Sunday, January 6, 2008

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

Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of Jehovah is risen upon thee.

Bob and Doug McKenzie (played by comedians Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) sang a humerous rendition of the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” using their favorite items from the Great White North as the gifts. In the song they ask the question, “Where do they get twelve days?” They try to figure it out by counting Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and then the weekends, but are left with several “mystery days.” Since the twelve days of Christmas is not a tradition most of us follow anymore, it is hard to know what they mean.

One of the great debates involving Christmas is what is meant by the twelve days of Christmas. Many people think it means the twelve days leading up to Christmas Day. The reality is that Christmas, for the Christian, does not begin until the 25th. Then we begin counting through the twelve days. The final day, Twelfth Night, is January 5th and then on January 6th the Church calendar begins a new season: Epiphany. The days leading up to Christmas is called the season of Advent. Instead of singing Christmas carols until all the packages are unwrapped, we begin singing them when the real gift – the Christ child – is given at the celebration of the Nativity.

This year we have the unusual opportunity to celebrate Epiphany on Sunday. There is so much that we can take from our scriptures this week. Isaiah brings up the glory of the Lord which shines to the entire world. The psalmist prays for a righteous king who will rule with justice and mercy. Paul reminds us that the gift is for the whole world and that in the gift we are given a revelation of God that had previously not been revealed. In the Gospel lesson we see the difference between belief and unbelief, between knowledge and faith, between those who are inside and those on the outside, between the powerful and the powerless. Epiphany is that day when we take a deeper look at that which was given at Christmas, seeing more fully the purpose of Christ as the revelation of God in this world.

Why do we have a special day called Epiphany? Epiphany is defined as “a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.” Throughout the history of the Jews, God promised to send them a Messiah, a king who would deliver them from their bondage. The Old Testament is filled with words from the prophets and kings that speak of that promise and God’s faithfulness. The Jews longed for the day that promise would be fulfilled.

When we read the promises of the Old Testament, it is easy to think that they aren’t for us today. After all, we are not Israel, we are not children of Jacob and we do not claim Abraham as our father. We are gentiles, foreigners from another time and place. We are thousands of miles from Jerusalem and thousands of years from the promises. How can this be for us?

At Epiphany we see that Christ has been revealed to the whole world. Isaiah writes, “And nations shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” Jesus Christ was the morning star, His birth was the dawn of a new age. He was light and brought light into this dark world. A star shown in the sky at the moment of His birth; far away magi studying the stars saw this sign appear. They were astronomers, recording every change in the sky and interpreting its meaning for the world. This new star was a sign of a great event, the birth of a king. They left their homes to follow the star and found themselves in Israel. They naturally went to Jerusalem, to the palace of Herod, for any king born of the Jews must have been born into a royal household.

Herod called his priests and they searched the prophecies in the scriptures. Micah foretold of a king to be born in Bethlehem, a shepherd from the house of David. Herod sent them to Bethlehem to find the king. “Go and search out exactly concerning the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word, that I also may come and worship him.” Isn’t it interesting that the promised nation did not see the signs of the coming fulfillment? When they saw the sign they did not follow. No one from Jerusalem went to find the new born king. Herod and the people of Jerusalem did not follow the magi to the manger. They did something worse – they conspired against the child that threatened their lives.

Herod never wanted to worship Jesus. He was threatened by the birth of another king because he knew that his position was fragile. Though the Jews longed for the coming of the Messiah, Jerusalem was not ready to face the reality of what was happening. The Messiah might mean the salvation of Israel, but the coming also meant a radical shift from the status quo. What if the new king had new ideas? What if he not only ousted Herod, but also everyone else? They saw Him as an obstacle, a threat, to their way of life. Jesus was born among the Jews, but He came for us all. They did not recognize Him, they did not see Him as He truly is, the Lord incarnate sent to save the world from death and the grave.

Imagine what it must have been like for the magi. The whole story of Jesus seems like a pile of unmatched pieces until you put them together and see that Jesus is more than a child in a manger. Why didn’t Herod rush along with them to go see the long awaited Messiah? Why didn’t they even know the birth had occurred? Why was this king born in such a lowly place at such a difficult time? Why did wise men from so far away travel for so long to get a look at a poverty stricken child who did not even have a home of his own? It probably did not make sense to those magi. Jesus was not what they expected, but then He was not what He seemed. They followed a star, a light in the night sky, and found the true light of God revealed in the flesh of a humble child. He is the Son of God sent to save the world.

An epiphany is a “revelatory manifestation of a divine being.” On the day of Epiphany, the church recognizes that God revealed His divine nature of Christ to the world through a group of magi from the east. These magi were not only foreigners, outsiders; they were also the worst the gentile world had to offer. They were astronomers, astrologers, practicing arts that might have been considered witchcraft. We have come to have this understanding of the magi as being wise men or kings, but they did not have such respectable positions. They were like the psychics or fortune tellers; they were stargazers who used other worldly methods for insight into the world.

God has this way of using the least likely people to do His work in the world. The first people to visit the baby Jesus were shepherds, the lowest of the low in Jewish society. They were outcasts whose voice had no authority. Mary was young girl, Joseph nothing but a carpenter. Bethlehem was the seat of the house of David, but it was a very small town of very little importance in the culture of the day. Jesus grew up in Nazareth – not only unimportant, but disregarded by the powerful as a cesspool. Here, in today’s stories, we see Christ revealed to the world through magi, astrologers that we might also discount because of their pagan practices.

But in this story we see the hand of God. There is a star that leads these magi to the place where Jesus is staying. They see this child and fall to their knees in worship, despite the questionable circumstances. They present Him with gifts that might have had some purpose in their own belief systems, but they also had a very special meaning to the life of Jesus.

The three gifts they brought – gold, myrrh and frankincense – foresaw the work of Jesus. The gold was a symbol of royalty and wealth. It had a practical purpose, too. The escape to Egypt would cost a great deal of money and the gold would help with the care and protection of Jesus. The frankincense was a sign of Jesus’ ministry, a foreshadowing of his role as High Priest when He would present the perfect lamb – Himself – to atone for the sins of the world. Myrrh was an expensive ointment that was used only for the anointing of the dead. By giving this gift to Mary and Joseph, they pointed to the day when it would be used for Jesus’ own flesh – not the most appropriate gift to give to a new mother. However, it also indicated the importance of Jesus’ death in the purpose of His life.

In today’s Old Testament passage, Isaiah writes, “The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come; they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praises of Jehovah.” The story from Matthew indicates that the magi came from the East, but I think we should consider this passage in light of its juxtaposition with the Epiphany texts.

We are familiar with the place called Sheba because of the Queen of Sheba’s relationship with King Solomon. Sheba is said to be in, or near, Ethiopia, a country that has had a long history. Written history shows us that there was a thriving civilization in Ethiopia during the days of Solomon. According to tradition, the Queen of Sheba returned to he country after her visit to Jerusalem with King Menelik, a son she bore with Solomon. He founded the Solomonic dynasty in Ethiopia. A small Jewish community still thrives there today. There are those who believe that Solomon also sent the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia with the Queen of Sheba, to keep it protected from the enemies of Israel.

Along with the Jewish community, Ethiopia has strong Christian and Muslim communities. It is the second nation to become officially Christian, sometime in the fourth century A.D. The three religions live in peace, working together for the betterment of the nation and the people. There are beautiful churches hand-hewn out of stone, built right into the rock face. It is not a perfect place. The country has seen its share of political upheaval and difficulties. Famine has been a problem. However, there is something special about the nation – perhaps it is the faith that was so evident in the presentation. A light shines in a nation where people can work together to accomplish great things.

It is easy to look at this passage and think about the days of Solomon, when the nation of Israel was wealthy, powerful and independent. It was a place where the roads of the world crossed, where the best products from all over the world found a place in her marketplaces. The Queen of Sheba came and brought magnificent gifts of gold and incense, for which Sheba was world renowned. Isaiah seems to be promising a restoration to the Golden Age, and the people were searching for a Messiah that would restore them as a people to her God and to her place of prominence in the world.

The psalm for today is a prayer given at the coronation of a king. It was used first by or for Solomon the son of David, and then for the kings that followed. It is the ideal reign of a king – a nation of peace and righteousness. It calls the king to a right relationship with His people, taking care of their needs and leading them in the right path. It is a prayer for a long reign, for a kingdom that spreads far and showers blessings on the entire world.

It is difficult for a human king to fulfill such a great expectation. King Solomon was a great king. He accomplished amazing things for the nation and for God such as the building of the Temple. His rule brought about a golden age during which Israel shined the world over. Kings, and Queens, came to visit Solomon, to bring great gifts and pay homage to the power and authority he had in the world. Solomon ruled with justice, wisdom and a heart for God. But he was imperfect. Like all human kings, he did not remain true to the Lord willingly building temples to the gods of his wives.

The prayer continued for the sons of David as they were raised to the throne of Israel. Some of the kings were more righteous than others. Some of the kings were just and merciful. The kingdom thrived and the kingdom fell under the leadership of the sons of David. But the people believed God and trusted that He would provide the king who could fulfill this prayer. They waited for the Messiah. They longed for the king that would restore Israel.

Isaiah wrote about the light that will shine out of Israel, the glory of the LORD which will rise out of His people. The light will draw all nations to Jerusalem, strangers and foreigners will come to worship the God of Israel. The light first appeared as a star in the sky leading magi from foreign lands to a humble stable in Bethlehem. There, the magi found the true light, the true King, the Messiah that had been promised. While Israel may have looked forward to the day when they would be restored, the story of the magi helps us to see that the promise is for everyone. Not everyone sees the light, however.

Faith can’t be learned. It is impossible for us to believe in Jesus if there is nothing deep within us calling us into that relationship. That gift of faith can not be learned or found through hard work. It is by God’s grace that we can know His love and pass on the wonderful message of the Gospel.

Paul was a zealous Jew, knowledgeable about the scriptures and the Law. He did everything he could to destroy Christianity, chasing after the disciples and ordering the destruction of the Church. He had no faith despite the fact that he had in depth knowledge of the prophecies that confirmed his identity as that of the Messiah for which Israel waited. Paul’s authority to destroy Christianity may have had a lasting impact on some of the believers whose faith was weak. He stood over the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr. One day Jesus revealed himself to Paul in a spectacular and miraculous manner and then Paul had faith. He believed and became an apostle who built faith rather than destroying it.

Paul knew that what he had been given was not something that came from hard work, but only by God’s grace. He revealed the mystery and now all can know His grace by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can’t learn how to love and serve God. We can’t learn how to speak His Word to the people. We can’t learn how to be a prophet or apostle. It has to come from within, the indwelling Spirit that brings faith and gifts to all those who believe.

God knew from the beginning of time the things that would occur in and through His people, planning for our salvation even before we were born. Much of God’s plan remained a mystery to those who came before Christ – they knew the promise but how it would be fulfilled remained hidden until the right time. Christ came to reveal God’s grace and mercy to the world. Then one day Christ broke through into this world to reveal something new, something hidden for so long. He gave this knowledge to the church so that we might reveal His love fully, pure and unadulterated by human hands.

God has given a similar responsibility to us, those who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord. He gave us the Gospel, first to the Apostles and through them the rest of the Church, so that His mercy would be revealed to the whole world. There is still value in the Old – the Law and the word of God given through the patriarchs, judges, kings and prophets help us to see how we have failed to live up to God’s expectation. In the New we see how it was meant to be, revealed first in Jesus Christ and then through those who believe in Him. May we always care for the incredible gift we have been given, the Gospel of Christ, His love and mercy.

The magi were men who practiced things that few people understood or experienced personally. We might go to a psychic for a reading, but we will never really know how they do what they do. It is a closed society, limited only to a special few who have learned the mystery of the art. There are some Christians who believe in a similar vein – that some are given special knowledge that others will never have. They believe they are part of a remnant that is specially gifted and what they have learned can’t be given to others.

The irony of the Christian message is found in Paul’s writing to the Ephesians. The divine mystery, though once secreted from the world is now made visible in the life and grace of Jesus Christ. It is still a mystery – a thing that can not be fully understand by human power or knowledge. It is given as a gift, but it has been given to the whole world. It is not hidden any longer. The light shines for all to see. We might enjoy calling ourselves part of a chosen people, but we haven’t been chosen to be separated from the world. We have been chosen to take the light of Christ to others, to shine the grace of God that all might see Him and receive the faith He has to give. We have been chosen to share Christ that all might believe.

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