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The Epiphany Of Our Lord

Preaching
Lectionary Preaching Workbook
Series VII, Cycle C
Theme For The Day
The Magi were people of high resolution.

Old Testament Lesson
Isaiah 60:1-6
Your Light Has Come
The theme of light is strongly associated with Epiphany, so it is not surprising that the First Lesson selection for today is the first part of Isaiah 60: "Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you" (v. 1). Verse 3 ("Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn") has long been associated in Christian interpretation with the coming of the Magi to the birthplace of the Christ Child, although Isaiah clearly meant something quite different by these words. Coming as this does from the section of this book known as Third Isaiah, it is concerned with the eventual restoration of Israel's fortunes following the Babylonian exile. The source of light to which the nations of the world will one day come, as moths fluttering around a porch light, is the restored and righteous Israel. This is clear in verses 4-6, when the prophet envisions all the wealth of the earth pouring into Israel, as tribute lavished upon a powerful empire. To say, as verse 6 does, "a multitude of camels shall cover you," and then to try to apply that verse to Jesus Christ (as the one to whom the kings of the earth shall come) is to seriously mix our metaphors. Isaiah is speaking about the nation of Israel, not a single, messianic figure. This passage can be taken to apply to Jesus Christ only in the most abstract sense, and only then with full awareness of what this passage meant for its original Jewish readers.

New Testament Lesson
Ephesians 3:1-12
The Mystery Of Christ
The author of this letter -- whom some say is Paul and others say is a pseudonymous author writing in the Pauline tradition -- speaks here in very personal terms indeed: "I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles" (v. 1). The author sets himself up here as a purveyor of mystery: the mystery of salvation in Jesus Christ. To use the word "mystery" in the first-century Greek context is not to understand the word as we do, as a frustrating impediment to knowledge. Rather, mystery is a reality bigger than the human mind can comprehend, in which we are miraculously permitted to participate. How, then, do we proclaim "the mystery of Christ" (v. 4)? Only by inviting others to participate in the reality of Christ, which is knowable only by revelation. The Holy Spirit is the agent of this revelation (v. 5). This truth may be received by Gentiles as well as Jews, for they have been made "fellow heirs" along with those to whom the Lord first spoke (v. 6). The author describes himself as a "servant" of the gospel; the word is diakanos, which is the common name for a household slave, and is the root of the Christian concept of ministry as servanthood. A sermon on servant ministry could arise from this verse. Here, again (as in last week's Epistle Lesson), there is an emphasis on predestination, as we read of "the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things" (v. 9). The phrase, "the wisdom of God in its rich variety" (v. 10) is literally "the multi-faceted wisdom of God" (the uncommon Greek word polupoikilos means "multi-sided"). To recover a sense of God's wisdom as complex could help us resolve some of the theological battles that so bedevil the church, encouraging a healthy humility as we seek to discern that which is orthodox and that which is heretical. Finally, in verse 12, we hear of "access to God." Access is a precious commodity in government; lobbyists seek to sell it to the rich and powerful, who crave access to elected officials. When it comes to God, there is no lobbyist required, no mediator (other than Christ); in Christ, we all have access to God.

The Gospel
Matthew 2:1-12
The Visit Of The Magi
Not surprisingly, the Gospel Reading for the Epiphany is the story of the visit of the Magi. Into this story that has been, until now, thoroughly Jewish, three mysterious Gentiles suddenly appear. The identification of them with kings (following Isaiah 60:3) is surely an error. More likely, they are religious seers and scholars, perhaps practitioners of the Zoroastrian faith (although even this is uncertain). For Matthew, the Magi function as representatives of the larger, Gentile community. Their visit to the Christ Child makes it clear that Christ's coming is a matter of interest to the entire world, not just the nation of Israel. Although Matthew clearly misunderstands the nature of astrology (he has the star moving across the sky, pointing the way like a beacon), to say that these three were guided to Jesus by celestial signs indicates that all creation is somehow affected by this birth. The exchange between the Magi and Herod, in which he tries to manipulate their journey for his own purposes, offers rich preaching possibilities, as a case study of the ways in which the secular world sometimes tries to seduce people of faith to follow lesser causes.

Preaching Possibilities
Not long ago, many of us were making New Year's resolutions. How are we doing with those now? Are they still in place? Or have they gone the way of so many other good intentions: a fine and laudable idea that never quite breaks through to reality?

Keeping resolutions -- making them stick -- is all a matter of focus. There goes a great idea, scrolling across the computer monitor of our minds ... and there goes another one ... and another! All we've got to do is grab hold of one of those great ideas -- just one is all it takes -- and do something with it. But all too often, we're content to remain mere observers of our own lives: enjoying the sight of resolutions as they fly by, but failing to follow through. It's all a matter of focus, bringing not only the mind -- but also the will -- to bear.

There's another meaning of that word "resolution" -- and it, too, is all a matter of focus. In the world of consumer electronics -- of computer monitors and television screens -- high resolution is the holy grail. The more pixels -- those tiny units that make up electronically generated images -- the engineers can squeeze onto the screen of a laptop computer, or a television, or a cell phone, or a personal digital assistant, the sharper will be the image the consumer sees. Some old-timers can remember the days when television screens were smaller than a foot across, displayed black-and-white images only, and lived in some kind of monstrous wooden cabinet that resembled a piece of oversized Victorian furniture. The image on that little screen? Low-resolution! ("Is that Jackie Gleason we're looking at there? Or Sid Caesar?") Today's consumer wouldn't give that humble, black-and-white screen the time of day. Yes indeed, it's all a matter of focus.

It's all a matter of focus, too, for those Wise Men from the East, who travel far to worship the newborn Jesus. When most of us imagine the Wise Men -- or the Magi, as they're more properly called -- we picture three kings, each one perched on a camel and holding out before him a gift box fancy enough to make Martha Stewart proud. In reality, though, we don't know how many Magi there were (the only reason for the threesome is the fact that the Bible mentions three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh). There could have been two Magi carrying those gifts -- or twenty.

There's no reason to believe they're kings, either. Matthew just tells us they're Wise Men: scholars of the ancient arts of divination, who discern in the stars evidence of the birth of a new and mighty king. Isaiah -- not Matthew -- is to blame for the king thing. The prophecy of Isaiah that is today's lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures -- "Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn" (60:3) -- came to be interpreted, in later years, as referring to these visitors from the east. Somebody back in the early days of the church was reading Isaiah side-by-side with Matthew, searching for prophecies about Jesus. That person wondered, "Now if those eastern visitors were kings, then we could count another prophecy fulfilled" -- and they've been kings ever since, in most people's minds (and on most people's Christmas cards).

They probably don't show up at the stable in Bethlehem, either. All Matthew tells us is they arrive at "the place where the child [is]." A couple of verses later, he identifies this place as "a house," not a stable. Mary and Joseph would surely not have spent more than a single night bedded down with the livestock, if they could help it; by the time the Magi arrive, they've certainly upgraded their accommodations.

One of the few things we can say with certainty about those Magi is that their lives display "high resolution" -- they're amazingly focused individuals. They have to be, to have traveled all that distance. Many Bible scholars think they came from Persia -- present-day Iran -- and that they followed the Zoroastrian religion.

These Wise Men are used to studying the stars for hints of God's intentions. Whatever you think of astrology, it was, back then, an accepted way of figuring out what God was up to in the world. Matthew tells us God used their celestial observations to bring them to Bethlehem.

What the Wise Men see in the night sky is certainly not the blazing, golden beacon that graces most Christmas cards and nativity scenes. If the star had been that prominent, it would have brought everyone -- including King Herod -- to the bedside of Mary. More likely, the "star they [see] at its rising" is something these astronomers (with their specialized knowledge) would have picked up on their star charts, but not something the typical person would have noticed, coming home at night from a visit to the in-laws.

In any event, when they get to Jerusalem, the Magi are uncertain enough about their destination that they stop looking at the night sky for a time. They begin following their common sense, instead. That's how they get to Herod's palace -- the reasonable place anyone would have expected to find a newborn king in Judah.

It would not have taken the Magi long, though, to realize Herod isn't their man. He's an exceptionally sneaky and conniving ruler. Nervous and insecure, he ordered the killing of his brother-in-law, his uncle, and then his wife. After that royal bloodshed, Herod still didn't feel safe so he went on to execute his mother-in-law, a son, and then two more sons. Of him, the Emperor Caesar Augustus himself once remarked that he would rather be Herod's pig than Herod's son!

"Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage" (Matthew 2:8). Those pious words are surely spoken with enough conniving deceit that the Magi realize no newborn Messiah could be found in the palace of Herod (not alive, anyway).

So back they go to their star charts. What they see -- combined with the wisdom of Herod's scribes, who point them to biblical prophecies -- leads them to Bethlehem. There they discover the child, and there they offer him their rich gifts before hightailing it out of Bethlehem by the back way, disappearing from the pages of history.

The Magi have a world of reasons not to undertake their trip: the sheer length of their journey, the dangerous border crossings, bandits potentially lurking behind every boulder -- not to mention a sneaky and murderous king. But still they go. They're focused. They're high-resolution people. They have within them such a yearning for God, such a curiosity to discover signs of God's hand in the world, that they risk their very lives on what many of their friends and family would surely have considered a fool's errand.

So where do they get this high resolution? It's all about faith, not just a vague, free-floating desire to do the right thing. It's all about focus: not just any savior, but a particular child, born in one place and time, God's chosen. It's all about Jesus of Nazareth, the one who is everywhere, yes, but who is also present with God's people, whenever we gather in his name. If we believe we will encounter him here, if we believe it with all our hearts, we will. And he will give us the high resolution we crave.

Prayer For The Day
We have heard, Lord,
how the Wise Men followed the star,
and found, at the end of their journey,
Jesus Christ who is God from God,
light from light,
true God from true God.
May we, too, learn to seek not just any savior,
but to seek him only, with all our hearts.
At the end of our journey, we pray,
may we be so blessed
as to find this one whom we are seeking. Amen.

To Illustrate
We're all familiar with the experience of dining out in a restaurant, and leaving a tip at the conclusion of the meal. Some of us routinely tip fifteen percent. For others of us, it's twenty percent. Some of us believe we should use a tip to reward good service, or to penalize those servers who are less than diligent. Others of us believe the tip should be more or less the same, regardless of whether the server remembered to offer a second cup of coffee. Few of us, though, would dream of tipping much more than twenty percent.

Those Magi brought gifts with them, but their true gift to the Christ Child that day was not the objects they set before him: the gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Their true gift was the gift of themselves: for the long, arduous journey they had undertaken was far out of proportion to even the most expensive of gifts.

The tip the Magi left at the manger was 100 percent. For, in making such a time-consuming and dangerous journey, they were offering their very selves to the babe in the manger.

***

In Mexico, it's not Santa Claus who delivers gifts. And it's not December 25 that is so important. No, it's January 6 -- Epiphany -- that children wait for all year.

Epiphany in Mexico is called "Dia de los Santos Reyes" or "Three Kings Day." It's the day when the three Wise Men bring presents to deserving children. Mexican parents warn their children to behave in order to get candy. If they don't behave, a lump of coal might be found. If the child is very mischievous he or she may even get a pile of dung from the horse, elephant, and camel upon which the kings ride.

Three Kings Day really begins the night before when children parade through the town dressed as the three Wise Men: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. Family and friends gather to eat a sweet bread in the shape of a wreath, called pan de rosca. In the bread is hidden a small clay doll to represent the baby Jesus. Whoever gets the doll in his or her slice has the honor of hosting next year's Candlemas party, which falls forty days after Christmas and marks the end of the Christmas season. People are usually happy to get the doll in their slice.

The next morning, the children open little gifts as a reminder of the frankincense, gold, and myrrh given to baby Jesus. Gifts can often range from candy to new shoes or clothes. This is also the day when the mother of the family lifts the baby Jesus from the crèche and takes it to the church to be blessed by the priest. After the blessing, the Christ Child is put away with the other crèche figures and animals until next year. Only when the Christ Child is put away carefully can everyone begin feasting on tamales and atole (a milk and fruit drink).

Epiphany is the day children wait for in Mexico. It is the day when the Christ Child is blessed, the day when all children celebrate!
-- Constance Berg, "A Different Celebration," in StoryShare, January 1, 2006, www.csspub.com/

***

In Christ's life there were always a few who made up for the neglect of the crowd. The shepherds did it; their hurrying to the crib atoned for the people who would flee from Christ. The Wise Men did it; their journey across the world made up for those who refused to stir one hand's breadth from the routine of their lives to go to Christ. Even the gifts the wise men brought have in themselves an obscure recompense and atonement for what would follow later in this Child's life. For they brought gold, the king's emblem, to make up for the crown of thorns that he would wear; they offered incense, the symbol of praise, to make up for the mockery and the spitting; they gave him myrrh, to heal and soothe, and he was wounded from head to foot and no one bathed his wounds. The women at the foot of the cross did it too, making up for the crowd who stood by and sneered.
-- Dorothy Day

***

They have always fascinated us, these travelers who must have loomed in the entrance to the cave before an astonished -- and probably alarmed -- Mary and Joseph. All the language we use about them tends to reach for a larger-than-life quality. One of the church's hymns claims that to rival their gifts we would have to bring to this "brightest and best of the sons of the morning, odors of Edom, gems of the mountain, pearls of the ocean." When Isaiah speaks of such visitors, he speaks in the most extravagant terms. "Kings!" Isaiah proclaims. "Kings come to the brightness of your dawn." And because the traditional three camels do not seem enough to do justice to the celebration, we turn to Isaiah's evocation of "a multitude of camels ... the young camels of Midian and Ephah." Then, "all those from Sheba" are invited, too.

But even Isaiah fails to satisfy our wish to paint a vast and wonderful canvas for these visitors to the stable. We go to the psalmist for more vivid images, and he obliges by bringing on stage "the kings of Tarshish and of the isles ... the kings of Sheba and Seim," saying of them that they "all fall down" before this child.

This child. In those two words we give the reason for our longing for the most expansive language and images we can create, for we know this child's glory calls forth every possible beauty of utterance, image, art and song. We know that no stage is too vast for this child, no visitor too royal to kneel, and no gift too precious to offer.
-- Herbert O'Driscoll, "Kingly Presence," in The Christian Century, December 27, 2003

***

Although the scribes could say where the Messiah should be born, they remained quite unperturbed in Jerusalem. They did not accompany the Wise Men to seek him. Similarly, one may know the whole of Christianity, yet make no movement. What a difference! The three kings had only a rumor to go by. But it moved them to make that long journey. The scribes were much better informed. They sat and studied the scriptures like so many scholars, but it did not make them move. Who had more truth? The three kings who followed a rumor, or the scribes who remained sitting with all their knowledge?

What a vexation it must have been for the kings, that the scribes who gave them the news remained quiet in Jerusalem! We are being mocked, the kings might have thought. For, indeed, it is serious self-contradiction that the scribes had the knowledge and yet remained still. It is just as serious as if a person knows about Christianity, and his own life expresses the opposite. We are tempted to suppose that he wishes to fool us, unless we admit that he is only fooling himself.
-- Soren Kierkegaard, from "Becoming Christian," excerpted from Provocations, Spiritual Writings of Soren Kierkegaard, an e-book available at www.Bruderhof.com
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