Three ideas about Epiphany...

NOTE: My sermon notes for this coming Sunday: January 3, 2010. A reflection on the key characters involved in Matthew's story of Christ's birth on Epiphany. Please join us at 10:30 am if you are in town.
Today is our Sunday celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany – which is actually set for January 6th – but is usually honored on Sundays in the West where most of us are too busy to come back to church in the middle of the week. Epiphany comes from the Greek word, epiphania, which means manifestation or revelation and seeks to help us grasp two mysteries:

• First, that the child “in the straw is also the fullness of God in the flesh” (Nelson, To Dance with God, p. 117) – the Messiah – the essence of God come to live within and among us.

• And second, that this blessing is intended for more than just those who first encountered Christ’s birth in the stable; Jesus has become a great light for all creation for the Magi have seen the star in the East and followed it, too.

Epiphany writes Gertrud Mueller-Nelson “reveals to us the other side of the mystery of the Incarnation” that we first honor on Christmas Eve:

Beyond those simple people who happened to be in the area and who saw and recognized the wonder of the Christ Child in the stable, beyond the provincial is the vision offered to all the world and to all peoples in the vision of those wise men who came from far-off lands to find the Messiah in a tiny town called Bethlehem. In Jesus we see the Messiah born to all of us: Jew and Gentile alike. (To Dance with God, p, 117)
But most of us will miss the inner wisdom of this feast if we don’t first grasp who and what the characters in this story are telling us. Because, you see, each player in this tale embodies part of the truth God reveals to us in this feast – all the characters add up for a cumulative revelation – and if we’re not paying attention, we will miss the blessings just as easily as most folks did at the first birth of our Lord. So let’s carefully review what is being offered to us in the story’s three key players: Herod, the Magi and the little town of Bethlehem.
Now you probably know this but let me remind you that Matthew was written about 40 years after the life of Jesus by a Jewish Christian. His goal was to underscore the links between Jesus and the people of Israel. That is why more than the other gospels, Matthew points to the ways Jesus fulfills many of the ancient Jewish prophecies: his genealogy goes back to King David, his challenge to the religious authorities are grounded in the prophets of Israel and the ebb and flow of his ministry from mountain tops to deserts resembles the journey of Moses leading his people out of bondage into freedom.

It is probably safe to say that Matthew paints Jesus to be a new Moses – and that is why the background to each of today’s characters is so important. Take Herod: what do you know about him in history or scripture?

Matthew’s story wants to make certain that we know that in Jesus Christ God is acting in history and time just like the Lord did when the Hebrew slaves were set free in the Exodus. So, Matthew explicitly mentions King Herod by name because Herod was every bit as evil and cruel as Pharaoh. Here are some facts:

• Herod the Great was not a Jew – he came from the region of Edom just south of the Dead Sea in what is now Jordan – and the Edomites were thought to be the ruthless, pagan descendants of Esau.

• The legend in Genesis tells us that the grandsons of Abraham and Sarah – the founding family of Israel – were Esau, the first born twin, along with Jacob – and they took very different paths. Esau eventually sold his birthright as the leader of Israel to Jacob for a pot of stew – he was short-sighted and selfish – while Jacob went on to be a wise ruler for God’s people. In time those of Edom abandoned the faith made known to creation in Israel and became a nation of wandering thieves and desert bandits.

No wonder the Jewish people hated King Herod: not only was he a king appointed by the hated Roman occupation troops but he also came from a vulgar and despised nation of people who had turned their back on God for a pot of stew! Herod reigned in Jerusalem from about 20 BCE to 64 of the Common Era and gave shape and form to the people’s hatred.

In order to retain his status as King of the Jews, Herod had to murder his wife, his three sons, his mother and brother-in-law as well as his uncles and hundreds of others unrelated to him by blood.

• And Herod is the first character in Matthew’s unfolding Epiphany story: an illegitimate adult king who rules by violence and death who stands in opposition to the child king who appears illegitimate at his birth in a stable but who rules with truth and grace.
• Are you with me: any thoughts or questions come to mind?
Then there is the second cluster of characters who are collectively known as the Three Kings or Magi and they, too, are ripe with wisdom and symbolism – but we have to give up any hint of sentimentality if their truth is going to speak to us about God’s revelation. For you see, the Magi were Gentile dream interpreters from Persia – which is modern day Iran – or perhaps Yemen.

• In their own culture the Magi were honored as spiritual and visionary leaders. But in Jewish culture, the Magi – from which we get the word magician and magic – “were not so much respectable wise men or kings but horoscope fanatics (a practice condemned by Jewish law.)
• Today we would probably compare them to those who run fortune-teller booths or even the ‘psychic hotline.” (Stoffregen, Exegetical Notes at: /brian/matt2x1.htm)

Do you see the tension here? To the faithful of Israel the Magi represented NOT worship or authentic religious piety but the pinnacle of “Gentile idolatry and hocus-pocus phony religion – dabblers in chicken gizzards and smoke and mirrors, forever trotting off here or there in search of some key to the future. (Stoffregen, ibid.) As one scholar put it:

The Magi should not be there. They are heretics. They don’t worship the right God. They are the wrong race, the wrong denomination, the wrong religion. They don’t know how to worship God ritely – and the gifts they bring to the Christ Child – gold, frankincense and myrrh – are all about magic not true worship.

Do you see how complicated this story can be? First we have Herod – the phony king who rules with blood and fear – in opposition to Jesus – the King of kings – who rules with truth and grace. Second we have the Magi – symbols of everything that Israel finds degrading and scandalous in the Gentile culture – coming to worship Jesus as Lord and Savior – while the most of the rest of Israel doesn’t even notice his birth. It is a wild picture of the ultimate outsiders getting it right while the consummate insiders are both blind and disinterested in God’s deeper blessings.

• And that tension between outsiders and insiders is something Matthew will continue to exploit throughout the rest of his gospel, yes?
• Think of all the times Jesus has to tell those who should understand the will of God that they need to go and learn what this means: the Lord your God wants compassion not religion – acts of hospitality not blind ritual.
And the mystery of Epiphany has one other unique character – the little town of Bethlehem – which lies just nine miles south of Jerusalem. One of our era’s finest Old Testament scholars and theologians, Walter Breuggemann, writes that the Magi first journeyed to Jerusalem because it was the center of power, authority and religious truth. It was the heart of the Jewish nation and the seat of political power. What’s more, the Magi knew about the poem we heard earlier this morning in Isaiah 60: it was written during one of Israel’s worst trials – their captivity in Babylon – and speaks of a great renewal and revival that will sweep over Jerusalem restoring Israel to greatness and power. There will come to Jerusalem a new king so that all of Israel will:

Arise, shine, for your light has come…and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. Look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you and the riches of the nations will come, too. Herds of camels will cover your land… And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.

This poem and prophecy by Isaiah was part of what drove the Magi to Jerusalem. And when these Iranian fortune tellers arrive and meet with Herod, they share this poem with him, too. Which unnerves the king because the prophesy is about a new king, yes? Breuggemann puts it like this:

In his panic (at hearing Isaiah 60) Herod arranges a consultation with the leading Old Testament scholars of his day and says to them: Tell me all about this Isaiah 60 poem? What is all this business about camels and gold and frankincense and myrrh? And the scholars tell him: you have the wrong text from the Bible – and so do the wise men outside your window – Isaiah 60 is all about Jerusalem returning to its former greatness. It is about the restoration of a great urban center at the heart of a global economy where the old power brokers return to their glory and the good old days of Israel return.

Which, as you might guess, does not thrill King Herod a great deal because if this poem is true – and a new king is coming – then the old king is toast: “So do you have another text” Herod goes on to ask? And, with fear and trembling, the scholars suggest that there is another poem, from another prophet – Micah – who makes a vastly different prediction. “You, O Bethlehem… though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come one who will rule Israel as from the ancient times.” Again, Breuggemann is clarifying when he observes that:

This is the voice of a peasant hope for the future, a voice that is not impressed with high towers and great ball parks and arenas, banks and urban achievements. It anticipates a different future, as yet unaccomplished, that will organize the poor into a resistance to the forces of empire. What’s more, the prophet Micah envisions a leader who will bring well-being to his people not by great political ambition, but by attentiveness, compassion and right relations between citizens… And when Herod hears this story, he tells the Magi the truth… and they head off nine miles down the road.
Three key players – Herod, the Magi and Bethlehem – and all of them invite us to make a choice:

• Do we seek to be citizens of Jerusalem with all its pretensions or Bethlehem with its modest pursuit of compassion?

• Do we choose to serve Herod and his empire of violence and manipulation or Jesus and the kingdom of God’s grace?

o Do we follow the light of the Lord regardless of our pedigree – seeking to find God in Christ Jesus – or are we too busy to notice?
Epiphany is a feast – and a mystery – and a choice: it reveals to us the fullness of God’s love while asking us if we will become different because of Christ? The Bible closes today’s story with these fascinating words that reverberate the challenge: ... and after sharing their gifts with the Christ Child and worshipping the essence of God within him… they return home a different way.

This is the good news for today so let those who have ears to hear: hear.

credits: Epiphany by Janet McKenzie @; the Holy Family by Janet McKenzie; He Qi Gallery, The Magi @; Serenity Prayer @; Bethlehm quilt; Art on the Wall in Palestinian Territories @


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