January 5, 2014
2nd Sunday After Christmas
(edited and revised from a previous
Homily posted 1.3.12)
[This homily follows closely the teachings of N.T.Wright]
TODAY we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord. As a reminder, Epiphany Sunday is the gift from the church calendar, given to remind us that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah-King and God's only begotten Son.
Lutheran author, Dr. Richard P. Bucher, explains that the word Epiphany comes from two Greek words, the preposition epi and the verb phainen, and can variously mean, "to shine upon," "to reveal," or "to appear, or “to manifest.”
This means, as Dr. Bucher clarifies:
the church “celebrates in the Epiphany God's revealing or manifesting of Jesus' identity as true God, Messiah, and Savior of the world. It not only commemorates the fact that Jesus appeared to save us, but that God revealed the identity of Jesus to the world.”
Said differently, the church would have us understand, as best we can, the actual identity of Jesus, for this baby comes to us hiding a secret and offering us a tremendous incognito revelation.
Perhaps, familiarity makes us blithely skip over the wonder of the Magi's sojourn, whose visit did not occur at the manger, but as our text tells us in a house where the Holy Family was living. These Magi apparently practiced a mixture of astrology and astronomy, and were accomplished as star gazers and dream interpreters.
Interestingly, again quoting Dr. Bucher and his reading of ancient historical sources,
"...just prior to the birth of our Lord, the magi formed the upper house of the council of the Megistanes, whose duties included the election of the king of the Parthian empire (Strabo, XI, ix, 3). Thus, the magi at this time were very possibly 'king makers.'"
If Dr. Bucher’s assertions are accurate, this could mean the church wants us to recall the Magi's worship of the infant Jesus as a way to activate our understanding of Jesus' person within his personhood. In fact, St. Matthew seems to contrast the reception of Jesus by these "pagan" noblemen with the rejection of Jesus by his own leaders, Herod, and eventually his own people.
But, of course, the question for us, as always is: So what? What do we need to hear today, here at the beginning of a new year, at the inception of the 21st century, hip-deep, as we are, in the blood and guts of the human condition?
I want us to think-through three somewhat different insights found in today's text, but insights none-the-less related to the Epiphany:
HUMANITY IS THE GIVEN, DIVINITY IS DISCOVERED
HEBREWS ARE THE GIVEN, GENTILES COME LATER
EMPIRE IS THE GIVEN, THE KINGDOM APPEARS AS POWER
HUMANITY IS THE GIVEN,
UNIQUENESS IS DISCOVERED
First, we must say with crystal clarity, that Jesus was a real person -- a flesh-and-blood human being, one born just as we are born and one who died just as we die. We must never give this away. If we do, all is lost.
Said in a positive way, the real humanness of Jesus — his inclusion as an actual participant into the heart and the strife of the human condition — tells us the most important and amazing truth: GOD has not abandoned us!
GOD has never, not once, ever left us to our own devices. No, GOD has come close; GOD has come to us, literally, and has spoken to us clearly. Or, as we asserted several weeks ago, GOD has revealed himself to us in a way we can understand in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Therefore the humanity of Jesus must be the given and that which we proclaim to all who care to listen. We must talk about following the teachings of the Jesus-way; we must talk about practicing the way of reconciliation and sacrificial service, and we must de-emphasize talk of Jesus’ divinity.
Why do I say this?
Simply, Jesus didn’t talk this way. Jesus didn’t walk around with a neon sign blinking in red and blue light -- “Behold Me! For I Am GOD! I Am GOD!”
Instead he emphasized his mission and calling. Listen to his inaugural sermon from Luke 4:
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4:14-21)
Jesus is here making a claim, to be sure, but it is not to deity. Rather, Jesus is here claiming (and this is how those original hearers heard it) to be the Jewish Messiah (I am following the teaching of N.T. Wright).
Subtly, his ownership of this quotation means to signal to his Hebrew hearers (and us if we have ears to hear) that, even as he is presenting himself to them as their Messiah, he is also coming to the entire world to bring good news and healing and sight and freedom. As N.T. Wright reminds us, this is why they become so angry. Those original hearers wanted GOD’s grace exclusively for themselves, just as we often do.
Hear this, then, Jesus’ uniqueness -- his peculiarity and particularly, his separateness as a exclusive representative of humans to GOD and GOD to humans, therefore — is something we discover; it is something revealed to us through faith. In a thousand quiet and incognito ways the reality of Jesus’ person accretes to us as an inward understanding that, while Jesus is a genuine person, he is also much more than that to us and to the world.
Said differently, we can openly proclaim the deity of Jesus all we want as a doctrine of the church, but an individual truly only comes to this truth over time as her relationship with the living and risen Lord grows in depth and grace.
HEBREWS ARE THE GIVEN,
GENTILES COME LATER
Notice second, that included in the birth narratives of Jesus are the Magi who are gentiles and foreigners. Clearly, this too is a subtle message that opens the Lordship of Jesus, as we said, not only as the Jewish Messiah -- Israel’s Deliverer, but as the Redeemer of the entire world. But he was rebuffed.
That is, Jesus will present himself to the Hebrew leaders and later to the Hebrew nation where we know he was ultimately rejected as the Jewish Messiah, for how could one follow what they believed to be a dead Messiah? (N.T. Wright)
Or, said biblically from John 1:
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
So Jesus comes primarily to his own people, offering himself as their deliverer, and this is how the Gospels must be read. In fact, this point of view gives breath to our reading, for example think of a passage like Matthew 15 (again, I am following N.T. Wright):
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly. (Mt.15:21-28)
"I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
"It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."
This is to be interpreted:
My mission is to fulfill my calling to vindicate my people the Hebrews and to lead them to be, in fact, what GOD the Father has already called them to be -- a light to the nations.
But she said,
"Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."
To which Jesus replies:
"Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.
Here, the future mission beyond the Hebrews -- the inclusion of the Gentiles -- is foreshadowed and forced into the open before it is time by this woman’s faith, and Jesus’ gift of shalom, of wholeness and peace, comes to a non-Hebrew.
Or, think of how Paul understands his own mission to the gentiles:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16)
First to the Jews, for they were and are GOD’s chosen people, and then to the gentiles.
Listen closely to St. Paul as he offers understanding to this order:
I want you to understand this mystery, dear brothers and sisters,so that you will not feel proud and start bragging. Some of the Jews have hard hearts, but this will last only until the complete number of Gentiles comes to Christ. And so all Israel will be saved. Do you remember what the prophets said about this? "A Deliverer will come from Jerusalem, and he will turn Israel from all ungodliness. And then I will keep my covenant with them and take away their sins." Many of the Jews are now enemies of the Good News. But this has been to your benefit, for God has given his gifts to you Gentiles. Yet the Jews are still his chosen people because of his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For God's gifts and his call can never be withdrawn. Once, you Gentiles were rebels against God, but when the Jews refused his mercy, God was merciful to you instead. And now, in the same way, the Jews are the rebels, and God's mercy has come to you. But someday they, too, will share in God's mercy. (Romans 11:25-31)
EMPIRE IS THE GIVEN,
THE KINGDOM APPEARS AS POWER
Finally, we must face the truth that before us stands the darkness of empire — all that is hateful, greedy and rife with self-willed selfishness.
Empire is the power that builds self and flaunts its power before GOD. Empire fears nothing and no one, only taking itself seriously and only obeying its own appetites by willfully crushing all who get in its way.
In today’s text empire stands against the message of Jesus and Kingdom of the Christ in the form of Herod. His words,
“Go and search diligently for the child. When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage,"
broods with sinister hatred and seethes with deceitful seduction.
Herod’s heart strains deep with ambition and fear. Ambition, in that he would be king and would have no other, and fear because if people offer another their allegiance to another this not only questions his rightful rule (to him this is treason), but it also relativizes his rule.
What we know about Herod was that he was a Roman puppet of Judea. His designation as "Herod the Great" is to be much doubted, for he was far from great. Historians describe him as one whose paranoia caused him to murder his own family, including three of his sons, and a great many religious leaders as well. So, we are not surprised at his response of the slaughter of the innocents when fooled by the Magi. (Matthew 2:13-23)
In reaction to Herod and his kind, Christ’s Kingdom has come and is coming with power, and stands as the one, true Kingdom and the one true hope for this world so deeply at war with itself. As an example of this, remember the exchange between Pilate and Jesus from John 18?
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."What, is the origin of Christ’s Kingdom? That is, if “My kingdom is not from this world,” then from where does it come?
Again, following the thoughts of N.T. Wright, we can see from the above text that Christ’s Kingdom has come wherever his will is done on earth as it is in heaven; wherever empire is rejected; wherever the values of reconciling forgiveness and sacrificial love are truly practiced; and, wherever the power of the cross is daily defeating the forces of evil and hatred and greed and violence.
Think about it this way -- and this may be the most important question we can ask of the Bible: Why was Paul thrown in jail wherever he went? I mean Paul and his entourage were forever getting into trouble for their preaching. Why? What did they preach? GOD loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life?
Listen to St. Luke’s understanding of the reason:
"Paul and Silas have turned the rest of the world upside down, and now they are here disturbing our city," they shouted. "And Jason has let them into his home. They are all guilty of treason against Caesar, for they profess allegiance to another king, Jesus." (Acts 17:6b-7)
The reason these early proclaimers we constantly jailed is simple: They preached allegiance to a new king -- Jesus.
St. Paul proclaimed that Jesus was the crucified and risen Jewish Messiah and therefore the King of the world. Of course, to the Roman empire, this message was treason; this message would cost Paul his life because this message carries with it the power of the GOD who is there and who, we discover by experience, sent Jesus as the greatest gift of all, the unique and holy one as the world's final and once-and-for-all.