson below. Modern scholars often dismiss the magi’s visit to the Christ child as nothing more than a literary device employed by Matthew the evangelist in telling his version of the gospel narrative. This latter historical-critical construct does much to relieve the cognitive dissonance created as Matthew’s 1st Century witness assaults our 21st Century rationalist/relativist sensibilities. If the magi were not “real,” then we can summarily dismiss all speculation about them as irrelevant to the “historical core” we seek. As those of you who follow me know, I believe neither in “Jesus of history” nor in the 19th Century rationalist understanding of “reality” we so uncritically accept in the 21st. I believe with all my heart that before we can hear the scriptural witness as God’s word, we need to stop judging the Bible by our standards of truth and allow the scriptures to judge us under its own truth claims.

Maybe the scriptures leave so much unexplained precisely so that we will wonder about the gaps. Perhaps the Bible was written to invite speculation, to ignite imagination and stimulate creative embellishment. If that is so, we should not be overly critical of depictions of the magi as the “Three Kings” or worry overly much about the fact that their arrival by camel was highly unlikely in the 1st Century (to say nothing of the fact that New Testament says nothing about how many magi there were, does not identify them as kings or tell us anything about their mode of transportation). We should not cringe seeing the magi in the crèche approaching the manger with their gifts, even though we know that this constitutes a conflation of Matthew’s narrative with that of Luke’s. Furthermore, it is clearly not inappropriate for us to wonder about how the magi’s encounter with Jesus may have transformed them.

At the end of the day, we are compelled to recognize that we, like the magi, are a journey toward the Christ child, whether we acknowledge it or not. It is in Christ Jesus, Paul tells us, that “all things are held together.” The day will come, says Paul, when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (though he doesn’t tell us that every tongue will make that confession gladly). It should not surprise us, then, that seekers after truth should ultimately arrive at the manger. It is not that our human intelligence and reason are capable of ascertaining the truth about God. Rather, the Truth that is God is capable of drawing all people to Himself, no matter what there starting point might be.

Though Matthew does not tell us what happened to the magi after they returned home to their own country, we cannot help but believe that their lives were set on a brand new trajectory. That is always what happens after an encounter with Jesus. Here is T.S. Eliot’s imaginative sequel to the visit of the magi to the Christ Child.

Journey of the Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey;
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of wither.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
The camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices;
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatchers,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
 
At dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation,
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness.
And three trees on the low sky.
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place, it was (you may say) satisfactory.
 
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, three Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Source, T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-1962, (c. 1970 by Esme Valerie Eliot, pub. by Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.) p. 99. T.S. Eliot was a British, American-born essayist, publisher, playwright, literary and social critic. He was easily one of the giants of poetry for the 20th Century. In 1927 Eliot converted from Unitarianism to Anglicanism, identifying himself as an “Anglo-Catholic.” He died in January of 1965. You can read more about T.S. Eliot, his poetry and other literary works at the Poetry Foundation Website.

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 56-66 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.” Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 by SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 352. 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. Vs. 1. 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. Vs. 2. 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. Vs. 3. The kings of the earth will be won over to the praise of Israel’s God and contribute to the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Vss. 4-7.

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 a 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. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths: the Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) pp. 188-189. 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.” Vs. 2. He is commissioned to “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” Vs. 4.

This notion would have seemed remarkable to typical Near Eastern monarchs who considered themselves “gods” and understood their role as one of upholding the oppressive social hierarchy. 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 prophets’ criticize the Judean and Israelite monarchies, chide the kings for their unfaithfulness to the covenant of Sinai and condemn their tolerance of idolatry and their frequent abuses of power. All of this suggests 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 in his plays, 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 Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, MN.

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.”

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.

I believe that the church is under valued by its members. So far from being a Body from which the members draw their life and derive their purpose, the church has become for us a voluntary organization designed to serve the needs of society. For too long, we have fretted over the church’s loss of status and influence, its lack of “relevance,” its increasing marginalization-as though this were something altogether foreign to discipleship! The fact that people are finally discovering that one can be a good American citizen and a moral person without being attached to the church is a good thing. It was never the church’s job to make good citizens, uphold public morality or fix societies problems. We have been called to the work of forging disciples in the furnace of a community seeking ever to follow Jesus above all others. So we are compelled to ask, what does a disciple-making community look like?

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. Brown, Raymond E., The Birth of the Messiah, (c. 1977 by Raymond E. Brown, pub. by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) pp. 168-170.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. Brown, supra at 169-173. 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. No one, save the magi, appear even to be aware of the star. Neither Herod nor the religious leaders saw it. The star, whatever it was, could well have been such an imperceptible astronomical event that it would have escaped notice by all except those regularly scrutinizing the heavens for such phenomenon. Moreover, the gospels are not historical reports but narratives spun from the fabric of the early church’s preaching. Precise chronology and historical accuracy as we understand it today were not high priorities for the evangelists. Faithful testimony to Jesus was. So the better question would be: how does the star and its draw for the Magi inform our understanding of Jesus and his call to discipleship in Matthew’s gospel?

Matthew has by far the largest number of explicit citations to the Old Testament of all the gospels. 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 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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