Sunday, January 9, 2011

Feast of the Epiphany, Yr A: Overwhelming Joy

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

I remember the first time I heard my daughter play Bach’s Air on her flute. It was her first professional gig - playing at a wedding. She was nine years old, but the sound she made with that flute was like angels singing and I was overwhelmed by joy. I could feel it rushing through my whole body. I realized that day that an important gift had been given into my care and I committed to doing whatever was needed to nurture that gift and bring it to fruition.

I knew that her gift was from God and would glorify God - and never cease to bring me joy. I was right. That day was for me, an Epiphany, and I was forever changed by it.

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. The word “Epiphany” is a Latin word with Greek origin and it means 'manifestation or appearance.” The story of the Epiphany is only found in the Gospel of Matthew which was written primarily for Jewish readers. Matthew spent a great deal of time and effort showing how Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophesies and promises in the Hebrew Scripture.

In the story of the Epiphany, someone came to visit the baby Jesus. Wise men/magi/astrologers – they have been given many names. Note: The word magi means “sorcerer” and is the source of our word “magic.” These visitors, whoever they were, were probably Zoroastrians, members of a religious group from that time and place who studied the stars – astrologers, who also interpreted dreams.

Scripture doesn’t tell us how many magi came or who they were. It lists the 3 gifts, but not three magi. The names Melthior, Caspar, and Belthasar came up about 500 years later in a Greek manuscript. These names are traditional, not Scriptural.

Whoever these visitors were, they saw a star and somehow connected it to the prophesy of the Messiah of Israel, “the one born king of the Jews.” As Zoroastirans, they would have had no investment in the fulfillment of this Jewish prophecy.

According to Zoroastrian belief, every person is connected to a star. This presence of this unusual and magnificent star signified the birth of an unusual and magnificent person. It was so compelling to them that (think about this) they packed up their camels and loaded up their treasure chests and headed out on a long journey to Jerusalem to find the person connected to this amazing star.

These magi must have been pretty important people since they sought and received an audience with King Herod. Herod apparently had not seen or recognized the sign from God until the magi pointed it out. Upon hearing of it, however, Matthew tells us that Herod and “all of Jerusalem” were frightened. Other versions of the Bible say they were ‘troubled’ or ‘disturbed.’ That makes sense, though. Earthly power-holders always fear the threat of confronting real power. i.e., divine power.

So Herod calls together the Jewish religious leadership and demands that they tell him where their Messiah is to be born. The NRSV version says Herod inquired this information, but the Greek makes it clear that he demanded it. It was a forceful inquiry.

The Scribes and Pharisees give Herod a summary of what was predicted the prophets using the prophets Micah and Samuel, and they recount what was predicted in the book of Numbers – that “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter (that is, a king) shall rise out of Israel.” (24:17) This is probably NOT what the current king of Israel wanted to hear.

Herod then plots a way to find the child, presumably to destroy him. Playing it cool, though, Herod asks the magi to find the infant king and report back to him so he too can pay him homage.

The magi leave their meeting with Herod and find that the unusual, magnificent star is still waiting to lead them. They continue to follow the star which finally comes to rest where the baby Jesus is with his mother, Mary.

Matthew tells us that upon seeing the place where the star came to rest, the magi were overwhelmed with joy. The Greek tells us that it wasn’t so much what they saw as what they understood, what they perceived, that gave them great joy. The star had been in their view from the beginning. But now, as it rested on the spot where the infant king lay in his mother’s arms, the magi were filled with an overwhelming sense of joy. Being in the presence of the Christ is like that.

Their response was two-fold: 1) they bowed or knelt before this baby king showing him respect; and 2) they opened their treasure chests to give generously the kinds of gifts typically given to a king… gold (a symbol of earthly wealth and power), frankincense (a symbol of spiritual power – used in the anointing of kings and priests), and myrrh (an expensive plant extract often used by royalty as a perfume and as medicine, and also used to prepare a body for burial).

As the story comes to a close, an angel of God sends the magi another sign – this time in a dream – telling them not to return to Herod, so the magi went home by another route.

It’s interesting (isn’t it?) that while the people of Israel had been waiting for centuries for the coming of their Messiah, he was revealed first to these foreigners. The story of the Epiphany shows us that the reconciling work of Jesus the Christ had begun long before his ministry as an itinerant rabbi had even started.

But this first revelation of the appearance of God on earth would characterize the rest of Jesus’ earthly ministry:
 A ministry of actively seeking people, especially outsiders, and including them in the story of salvation
 A ministry of humility and faithful obedience to God even in the face of destructive human power
 A ministry handed over to us – the followers of Jesus – to continue.

We don’t know what happened when the magi returned to their homes in the east. We don’t know how or if they were affected by their meeting with the baby Jesus beyond being told of their overwhelming joy at finding him. Only God knows.

What we do know is this: When the Messiah was born, creation trumpeted the news with a sign (a star) that was compelling even to foreigners who weren’t particularly looking for salvation. How many people do we know today who are like the magi - nice people, good people, who aren’t particularly concerned about their salvation? What is our role toward them as followers of Christ?

We know that when the Messiah was born, those possessing earthly power wanted to destroy him. How many people do we know who put their faith in their money, their status, their ability to think or reason, or their ability to make things happen - to control their own destiny? How many people do we know who scoff at or criticize “organized religion” and us as believers? What is our response?

We know that being in the presence of Jesus Christ is an experience of overwhelming joy. How long has it been since we have been overwhelmed by joy? If it’s been a while, maybe we should stop using our judgment about the institutional systems that run our church as an excuse, and return humbly into the presence of God.

And finally, we know that when we are in the presence of God in Christ, the path we had planned for our lives is given over to the path God has planned for us. Obedience is a difficult thing – especially for independent, self-reliant folks like us. But it is the path of faithfulness and it does lead to that overwhelming joy.

A tremendous gift has been given into our care – this church. Look around and see the beauty of this place. Listen to the voices (the music) of our children and hear the sound of angels. On this Feast of the Epiphany, let us commit to doing whatever it takes to nurture this gift and bring it to its fruition. We can be certain that our efforts will glorify God and bring us endless, overwhelming joy.

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