January 4, 2015

Epiphany 2015

Passage: Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalms 72:1-14

Isa. 60:1 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. 2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses' arms. 5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD. Ps. 72:1 Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king's son. 2 May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. 11 May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service. 12 For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. 13 He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. 14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight. Mt. 2:1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men [magoi] from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 `And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to [rule in Israel] shepherd my people Israel.'" 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down Page 1 of 6Page 2 of 6and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Today we are celebrating Epiphany Sunday. Epiphany falls on January 6 [12 days after Christmas]. Traditionally we talk about the wise men; their journey, their gifts, the confusion in Jerusalem and King Herod. But the story has been so sanitized, so captured in Christmas cards that we smooth over this very troubling story.

In the movie, The Family Man, Nicholas Cage portrays a young adult about to head off to London, England for an incredible career opportunity and financial success. His girl friend has a bad feeling about this and at the last minute implores him not to go. However, Cage cannot resist the allure. When he returns to America he becomes a very successful Wall St. tycoon. The setting takes place around Christmas and a serious challenge confronts the firm so that employees are encouraged to work late even on Christmas Eve. On his way home late that evening, he has an encounter at a corner store where a young black man brings in a winning lottery ticket of a meager amount. But the Chinese American shop keeper is afraid and will not give him the money. So Cage enters into a business deal with the young black and buys the ticket from him. He in turn challenges Cage and says you have brought this on yourself, for he had headed for home late on Christmas Eve by himself. His friend from the airport 13 years earlier has called his office and left a message. The movie switches gears to what might have been had he stayed. They marry have two kids and live in suburbia. Because Cage has touched and sampled a very different life, he is uncertain about this other. Instead of a Ferrari, he drives a mini van. Instead of an exotic 5th Ave. apt. in the heart of NY, he lives in the burbs. Instead of being a Wall st. broker at the head of a firm, he sells tires. Rather than being alone, he has two kids, a wife and a dog. They are about to celebrate Christmas and he wanders off trying to understand who he really is? Choices we make determine outcomes. This vignette look at what might have been gives him serious pause to reexamine his life and values. Why did the wise men choose what they did to make such an arduous journey to a foreign land, not really knowing what they seek? Apparently they see some signal in the celestial bodies, perhaps a confluence of planets lining up in such a way, that they anticipate a new leader will arise in the Middle East. But they make a choice: to follow the star or stars to explore a new possibility.

How can this ancient story of the wise men help us understand our own situation? Perhaps in Persia or Babylon, they had heard about Isaiah 60, depicting this ancient Jewish hope. They know they are to go to Jerusalem and to take rare spices, gold and frankincense and myrrh. Most important, they know that they will find the new king of all peace and prosperity. But when Herod (the current king in Jerusalem) hears of these plans, he is frightened. A new king is a threat to the old king and the old order. Walter Brueggemann: Then a strange thing happens. In his panic, Herod arranges a consultation with the leading Old Testament scholars, and says to them, "Tell me about Isaiah 60. What is all this business about camels and gold and frankincense and myrrh?" The scholars tell him: You have the wrong text. And the wise men outside your window are using the wrong text. Isaiah 60 will mislead you because it suggests that Jerusalem will prosper and have great urban wealth and be restored as the center of the global economy. In that scenario, the urban elites can recover their former power and prestige and nothing will really change. Herod does not like that verdict and asks, defiantly, "Well, do you have a better text?" The scholars are afraid of the angry king, but tell him, with much trepidation, that the right text is Micah 5:2-4: 2But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. 3Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. 4And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; 5and he shall be the one of peace. This is the voice of a peasant hope for the future, a voice that is not impressed with high towers and great arenas, banks and urban achievements. [In other words it challenges Nicholas Cage’s first life head on]

It anticipates a different future, as yet unaccomplished, that will organize the peasant land in resistance to imperial threat. Micah anticipates a leader who will bring well-being to his people, not by great political ambition, but by attentiveness to the folks on the ground. "So, who are the foreigners, nations, strangers, who are left out of our vision of the great homecoming? Do we recognize ourselves in their midst, or have we always experienced ourselves as insiders?" UCC, USA worship resource. Page 3 of 6Page 4 of 6Who are the magi? Why would they have come on such an arduous journey that would have taken months to complete? They were alert and aware. Who were these magi? Were they ancient astrologers? At its most innocent it referred to a possessor and user of supernatural knowledge and ability. The wise men: their special knowledge comes from reading the stars or from other mystical means of divination inaccessible to ordinary people. The use of any form of divination, astrological or otherwise had long been forbidden to the Israelites, as a thing abhorrent to the Lord. This more specific meaning of the word ‘mago" referred to a member of the Persian priestly caste, the rulers and practitioners of the distinctive religions of Babylon. They were the speakers of the sacred words at the pagan sacrifices and the interpreters of special signs associated with the pagan cult. At worst, the term referred to a magician or sorcerer, or even a deceiver. These descriptions referred specifically to a type of magic that was forced or demonic and was clearly distinguished from supernatural gifts given by God. Whichever of these meanings were understood by Matthew's readers, it would have aroused immediate suspicion in their minds. Magi were people whose activities were repeatedly condemned and prohibited throughout the scriptures and were completely anathema to the people of Israel. That Matthew would include such a story in his Gospel is truly amazing. He is depicting a Messiah born not just for the Jewish people, but one who has universal significance. The legend of the Magi has grown over the years to the point where our popular representation of it has only a loose connection to the story as Matthew told it. The details, whether there is any historical basis to the story or not, are about people of the highest possible status coming to worship and bring expensive gifts to a low, low status baby. And we need to tell the story over and over again to get that fundamental idea into our heads. But it’s also about the powers represented by Herod – people who are determined to preserve status and privilege at any cost. And just how far that power lust will go is there in the story of the slaughter of the innocents. Like Cage in the Family Man, we have the contrasting stories: Herod symbol of power, wealth; Wall St. vs. the magoi who while sophisticated in their own right are not prepared to put pride and hubris above acknowledging the central truth of doing obeisance to one who might bring peace. The Christmas story without that excruciatingly painful story becomes a sweet tale without much connection to reality. It is warm fuzzy story about poor but noble parents who had a beautiful baby who was born in a nice sanitary stable among Page 4 of 6Page 5 of 6contented beasts. The shepherds came to admire him and the magi came to bring him expensive gifts, and he lived happily ever after. But in reality, the Gospels and the early church confront the powers that be as represented in the Herods of the bible, with the kingdom of God which has a totally different value structure.

Herod the Great was known for his cruelty. During his reign the people of Jerusalem had already seen him murder his wife, three of his sons, his mother- in-law, his brother-in-law, an uncle and many other people. He was certainly not a good man to be related to, let alone to upset, and so when Herod got greatly agitated a wave of fear went right through Jerusalem; who was going to cop the brunt of his anger this time? But how did the magi whoever they were ever find the baby? Without benefit of a GPS on their camels, how could they pinpoint location? In a NY Times article, George Saunders, author, described a trip in which his plane [en route from Chicago to Syracuse] struck a flock of geese, and the passengers were sure they were going to die, but the plane landed safely back in Chicago: “For three or four days after that,” he said, “it was the most beautiful world. To have gotten back in it, you know? And I thought, If you could walk around like that all the time, to really have that awareness that it’s actually going to end. That’s the trick.” You could call this desire — to really have that awareness, to be as open as possible, all the time, to beauty and cruelty and stupid human fallibility and unexpected grace. - Joel Lovel NY Times Jan. 6,2013 This dawning light draws them. In Isaiah. it is a picture of a great homecoming as everyone returns to the place where they truly belong. How deep the hunger is in each one of us for such place. How we yearn to find that place where we not only feel comfortable, but loved and accepted. The great tragedy of this text is that the particular homeland being described in this passage has become a place of blood instead of peace. Isaiah’s vision about all nations coming to this land to find the light, is far from reality today. Hardliners in the Israeli government think this place of belonging is only for them. Some militant groups among the Palestinians feel just as strongly that the homeland is only for them. The cruel tragedy is that both groups, indeed all of us, are searching for the same gift. A place to truly belong. A place where we are loved without question, accepted without condition, blessed without reservation. Deep in our guts we yearn for this place far more than for anything we found under our tree on Christmas morning.