The Epiphany of Our Lord, 6 January 2016
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
St. Matthew 2:1-12
Background: The Magi and such.
We know this class of people from at least the sixth century BCE. It denotes the followers of Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism who gave us two important writings, the Gathas and Avesta. In which he espoused a dualistic faith centered on Ahura Mazda. That these Persian writings and worldviews influenced Judaism is fairly well established. The group is mentioned in Matthew’s birth narrative when he describes magoi coming from the east to worship the Christ. Apart from this profession class of Magi, we also have the influences of the study of astrology in Persia, and generally throughout the Ancient Near East. Such influences would have entered Jewish thought and conversation especially after the return from exile, and the period of Seleucid and Parthian rule. Josephus comments on the astral decorations in the temple, and numerous depictions of the zodiac have been uncovered in Jewish synagogues dating from the inter-testamental period. All of this, the visit by Magi, and accompanying stars and signs would naturally follow upon the birth of an important person – and so Matthew provides that for us.
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.
The whole of Isaiah 60 is a complete unit, and it might behoove you to read it as a whole. The pericope for this feast day is noted for its attention to both movement and light. Here is where we see a different theological stance than that of Second Isaiah, for this Third Isaiah spiritualizes the realities that Second Isaiah hopes for. It is all very poetic and indefinite. There is an initial command to “arise!” In this change of stance we recognize that something new is going to happen, that the momentum and indeed the moment are about to change. Even the light rises, a connection of the movement of the people and God’s deeds in the heavens – the light that has come upon them. The rest of the world, the nations, are left in a relative darkness, and are attracted to the light that shines upon Zion. The light beckons the returning ones, and these are enumerated in the text: sons, daughters (carried on nurses arms), all of the people, and specific peoples from Midian, Ephah, and Sheba. It is more than a return, it is a pilgrimage laden with gifts. My mind is drawn to the treasure processions of ancient Egypt. Israel would return, glittering with God’s light, and laden with the treasures of knowledge, wisdom, and experience gained in the foreigner’s land.
Breaking open Isaiah:
- Have bad things in your life ever been seen in a new and different light?
- For what is God calling to you to arise?
- What gifts have you gotten from others?
Psalm 72:1-7,10-14 Deus, judicium
Give the King your justice, O God, *
and your righteousness to the King's Son;
That he may rule your people righteously *
and the poor with justice;
That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people, *
and the little hills bring righteousness.
He shall defend the needy among the people; *
he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.
He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, *
from one generation to another.
He shall come down like rain upon the mown field, *
like showers that water the earth.
In his time shall the righteous flourish; *
there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.
The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, *
and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts.
All kings shall bow down before him, *
and all the nations do him service.
For he shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress, *
and the oppressed who has no helper.
He shall have pity on the lowly and poor; *
he shall preserve the lives of the needy.
He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence, *
and dear shall their blood be in his sight.
This is an excellent example of court poetry with its overblown phrases and images. The ascription, “For Solomon” places it at a time prone to that type of description. Tradition holds that this is a David psalm written for “the king’s son” (Solomon), and thus we can understand the fervid text. The relationship of the king and the justice that God will enable in the king’s rule is seen in the cosmic images of mountains, the lowly, the needy, the sun and moon, the new mown- grass, and the kings of Tarshish and the islands offering vassal-gifts (“tribute”) in our translation. In this psalm we detect what will become Luke and Mary’s concern with the little ones, and the ancient prophetic concern about widow and orphan. All of this is dealt with in justice as the king (the anointed one, the messiah) governs the lands subject to him.
Breaking open Psalm 72
- Where would you like to see justice done?
- What justice do you owe others?
- What justice do others owe you?
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.
Paul describes himself as a mediator or interpreter of what God has revealed to the Gentiles. It is the “mystery of Christ” that he wishes to reveal. He describes the process. First the Spirit revealed this divine mystery to prophets and apostles, and then it is revealed to the Gentiles – namely that they have become “fellow heirs” with all who have known the mystery bThis is the plan and the eternal purpose of God in revealing the Son to the nations.
Breaking open Ephesians:
- What does the birth of Jesus reveal to you?
- How do you share what has been revealed to you?
- Have others clued you in to the mystery of Jesus? How?
St. 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.
The understanding that Joseph comes to in the birth narrative of Matthew is borne of his own dreams and visions. It would be natural for him to understand the nature of Jesus because he was a son of the Law and the Prophets. All of his people’s history would have been available to him as he wondered out what the angel had said in the dream. That, however, is not the only road in Matthew. There is another way – the way of nature and what it has to say. Thus the magi come to know the Christ through a spectacular astral event that leads them to the place. Jews would have come to the knowledge through the ancient Scriptures, and the gentiles would have come to it through what creation offered. Thus the magi come, understand, worship, and go back a different way than that offered by the Jewish king. In Matthew’s narrative we have a glimpse of the time in which he was writing this – a time of continued non-acceptance by the Jews, and a time of Gentiles gathering in the places where Christians worshipped for there was hope there.
Breaking open the Gospels:
- What are the cultural messages for you in this Gospel?
- What do the magi represent to you?
- What does this story say about God’s intentions for the world?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller