31 December 2018

The Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord, 6 January 2019

TheFeast of the Epiphany, Christmas Eve, 6 January 2019

Background: The Star


In the ancient near east, especially in Mesopotamia, the eight or six-pointed star was associated with the worship of Ishtar or Inanna. The goddess Ishtar was also associated with the planet Venus, as is Jesus – the Morning Star. The star is found on boundary stones, stele, and other sculptured monuments. It is often found with the crescent moon, the symbol of Sin, the moon god, and with a circular disk, symbol of Shamash, the god of the sun. In Egypt the star was associated with Nut, the goddess of the sky. She is usually depicted as being clothed in a star-covered robe. Hieroglyphs associated with her included stars, the sky and cows. In Canaan, the star was often associated with Astarte or Ashtarot, the goddess of fertility, sexuality, and war. Her star was often represented within a circle, and was associated with Venus. In Greek mythology, the planet Venus was known as phosphorus, or eosphoros, “light-bringer”, or “dawn-bringer”. In ancient Israel, the star, the hexagram appears largely as a decorative device.

First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6


Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lordhas risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lordwill 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.


Chapters 60-63 form a central focus for Third Isaiah. There are eight themes that play themselves out in these chapters, and many are related to our pericope for this morning. The themes are: 


1.    God will save God’s people

2.    God will give light to them

3.    God will share God’s glory with them

4.    Nations will be drawn to what they see

5.    Nations will restore the exiles to Zion

6.    Nations will bring wealth to God.


One commentator describes the image evident in 60:1 as that of a young woman standing on Mount Zion, illuminated by the rising sun. She then reflects in her own being the very light of God. Israel then becomes the embodiment of God’s glory – a vision that is seen and appreciated by the nations – a perfect Epiphany theme. The second verse takes us back to Egypt and the darkness that was a part of the plagues. The subsequent light that shines up Israel is the light of freedom and peace that God brings to God’s people. The hope in Isaiah is not the mere restoration of a people, but rather a people as a demonstration of God’s power, seen by all the nations. The scene is reminiscent of an Egyptian tribute ceremony.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. What do you hope with each dawning day?
  2. Where is God’s light in your life?
  3. What blessings does God bring to you?

Psalm 72:1-7,10-14 Deus, judicium


1      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.
10    The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, *
and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts.
11    All kings shall bow down before him, *
and all the nations do him service.
12    For he shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress, *
and the oppressed who has no helper.
13    He shall have pity on the lowly and poor; *
he shall preserve the lives of the needy.
14    He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence, *
and dear shall their blood be in his sight.


The superscription of the psalm is “to Solomon”, which the text will bear out. A royal psalm, verse 20 leads us to believe that the psalm was written by David in honor of his son, Solomon. The elided verses of the psalm complete the vision of imperial majesty and suasion, Solomon as a king who rules over many lands and is the admiration of the peoples and kings of the earth. 


The editing of the psalm for liturgical purposes ties the psalm to the Epiphany feast, and the mention of “the kings of Arabia and Saba” connect with the visit of the wise ones from the East.  More important, however, are the gifts that kingship is to bring to the people: to the needy, the poor, and those who are oppressed. The themes of justice are used by both later prophets, and by Luke as they describe what Messianic kingship is called to be like.

Breaking open Psalm 72:
  1. Who was/is your favorite ruler?
  2. Why?
  3. Which of Solomon’s attributes apply to your favorite ruler?

Second Reading: 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.

One commentator, Margaret Y. MacDonald, titles this pericope as “Paul as Interpreter of the Divine Mystery”.[1]The pericope is not a diversion but rather a bridge between the initial doctrinal section, and the studies of the ethics of the Christian. Paul makes certain of his credentials to reveal the mystery, and to expound upon it. His initial depiction is that of one who suffers, “I am a prisoner for Christ Jesus,” and thus identifies with the Suffering One, Jesus. The revelation is that the mystery once hidden from the people of God, has now been revealed not only to them, but to the Gentiles as well. Paul calls them “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise.” 

What follows is that Paul is not only a prisoner, but a servant as well, “I am the very least of all the saints.” In humility he reveals the mystery of Jesus. There is a whole spectrum of humanity that is to see the revelation, from the lowliest to the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” All are to see the mystery once hidden, and now revealed.

Breaking open Ephesians:
  1. How is the Gospel a mystery?
  2. What don’t you understand about your faith?
  3. Who will reveal it to you?

The Gospel: 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.

Matthew makes us aware of the divide that Jesus’ birth brings. The wisdom from out of the east on one hand, and the cruel egocentricity seen amongst Herod and his court. Taking themes and images out of the Joseph story, Matthew sees Jesus moving from quiet Bethlehem, to the place of exile – Egypt, but that is later. Right now, we are meant to wrestle with the mystery of Jesus worshipped by the gentiles who come from somewhere else, somewhere distant. And then there is the star, the sign of ancient divinity (see Background) that indicates here, in this lowly place is the king of promise. Here for all peoples, for more than Israel and Judah, for all the nations is “a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Indeed, a new Israel.

Breaking open the Gospel: 
  1. How were these women blessed?
  2. How are you blessed?
  3. How are you blessed in your children.

Principal Idea:            Glory revealed

First Image:                 The young woman, Israel, enlightened by the rising sun – the hopes of Third Isaiah (First Reading)

Second Image:            Righteous kingship, God seen in the justice and righteousness of kings and leaders (Psalm)

Third Image:               The glory of Jesus revealed as a hidden mystery. (Ephesians)

Fourth Image:             All the nations guided to see the glory (St. Matthew)

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 © 2019, Michael T. Hiller

[1]       Gaventa, B. ed.  (2010), The New Interpretor’s Bible, One-Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press, Nashville, Kindle Ediction, Kindle location 32178.

19 December 2018

The Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve, 24 December 2018

TheNativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve, 24 December 2018

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
St. Luke 2:2-14, (15-20)

Background: Christmas

The celebration of Christ’s birth has moved about amongst various dates and with a variety of emphases, but the date of 25 December seems to have stuck. In the Eastern Church, it is celebrated in the Julian Calendar, which in the western calendar is 7 January. The Western Church celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. The stretch of days from 25 December through 6/7 January is seen as one unified cycle. The Council of Tours made that determination in 567. The earliest documentation about the celebration of this Feast is from a Roman document dating from 336. There it records “8 Kalends January – the birth Christ in Bethlehem, Judea. The Eastern Church introduced the festival, centered around the Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus in Constantinople in 379. It disappeared for a few years, but was reintroduced by St. John Chrysostom in 400.

First Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness--
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lordof hosts will do this.

This poem documents Isaiah’s hopes for a renewed kingship. He envisions an ideal monarch who as an innocent (“For a child has been born for us.”) will bring into place the prophetic ideals of righteousness and justice.  What Isaiah and others had seen as darkness, the widening threat of Babylon and Assyria before that, gives way to a great light – an enlightenment from God. We get that same message from many others such as Psalm 139,

If I take the wings of dawn*
and dwell beyond the sea,*
10Even there your hand guides me,
your right hand holds me fast.
11If I say, “Surely darkness shall hide me,
and night shall be my light”*
12Darkness is not dark for you,
and night shines as the day.

Although it will take time for Isaiah’s hopes to be realized, he writes about them as if they have already been accomplished. The realities of their former situation is brutally spelled out: “For the yoke of their burden and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.” This they saw at the hands of the Assyrians, and the hope is for a time free of the oppression by foreign rulers. What follows are a series of causes for joy, the joy born of freedom and redemption from the oppressor.

Something new is required, and this new monarch is not even called a king for he is but a child endowed with all the aspects that Isaiah laboriously lays out, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God…” Divinity? Perhaps Isaiah is naming this sought for monarch with Egyptian-like throne names, “Mighty Bull appearing in Thebes.” Did Israel do the same? Israel’s kings were not God, but they were to represent God in the righteousness and justice of their deeds. This is the ultimate relationship of the Throne of David and the God of the Covenant, the God who loves and is passionately present with the people. “The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. How does a child’s innocence explain Isaiah’s hope?
  2. Which of the names (Wonder, Counselor…) do you like the best?
  3. What are your messianic hopes?

Psalm 96 Cantate Domino

     Sing to the Lord a new song; *
sing to the Lord, all the whole earth.
     Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; *
proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
     Declare his glory among the nations *
and his wonders among all peoples.
     For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; *
he is more to be feared than all gods.
     As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; *
but it is the Lord who made the heavens.
     Oh, the majesty and magnificence of his presence! *
Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary!
     Ascribe to the Lord, you families of the peoples; *
ascribe to the Lord honor and power.
     Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his Name; *
bring offerings and come into his courts.
     Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; *
let the whole earth tremble before him.
10    Tell it out among the nations: "The Lord is King! *
he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity."
11    Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
let the sea thunder and all that is in it; *
let the field be joyful and all that is therein.
12    Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy
before the Lord when he comes, *
when he comes to judge the earth.
13    He will judge the world with righteousness *
and the peoples with his truth.

The psalmist, like Isaiah above, is seeking and longing for something new. Thus, then, a new song, sung by the whole earth. This is not just Israel’s new song, but rather a song that is sung by the whole earth. It is here that I love Robert Alter’s transalation of verse 5: 

“For all gods of the peoples are ungods.”[1]

The psalmist wants us to see them as not just another variety of divinity, but as non-existent, unreal. This is in contrast to the line that comes before, he is more to be feared than all gods.”This God has a proven track record, the creation of the very heavens. Thus we bring honor and praise to the creator. In verse 10 we have a sense of the on-going nature of God’s role as creator – God makes the world firm and sound. Thus, all the aspects of creation praise God’s name. Righteousness and truth are the hallmarks of God’s rule.

Breaking open Psalm 96:
  1. Who are your “ungods”?
  2. How does God make your world firm?
  3. What have been your gifts of righteousness and truth?

Second Reading: Titus 2:11-14

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

Titus may have served as an introduction to the First and Second Epistles of Timothy, however it has its own separate themes in its commentary on the Holy Spirit and Baptism. In the verses that precede our pericope, Titus gives words of encouragement to live a Christian life, lives that are in agreement with the Gospel. What follows however is theology. It is not just what we do or how we act that makes the fulness of our Christianity. The reality is the salvation that is brought to us, as our lives await the fulness of faith. It is Jesus who made us clean and capable of good deeds. 

Breaking open Titus:
  1. In what ways are you still being trained in the faith?
  2. What could you teach others?
  3. What are your good deeds?

The Gospel: St. Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"

[When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.]

From the very beginning of Luke’s nativity we are aware that something is being fulfilled, that the time is complete for something new to happen. He places it, however, not just in the locale of Israel, but in the midst of the Roman Imperium. We become aware of times and men and power. For all of these things are to be reversed and renewed, as Mary sings in her song, Magnificat. But even Jesus is placed within the constructs of power, born in the City of David, and in the line of David. He is king material. 

It’s all really quite simple until we get to the shepherds. Luke meekly states that Mary gave birth – it is the shepherds who see the glory that surrounds that assertion. At they edges of society, doing a necessary but lonely task it is they who see the angel’s glory and hear their hymn. It is also they who journey to see the child – to make it real, and who bear witness to what they have seen and heard. Mary ponders, but the shepherds rejoice and give glory. And thus Luke begins to tell his story of Jesus and the poor ones he is about to shepherd.

Breaking open the Gospel: 
  1. How were these women blessed?
  2. How are you blessed?
  3. How are you blessed in your children.

Initial Idea:                 Rejoicing in humility

First Voice:                  The humility of Bethlehem (Micah)

Second Voice:             The humility of Mary (Magnificat)

Third Voice:                The humility of Worship (Hebrews)

Fourth Voice:              The humility of Elizabeth (Luke)

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday: 

O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

or this

O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

or this

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2018, Michael T. Hiller

[1]       Alter, R. (2007), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition, Kindle Location 7583