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
- the light of the word came to everyone, and
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- Now is the time to welcome all into divine light life.
- 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.
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/>.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
Thomas Nelson Inc. NKJV Strong’s. Nashville: Olive Tree, 1982.