The Epiphany of our Lord January 6, 2004.
The guiding image running through the readings for Epiphany is of the wise men, as representatives of the entire Gentile world, coming to honor the God of Israel, whose presence is manifest in the Christ child. Third Isaiah calls the city of Jerusalem to rise from the ruins and shine, so that the glory of God might radiate out to be seen by all the nations. In its wider context, there is both a wonderful universalism and a disturbing parochialism about this vision. The message is beautiful for daring to imagine the glory of God shining out to the world, and the world responding by streaming to Jerusalem to proclaim the praise of the Lord. The message is unsettling for the threat of destruction for all who will not serve the people of the holy city. These more parochial themes are not found in the verses assigned for reading in worship.
After calling on Jerusalem to stand up and let the light of God shine forth, Isaiah speaks a pair of promises for God's people. First, the city's sons and daughters will return. The exiles will come home again. Second, the wealth of the nations will flow to Jerusalem, arriving by land and sea. The picture of caravans of camels bringing the wealth of the east, including gold and frankincense, may well have provided some of the inspiration for Matthew's account of visit of the magi.
In the verses immediately preceding our second reading, the writer of Ephesians reminds the Gentiles oo the time before their inclusion into the people of God, but then celebrates the gift of grace. God has broken down the dividing wall of hostility in order to create one new human family, composed of both Jews and Gentiles in Christ, to be a dwelling place for God. Our reading then identifies this as the cause Paul serves and for which he is a prisoner--the desire of God that Gentiles become fellow heirs and members of the same body, together with Jewish Christians. The language celebrates the wisdom and wide mercy of God, who now receives Gentiles and permits them to share in the promise of the gospel. Our passage concludes by contemplating how, through the church, this wisdom of God is made known even to the heavenly powers.
Matthew tells the familiar story of the wise men traveling to Bethlehem to honor the Christ child. It is worth noting that as Matthew tells the story, it is Gentiles who are the first to honor Jesus asking. Herodotus identifies the magi as Medes. After a detour to Jerusalem and a visit with King Herod, the wise men find their way to Bethlehem and the house where the holy family is living. When they arrive, they are "overwhelmed with joy." They present precious gifts to the Christ child, kneel before him and pay homage (NRSV). One might also translate prosekunesan as "they worshipped" or "they prostrated themselves." These Gentiles appear to appreciate who Jesus is!
What are we to make of these incongruous facts? On the one hand, Israel looked for the whole world to come to worship the Lord, having received from Third Isaiah (and elsewhere in their scriptures) a compelling universal vision of the nations streaming to Jerusalem to give praise to the God of Israel. On the other hand, the cultural walls separating Jews and Gentiles proved more substantial than any desire to make this vision become reality. It wasn't until the early church began its Gentile mission that a large-scale entrance of Gentiles into a primarily Jewish community actually began to happen. Sadly, it also contributed to the fracturing of first-century Judaism, with Jewish Christians finally being expelled from their synagogues.
Perhaps more pointedly we might ask about the incongruity in our day between the Church's explicit missionary identity and the relative lack of passion for outreach that is evident in the life of many congregations. At our best, we do seek to be welcoming to those who come to us, warmly receiving those who find their way to the church door, especially if they are "like us." Yet even at our best, we seem to generally lack not only the resources but also the awareness of the need to reach out to those who have not come looking for us but nonetheless need the Christ and are included in Isaiah's vision of God's wide embrace.
A year ago I attended a "Transformational Ministry Event" sponsored by the ELCA Division for Outreach. What I appreciated most was that outreach was not presented as a program to implement. Instead, the focus was placed on transforming congregational life, growing deeply in the love of God so that our hearts are changed. When the love of God upends our self-oriented lives so that we become not only aware of but also passionately concerned about the needs of others, then our light will truly shine in such a way that people will be drawn to experience the grace of God in our congregations. Our neighbors and coworkers do not need to become our evangelism prospects or projects, nor do they need to join a religious club. They need to experience the love of Christ flowing through us. This can happen when we are willing to risk becoming transparent about our needs and hurts, and how we have found strength and hope in Christ and among Christ's people.
I pray for us to be filled with the kind of joyful and thankful spirit evident in the reading from Ephesians, that we may be passionate about sharing the boundless riches of Christ. Martin Luther is said to have described the church's mission very simply: it's a matter of one beggar telling another where to find bread. Gone is any trace of triumphalism. Present is only a sense of gratitude and joy for the exceeding goodness of God.
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2003|
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