Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12)
God calls to his people and his world (season of Advent). God comes to his people and world (season of Christmas). God confronts his people and world (Day of Epiphany).
Born to a peasant couple in Bethlehem. Attended by animals and shepherds. Now worshiped by Magi. These “wise men” from the East, that is, pagans, seek audience with him led by a star in the East to his birthplace. They bear gifts fit for a king. This is Jesus, the king of the Jews (Mt.2:2)!
The lectionary readings also frame Jesus’ birth as a royal divine event. Isaiah styles it the coming of God’s “glory” (God’s presence). That for which Israel had longed for and waited is here!
Psalm 72 offers a prayer for this one, this king, who comes bearing God’s presence. Two things about this king according to this prayer. His rule extends to the Gentiles (v.10-11). And the mark of his rule is care, relief, and deliverance for the needy, the poor, those without help, those oppressed and afflicted with violence (vv.12-14). Remember Jesus’ birth, its humble origins, lower class retinue, his pagan adorers?
Not only is the setting of his royal arrival less than glorious and those who receive him, the peasants, shepherds and the magi the scorned and those outside the pale, but Israel already has a king. And sitting kings don’t usually take kindly to threats to their reign!
Usually we think of Epiphany as the revelation of Messiah Jesus to the world. And that’s of course true. But when we allow the lectionary to frame our reflection on the meaning of Epiphany and set the arrival of the magi in its setting in Matthew’s story, that rather innocuous sounding “revelation of Messiah Jesus to the world” suddenly becomes a sharp stick that pokes and prods us see things we’d rather not see.
-God has a “no borders, no boundaries” world. All of us have “pagans” in our worlds. Those who are different, frightening, outside the pale of acceptability, worth keeping as far away as possible and by any means necessary. Messiah Jesus, himself a Jew, draws magi (pagans) and shepherds (poor and despised), welcomes them, and shares a vision of God’s “no borders, no boundaries” world and calls them to join him in bringing it to pass.
-God’s passion is compassion. The Messiah (world ruler) he sends to set all things right and establish his kingdom does it by making sure the needy, poor, helpless, hopeless, oppressed, afflicted, ill are taken care of, restored to health, community, and overall well-being. This is the baseline and a community and a world’s health. The foreign and domestic policy of Messiah Jesus is lifting up the lowly (remember Mary’s Magnificat) and lowering the high and haughty. This means confrontation and conflict with the status quo, the way things are, and the powers that be all across the board.
Yes, God’s passion is compassion. Compassion is standing with the least, the lowest, the lost, following Messiah Jesus as he sets up God’s eternal rule on the healing and well-being of these uncared for no accounts – these “pagans” and “shepherds” – who are precisely those God comes to first (or come first to him) upon his arrival.
-God’s people, his Epiphany people, announce and engage God’s epiphanic confrontation with the powers that stand opposed to his will and way. That’s what we learn from the Ephesians reading. Paul tells us God will use the church as his way of informing and defeating the “rulers and powers in the heavens” (v.10). This mysterious sounding description points to beings/realities that God created through Christ (Colossians 1:16) to establish and maintain the conditions for human life. You might imagine them as beams and girders on which the rest of a building is constructed. These “powers” have rebelled against God seeking to dominate and rule the world themselves. Humanity is in thrall to them. Their hold over us needs to be broken. And that is just what Christ has done (see ch.1-2 of Ephesians).
The church serves as his demonstration of the defeat of these powers – a community that can and does lives free of their divisive, demeaning, and destructive influences. Though these powers use human systems and rulers, it is against them and not their human surrogates that our struggle is directed (see Eph.6:10-20). They are our opponents; their human surrogate are among those to whom we announce and engage with to win and woo them to God’s kingdom. We have no human enemies, not even Herod who does such atrocious things in searching for the infant king! They are as enslaved and misused as are those they use and misuse. By living and announcing the defeat of these powers we display the freedom from the divisive, demeaning, and destructive intent of the powers and freedom for the reconciling, humanizing, edifying intent of the Spirit’s work among us.
God confronts the world on the Day of Epiphany. He confronts the world for us, with us, in us, and through us. May we be open to becoming the epiphanic presence of the risen One in our rebellious, needy, and broken world!
On Epiphany day,
we are still the people walking.
We are still people in the dark,
and the darkness looms large around us,
beset as we are by fear,
a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.
We are — we could be — people of your light.
So we pray for the light of your glorious presence
as we wait for your appearing;
we pray for the light of your wondrous grace
as we exhaust our coping capacity;
we pray for your gift of newness that
will override our weariness;
we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust
in your good rule.
That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact
your rule through the demands of this day.
We submit our day to you and to your rule, with deep joy and high hope.
(Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People [Nashville: Abingdon, 2008], p. 163.)