Isaiah 60: 1-6; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2: 1-12
Good morning, and grace and peace to you, and to wish you a Happy New Year on this 13th Day of Christmas. Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. With thanks to Isaiah for that Christmas anthem. The more familiar carol runs out of gifts at the 12th day, and most of us by this time are perhaps ready to get the trees out to the curb and at least to begin to put away the other decorations of Christmas. Cally Birds, French Hens, Turtle Doves, Lords-a-leaping, pipers piping, maids-a-milking, the Partridge in a Pear Tree. Time to do a little housecleaning after all the festivities of the season.
The great pedagogical and doxological sweep of the Church Calendar, that is, as the Calendar can shape our teaching and our worship, has each year two broad narrative themes, two centers of theological focus, under the headings of Incarnation and Atonement. Through Advent and Christmas and then this season that flows on after the Feast of the Epiphany we would have always before us the majestic opening sentences of St. John’s gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. . . . And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
We may pack up the holiday decorations, but these words of scripture are the one bright shining Christmas ornament and celebration of Incarnation that will continue to brighten our winter not just of course for these few weeks but in a way that is real and true and enduring all year long and all our lives long. To say that in the reality of our Christian lives, it’s always Christmas.
There is perhaps something sort-of metaphysically spiritual about some of the language we use in this season, but for all its nostalgic and sentimental embellishments there remains something hard and real about what we’re talking about. A hard night of contractions and the pain of labor and delivery, and certainly without the modern amenities. The dirt floor of the backroom stable cave. Blood sweat and tears, birth and afterbirth, cries in the night. Something real we’re talking about. But not just any baby. Incarnation. He is here now, intervening. God made manifest in our flesh. And the consequences of this reality is what every word of scripture and every reality of our lives will be concerned with ever after. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
There is always a “what” and a “why.” The “what” of all this is Incarnation, and the “Why” is Atonement, the work of Christ, as it is inscribed over our Rood Beam here, from John 12: And I if I be lifted up from the Earth will draw all men unto me. The forgiveness of sin, the great reassembly and new creation, making possible the reconciliation of God and Man. On the calendar we once again will begin the thematic transition from Incarnation to Atonement during the February pre-lenten Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, the three Sundays before Ash Wednesday, and then on through Lent and Holy Week and Easter and Pentecost. That he came, and why he came. The two great concerns. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves. In the midst of it all, Epiphany!
Epiphany, and the familiar story from the second chapter of St. Matthew. Something of an effort to see carefully what the scripture is saying, and to separate out at least for a moment all the Christmas Card and Children’s Pageant imagery that has accrued over time. We don’t know exactly when this incident takes place. Matthew wants to give us some ballpark historic referent, anyway. Sometime after the birth, and while Mary and Joseph are still in Bethlehem. Days later, weeks or months, perhaps even years. We don’t know exactly when Jesus was born, but it seems pretty certain that Herod died as we would now calculate it in 4 B.C. The birth of Jesus usually given between 6 and 4 B.C. Jesus is described not as an infant, in any event, but as a child, and the family is no longer in a stable, but in a house.
Lots of elements in the story to puzzle over. These mysterious Magi—we don’t know exactly what to make of them. From the East, a general reference that could sweep from Syria to Persia. Perhaps priests of one of the ancient astrological religions of the region. Thus the reference to the Star, the sign in the sky above. I’ve heard all kinds of speculation about this. A supernova, or a comet, in a region of the heavens that these astrologers somehow associated with the Jewish people? Or perhaps a spiritual apparition, zooming across the night like Tinkerbell in a Disney cartoon. And then Herod, always alert to the potential of insurrection, ironically he is the one to turn to the Holy Scriptures to confirm King David’s hometown as the birthplace of the Messiah—and sending the Magi on then to see what and whom they might find there, as we anticipate in that of course the secret plot that would lead shortly to the massacre of the Holy Innocents.
But then the climax of this odd story, this amazing moment, a kind of stained glass moment, the scriptures having pointed the way, as the mystic direction of the Star leads the Magi directly to the front door of the home of the Holy Family, and as they are overwhelmed with joy the door swings open, and there, before them, the Child Jesus, and his Mother. They know him right away. They just know. And they kneel and do him homage, as in the presence of royalty or of someone of sacred and divine character, and from their treasure chests these three gifts: gold, symbolizing worldly treasure, frankincense, used in the worship of the ancient temple, and myrrh, the spice used by ancient Egyptians in the embalming of kings. Somehow anticipating, shadowing forth, the Cross and the Tomb and the Victory over the powers of Death. Countless sermons and libraries of books and poems have journeyed into the levels and rich textures of meaning of these three gifts.
And then mysteriously again the Magi hear or see something in a dream that prompts them not to return to Jerusalem, as Herod had requested, but to slip away quickly and quietly, by another road. We are aware that this story is unfolding with purpose and direction. In this tiny village. A backwater, a place on the margins, there is the guiding force of a supernatural destiny. So much more going on than meets the eye.
There is so much to notice here. Epiphany. And as we tell the story year after year with all the poetic embellishments. But to hold on to the points Matthew himself points to as he tells us about this incident. To say about the birth of Jesus, that it is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel, in the words of the prophets and all the scripture, that God himself will return to receive the Kingship of Israel. Yet with significance for the whole world, the whole universe.
In this context, to remember the traditional theme of the Epiphany and the Sundays after the Epiphany, how the One born in the obscurity of the Bethlehem stable is revealed to all nations and peoples as Lord and Savior.
So St. Paul in the reading from Ephesians this morning, to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things . . . . As the scriptures themselves foretold. Good News for Israel. Good News for us. Nations will stream to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawning. Christmas. It is a birth that disturbs the powers and principalities of the old order—Herod the king, in his raging. And they should be disturbed. My thoughts are not your thoughts, says the Lord, nor are my ways your ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The dawning of the Dayspring from on high. And it ends in worship, and these gifts.
What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what I can, I give him, give my heart. I suppose the words of the bumper sticker have Matthew’s larger concern just about right: Wise Men still seek him.
As St. Paul writes in Second Corinthians, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Which is the Christmas message Matthew would have the Star shine on all of us in this season. Incarnation and Atonement, and never able to disentangle one from the other. The word Epiphany is about light shining into a dark place, to reveal, to bring illumination, so that what was unseen now is seen.
Born in the obscurity of the Bethlehem stable. Revealed to all nations and peoples as Lord and Savior.
The Magi seek to know what God is doing, they trust the Star as it prompts them to begin their journey, and they trust the word and promise of scripture, and in the end they find and are found by the one who is both true King and true Savior. The word that we would hear this morning is all invitation, that we would make their story our story as well.