Sunday, January 8, 2012

Epiphany Sermon

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

- St. Matthew 2:1-12

It has frequently been asserted that one of Anglican’s distinctive features is an emphasis on the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh in the man Jesus. This emphasis is set in opposition to other churches and denominations that emphasize the cross. Because Anglicanism emphasizes the incarnation, it is stated, it is more comfortable with the material world and the joys of the body. The problem with this assertion is that it puts the incarnation somehow in tension with the cross and resurrection of our Lord. If we direct our eyes to that manger scene what do we see? The Creator of the world has been born of a woman; the Lord of all history and time has entered into time; the Word by whom all things were made is speechless, the Word is wordless; the One who opens his hand and fills all things living with plenteousness, has to be fed by his mother. “He did not account equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself of no reputation, and took upon himself the form of a servant.” The incarnation affirms the paradox of divine humility. If we were to write the script on God becoming one of his creatures, we would likely write him into royalty, riches, and fame, as we think befits God; instead, the Lord appears in a stable with a manger for a crib; born into the poverty of the working class; born under the infamy of a mother who conceived while unwed. What is the purpose of this divine humility? If a man is drowning and you are standing on the shore, there is little chance your exhortations for the man to exert himself or your tossing him a buoy, will result in the man saving himself—sooner or later you have to get in the water to pull him to shore. The only salve for human pride which has cast us down is divine humility—Jesus getting into the water, if you will. When we think of the incarnation in this way, it is impossible not to see the cross as the flowering of this divine humility. On the cross, this God-man, though innocent, takes upon himself the punishment and guilt of all humanity. The cross is the supreme manifestation of the divine humility that was evident to the eyes of faith there in Bethlehem in that manger. One might say that the cross was latent and foreshadowed in the incarnation.

In the same way, today, as we celebrate the Epiphany, we could say that the inclusion of the Gentiles—non-Jews—in God’s people is latent and foreshadowed in the coming of the wise men who were Gentiles to worship the new born king. Epiphany is a Greek word that means simply manifestation. The feast of the Epiphany comes at the conclusion of the twelve days of Christmas. And on this day in particular, we celebrate the manifestation of Jesus to the wise men as the new born king, and in this season generally we celebrate the manifestation of Jesus as both divine and human, recollecting his baptism, miracles of healing & forgiveness and his transfiguration.

On Christmas Day it was the Jewish shepherds who received the message of the angels about the new born messiah. On Epiphany it is the Gentile magi who follow a star to this same new born king. This order of first Jews and then Gentiles is reminiscent of what Paul writes in Romans: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile.” The feast of the Epiphany is the good news for you and me as Gentiles that this salvation is “also to the Gentile.”

Matthew is the only Gospel to recount the coming of the wise men or magi. The word magi in fact does not occur in the King James Bible; magi is the Latin word used in the Vulgate—the Bible of the middle ages—to translate the ‘wise men’ of the King James Bible. The word magi highlights their pagan background better than wise men because they were essentially magicians and astrologers. Pious exegetes have sometimes argued that the magi knew the biblical book of Daniel—the historic Daniel lived in Babylon—and that the wise men divined the advent of the Messiah from the prophecies of that book. Interesting but there is no support for the idea in Matthew’s narrative. Rather, the star or light in the sky is a miraculous sign whose meaning God reveals to the wise men. No doubt their traditional wisdom played a part in how God revealed the sign to them.

The wise men stop in Jerusalem to ascertain the exact location of the foretold birth of the Messiah. The reaction of the people—or rather their entire lack of reaction—is a startling portrait of stale orthodoxy. The chief priests and scribes know chapter and verse the prophecies concerning the Messiah, but they are not moved to ascertain the truth of the wise men’s claim. Perhaps they took one glance at the wise men—their unusual dress, their foreign manners, their vocation as astrologers—and wrote them off as pagans, those outside of God’s covenant. It’s pretty hard to identify with this disposition. We never write others off who fall too far afield of our religious and social sensibilities. May I remind you that the true Christian disposition is to recognize that Jesus is the representative and sacrifice for all humanity; in the world of men there are only two types: those who know that Jesus is their elder brother and savior and those who do not yet know this. All therefore are our sisters and brothers, and we do have the prerogative to treat others as outsiders to the family.

If this is the reaction of stale orthodoxy, the reaction of Herod also contains an important lesson. Herod is the paragon of insecurity. Here is a man who is governor under the Roman Empire, the most powerful, stable, and peaceful of any ancient empire, and here he is frightened by the news of the birth of a king. A king fears a baby, a lion a mouse. As we know from experience and observation, those in authority seek to assert their authority when they fear something, real or imagined. The only lasting security for one is authority is to see oneself as one also under authority. The ruler who acknowledges God’s rule, knowing himself to be accountable to God, will act very differently than the one who sees himself as essentially a god, answerable to no one and nothing.

Following the star, the wise men proceed to Bethlehem where they find Joseph and Mary and Jesus. And, what do they do? They “fell down and worshipped him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Notice the different aspects of their worship. First, it was corporal; they worshipped Jesus with an outward expression of their body by bowing down. Second, I think we can safely assume it was heartfelt—one does not travel great distances, intentionally seeking someone or something, without experiencing some emotion at the sight of the one sought. Third, their worship was material and sacrificial. The wise men were not those who merely praised with their lips and not with their lives. They gave expensive gifts of gold, frankincense—a rare resin used for incense—and myrrh, also a resin used for incense and also for embalming. Consonant with what I said earlier, some have suggested that the gift of myrrh foreshadows Jesus’ death and burial; the cross is latent in the epiphany. Fourth and finally, in their worship of Jesus, the magi recognized who Jesus truly is: the king of Israel, the messiah for all people. Although to the eyes of the body, Jesus was only a little child, through the eyes of faith the magi knew Jesus for who he truly is. Theirs is a model for our worship; ours must be corporal—with sacraments and movements of the body, like kneeling and making the sign of the cross; our worship must be heartfelt—going through the motions simply is not enough; our worship must be material and sacrificial—we give to the church and to the poor not just what we can afford to give; our worship must recognize Jesus for who he truly is: the Christ, the son of the living God.

The magi are an excellent object lesson for us. Before the appearing of the star, the magi were thoroughly indoctrinated in their practice of astrology and accompanying superstitions. But God called them, where they were at, and led them to his Son Jesus. It is easy for us to think that when we get our lives in order, then we will commit our lives to God, once we reach a certain point. We think, we have got to make a certain amount of progress on our own before we can be good enough for God and the church. The truth is God calls us wherever we are at; he commands us to cast our treasures at his feet, the only place where those treasures will ever be secure and lasting. He calls us astrologers in Babylon, he calls us fisherman on shore of sea of Galilee, he calls us tax collectors at the receipt of custom. He calls us in the midst of our vocation, our troubled family situation, our addiction, to come to him and worship. O come, let us adore him, o come, let us adore him, o come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

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