Sermon Seeds: See How God Sees

First Sunday after Epiphany Year A color_white_1.jpg
The Baptism of Christ

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

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Matthew 3:13-17

Weekly Theme:
See How God Sees

by Kathryn Matthews katehuey150.jpg

If we begin our reflection on Matthew’s story of the baptism of Jesus by listening to this Sunday’s Old Testament text from Isaiah, we hear a poetic suggestion of what is to come in Jesus Christ. The prophet reminds us that God is faithful to God’s promises, and that how we live and order our world matters to God. It matters so much to God that God will send One who will “fix” the mess we’ve made, transforming it into a time of beauty and grace, healing and justice. The very Spirit of God is within this transforming Servant, the chosen one whom God upholds and in whom God’s soul delights.

The same themes consistently appear in both Isaiah and Matthew: righteousness experienced as compassionate justice and care for those who are poor and/or marginalized, humility and faithfulness that always point to God as the One who is at work in this transformation, and the hope–the promise–of new things that will dazzle us and rattle the foundations of our safe little worlds. When read, and heard, together, the texts from Isaiah and Matthew dramatically illustrate God’s own deep faithfulness and care.

“Magnificence and humility”

Three chapters into Matthew’s Gospel, we finally get to hear Jesus speak, with something Troy Miller describes as “a paradoxical blend of magnificence and humility” (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1). We get to eavesdrop on the conversation of these two men, Jesus and John, and John at least is used to addressing the crowd, accustomed to speaking “large.” The words he exchanges with Jesus sound quiet, maybe worried, perhaps awed. In any case, they’re certainly not untroubled. So this baptismal scene, rather than pretty or nice, is full of power and questions, and perhaps even struggle. Magnificence and humility, yes, but full of “trouble and beauty,” as well.

baptism_2_pic.jpgComing onto the scene and asking for baptism, Jesus is announcing himself as that One promised by God through the prophet long ago. And John the Baptist’s response clearly indicates his self-awareness not as the promised One but as the one who prepares the way for that much-anticipated One. Jesus “announces himself,” F. Dean Lueking writes, “as the fulfiller of the grace which gives sinners who have no standing before God a place to stand in a new relationship to God. He himself is that place.”

How do you think that might have affected the expectations of the crowd, who were presumably familiar with the promises in Isaiah? When Jesus speaks of “righteousness,” a word that appears often in Matthew, he relates it to salvation, which is another word for healing the damage that has been done to our relationship with God. Lueking sees this baptism of Jesus revealing the purpose of Jesus, “to lay his healing hands upon a broken, alienated world to make it right with God again” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

Cracking open the sky

This healing, however, does not come with gentle words and soothing balm, these waters are not calm or crystal pure, and even the sky itself is scarily broken open by the thunderous voice of God overhead: not your typical church baptism! Commentators observe that the scene offers a response to the ancient cries of the prophets as they observed the broken, alienated world in need of God’s hand: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” Isaiah prayed and, Lueking reminds us that the prophet Ezekiel had similar visions and hopes, just as John did, when he “called the multitudes to the Judean desert to warn of the cracking open and breaking up of the old order. Now that time has come” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

Cracked skies do not sound lovely and reassuring, but Robert Hoch says that Matthew’s dramatic description draws our attention to God’s voice blessing the scene, and the response of creation itself to what is happening (New Proclamation Year A 2011). Certainly this was a multi-sensory experience!

Mud and water, sights and sounds

Scholars suggest, then, that this story reminds us of our humanness, our embodiment as creatures of God. Perhaps the mud and the water and the sounds and sights of a reading like this one draw us back to reflection on the Incarnation itself, which is at the heart of the Christmas and Epiphany seasons. The wonder of God taking on human flesh ought to inspire awe, a state that we rarely allow ourselves anymore (although we do seem to seek it, consciously or not, in one experience or another). Like John, however, we may have mixed feelings about this God-becoming-human mystery. According to Hoch, our initial relief at this good news moves into a “struggle with the complicated (maybe embarrassing) work of using our hands, bodies, and voices (unclean, all of them) to announce the new thing of God in Jesus Christ” (New Proclamation Year A 2011).

And yet, Steven Driver notes the close connection between baptism and “the reality, the physicality, of being human”–because that’s exactly what the Incarnation is about. Like ancient Christians, orthodox and heretic alike, we struggle with the relationship between the physical and the spiritual, and how God could possibly have entered into our embodied existence. Perhaps, deep down, we just can’t accept our bodies, or this beautiful earth, God’s creation, as good and blessed.

We put the spirit above the body, as if we are somehow split in two, and our task then is to minimize and subjugate the pesky body and its frailties and needs, its temptations and demands. Driver writes that, rather than being “wispy souls trapped temporarily in a body that is foreign to who we are,” we are physical beings who long to become “fully and completely human,” and to be “renewed” as well, like “all creation” (Feasting on the Word Year A, Vol. 1). So to be both fully human (see Irenaeus) and renewed, it seems that we need to accept our bodies, our physical existence, as good. (Isn’t that what Genesis says?)

Remembering our baptism

We remember that immediately after this passage, Jesus heads to the desert himself and experiences the great temptations to his faithfulness to his call and his sense of who he is. One of the most powerful sermons that I ever heard on this text was by my pastor, the Rev. Dr. Laurinda Hafner, who told us about Martin Luther’s words, “Remember your baptism!” (In my many years as a Catholic, I had never heard Luther quoted so beautifully.)

F. Dean Lueking paints a picture of the “anxious” Reformation leader, “as he struggled through the lonely months of his safekeeping in the Wartburg Castle. ‘I am baptized,’ he would scribble on his desktop, and remember his baptism as he battled back despair” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels). Rather than a sentimental journey or an effort to recapture lost enthusiasm (ours or that of our parents and godparents), “remembering our baptism” is seeking equilibrium on a storm-tossed sea, getting our bearings, remembering who (and whose) we are, and grounding ourselves in that assurance.

Embarrassing questions?

John Pilch provides background information to the story that helps us imagine the scene, including a geography lesson about the “dry” season when Jesus and the repentant people of Judea could be dipped, “when the Jordan and its streams would have been filled with the winter rains and the sun had warmed the shallow waters to a comfortable temperature” (The Cultural World of Jesus Year A). Have you ever been in a river, or even in a tank, when someone is baptized? Getting soaked is a good reminder of one’s baptism, if it brings home the power of what was once done to us long ago.

Pilch also wrestles with that question of Jesus and John, and the embarrassment for early Christians that their leader was baptized by another. This awkward situation, he says, is explained by that cracked sky and voice of God, affirming that “God is pleased by Jesus’ obedience, which in turn suggests that Jesus deserves obedience from his followers” (The Cultural World of Jesus Year A). But Thomas Long’s answers to the question about Jesus and “righteousness” are also illuminating: he outlines “human” righteousness, living “in right relationship with God and others…by being joined to Christ,” who has come to “save the world…through joining himself to sinners.” Perhaps Jesus knows he can’t address our human condition unless he gets down into the mud, or into the tank, with us. Unless he gets baptized, just like the rest of us. But Long also describes “the righteousness of God…the way God works in the world to set things right.” In other words, to respond to that ancient cry of the prophets (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).

“Troubled” water?

While many scholars address themes in this text like Jesus’ identity as the beloved Son of God (and Matthew’s persistent claim for that), or the presence and relationship of all three persons in the Trinity at this scene (even without an explicit Trinitarian theology being presented), the most interesting and stirring interpretation comes from Richard Swanson. He gives new meaning to the words, “troubled waters” with words like “killed…erupts…explodes…accuses.” And he speaks of John’s fire, and snakes and judgment, but mostly “fire, and fire, and fire, unquenchable fire.” And the winnowing hook, too, to prepare us for the “sharp divisions” brought by “a Jesus who erupts just as John erupts. The face of the earth will change” (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew).

Swanson doesn’t really connect this scene to our own baptisms, and after reading his stirring reflection, it’s hard to see the connection between them. Instead, he sketches a picture of faithful Jews being drawn out into the wilderness, “to volunteer for service, to be washed, purified to participate in the long-awaited new thing that God was doing in the world.” Rather than comforting or sweet, there is a “disturbing force” in “John’s eruption. The face of the earth was changing. Jews came out to enlist.” Swanson’s powerful, if disconcerting, reflection draws us back to fire and water, the many uses of burning (including “Herod’s murderous attempt to defend Empire by burning hope out of the Jewish people”), and the power of being washed and readied for service (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew). It’s another way to remember our baptism, perhaps a different lens through which we might look at it in our memory, and certainly a long way from the beautiful babies in white dresses receiving a gentle sprinkle of water on the forehead (see the photo above).

Still, that word, “beloved” baptism_pic.jpg

Still, in the midst of fire and water and snakes, and skies breaking open, there is that word: beloved. When the skies open, the words we hear are “beloved” and “listen,” hardly words of judgment or words that should inspire fear. Consider your own baptism (if you are baptized), in light of this story, and whether you can imagine yourself as beloved. Then consider the same question about each person, child or adult, in your congregation, as a beloved child of God, and whether pausing to remember that would affect how you (and others in the church) treat that person–if we see them as God sees them. Not that baptism makes us beloved, but it certainly does remind us that we are. (Marilynne Robinson brilliantly wrote in Gilead, about baptism: “There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that.”)

How does this sense of who and whose we are come alive in baptism? Have you ever felt that baptisms have become for many–perhaps even for you–a less-than-powerful ritual, an occasion for gifts and parties, a misunderstood theological statement? What would happen if we pronounced each newly baptized Christian not only beloved, but a beloved servant of God?

What does “righteousness” mean to you? Does it have an ironically unpleasant connotation, as in “self-righteous” religiosity? How have you experienced the Spirit of God within you, at what times and in what circumstances? What difference did it make in your life? How does God’s Spirit work in us today, move through us today, speak to us still today, calling us in this time and place to do new things? What former things have passed away, or need to pass away, and what new words of hope need to be spoken? What is the transformation that needs to happen, or is happening beneath our gaze, even now?

The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in July after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Matthew Arnold, 19th century
“Waiting for the spark from heaven to fall.”  

Karl Jung, 20th century
“Bidden or unbidden, God is present.”  

Leonard Cohen, 20th century
“There’s a crack in everything–that’s where the light gets in.”

Lao Tzu. 6th century B.C.E.
“Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and water is clear?”

Hans Urs von Balthasar, 20th century
“The Church does not dispense the sacrament of baptism in order to acquire for herself an increase in membership but in order to consecrate a human being to God and to communicate to that person the divine gift of birth from God.”

The old Irish when immersing a babe at baptism left out the right arm so that it would remain pagan for good fighting.

Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Kahlil Gibran, 20th century (other source says Rabindranath Tagore)
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
Leonardo da Vinci, 15th century
“Water is the driving force in nature.”

Lectionary texts

Isaiah 42:1-9

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
   my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
   he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
   or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
   and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
   he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
   until he has established justice in the earth;
   and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the Lord,
   who created the heavens and stretched them out,
   who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
   and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
   I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
   a light to the nations,
   to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
   from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
   my glory I give to no other,
   nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
   and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
   I tell you of them.

Psalm 29

Ascribe to God,
   O heavenly beings,
ascribe to God
   glory and strength.

Ascribe to God the glory
   of God’s name;
worship God
   in holy splendor.

The voice of God
   is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
God, over mighty waters.

The voice of God
   is powerful;
the voice of God
   is full of majesty.

The voice of God
   breaks the cedars;
God breaks the cedars
   of Lebanon.

God makes Lebanon
   skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.

The voice of God flashes forth
   in flames of fire.

The voice of God
   shakes the wilderness;
God shakes the wilderness
   of Kadesh.

The voice of God
   causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
   and in God’s temple all say, ‘Glory!’

God sits enthroned
   over the flood;
God sits enthroned
   as ruler forever.

May God give strength
   to the people!
May God bless the people
   with peace!

Acts 10:34-43

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”


Focus Scripture:
Matthew 2:1-12

Focus Theme:
Where is the child?

by Kathryn Matthews

It was “the time of King Herod,” not a good and happy time, but one of oppression, suffering, and injustice. Herod was a brutal and fearful man, insecure because he was just a puppet of the hated Roman Empire, not a real king. Can you imagine how thrilled this pretend king was on that day when a little band of “wise men” from the East showed up at his palace and asked for directions to the real King of the Jews?

These wise men were astrologers, priests, scholars–we’re not sure exactly what they were or even how many of them came, but we sense that they were, in any case, seekers on a mission, and very serious about it. They had dropped everything they were doing, left their country and the comforts of home to set out on a long, hard journey, guided by what we picture as a spectacular natural phenomenon, a bright star that led them most of the way to this newborn king. William R. Herzog II, however, says the star “was not necessarily an extraordinary celestial event, but an ordinary star seen through the extraordinary eyes of the magi” (New Proclamation Year C 2006-7). In any case, they needed help to reach their final destination, so they innocently, and naively, turned to this lesser king, an evil one at that, for directions to the real one.

Strangers from places we fear

These strangers are much more, of course, than mere decoration for our nativity scene. John Pilch draws our attention to the “plain history, real politics, and human effort” at “the heart” of this story. These travelers from the East represent long-standing resistance to Western (at that time, Roman) imperialism, Pilch says, and they’ve come a long way to “submit” to Jesus, the new king of the Judeans. In doing so, they’re poking their finger in the eye of Rome and its puppets, and the vision they embody reaches far beyond Israel to embrace the entire known world of ancient times. It’s not insignificant to us today, given world news, that these Magi were “very high ranking political-religious advisors to the rulers” of empires in areas that today we know as Iran, Syria and Iraq (The Cultural World of Jesus Year A).

Thus, Pilch and the biblical story give us pause at the beginning of a new year, as we hear about 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 (or, for that matter, from North Korea, the Sudan, Afghanistan or Pakistan). And imagine that these visitors “break many 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.

Strangers from the East

It’s also significant that these strangers come from “the East”–the same direction from which most of Israel’s conquerors approached, including Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. Richard Swanson adds other powerful associations with the East: “East of Judea is the Tigris and the Euphrates…the Garden of Eden…Ur of the Chaldees…Babylon, where Jews lived in Exile after the destruction of the first Temple. East of Judea is the Jewish community who stayed behind when Jews returned to rebuild the Temple and Jerusalem….”

These “wise men,” then, were among the Gentiles who might have been influenced by the Jews who remained behind in Babylon, Swanson writes; perhaps the Magi had been tutored by those Jews in sensing the goodness of the One True God, and “had been trained to raise their eyes to the horizon of God’s activity in the world” (Provoking the Gospel of Matthew). It might be helpful to read these words again, after reading this week’s text from Isaiah, about lifting up our eyes and looking around, and about the wealth of the nations coming to Israel.  

Who’s the real king here?

How did these strangers find their way to the new King of the Jews? They’re “sincere and persistent” in their search, Charles Cousar says, and, actually, not entirely “wise,” despite their experience and worldliness: “Almost naïve, they seem to anticipate no difficulty in inquiring of Herod the king about the birth of a rival king” (Texts for Preaching Year C). So they “naively” follow the star, guided by God through a sign of nature. God would also provide direction through a dream (just as Joseph was guided by a dream), but it’s no accident that they’re also helped by scripture, when they ask for directions from Herod and hear from the religious authorities who know just the right place to look for the answer.

And so, are we really surprised that Herod, already sensing that he’s “the power-that-was” instead of “the powers that be,” reacts in fear to the news about the birth of a baby bringing 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 to find this dangerous little baby.

So they all meet, Thomas G. Long says, and do a major “bible study” (no pressure there!), and find an answer in the words of the prophet Micah (5:2) and in 2 Samuel (5:2), pointing to Bethlehem, the hometown of David, the shepherd king, as the birthplace of the Messiah who would be the greatest shepherd of all (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). In other words, those at the center read about what God is doing on the margins (see Herzog).

Surviving on brutality and fear

Herod survives, even thrives, on brutality and fear. Now he turns to secrecy and deception, too, calling the strangers in behind closed doors and craftily pretending to be on the same page with them. He tells them what they need to know, and then 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.” How very helpful of him: all the right things are coming out of his mouth, but we know the story of what’s coming, after the wise men make their way to Bethlehem, find the child, are overwhelmed with joy, offer their gifts–fit for a real king–and pay him homage, and then, after being warned in a dream, return home by a different road.

We know what’s coming because we’ve heard the story many times, of what Herod (brute power) will do with this kind of information. Last week, we heard this 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 lives in the heart of Herod, what fear and insecurity, arrogance and a greed for power can do.

Once again, it’s particularly haunting to think about Herod and the slaughter of the innocents when we think of the children who have died in places like the city of Aleppo, among others, on the streets where they should be able to play, in their classrooms where they should be able to learn in peace, in their homes, where they should feel safe and loved. What could our leaders, and we ourselves, do to stop those deaths so much closer to home, that is, in our own time? Does Herod not live in every age, and in many different expressions?

Finding our own way

There are many ways that we “find our way” to God, to the little baby born King of Kings: nature does indeed point to the glory of God, to God’s care and presence, but we need the Bible, too, and personal experience, and the community that helps us understand all those gifts. Then, like the Magi, we are drawn to worship the One we seek.

Thomas Long says that “the world is full of ‘stars in the East’–events in nature, personal experience, and history that point toward the mystery of God…” but the Bible helps us to “recognize these holy moments for what they are…to see God’s face clearly in them.” Without scripture, we would be like the wise men, trying to figure out the deeper meaning of what they had experienced, and then what to do about it. Just being a biblical scholar isn’t enough, either: the chief priests and the scribes missed the meaning of the text, and Herod turns to scripture to use it for his own panicked purposes: Long observes, “One can, like Herod, be in favor of studying the scripture and still be on the wrong side of God’s will” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion). (That thought should give all interpreters of the Bible pause.)

Celebrating the Incarnation

Joni S. Sancken reminds us of the most important way that followers of Jesus experience God: in the person of Jesus Christ himself, who shows us who and how God is (New Proclamation Year C 2013). Isn’t this the point of the Incarnation and the Christmas/Epiphany season that celebrates it?

The journey of the Magi was long and perilous; even their return trip started on a warning, but they were driven by their sense of an event so important and so powerful that it drew them far from their home and called forth their generosity and their humble worship. While we may find the roots of Christmas gift-giving in the story of St. Nicholas, Sancken suggests that they really lie here, in the story of three strangers bringing extravagant gifts to a little baby in a land far from their own, and in “Jesus himself, a gift from God” (New Proclamation Year C 2013).

In that age, we’d expect anyone who could afford to bring gold, frankincense and myrrh to be wealthy enough not to be in the habit of bowing down to little children in modest homes, in foreign lands. Once they reached their destination, they were “overwhelmed by joy,” and then, what drew them far from home sent them back again.

The circle of God’s grace

Matthew wants his audience to hear about the Good News of God’s universal and all-encompassing grace, even if they’re offended or appalled that such “objectionable” people are included in the story and, further, are included in the circle of God’s grace. (That audience includes us today, of course; we have our own outsiders whose presence in the circle of God’s grace might offend us; “I mean, the circle is big, right, but it’s not that big!”)

But Scott Hoezee agrees that this story is about the “reach of grace. Matthew is giving a Gospel sneak preview: the Christ child who attracted these odd Magi to his cradle will later have the same magnetic effect on Samaritan adulterers, immoral prostitutes, greasy tax collectors on the take, despised Roman soldiers, and ostracized lepers” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

Matthew writes his Gospel in light of the Jewish texts familiar to his audience, and he recalls those texts from the prophet Isaiah that described “the wealth of the nations” (read, Gentiles) coming to “you,” bringing “gold and frankincense,” and proclaiming the praise of the Lord. From “the Gentiles”: shocking!

Finding ourselves in the story

Matthew, then, placed this little story in the larger story so that the early Jewish Christians could find and understand 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 feel our own lives connected to all of that, to be part of something so much greater than ourselves? We want to feel ourselves, strangers from a distant land and far-off time, kneeling with the wise ones from the East, in awe and joy for the gift before us. And we want to know and see and feel how God is still at work in this world we live in now, to hear 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.

The wise and the restless

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 still something missing, 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, what do we hear in this story? 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.

That’s what the Epiphany season is about: we hear the beautiful words, the promises in the text from Isaiah, about a light breaking forth for all of us who know what it feels like to “sit in darkness,” and we hear the call to arise and become radiant with the light of God. Do we in the church shine with God’s love for all?  

We are seeking, too

When were times that you felt you were seeking 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? How might the star in the Matthew reading represent nature as it “points” to God?

The wise men find the star alone insufficient as a guide, and they innocently turn to one king (a lesser, and evil one) for guidance to the real King. Fear is the response, not just from the powerful, threatened king, the “power-that-has-been,” but from the religious establishment, and from the entire town (“all Jerusalem”). According to Joni Sancken, this little story shows “the best and the worst of human nature spring forth in response to God’s gift of revelation,” and she reminds us that just as a new baby brings upheaval to a house, “the birth of God incarnate promises to turn the whole world upside down and forge a new reality” (New Proclamation Year C 2013). No wonder some people trembled in fear! 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 ultimately helpful to the seekers, even when provided by fearful and questionable religious authorities. When has scripture, read in community and with study, provided guidance to you in your spiritual search, especially when other means have fallen short?

Connections between the readings

The reading from Matthew interacts with the reading from Psalm 72 and its prayer (its “vision”) for the new king, and Herod comes out looking rather bad as he contrasts sharply with this vision. What do these readings, especially the psalm, have to say to those in power in our public life today, especially as we struggle to gain an equilibrium of cooperation and common ground while seeking the best of the whole community? 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?

The Isaiah 60 reading speaks 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 sees everything turned upside down (right side up!), with the wealth of other nations brought to it 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.

Coming home again

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 (and us) disciples, too, and bringing them home.

So, who are the foreigners, nations, strangers (“refugees”?) 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, have you been “overwhelmed with joy” at any time? How do we observe these seasons every year, year after year, and still find that place within us that is capable of being overwhelmed by joy? How is God still speaking to us, year after year, in every season, calling us to this joy, this remembering, this new vision?

For further reflection:

Lorii Myers, 21st century
“If you want the answer–ask the question.”

Jean-Yves Leloup, 21st century
“Sometimes the best answer to a question is another question. Is it not by asking questions that we stimulate each other to reach more deeply into our own source and, thereby, approach the Source, both together and in our different ways?”

Vernon McLellan, 20th century
“When it comes to giving, some people stop at nothing.”
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, 21st century
“Grace has a grand laughter in it.”

M. Scott Peck, 20th century
“The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”

“Lemony Snicket” (Daniel Handler), 21st century
“There are times to stay put, and what you want will come to you, and there are times to go out into the world and find such a thing for yourself.”

Christopher Moore, Lamb, 21st century
“We were seekers. You are that which is sought, Joshua. You are the source. The end is divinity, in the beginning is the word. You are the word.”

Mary Anne Radmacher, 21st century
“As we work to create light for others, we naturally light our own way.” 

Lectionary texts

Isaiah 60:1-6

Arise, shine;
   for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord
   has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
    and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
    and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
    and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes
   and look around;
they all gather together,
   they come to you;
your sons shall come
   from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried
   on their nurses’ arms.

Then you shall see
   and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill
   and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea
   shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations
   shall come to you.

A multitude of camels
   shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
   all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
   and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Give the ruler your justice,
   O God,
and your righteousness
   to a ruler’s heir.

May the ruler judge your people
   with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.

May the mountains yield prosperity
   for the people,
and the hills,
   in righteousness.

May the ruler defend the cause
   of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
   and crush the oppressor.

May the ruler live
   while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon,
   throughout all generations.

May the ruler be like rain
   that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth.

In the ruler’s days
   may righteousness flourish
and peace abound,
   until the moon is no more.

May the monarchs of Tarshish
   and of the isles
render the ruler tribute,
   may the monarch of Sheba and Seba
        bring gifts.

May all monarchs fall down
   before the ruler,
all nations give the ruler service.

For the ruler delivers the needy
   when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.

The ruler has pity
   on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives
   of the needy.

From oppression and violence
   the ruler redeems their life;
and precious is their blood
   in the ruler’s sight.

Ephesians 3:1-12
This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles — for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:   
    ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
      are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
    for from you shall come a ruler
        who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “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.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”