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Monday, December 21, 2015

January 6, 2016, Epiphany C

Quotes That Make Me Think

"The story of the magi foreshadows later developments in Matthew's narrative. Even in infancy Jesus inspires both worship and hostility, responses that are repeated throughout the story."

Commentary, Matthew 2:1-12, Mark Allan Powell, Preaching This Week,, 2008.

The narrative of Epiphany is the story of these two human communities: Jerusalem, with its great pretensions, and Bethlehem, with its modest promises. We can choose a "return to normalcy" in a triumphalist mode, a life of self-sufficiency that contains within it its own seeds of destruction. Or we can choose an alternative that comes in innocence and a hope that confounds our usual pretensions. We can receive life given in vulnerability. It is amazing -- the true accent of epiphany -- that the wise men do not resist this alternative but go on to the village. Rather than hesitate or resist, they reorganize their wealth and learning, and reorient themselves and their lives around a baby with no credentials.

"Off By Nine Miles," Walter Brueggemann, The Christian Century, 2001.

General Resources for Sunday's Lessons

This week I am including for my prayer before preaching one of my favorite hymns: Brightest and Best of the Stars of the Morning by Reginald Heber (118 in the 1982 Hymnal).  It was first sung in 1827, and is normally sung to the tune of Star of the East.

1. Brightest and best of the stars of the morning,
dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid;
star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

Brightest and best of the stars of the morning,
dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid;
star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

2. Cold on his cradle the dewdrops are shining,
low lies his head with the beasts of the stall;
angels adore him in slumber reclining,
Maker and Monarch and Savior of all. (Refrain)

3. Shall we then yield him, in costly devotion
odors of Edom, and offerings divine,
gems of the mountain, and pearls of the ocean,
myrrh from the forest, or gold from the mine? (Refrain)

4. Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
vainly with gifts would his favor secure;
richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
dearer to God are the prayers of the poor. (Refrain)

5. Brightest and best of the stars of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid;
star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

Some Thoughts on Matthew 2:1-12
Oremus Online NRSV Gospel Text

Resources for Sunday's Gospel

This week is unique because Epiphany falls on a Sunday and we are able to celebrate and preach on texts which normally stay hidden amongst the twelfth night celebrations. The Feast of the Epiphany has a wonderful history and traditions which are many and varied around the world. You can see some of these in the wikipedia article on the Feast of the Epiphany - which isn't too bad.   When we lived in Mexico we remembered the feast by placing our shoes outside our door with straw in them.  Then the wise men would leave little gifts as a trade for helping them get on their way.  It has also always been our household tradition (since I was a child) to bring the wisemen to the nativity scenes which were scattered around the house; and we would take down our Christmas tree.

My father always loved to ask us questions about the bible at dinner. It was like a little test. Actually he probably only had about 20 different questions but they were always enough to keep us busy thinking and figuring out the answers.  Recently I ran across an article which talked about Brent Landau's book Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem, the first-ever English translation of an ancient manuscript that tells the famous story from the Magi’s perspective. In it he shares five things you didn’t know about the Magi - this is exactly the kind of stuff my dad loved to use to trip us up.  So here are the five things Landau offers:
"1) The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say how many Magi there were. Three became the most popular answer because of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But some paintings in Christian catacombs have two or four, the Revelation of the Magi has a list of twelve Magi with names, and other Christian writings imagine an entire army of Magi!

2) Early Christians didn’t agree on where the Magi were from. The most popular answer was Persia (modern Iran), but others thought they were from Babylon or Arabia. In the Revelation of the Magi, they come from a land called Shir, which, because it is located at the eastern edge of the inhabited world, is probably equivalent to China.

3) Nobody knows what the Star of Bethlehem really was. Some early Christians thought it was an angel or the Holy Spirit, and more recent theories include a comet or a supernova. In the Revelation of the Magi, the star is none other than Christ himself in celestial form.

4) Opinions differ about how long it took the Magi to reach Bethlehem. Based on Herod’s asking of Magi when the star appeared, coupled with his subsequent command to kill all male infants under the age of two, many Christians thought it took them two years. Some imagined a much faster journey of twelve days, based on the “twelve days of Christmas” between December 25th and the celebration of Epiphany on January 6th. Their journey is even faster in the Revelation of the Magi, since the star “carries” the Magi to Bethlehem in the blink of an eye.

5) A number of answers were proposed for how the Magi knew that a star signified the birth of the King of the Jews. Many Christians thought that they knew the prophecy of Balaam, a prophet who predicts in Numbers 24:17 that “a star shall come out of Jacob.” In the Revelation of the Magi, the Magi are descendants of Seth, who learned about the prophecy of the star from his father Adam -- since the star used to stand over the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden."
So, let us now turn out attention to the actual text for this Sunday's Gospel.  Not unlike Luke, Matthew gives us a time frame for Jesus' birth. We are told that magi or some kind of astrologer or dream interpreters were paying attention to the night sky and so they understood from their studies that a king had been born.  This of course takes us back to both Isaiah 60 and even further back to Numbers 24.  Numbers 24:17-24 prophesies that “... a star shall come out of Jacob, a scepter shall rise out of Israel”, and that this ruler will conquer surrounding nations.

So we see in this birth a new reign of God being revealed, a new king coming into the world. This king will draw many to him, even wise men, and the nations will bow down to him.

This is certainly cause for alarm if you are the local earthly king and so Herod's fears and anxiety are woven into the tapestry of story.

It foretells the reality that this God king is not found in high places, or among the royal families of the day, rather he is found in the lowliest of places. He will threaten the mighty not with great armies and power but with peace and love.  It is the lowliest place Bethlehem, it is the poor family, it is the barnyard stall and the poorest of means that reveals the lordship of Christ.

In seminary I learned a wonderful word: Heilsgeschichte. It is a German word that means salvation history.  One of the things I love about Epiphany is the many levels in which the passage from Matthew is working.  The first is the tradition found in Numbers, the Psalm, and Isaiah.  These are the ancient heilsgeschichte prophesies which reveal something to us about the person of Jesus.  Then there is the context of the story in which the signs and symbols are presented and God in Christ Jesus is revealed to the magi by way of a language and imagery which they can understand.  Then there is the first community to hear or read Matthew's good news of salvation. The narrative is reinterpreted again and reveals to them the nature of this new community founded upon the Christ; who will draw to him a varied people.  Then there is our community today.

So, we ask ourselves how does the church present the revelation of the good news of salvation today?  How are we revealing the Christ and his work? We are challenged I think to continue the sharing of the story in contemporary form and through contemporary images.  We are to use contextual narratives to reveal the reign of God.  We are to remember that the kings were not fooled by the aristocratic means of Herod nor his court or majestic realm, but rather the integrity of the message of God's lordship was found in the humblest of places, the poorest of families, and the weakest of citizens - a child.  Our preaching and teaching of the salvation history of God will always be measured by the parallel life of our church's mission in the most marginal of settings with the weakest of people.  AND vice versa, our mission will always be measured by the presentation of salvation history through the unique offering of God in Christ Jesus through the eyes of our own church's tradition.

It is a both and proposition. We are about the work of revealing this God and the uniqueness of Christ, to do this in word and work, in such a way that both the shepherds and magi of our day may be drawn to him.

Some Thoughts on Ephesians 3:1-12

A cave painting of Paul, found in Ephesus in Turkey.
We find in the letter to the Ephesians that Paul's ministry to the Gentiles, and his belief that God had called them into the family of Abraham as equal members of the church has led to his imprisonment.  In our passage this Sunday Paul is telling the community about his work.  His words tap into the revelation that is also present in the Gospel for Epiphany.  Paul writes, "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."

Like Paul, the community at Ephesus is invited to participate in the sharing of this revelation.  Paul talks about  how God was revealed to him.  And, he repeats his conviction that both Jews and Gentiles are to be at work in the saving activity of sharing the good news of salvation; of Christ and his kingdom.  Paul does a little work in translating the salvation history for the church at Ephesus, the heilsgeschichte, he talks to them about the revelation of old and God was at work to draw other nations to him.  The prophets of old and the apostles of his day offer a vision that all are invited to be co-heirs, co-members and co-partners.  (In Greek each word begins with syn as in synchronous.)

It is here that we find something unique and important to the Gospel in our tradition as Christians who are Episcopalians.  Paul was an unlikely choice, he offers, to be an evangelist of this gospel.  But that is the point.  The good news of salvation is that all are invited into the work of evangelism (sharing the good news in words) and mission (sharing the good news in work).  More importantly, this salvation story, has always come to the least likely people, the most unexpected persons, and the one's to whom the powers of the day never expect much of anything - other than remaining in their place.  The newcomers to the family, in this case the Gentiles, are always to be integral members of the family.  

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.8Although 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;10so 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.11This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord,12in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.

Paul, a Jew, has become an unlikely evangelist to the Gentile.  His work is to share the abundant "riches" of Christ with whomever will listen.  He is to tell the salvation story, that from the beginning God's plan was established, those who are outside of the family of God now have a place as an integral part of the ever evolving family of God - the new community - the new Israel.  The work of the community, the church at Ephesus, the work of the Christian community today, the work of the Episcopal/Anglican church is to share the good news of salvation (all are welcome and included) and the uniqueness of Christ (he is a light to the world and a challenge to the powers of this world).  

Whenever I read Paul I am constantly challenged to wonder who are the gentiles in our context?  It is not us! We are more like the Abrahamic family, the Jews in Paul's letter.  So, who are the ones who this day stand outside the family of God, who are we being challenged to invite in? Who are we to offer the story of salvation history - a salvation history that includes them?  I think this is the most challenging aspect of our faith. You and I are the most unlikely of evangelists, yet you and I have been given the revelation and offered a vision of God's unveiling salvation history.  As unlikely as we are, we are the ones to carry the banner today and to invite the most unlikely of recipients into the family.  I find that is always good news for them, the "other", and rather challenging news for us.

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