Sermon Seeds: Epiphany
Second Sunday after Christmas Year A
Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12
Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21
John 1:(1-9), 10-18
Or the readings for Epiphany may be used:
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Matthew 2:1-12 and John 1:(1-9), 10-18
Reflection on Matthew 1:1-12:
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
It happened, of course, not in a good and happy time, but in King Herod’s time, a time of great injustice, and great suffering. Brutal King Herod, after all, was that most dangerous kind of powerful person: an insecure and fearful one, eaten up with worry about maintaining his power and his place and his comfort, his advantage, if you will, his privilege. Protecting all of those things can demand a lot of energy from a person, especially since Herod wasn’t a real king; he was just a puppet of the Empire, the hated and oppressive Roman Empire. Just imagine, then, how thrilled this pretend king must have been on that day when a little band of “wise men from the East” showed up at his palace, with their camels parked out front, loaded down with treasure…and they asked him—asked him, the king—for directions to the real King of the Jews!
Who are these strangers seeking that King, these “wise men” who are much more, of course, than mere decoration for our nativity scene? John Pilch provides helpful background information about these mysterious men from the East, who represent long-standing resistance to Western (at that time, Roman) imperialism, Pilch says, and have traveled a long way to pay homage to Jesus, the new king of the Judeans. In doing so, they’re poking their finger in the eye of Rome itself, and all its puppets, which include Herod himself. Pilch says that the wise men were men of stature and importance back home, advisors to the rulers of ancient empires in the East (The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A). Richard Swanson also describes “the East” as calling to mind the many conquerors of Israel, like Assyria, Babylon, Persia: is it any wonder that visitors from that direction might provoke uneasiness in their hosts? But Swanson reminds us of more associations that echo other, older stories from the Bible: about the rivers Tigris and Euphrates and the Garden of Eden between them; Ur of the Chaldees, the home of the great ancestor, Abraham; and most powerfully, Babylon, the place of exile and the home to those Jews who did not return with the others and may even have taught the Magi to sense and worship the goodness of the One True God (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew).
Thus, the biblical story gives us pause at the beginning of a new year, as we ponder the meaning of visitors from the very places we seem to fear most in the world right now. Perhaps we would get a better sense of the reaction of Matthew’s earliest audience to this text about Magi from the East if we imagined a visit to our local church by religious or political leaders from that same part of the world. On top of that, imagine that these visitors break more than one of the rules that we have, rules that help us define who we are as a community. These “magicians,” then, represent all sorts of problems for Matthew’s audience.
The wise men, as learned as they were, did not have all the answers, and they needed help on their long and hope-filled quest. They had dropped everything, left their country and the comforts of home, to set out for a distant land. Their guide was a spectacular natural phenomenon, a bright star, but that star had led them almost—but not quite all the way—to this newborn king. Now where does one expect to find a newborn king? Well, in addition to the bright star in the sky (that is, nature), the wise men also had common sense to guide them. If you’re looking for a king, common sense, after all, would lead you, once you hit town, to the palace. That’s where kings live, right? However, along with nature and common sense, the Magi also have Scripture, and just like us, they need all of these in their search for God. And, like us, they also need a community in which to interpret these things.
What is called Scripture, in this context, would have been the Old Testament, which contains helpful passages like today’s beautiful words from the prophet Isaiah, spoken to the people of Israel more than five hundred years before these wise men set out on their journey. Isaiah the poet-prophet consoled and encouraged the ancient Israelites, who had returned from exile, from captivity in the very land that the wise men presumably called home, what we today call Iraq. These are words of hope and promise to Israel, spoken right in the middle of the rubble and the rebuilding of their beloved city: Isaiah dreams a dream of Jerusalem the city at the center of it all, a prosperous and peaceful city, bright and shining with the radiance of God. Broken-down Jerusalem receives a vision of everything turned upside down (really, right side up), with the wealth of all the other nations brought to her for the glory of God, not for her own glory: “Arise,” Isaiah sings, “shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (60:1).
Walter Brueggemann suggests that the wise men, being ancient scholars themselves (he calls them “Eastern intellectuals”), had read these words from Isaiah and assumed that Jerusalem was the place to find the new king. To Jerusalem, then, they carried their gifts of gold and frankincense (and myrrh, too), just as the dream of Isaiah had “the wealth of the nations” coming to the bright shining city. And when they got there, they innocently, and naively, turned to Herod the lesser king, an evil one at that, for directions to the real king promised by God.
Now here’s Herod, who already senses that he’s the “power-that-was” instead of the “powers-that-be,” so of course he reacts in fear to the birth of a baby who brings good news for the world. For Herod, this good news is bad news, and he turns to the chief priests and scribes, the religious establishment, the power elite, to help him figure out where this dangerous little baby is. The scholars do a Bible study (under a lot of pressure: could there be a more important question?), but they don’t come up with this impressive text from Isaiah. No, instead, they bring to Herod a surprising, counter-intuitive, and maybe even dangerous answer. Against all their scholarly assumptions and perhaps in spite of their deepest hopes (after all, who wouldn’t want Jerusalem to be the center of it all?), they find the answer in two other books of the Old Testament, the prophet Micah, and the second book of Samuel: the one who is to rule, the gentle shepherd king, will come from the most unexpected of places, off the beaten path, out of the limelight, the little village of Bethlehem. Nine miles, Brueggemann says, the wise men miscalculated by only nine miles, but what a long nine miles it was from the halls of power and glory…the powers-that-be…or should we say, the powers-that-had-been, to what God was doing, out there on the margins (“Missing by Nine Miles,” Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann).
King Herod survives, and even thrives, on secrecy and deception, and he calls the wise men in for a hush-hush meeting behind closed doors, and pretends to be on the same page with them. He tells them that Bethlehem is where they’ll find this new king, and then he makes a request. “Go and search diligently for the child,” he says, “and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage” (v. 8). Sure, that could happen: a power-mad, insecure king might go to a little baby and pay him homage. What a swell guy this Herod is: all the right words come out of his mouth, but cruelty and murder live in his heart. We know this because we know what Herod will do with this knowledge. We’ve heard the story of the murder of the innocents, all the little boys in the town of Bethlehem under the age of two, the story that tells us so graphically just what fear and insecurity, arrogance and a greed for power can do. Fortunately, after the wise men reach Bethlehem, find the child, are overwhelmed with joy, offer their gifts—fit for a real king—and pay him homage, they’re warned by a dream to return home by another road.
Now, if I understand Brueggemann correctly, he’s saying that these texts draw a contrast between two ancient and holy places, one a great and prosperous city, and the other a humble little town, and the dreams we have about both of them. One text offers us a grand vision of what Brueggemann calls “self-sufficiency” and “normalcy.” I think that, in these days of anxiety, we might also add the word security. We long for security, but we’re tempted to seek it through power of one kind or another, the power of money, the power of possessions, the power of weapons. The other story, about an unpretentious little village, offers us the alternative that runs throughout the entire Bible, the dream of peace and a time when all the nations of the world will beat their swords into plowshares and live together in harmony, when the lion and the lamb will lie down together because nature itself will embody a whole new way of being, and there will be no more deaths of innocents, no violence or wretched injustice. (You have undoubtedly noticed that we are not yet living in that time.) Brueggemann reminds us that the way of Jesus, “echoing Micah, is vulnerability, neighborliness, generosity…[and] not learning war anymore.” How far that sounds from the halls of power and might! Even if it’s only nine miles, then it’s the longest nine miles we will ever travel, the longest nine miles this world, including the church, will ever travel (Inscribing the Text).
So, what do we hear in these stories? We hear that God has sent a gentle shepherd who will nevertheless upset the powers-that-have-been. We hear that the smallest things, like a newborn baby, can terrify the arrogant, and bring them down in the end. We learn that God’s reach of grace goes far beyond every obstacle within or without, and pushes us beyond them, too. We learn that a great light has dawned, a light that draws all people and calls us to live our lives illuminated by its truth.
When have you felt that you were seeking, and perhaps missing, God in your life? Was it only at times of need or suffering, or was it an intellectual search, or did it come from a deep, personal hunger for meaning? How faithful were you, and diligent, in the search? How do you think people seek God today? What are the paths and things and methods that help people “find” their way to God? If the star in the sky represents nature as it “points” to God, when and how has nature pointed to God, in your own search? The wise men find the star on its own insufficient as a guide, however, and they innocently turn to one king (a lesser, and evil one) for guidance to the true King. Fear is the response, not just from the insecure king, the “power-that-has-been,” but from the religious establishment, and from the entire town (“all Jerusalem”). Think of the times that fear dictated your first response to something new, even to something promising. What did you, and those around you, fear?
Scripture is the guide that is most helpful to those who seek, even when it’s interpreted by less-than-perfect religious authorities. When has Scripture, read in community and with study, provided guidance to you in your search, especially when other means have fallen short? How does the reading from Matthew interact with the reading from Psalm 72 and its prayer (its “vision”) for the new king? In what ways does Herod contrast sharply with this vision, and in what ways does Jesus fulfill it? How does it speak to those in power in our public life today? In what ways do our rulers live up to this vision, and in what ways and times do they respond in fear to the new and the promising?
This beautiful story tells of seekers from the East so long ago, bearing extravagant gifts for a king and being overwhelmed with joy. However, it’s not just a nice little story that decorates our Nativity sets and Christmas cards. This “little” story is part of a larger story that holds within it the suffering of the world, whether in sudden and spectacular devastation by natural disaster or by the slow motion violence of poverty. We find here the anguish of those engulfed by war and the quiet agony of those who live and breathe the poisoned air of hatred and neglect caused by human sinfulness. We also read of the pain of illness and injury as well as the private, personal sorrows of the human heart. And it encompasses, too, last week’s story of “the death of the innocents,” who suffer at the hands of the power-mad, the unjust and the greedy who use any means necessary, even violence, to maintain their power and place. How does this story respond to that suffering?
We may also read the Isaiah 60 text as speaking of light and glory, and rising up from wherever we have been pressed or pushed down, rising up to behold the glory that comes to us. It is the light of God that breaks through the thick darkness, but it will appear over us. When have we failed to look up and see the glory of God over us? Broken-down Jerusalem dreams of everything turned upside down (right side up!), with the wealth of other nations brought to the newly radiant city for the glory of God, not for its own glory. But this procession includes not only the world beyond its borders but the very sons and daughters who were once in exile. Again, the theme of homecoming, but a homecoming that includes the presence, and the gifts, of the strangers, the foreigners, the nations. Whether Isaiah speaks of the exile or Matthew speaks of the wise men bringing gifts, we see and hear the great invitation that would go out, in the end, to “all nations,” making them disciples, too, and bringing them (us) home.
When Matthew told the story of the wise men, he placed it in this big picture, this tradition of hope, referring to what had gone before so that those who heard the story then were able to connect with the ancient story of God’s marvelous work. The early Jewish Christians found and understood Jesus and themselves within the long, long story of God’s work of saving and healing this world, the story of Israel and the promises of God which were, so the Bible tells us, for the nations, too, for all the people of the world. The whole story held together for them, it made sense, and they located themselves within it.
Don’t we want to find ourselves in the story, too, to hear what happened so long ago, and to connect our own lives with it? We strangers from a distant land and far-off time want to kneel with the wise ones from the East, in awe and joy for the gift before us. And we want to know how God is still at work in this world we live in now, how God is still speaking to us, today, as God spoke through the prophets, through dreams and angels and a bright, shining star, so long ago. It’s deeply moving to hear of three foreigners traveling a long, hard way because they had an inkling—just an inkling—of something very important unfolding in a distant land. Something inside them must have been restless, or upset, or hungry for understanding; despite the reputation of “the East” as the place of wisdom and learning, there was something they still needed to find. And what did they find but “an economically limited toddler, in modest surroundings, lying in a teen mother’s arms,” writes Shelley D.B. Copeland. “To the intellectually perceptive, this scene was not a scholar’s formula for future success. Yet, by grace, the magi had the faith to experience unbridled joy” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1).
So, who are the foreigners, nations, strangers, who are left out of our vision of the great homecoming? Do we recognize ourselves in their midst, or have we always experienced ourselves as insiders? In all the celebrations of Christmas and the season of Epiphany, a time of the manifestation of God’s glory in a little child, when have you been “overwhelmed with joy”? How is God still speaking to us, year after year, in every season, calling us to this joy, this remembering, this new vision?
Note: My colleague, the Rev. Rachel G. Hackenberg, has written a thoughtful post on this Epiphany Sunday at Monday Muse: The Collective Epiphany.
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For further reflection:
Rumi, 13th century
“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”
Anne Frank, 20th century
“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century
“Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”
Constantine E. Scaros, Reflections on a Simple Twist of Fate: Literature, Art and Parkinson’s Disease, 20th century
“Without the quest, there can be no epiphany.”
Anne Lamott, 21st century
“What you’re looking for is already inside you. You’ve heard this before, but the holy thing inside you really is that which causes you to seek it.”
Marcel Proust, 20th century
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
Our reading from the Gospel of John is one of the most familiar and yet most transcendently beautiful passages in the Bible, but it seems that we’re challenged by John’s lofty theology and language in our attempt even to approach the profound meaning they convey. Perhaps the thoughts exressed in John’s Prologue are too immense for preaching, although they lay out the very themes John will develop in his Gospel; scholars often refer to this passage as an “overture” to the rest of the Gospel. “No one has ever seen God,” John writes, and indeed has anyone ever been able to speak words that do justice to such a passage? And yet, that may be the point of the reading: that the transcendent, beyond-words God took on flesh, came to us, found us, sought us out, took on our own existence, with its pains, its sorrows, its vulnerability and its joys. Stephen Bauman says it especially well: “God,” he writes, “is embedded with us in the human predicament” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1). When has God seemed far away and beyond your reach? When has God felt near at hand, as One who understands what you are struggling with, what your church may be struggling with, understands even the things you cannot put into words?
Jesus Christ shows us who God is, and we have received from his fullness, “grace upon grace.” This phrase sets a tone for this new year, especially when we’re struggling on our way out of deep economic troubles, facing the consequences of our environmental misuse, wrestling with poverty and hunger, and feeling frustrated by a political system that seems incapable of addressing any of these effectively. It may be a kind of secular heresy to see plenty right now, to see abundance, to see fullness even in a time like this. However, if we can claim that there is more than enough of everything we need most—forgiveness and reconciliation, grace, life, truth, joy, generosity, healing, justice—perhaps we can also believe that there is more than enough of what our bodies need to live on: food, water, land, clothing, and shelter. Perhaps our greatest challenge is to understand this abundance as something meant not just for us, or for those strong (or lucky) enough to have it already, but something that God intended to be shared, from the very beginning of creation, with all of God’s children. Might this even be a first step on the path to peace, if we truly believe there is more than enough for all? What dreams of peace might a new year, a new beginning, bring, if we could share this abundance personally, communally, and even globally, with all of the people of the earth?
What does it mean to you, that “from his fullness, we have all received, grace upon grace”? What, then, is grace? God’s grace has brought us light, has brought us truth, has brought us home. Coming home is a profound human experience, loaded with feeling. It’s even possible for a person to live at home, but feel as if they are in exile. There are members of our communities who may feel that they are in exile, right in our midst, and it can make a tremendous difference to them that God took on human flesh and shared in our own experiences of suffering and death. God is still speaking to us today, calling us to seek out the lost, the alienated, the excluded, the exiles in our own time and place. How can the church be a home for them? How are you and your congregation reaching out and bringing home the alienated, the excluded and the exiles in your neighborhood, and in the world?
Sooner or later, all of us have the experience of walking “in the darkness.” What is the “darkness” in which you walk, at times? How has the light of God’s love and compassion, God’s understanding and wisdom, delivered you from this kind of darkness? This week’s reading from Jeremiah (31:7-14) describes Israel’s joyful return from exile, by God’s leading hand, providing a tender picture of the way God continues to reach out to save the people. In one way or another, this joyful return is the story of our own lives, too, in a very different time and place. In what ways have you experienced “exile”? What has homesickness felt like to you, as an individual? Is it possible to find words to describe the joy of homecoming?
An ancient hymn of the church, “Of the Parent’s Heart Begotten” (#118 in The New Century Hymnal) reminds us of the close relationship in this passage between the first and second Persons of the Trinity. However, Henry Wansbrough expands our understanding of the translation in the NRSV: “‘with God’ (v.1) is really ‘towards God,’ and ‘close to the Father’s heart’ (v. 18) is really ‘into the bosom/embrace of the Father'” (The New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels). Barbara Brown Taylor reflects beautifully on this maternal image of the word, “bosom”: “Jesus apparently knows where to lay his head….[and] how to listen to the heartbeat of his Father” (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1).
Hearing the story of John the Baptist’s emergence from the wilderness to preach a gospel of repentance and preparation, we might wonder today how our churches would be transformed if all of our members thought of themselves, as John did, as witnesses who testify to the Light, and then we might dream of how the world around us would be transformed as well. In what ways do you understand that God is calling you today, to let your light shine, individually and as a community of faith? God’s incredible gift of Jesus is one we can never repay, but there is a response we can give: the praise and thanks that we lift in prayer and song, especially in community. For example, as you pray our psalm reading for this week, Psalm 147, is it just words on a page, or do the words come alive when you think of the joys of homecoming, of God’s mighty and tender deeds, of the Light that has come into the world, the world in which you have known both exile and coming home? “God grants peace within your borders,” the psalmist sings, “God fills you with the finest of wheat” (v. 14). There is that fullness, that plenty, that abundance, again. What do these words feel like to you?
Despite what the world around us may say, Christmas is not over. In the church, we celebrate Christmas after a four-week observance of Advent that ends on Christmas Eve. In the world around us, we’ve been gathering with family and friends, exchanging gifts, holding pageants, and sending cards for several weeks. One of the most moving and memorable ways we celebrate Christmas, however, is singing Christmas carols. Our musical memory lasts through the years, from our childhood into our old age, the melodies familiar and comforting, the words hauntingly beautiful and instructive at the same time. Sometimes, when a person has suffered a stroke or memory loss, they can still sing, and hymns have a particular power, as if they are imprinted on their hearts and minds. When my mother was recovering from a stroke at the age of ninety-three, I gave her a Christmas CD with an exquisite version of the ancient and familiar hymn, “Panis Angelicus.” As we listened together, neither one of us needed to speak, as it carried us both back to our childhood faith. The readings for this week are like hymns, too, and their lyrical celebration of God at work in the world, saving, vindicating, calling, and comforting, links us to our ancestors in faith who shared our common hope and longing. We sing together, with one another and with them, in a great chorus in our own day.
John speaks of “the Word” that was present at creation, a mighty God, above our imaginings or description, and yet this Word came into the world as a baby, small and vulnerable and sweet. It is, obviously, hard to relate to a transcendent God, but we can relate more easily to a baby, a mother, and, strangely enough, the shepherds who came to give homage (even though few of us have been shepherds). Perhaps this paradox explains why singing Christmas carols, and all hymns, really, but especially the beloved ones, helps us in our humble attempts to express the inexpressible—we cannot put into words the incredible mystery of God-made-flesh, and yet we have known it in our bones. We have felt God with us even when we could never explain how that could be. Just as we may not understand all of John’s lofty language, still, we find inexpressible beauty and meaning in it, and we want to know more of this Light, and to walk in its Love.
Richard Burridge finds particular meaning in this reading as it affirms the goodness of God’s creation, including the human embodiment that Jesus himself shared, and the profound value and dignity of science and the arts, which deepen our appreciation in turn of God’s own goodness and love, the true origin of that creation (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). Burridge’s observation reminds me of the words of Albert Einstein: “I want to know God’s thoughts—the rest are mere details.”
What good news are you waiting to hear today, in your life, and in the life of the world? What good news, what promises, are you longing to see fulfilled? Many of us are waiting for a messenger who will tell us that the tide has turned, that the day of vindication and hope has arrived, that God is still with us. Alas, some of us have secretly, privately, in the deepest places of our hearts, given up hope. Or, worse, we may assume that it’s all up to us, or that we can somehow make everything right, all by our own efforts, without a God who has chosen to be right here, right in the midst of everything that we face.
However, this season of Christmas does more than remind us of what God has already done; rather, it proclaims that God is active in the world today, in this setting of history. We might feel tired and relieved that Christmas is over, but it would be better to feel energized and renewed by the good news of the gift of Jesus Christ every day, not just on one morning each year. What is the new thing that God is doing in the life of your congregation, in your own life, in the life of the United Church of Christ? Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that we each can use our gifts to bring a word to life, to embody a word, whether that word is compassion, justice, generosity, patience, or love, so that it’s no longer an “abstract concept” but truly a word made flesh, brought to reality and breathed with life. She makes the same observation about congregations (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1). What word or words does your congregation bring to life?
In this new day, in this brand new year, God is revealing God’s own self in the life of your community. Hearing such good news, how is your church, then, “anointed with the oil of gladness”? How will we continue to sing the joy of Christmas, to proclaim in the days ahead the good news of “grace upon grace,” of our coming home and of God making a home in our midst? Is this the way we frame, the way we speak, of the mission of our church? Perhaps Christmas morning is unlike all other mornings, but indeed it is like every other morning of our lives, too, because Jesus Christ is alive and God is at work in our lives, here and now. Richard Ascough recalls an image from Henri Nouwen’s diary from Genesee Abbey, when he describes the Nativity set under the altar there, with small, humble figures that a light projects larger than life onto the wall nearby, and all the difference the light makes in this scene (New Proclamation Year C 2000-2001). What difference has the light shining on your life made in the life of the world?
For further reflection:
John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire, 21st century
“The Logos, or Word, means God’s inaugural vision for the world at the dawn of creation. It is not as if God came up with a new idea or a new program at the time of Christ. The divine vision of freedom and justice, of nonviolence and peace, and of an earth in which all have a fair and equitable share was there from creation itself.”
Thomas Merton, 20th century, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander in The Book of Hours, Kathleen Deignan, ed.
“I have the immense joy of being a member of a race in which God became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are….There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. It was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.”
Albert Einstein, 20th century
“I want to know God’s thoughts – the rest are mere details.”
Plato, 4th century b.c.e.
“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when [people] are afraid of the light.”
Leonard Cohen, 20th century
“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
William Shakespeare, 16th century
“How far that little candle throws his beams! So