31 December 2019

The Epiphany of Our Lord (transferred), 5 January 2020

The Epiphany of Our Lord, 5 January 2020 (transferred)

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
St. Matthew 2:1-12

Background: Zoroaster and Christmas


In the Gospel for today, we meet the Magi, Zoroastrian priests. The connection between Zoroaster and the Christian Infancy Narrative is not only found in Matthew, but also in the Syriac Infancy Gospel. In the course of relating the visit of these Zoroastrians to the infant Jesus, it is related that the prophecy about Jesus came from the prophet Zoradascht (Zoroaster). The word magos appears not only in the new Testament (Matthew and Acts) but also in the Hebrew Scriptures as well, where it is indicative of a magician or sorcerer. The term was found widely in the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia, and from it we have our modern English words “magic” and “magician.” Why the link to Zoroastrianism? The chief influence that we see is the notion of universalism, that expanded the notion of YHWH as not only the God of Israel, but also of all the nations. We see these notions especially in Second Isaiah (a post-exilic piece) and in Jeremiah as well. We also so Perisan influences in the book of Daniel, chiefly in its concept of angels. Some scholars see the abandonment of Sheol as the place of the dead and the new idea of a separate heaven and hell as also coming out of Persia. Much like heaven and hell, the on-going battle of good against evil might also come from these influences. It is, however, possibly the universalism that attracted Matthew as the Christian story was discovered by the Gentiles.

First Reading: 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.


If Persian thought was suffused with the idea of good against evil, third Isaiah’s thought is caught up in the contrast of darkness and light. Here a restored Zion is glorified by the light of the dawning sun – the light that comes after the darkness. The darkness here is the exile that the nation has suffered at the hands of the Babylonians, and that was relieved at the command of Cyrus the Mede. The procession of daughters and sons, and the newly born being dandled on the hips of their nursemaids is reminiscent of the many processions, journeys, and pilgrimages that Israel had made in its history – cross the Reed Sea, from Sinai, over the Jordean, through the desert. These verses remind one of the ancient Egyptian tribute ceremonial in which vassal kings brought gifts to the Pharaoh. Reliefs at Persepolis show a similar procession bring tribute gifts of gold, luxury goods, animals, slaves, and soldiers. Here Israel receives “the wealth of nations.” The goods are enumerated, camels, gold, and frankincense. 

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.            Where do you find darkness in your life?
2.            Where has light come from?
3.            What gifts have you been offered?

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.


In this psalm, with an ascription “For Solomon” we see a tribute procession brought to the King (Solomon). The primary tribute gift from God is “judgment” and “righteousness.” These gifts in turn are given to the people in right judgment and in justice for “your lowly ones.” Soon it is all of creation that brings gifts of tribute – the mountains bring peace and the hills bring righteousness. The cycle of the sun and moon are signs of the recurring justice in the land. It is like rain, or new-mown grass. Several verses are elided here (8-9) which describe the bounds of this justice, and the obeyance of the desert peoples, former enemies. The kings of the earth offer their tribute as well. The important part here – a subset of the tribute theme is the role of the poor, who are mentioned frequently. In verse 12 we see the true nature of the God or the King who is blessed with God’s judgment. “He shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress.” It is the poor, the oppressed, the lowly, and the needy who receive the tribute of justice and righteousness in this psalm. 

Breaking open Psalm 72::
1.        When in your life have you seen “right judgment”?
2.        How have you given “right judgment”?
3.        Do you know the poor of your community?

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 with an almost exotic sense, “The Role of Paul as Interpreter of the Divine Mystery.” If that is a high view of Paul and his ministry, it is immediately brought low in the opening sentence where Paul describes himself as a “prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles.” The mystery had been kept silence, and now Paul and his fellow apostles reveal what has been revealed to them by the Holy Spirit. The ubiquity of Christ’s presence is revealed in his manifestation among both Jew and Gentile. In this epistle Paul especially holds up the latter. The Gentiles are “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers.” The second paragraph of the pericope is a repetition of the first. Here Paul wants the readers (it may have been more than the Ephesians) to be aware of the wisdom of God in its “rich variety.” This wisdom is dispensed to both high and low. It is the good news that we all now have access to God.

Breaking open Ephesians:
  1. How would you describe or tell of Salvation History?
  2. What does Paul mean when he calls himself a “prisoner of Christ”?
  3. What is the Wisdom of God?

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.

In Matthew we immediately become aware of how both Jew and Gentile will react to the one born in Bethlehem. Herod and his court are cautious and doubtful, but the Magi, the priests from the East have trusted the promise and have come to see and to worship, and to bring tribute. Lines have been drawn which will persevere throughout the story. There is a confluence of symbol here in this story with the star, Bethlehem itself – birthplace of David, the gifts of tribute, and the saying of the prophets (Micah). The annunciation to the magi follows a pattern as with Joseph. In a way this part of the story is a bit of an intersection. The magi come and go, the Herodian court rules and sends, and the Holy Family retreats to Egypt, there to bring into play the whole of Salvation History and the Jews. In a way, Matthew has in these verses, set the stage and the characters. Now we must watch as the history unfolds.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.        Who are the foreigners in your life?
2.        How have you told them the story of Jesus?
3.        What star led you to Jesus?

The General Idea:      The Tribute Procession

Example 1:                  The Procession from Exile, and the gift of light. (First Reading)

Example 2:                  The Procession of Righteous Rule (Solomon) (Psalm)

Example 3:                  The Procession of the Magi and the bringing together of a History (Gospel)

Example 4:                  The Mystery Revealed – A gift to the Gentiles (Second Reading)

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 © 2020, Michael T. Hiller

17 December 2019

The Fourth Sunday of Advent, 22 December 2019

Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18
Romans 1:1-7
St. Matthew 1:18-25

Background: Joseph

The Annunciation to Joseph which is today’s Gospel prompts me to give some background to Joseph the husband of Mary. He is honored in the calendars of the Orthodox Churches, the Roman Church, Anglicans, and Lutherans. He is the patron saint of workers. He appears in all of the synoptic Gospels excepting Mark, and in John as well. The genealogy of Matthew traces a royal lineage from Solomon. He is present at the nativity, with a final appearance in the Temple during the Passover pilgrimage made by the Holy Family. The annunciation text places Joseph in the tradition of his forebearer, Joseph the dreamer, in Genesis. 

First Reading: Isaiah 7:10-16

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”

In this chapter of Isaiah, the prophet introduces the idea of messianic hope, along with the notion of the remnant. The words of the oracle are Isaiah’s, but the authority that governs them is from YHWH. It is God who invites them to ask for a sign. In his commentary on Isaiah, Brevard S. Childs notes the significance of sign in prophetic material, “a sign is a special event, either ordinary or miraculous, that serves as a pledge by which to confirm the prophetic word.”[1] The sign we read of in this reading is one with which we are perhaps too familiar. It is important for us to look at it closely again, both in the context of the prophet’s time, and again through our Christian lenses. The birth announcement is similar to ones in Genesis 16:11 and Judges 13:3. It is the word almāh that has caused confusion. The Greek translation of almāh as parthenos (virgin) reflects, perhaps, the understanding of later authors and those quoting Isaiah, but it is not the meaning assigned to the word in Hebrew. In Hebrew the word signifies a woman of sexual maturity, not necessarily a virgin. Another consideration is as to whether this young woman is a particular individual or several individuals – a class of women.  Our Christian lenses might answer that one way, while the reader of the Hebrew Scriptures might see it another way.

The name is the important aspect of the sign – Immanuel. It is a name that is peculiar to this Old Testament text, although there is the same sense in Psalm 46:8 and 12. It is a statement of faith, that even in the most dire of circumstances God is still in the midst of the people, protecting and guiding. Given the oracles that precede and follow this text with this name and promise, this annunciation is crucial for those who awaited a messiah, and those who have seen the Messiah.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.            What would this passage have meant to Isaiah’s hearers?
2.            What does it mean to you?
3.            How is Immanuel with you?

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 Qui regis Israel


1      Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; *
shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.
2      In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, *
stir up your strength and come to help us.
3      Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
4      O Lord God of hosts, *
how long will you be angered
despite the prayers of your people?
5      You have fed them with the bread of tears; *
you have given them bowls of tears to drink.
6      You have made us the derision of our neighbors, *
and our enemies laugh us to scorn.
7      Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
16    Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, *
the son of man you have made so strong for yourself.
17    And so will we never turn away from you; *
give us life, that we may call upon your Name.
18    Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

This psalm asks us to look at the God who leads Joseph, i.e. the Northern Kingdom. This is made more clear in the Septuagint where it includes in the superscription the phrase, “concerning the Assyrians”, the enemy that decimated Israel in the eighth century BCE. The mention of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, all northern tribes, makes certain that the addressee is the Northern Kingdom. In this prayer there is the tacit admission that God is indeed angered by the people, for God has fed them with the “bread of tears.” The situation between God and people has caused the other nations to mock them, and to hold them in derision. The elided verses (8-15) recall before God the bringing of Israel out of Egypt – God planting a new vine in a new land. The prayer now is “Come again!” Like the text from Isaiah in the first reading we see the promise of a son, “the man of your right hand.” What is suggested here is an agent who will lead the people back to God. The final verse says it well, “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts.”

Breaking open Psalm 80::
1.        Who are the armies that are God’s hosts?
2.        From what does God need to deliver you?
3.        What has God done for you in the past?

Second Reading: Romans 1:1-7

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

To all God's beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This reading is comprised of Paul’s introduction in his letter to the church at Rome. In phrases that are almost credal, Paul introduces the One to which he is a servant, Jesus Christ. The citing of prophet, and the descent from David, make this a good remembrance in this last Sunday of Advent. But there is more than the nativity and the manger. Paul looks forward to the resurrection, and to the call of the Gentiles to both grace and apostleship. All are called to be saints, and it is these to which Paul introduces himself.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. How would you describe your faith?
  2. What are its most important points?
  3. How are you a saint?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

In Matthew the annunciation is to Joseph. You might want to read through the genealogy that immediately precedes this, a remembrance of all the important linkages that Matthew wishes us to see. We are also meant to see the relationship between this woman, Mary, and Joseph her betrothed. Betrothal was the first step of marriage in which a man and a woman consented to become husband and wife. This would constitute a legal marriage, although sharing a household would come later (perhaps up to one year). The conception of Jesus occurs before this second stage of the marriage, before the living together. Joseph is shown to us in his righteousness, in his keeping of the law, and in not wishing to embarrass Mary. Some divine intervention is needed here. 

Matthew relies on the Joseph Story (the Joseph of Egypt) in his construct of the Nativity of Jesus. Thus Joseph, the father, is a dreamer just like the Joseph of Egypt. An angel comes to straighten things out. Included in the angelic explanation is a quotation form Isaiah (see the first reading) that links the child with the ancient promise. Joseph is given the name, Jesus, as well, the angel explaining, “for he will save his people from their sins.” Like Mary, Joseph obeys, and after the birth he names him Jesus.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.        Why is this troublesome to Joseph?
2.        Have you ever been in an embarrassing religious situation?
3.        How did you resolve it?

General Idea:              The importance of a name

Idea 1:                          A name that describes God’s intent (First Reading)

Idea 2:                          The God of host (armies) who saves the people (Psalm)

Idea 3:                          A descendant of David – what does that mean? (Second Reading)

Idea 4:                          Jesus – the one who saves (Gospel)

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

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2019, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Childs, B. (2000), Isaiah – A Commentary, Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, Kindle edition, location 1959.