The Epiphany of Our Lord: January 6, 2007.
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
As most will immediately know, two themes appear with Epiphany and the Sundays that follow: God's light returning to the people Israel, and how that light serves as a beacon as all the nations gather around it. Sometimes these themes are expressed as one statement--Christ, the Light for all the nations. The lessons for this day reflect those themes and serve as the jumping-off point for the third and final part of the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany cycle.
In Isaiah 60, Third Isaiah opens his writing with this oracle on the light of God reflected through Israel. The brilliance of this light will gather all nations to its glory. And they will come bearing gifts, with frankincense and gold mentioned by name. The abundance indicates exaggeration by the author to emphasize the point. (Imagine the land covered with the camels of the caravans required to bring all that stuff to the people, according to v. 6.) In Isaiah it is not immediately clear if the "nations" (goyim) are intended to share in the joy and benefits of the light or just to marvel and offer gifts (indicating subservience).
Of course, Matthew's version of the birth of Jesus, with its parallels to the story of Moses, picks up some of the notions of Isaiah and is familiar to us. Once again, myths abound. Close examination of the text helps us to see that the Magi come from the East (likely Persia, or modern-day Iran) and are not numbered (there are three gifts, but no mention of only three Magi). It is likely that Matthew means for us to remember Isaiah 60, especially with the mention of the gifts. Later interpretations have suggested that Matthew is, through the Magi, including all the peoples of the earth as the recipients of God's love in Jesus. Thus later traditions include Magi from Europe and Africa. There is no support for this in the text, however helpful it might be to see ourselves reflected among those bringing the gifts. Within this text, as well as the verses that follow, we have the replaying of the slaughter of the innocents from Exodus and the removal of the family to Egypt, again so that Matthew can tell the story of Jesus as a parallel to the story of Israel itself. In all of this, the star gives light and guides the Magi to Jesus (perhaps another link to Isaiah 60).
By placing Paul's words to the Ephesians between these two texts, the folks who bring us the lectionary are coaxing us to see the inclusion of the Gentiles as something God was about this whole time. There are strands of Old Testament theology that suggest this very move. Paul declares that in Christ the Gentiles have become fellow heirs (v. 6) and are part of Paul's special mission work (v. 8), which, in fact, is something planned by God (vv. 9ff.). While Paul does not mention light, he does use such terms as "revelation of a mystery" to indicate how this happens.
In light of the recent deep debates on immigration in the United States, legal or illegal, texts that talk about the inclusion of all peoples in the love and mercy of God are tempting us to draw parallels. Let me suggest a word of caution. Too much connection between the United States and a "new Israel" is likely not a good thing. We are not the new "chosen" people of God, and our land is not the new promised land. We are blessed abundantly, and we may think of ourselves exclusively, but those things are part of the burden of every wealthy society, not necessarily a sign of God's favor.
Most people in the United States, apart from those who are Jewish, are part of the "nations"--the "goyim" who were on the outside looking in until we were invited into God's party by Jesus through Paul and others. These texts speak to our invitation in. As such, they are reminders that we must be an inviting people, excluding no one from God's mercy.
I think a far better place to begin preaching on these texts for the celebration of Epiphany is recalling that this festival predates Christmas as the celebration day for the birth of Jesus. The images of light and darkness, especially given the short days and long nights in the northern hemisphere, will have profound effect. Light is amazing stuff, really. It cannot be captured in ways that we normally contain other things. Even a little light goes a long way in a dark place. If you open a door between a lighted room and a dark room, the dark room is brightened without diminishing the amount of light in the lighted room. Light exposes things we don't want others to see, but it also brings health and healing to us and our relationships in the process. All of these images, connected to God's coming into the world in Jesus, make for powerful grace in the lives of hearers. That this light is shared now with others helps us out of our ghettos and into community with all of God's creation.
Now, we might pick up images from the immigration debate. Light does not respect national boundaries, arbitrarily drawn by politicians. No laws contain light in one nation or another. Perhaps God does not see our political lines drawn on a map, either. In the light of Christ, the "us" and the "them" of such things melts into the "we" of those God came to knit together again. LLB
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps|
|Author:||Bouman, Luke L.|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2006|
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