Epiphanies, Callings, Imperatives

A sermon for Epiphany; Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3: 1-12, Psalm 72:1-7,10-14, Matthew 2:1-12 (extend to 2:13-18)

I hope your Christmas, all 12 days of it, was merry and your New Year celebration safe and joyful. Ours was. Christmas Eve we saw our granddaughter in her first Christmas pageant, it was glorious, and she was more so. Christmas Day began easily, we were up mid-morning, expecting our West Memphis daughter and her family about 2. At 10:30 the phone rang, and her husband spoke: “We got done early, Lilly Grace wants to know if we can come now?” Of course, we said yes. We enjoyed a day of endless food and sweets, capped off with a drive through Lights of the Delta. New Year’s Eve was less eventful. We stayed home, watch an endless stream of Midsomer Murders before heading off to bed. When I noticed it was 12:30 I wandered over to Angie and whispered, “Its 12:30 – Happy New Year.”

The rest of the week was supposed to be a series of small tasks. It turned out to be a series of days of long tasks around an all-day series of doctor’s appointments in Memphis. Both Angie and I are fine, it just took all day. It was a time when I got so focused on 1 or 2 things, that I missed what was before and what was after.

It is not unusual that intense focus on a single thing causes us to miss surrounding pieces. Epiphany is that way. We are so focused on the Wise Men at Jesus’s manger side we miss details of their travels and the unintended consequences. Now, I congratulate St. Stephen’s for your long tradition of the wise men making their way along the center aisle trail from Christmas Eve, way back there (point) to somewhere in the middle on the 1st Sunday after Christmas, to the manger on the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, or as it is today, Epiphany. However, our very traditional manger scene is a mish-mash of Gospel stories. There is no birth story in Matthew and there are no wise men in Luke. We’ve mashed them together for reasons I’m not quite sure of, except for what have become musical and pageant traditions. Here are some of the essentials we miss or simply don’t ever hear.

The Holy Family does go to Jerusalem after Jesus’ birth for purification and thanksgiving sacrifices, but they go back to Bethlehem, not Nazareth where they were living before the great census (Pankey). To give you a sense of the geography Nazareth is way up here Jerusalem about here Bethlehem just down the road.

The wise men are actually magos, magicians, sorcerers, astrologers or wise men, but not kings as we are known to sing of (Thomas Nelson Inc). Whoever they are, they are not Jewish, they are not of any tradition or people in the bible who know the God of Israel. They see Jesus’ “star rising,” which is an astrological phrase, indicating how a person will be seen by others, which is how they know who Jesus is. If the star appears at Jesus birth, and he is now about 2 years old (more on this in a minute) and they have been following it for 2 years or so. So how do they get to Jerusalem and don’t go directly to Bethlehem? Where did the star go? Steve Pankey, a colleague of mine, wonders if they got distracted by the regal glory of Jerusalem and Herod’s court? Others wonder why they didn’t realize the danger of going to a King’s court to ask directions to the birthplace of another king?

What we do know is that Herod, with the help of his court religious leaders, tell the wise men Jesus is in Bethlehem. He also asks them to let him know exactly where Jesus is, so he can also pay homage. Matthew tells us they follow the star, which seems to mystically reappear, right to Jesus’ presence.

Here is another point of our focus, the wise men, kneeling down in front of Mary and Jesus offering him treasure of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Note there is no mention of cattle, or donkeys or lambs or shepherds, or angels, we’ve brought over from Luke, or a little drummer boy. The only people there, other than Jesus’ family, are the wise men. After at least a night’s sleep, which we discern from the warning they receive by dream, they head home a different way.

Here are two stories that follow their departure. The first one we read on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas (which is rare) and Epiphany, which is on a Sunday about every 6 years. You recall I mentioned how ruthless Herod is. He ordered Syrian Roman Legion to crush the rebellion after his father (also named Herod) died. He was also known to kill political or religious leaders who spoke against him. So, it is easy to imagine how Herod will react to the news of a new Jewish king. On Herod’s order all the boys 2 years old and younger are killed, a tragedy we observed every December 28; except we don’t. By the way, this is how we know Jesus was about 2 years old when the wise men arrive. The second story is how Joseph warned by an angel in a dream takes Mary and Jesus and flees to Egypt, escaping the mass murder of the innocent. They stay in Egypt until Herod’s death.

We are so focused on the wise men offering homage and gifts to Jesus we miss these two subtle yet critical points. The word ‘epiphany’ (little ‘e’) means a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something or an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking. In school, I typically had an epiphany just after the test. In church language ‘Epiphany’ (capital ‘E’) is the celebration of Christ manifestation to the gentiles, in Matthew’s story, the wise men (Peters). We are so used to seeing the wise men as kings, I suspect that we rarely think of them as gentiles. The meaning of the star given to the magi is the first gospel revelation that God is incarnate in Jesus for gentiles as well as for the Jewish people. Jesus is born for everyone, every heart who receives him. Secondly, it is worth noting that it is foreign court officials (as all magi in Jesus’ day are) who are the first pay homage to Jesus. The first action to the news of Jesus’ birth by his earthly king is an attempt to execute him. A dark foreshadowing because it is the governments, both Jewish and Roman, who execute Jesus.

All this comes down to two epiphanies

  1. the light of the word came to everyone, and
  2. the powerful can and do seek to block the light of the word.

Which reminds me that

from the very beginning, when God spoke, there has been light, and the light of life was good, the light of life shines in the darkness and darkness cannot and has not overcome it (Gen 1:1, John 1:1).

From this, I glean two callings

  1. welcome everyone in Christ’s light, it is not our calling to judge others or to protect God’s divine presence; God is very capable of defending divine self. and then
  2. speak the truth, that pulls back the curtain that hides when, where and how the authorities, the rulers, the principalities, the powers, the darkness of this world (Eph 6:1) by thought, word and deed, done and undone, seek to cast darkening shadows over God’s people.

These gleanings evoke two imperatives.

  1. Now is the time to welcome all into divine light life.
  2. Now is the time for the darkness to be overcome to be transformed by the ever-present light life.

For Epiphany, the time of divine light life is right here right now.


References

Boring, M. Eugene. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Pankey, Steve. “Distracted by Power.” 3 1 2019. Draughting Theology.

Peters, David. Stars, Epiphany – January 6, 2019. 6 1 2019. <http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Thomas Nelson Inc. NKJV Strong’s. Nashville: Olive Tree, 1982.

 

 

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Isaiah 42:1-9, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17, Psalm 29

The horizon of our possibility reaches the very edge of the earth … and beyond.

I’m not exactly sure when but it was something like 10 years ago when I headed off to a conference in Nevada and we took the opportunity to go see Hover Dam. I had seen it in numerous pictures, and I expect a movie or two. But still it was very impressive. We were also take-in by Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the US. From our perspective, you could not see the vastness of the lake. You could see the steep white sides where the water was several feet below normal levels. It looked a bit like the white cliffs of Dover. It was kind-of cool, until you saw the boat docks sitting on the ground, because the lake wasn’t just seasonally low, the lake was low because of drought. Lake Mead, and the Colorado River basin provide water to the entire south west; from Wyoming to California’s imperial valley, the source of 15% of our food supply; the lake and river provide water to 40 million people.

This week there was an article in the New York Times about the 14 year drought, the worst in 1250 years, which has area reservoirs at less than half their capacities. Lake Mead is currently at 1106 feet, (above sea level) at 1075 rationing begins, at 1050 drastic rationing begins, at 1025 rationing is draconian, at 1000 feet, Las Vegas runs dry. The era of “big water” is coming to an end. But people are creatively responding: a desalination plant, recycling sewage effluent, treating and returning to Lake Mead nearly all in door water use of southern Nevada. Much has been done, there is more that must be, and can be done. [i] In the face of extreme threat people are positively acting.

In preparing for today, the connection between the water crisis and the centrality of water to baptism, and Jesus’ baptism by John merged. But before we get there, let’s back up a bit and look at the back story of Jesus’ baptism as told by Isaiah.

It’s some 2500 years ago Israel has been taken into, well actually Israel, as the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom has been destroyed, and what is now called Israel, Judah, the Southern Kingdom, has been conquered, which is bad enough, but she’s also been taken into exile. And that means she is separated from the Temple, the home of God on earth, which effectively separates God’s people ~ from God. People are wondering if has God deserted them. Given that God’s city, and God’s Temple have been burned to the ground, people are wondering:  Is there still a God? Isaiah’s prophecy emphatically says Yes!  And he does so by speaking directly to the pain of tragedy, the pain of exile. He does so by naming how a divine servant will bring justice. Amy Oden writes:

Isaiah shifts Israel’s gaze here from themselves back to the wide casting of God’s promise and plan. The horizon of possibility is no longer the hand in front of my face but the very edge of the earth’s curvature. [ii]

It’s important to note, the servant will not act alone, four times the prophecy quotes God I the Lord and then names a specific action.

Six centuries and a decade later, Israel, Judah, is once again conquered. I’m not sure they are ever not conquered. They are used to foreign Kings and Emperors but this one also claims to be god, well at least a demi god, or the/a son of god. Even though the Temple is magnificently restored, and all the proper sacrifices are being made it’s all a bit edgy, it’s not quite right. A sign of trouble are communities of folks, who live in isolated communities, like the Essenes who live in Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, who preach a different relationship with God. Many of them practice a baptism that washes away sins. Perhaps the most dramatic of them is John the Baptist. Not only is John baptizing folks, he is declaring the kingdom of heaven has come near. [iii] He is proclaiming

the [presence] of one who baptizes with water and the Holy Spirit, … [whose] winnowing fork is at hand. [iv]

One day, as John is baptizing people in the Jordan, this promised savior shows up and asks John to baptize him. John doesn’t want to, he isn’t worthy, he believes he should be baptized by Jesus. Jesus replies:

Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.

And John, humbly, obediently baptizes Jesus. Immediately the Holy Spirit appears, and God pronounces Jesus to be his son, with whom he is well pleased. Unlike Mark, who presents this as a private conversation, Matthew presents it as at least partially public. God’s voice parallels Isaiah’s prophecy:

Here is my servant                        This is my Son,

my chosen                                         the Beloved

in whom my soul delights           with whom I am well pleased. [v] [vi]

It is clear that Matthew is presenting Jesus to be the servant of Isaiah’s prophecy. Here is the one who will bring justice to all people.

The idea of Jesus as the servant presented by Isaiah several times, is common. It’s in the text of Handle’s Messiah. But, there is a wrinkle with the servant passage in Isaiah 42. Though there are problems with her ability to act, Isaiah’s prophecy reminds Israel that she is God’s servant. Verses 5-9 build on God’s previously calling Israel to be a covenant to the people, to be a light to the nations. [vii] It’s also clear in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus is inseparable from the body of Christ, inseparable from the church. And I’ll admit, if it were left up to the Church, to us  there would be reason for despair. [viii] But is isn’t; and we aren’t alone. Remember ~ four times in Isaiah’s prophecy God says  I the Lord …  and names supporting divine action. In submitting to baptism, Jesus is

Standing in solidarity with those who often feel unworthy of God’s love and grace [it] is a powerful act that is vividly portrayed in this text and throughout the ministry of Jesus. [ix]

In short, the church, we, never have been, and are not now ~ alone.

A final little interpretive bit: Jesus says it is right for him to be baptized, to fulfill all righteousness. In English, ‘righteousness’ infers following established norms and obeying the law. In scripture, ‘righteousness’  infers fulfilling the covenant relationship  with God and with each other. In short ‘righteousness’ is fully living in relationship with God, everything starts from and moves towards God. Remember Joseph, who is righteous because he seeks to follow established custom and law, and is going to quietly put pregnant Mary away, and who is so righteous, is in such strong relationship with God he violates all that and humbly obeys God, marries Mary, etc …. [x] Jesus is fulfilling righteousness in humble obedience to God, in bringing the Kingdom of heaven to earth. John is righteous, in humble obedience to Jesus and baptizes him.

And so what. Well here is where the water story comes in. It’s a story of crisis. What was carefully planned, has failed. But the leaders have not simply thrown up their hands in despair declaring Woe is us! They have set about making dramatic changes.

The church is in a crisis moment. What was envisioned has not come about. There has been too much Woe is us! too much holding on to what no longer is, nor can be. It’s almost as if the water of baptism, is of less consequence, [xi] of less value than drinking water. It’s almost as if we Do the baby as a hedge just in case all this God stuff is real, or to placate Grand Mother. It is our calling by our baptism to continue Jesus’ ministry proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven is here! And yes, it is a frightening task, it is an overwhelming task, but we are not alone. And yes, we will have to make dramatic changes, which we will intentionally set about this year, with:

Welcome Home,
Friday Families,
Brewing Faith, and
Stephen’s House,

and more; and we will not be alone.

Those planning how to respond to growing water shortage in the Colorado River basin cannot see the future; but they are not deterred from doing their best, and they are acting. I/we cannot see the specific details of the future of the Church, save faith that it will be,  and I believe that a cloudy vision shouldn’t deter us from acting. And we will begin acting by:

renewing our baptismal vows,
reminding ourselves of our relationship to God,
reminding ourselves that we are God’s people, God’s beloved
with whom God is well pleased,
reminding our selves we are called to bring justice to the world,
reminding our selves that we are not alone
that:
The LORD shall give strength to his people; *
the LORD shall give his people the blessing of peace.
reminding ourselves the horizon of our possibility reaches the very ends of the earth.


[i] MICHAEL WINES, Colorado River Drought Forces a Painful Reckoning for States,  nytimes.com,  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/06/us/colorado -river-drought-forces-a-painful-reckoning-for-states.html

[ii] Amy Oden |WorkingPreacher.org, 1/12/2014, Commentary on Isaiah 42:1-9

[iii] Matthew 3:1

[iv] Matthew 3:11b,12

[v] Ben Helmer, episcopaldigitalnetwork.com http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/2013/12/31/1-epiphany-a-2014/, 1 Epiphany (A) – 2014, January 12, 2014

[vi] New Interpreter’s Bible, Matthew 3:13ff

[vii] New Interpreters’ Bible One Volume Commentary

[viii] Center for Excellence in Preaching ****

[ix] Karyn Wiseman, WorkingPreacher.org, 1/12/2014, Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17

[x] New Interpreter’s Study Bible, Holman Bible Dictionary, righteousness

[xi] David Lose, Baptismal Problems and Promises, Jan 5, 2014, WorkingPreacher.org

The Kingdom in the mundane

I am finding myself spending more time moving into the New Year than I had anticipated; hence the absence of postings. There has been some change in setting, but those changes are not the trouble; the troubles are in the usual and customary events of moving into the New Year. Many of them are perfunctory, calendars, files – both paper and computer, and the like.  As the week began all this felt at odds with the purpose of priest; now, not so much. All this work will support the month to month, week to week, day to day functions, which underlay my relationship with the church, the community and God. It’s becoming a task of mundane and righteousness.

This week’s Gospel story of Jesus’ baptism by John is the root of the emerging understanding. John has been proclaiming the presence of the Kingdom of God and baptizing folks in the river Jordan for a while. He may be the most gregarious, but is not the only practitioner of a Jewish rite of Baptism that is related to purity. Jesus, whom John knows to be of the Kingdom of God, appears to John to be baptized by him. John does not understand why; he does not want to baptize Jesus; in fact, he believes he should be baptized by Jesus. Jesus relies: Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.

English usage of ‘righteousness’ implies adherence to established norms, following the rules. Biblical writers are seeking to show “the fulfillment of the terms of a covenant between God and humanity.” which is all about relationship with God. [i]  Matthew refers to Joseph as righteous, because he seeks to follow the law, and because his relationship with God leads him to contrary actions, i.e. marriage to Mary, contrary to law and custom.

Both Jesus and John display righteousness. Jesus from the start reveals his relationship to God, his purpose is to reveal the Kingdom of God. John, in humble submission to Jesus is righteous, he humbly submits to the presence of the Kingdom expressed in Jesus reason for seeking baptism. [ii]

John’s Baptism while not perfunctory is not unusual. Jesus is following a usual and customary form of expressing obedience relationship with God. And therein lies my learning, all things, perfunctory or singularly unusual, should be some expression of expressing our relationship to God and to God’s people. Yes, it brings a greater purpose to the mundane acts of getting ready for a new year, more importantly it (hopefully) will cause me to think about how what I am doing expresses the presence of the Kingdom.

 


[i] Holman Bible Dictionary

[ii] New Interpreters’ Study Bible, New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary

A sermon for Christmas 2 & Epiphany

Jeremiah 31:7-14, Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a, Matthew 2:1-15,19-23, Psalm 84 or 84:1-8

 

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again. 

I expect you know that nursery rhyme. I cannot remember not knowing it. It first appeared in the mid 1800’s, makes an appearance in Through the Looking-Glass, and though often presented as an egg, egg is never mentioned. As interesting, as all this is, is the rhyme’s political history. For ears I have known, though I can’t cite the source,it is a critique of the King’s army and Calvary in a day when such critique could cost you your head. It may originally refer to Richard II or English Civil War. [i] In the interest of full disclosure, both those predate the earliest printed version, so who knows. Those connections bring up the reality that in literature there is often meaning behind what we read, especially when it’s an old text, whose cultural assumptions are lost to the ravages of time. This is often the case in scripture, and is certainly true in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel story.

 You know the story of the wise men, who: follow a star to Jerusalem, ask Herod Where is the new born King of the Jews? follow the advice  of Herod’s advisors, and continue to  Bethlehem where they offer baby Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Then rather than returning to Herod, as agreed, they follow advice,  that comes in a dream, and head home by another way. The same dream giver warns Joseph, who gathers up Mary, baby Jesus and flees to Egypt. Denied his opportunity to kill off the rival claimant to the throne, Herod kills all the boys in Bethlehem Jesus’ age. After Herod dies, Joseph, in another dream is told to return home. He does, until he learns that Herod’s son Archelaus is King, and he settles in Nazareth.

 I am sure you heard the cited references to scripture:

           from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd  my people Israel.

          ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’ 

          A voice was heard in Ramah,
             wailing and loud lamentation,
          Rachel weeping for her children;

          He will be called a Nazorean.

The first is from Micah, anticipates God’s reign, which will end imperial ambitions [ii] and that gets any King’s attention. It also emphasizes Jesus’ connection to David, Israel’s iconic King [iii] strike two. The appearance of foreign dignitaries bringing treasures to Israel’s King fits Isaiah’s prophecy and references in Numbers, and the Psalms. [iv] Moreover to pay homage, also means worship, and implies submission to a political power. Strike three, four and … on the imperial attention scale. [v]

The out of Egypt bit evokes all sorts of historical imagery. From Genesis, the story of Joseph and the Hebrews going to Egypt to escape death from famine [vi] comes to mind. This connects Jesus to the last of Israel’s three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Joseph, who are at the heart of Israel’s relationship to God.

The third scripture citing, is associated with the murder of lots of innocent children. It quotes Jeremiah expressing lament for the tragedies of defeat by Assyria, and exile in Babylon; both defining events in Israel’s history. The lament also evokes the memory of slavery in Egypt, which includes Pharaoh’s effort to subdue the Hebrews by ordering the mid wives to allow all the Hebrew all boys to die at birth. The mid wives defer to their awe of God. The murder and attempted murder of the innocent, whoever they may be, is a common response of powerful elite who feel threatened. It is not God’s will for the innocent to die, or to be oppressed or dispossessed; unfortunately it has been and will be a reality until the Kingdom fully arrives. But we should note, neither murderous efforts of Pharaoh or Herod displace God’s purposes. In lament, there is hope. [vii]

The final bit of scripture He will be called a Nazorean. Jesus living in Nazareth, is a pun with Nazirite; one who vows to be set aside for God,under terms established in Numbers. The vow can be temporary, or lifelong. We are familiar with Sampson; others who took lifelong vows are Samuel, John the Baptist, and, while in  in Corinth, Paul. [viii] The critical ideal is absolute dedication to serving God.

 When we re read Matthew’s story of the wise men, from a Humpty Dumpty perspective there are a couple of gleanings. From the beginning the coming of Christ encounters hostility; [ix] empire, in whatever form, and modern empire looks very different than ancient empire, strikes back; and the insignificant people welcome God’s initiative. [x] Secondly, from the outset, Matthew wants readers to see Israel’s story in Jesus’ story. [xi] For us, Matthew wants us to see our story in Jesus’ story.

We are at the very end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, when we, by celebrating Jesus’ birth, remind ourselves, that the incarnation touches every corner of creation, touches you ,touches your neighbor, the environment, the very stars, so far – far away. That means everything is of God, is literally touched by God, and that defines our relationship with: the stars, our environment, our neighbors, and ourselves.

Monday is Epiphany, when we celebrate those infamous wise men, who traveled two years to pay homage, to worship Jesus, the light of the world. They tell us Jesus is sovereign over all, including governments, even elected governments. That does not mean we throw out our Constitution, and its provision that prohibits the state from establishing a religion. It does mean we should expect our elected leaders to begin every deliberation, to make every decision from the moral foundation of the incarnation.

It also means that we, as a church community as individuals begin every effort from that same moral foundation. The wise men’s story also tells us honoring God, serving God takes time; sometimes it takes years just to get to the place to begin.  

As we a new year; as we begin inviting people     to join us at our new worship time, as we begin – inviting our neighbors to Friday Families; as we begin to discern, plan and launch: Brewing Faith, and Stephen’s house we do so from the perspective of everyone’s incarnate being; knowing it will take us time just to get started; knowing that there will be push back, from the beginning from those who perceive it all as threat; knowing that amidst murderous intent there is divine hope; knowing that Jesus is in our story, that Jesus is our story, and that enlightens our lives even to far-end of the stars.

  


[ii] New Interpreters’ Study Bible, Matthew 2:1

[iii] ibid

[iv] New Interpreters’ One Volume Commentary, Matthew 3;

                Isaiah 60:1-7; Numbers 24:17, Psalm 72:10-11,15

[v] NISB, NI1VOL 

[vi] ibid

[vii] ibid

[viii] Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Matthew George Easton; Holman Bible Dictionary General Editor, Trent C. Butler, Ph.D; The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia., James Orr, M.A., D.D., General Editor

[ix] NI1VOL

[x] NISB

[xi] NI1VOL