January 7, 2013

The Epiphany of Our Lord, A Sermon by Mark Tooley

Mark Tooley speaking at Fort Valley United Methodist Church_130107

Mark Tooley is President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (Photo credit: IRD)

By Mark Tooley (@MarkDTooley)

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “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.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They 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 shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then 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.” 9When 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. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Today is the Day of Epiphany, following the 12 days of Christmas in the traditional Christian calendar, and typically commemorating the visit of the Wise Men to the Baby Jesus. Like nearly all Bible stories, layers of symbolism are packed into nearly every verse.  Christians have long understood the story to illustrate the first time that Jesus the Son of God is revealed to the Gentiles, as the Wise Men from the East of course are not Jews.  They are mystics who discern Providential events through the stars and who are clearly familiar with the Jewish Scriptures and prophecies about the eventual birth of a King of the Jews.  And the Wise Men seem to understand that this King of the Jews will not just be for the Jews but for them and all humanity. They are the first Gentiles not only to seek Christ but also to fall down and worship Him as they offer Him their lavish gifts. They are the first Gentiles at least in the New Testament who specifically look to the Jewish people and the Jewish Scripture for answers about God and His purposes for humanity. They are ironically helped along the way by King Herod, who tells them or reminds them that the Jewish Scriptures foretell a Ruler of Israel arising from Bethlehem, the city of the late great King David.

Herod of course has his own sinister ulterior purposes for seeking out the Wise Men to learn of their mission and ultimately to try to neutralize a potential rival for power over the Jewish nation. Herod is the first of a long, infamous line of tyrants who seek to squelch both Christ and His followers. The Wise Men, as they are in fact wise, discern that Herod hardly shares their desire to worship the new born child. Their fears confirmed in a dream by one or more of them, they ignore Herod’s request that they check back with him and leave the land by another way.  It’s significant that the Wise Men, when they first meet Baby Jesus, find Him with His mother. Joseph is not mentioned, and perhaps the story here symbolically illustrates that Joseph is a guardian to Jesus but not His Father, who is God in Heaven. The Wise Men, in their secret departure employ a kind of subterfuge. The Scriptures don’t specifically say they promised Herod to return to him, but at the least, they had left him believing so. Their subtle evasion perhaps symbolizes sadly how countless followers of Christ across the centuries and today in many countries have likewise had to hide at least in part their worship of Christ, least they unleash the wrath of angry rulers against the innocent. The visit of the Wise Men illustrates how the follower of Jesus will come from around the world, often traveling a far journey, literally or figuratively. And their visit foreshadows how one day, at the end of time, the whole world will finally gather at the feet of Jesus and with one voice fully acknowledge Him as Lord, God and King of all.

Intrinsic to the majesty and wonder of the Bible are the countless prophecies large and small that are fulfilled in subtle ways across many centuries, as only the mind of God could have conceived. Here’s our Scripture from Isaiah that foretells the visit of the Wise Men to Baby Jesus, as described in Isaiah 60:1-9:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 2For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. 3Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 4Lift 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. 5Then 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. 6A 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. 7All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall be acceptable on my altar, and I will glorify my glorious house. 8Who are these that fly like a cloud, and like doves to their windows? 9For the coastlands shall wait for me, the ships of Tarshish first, to bring your children from far away, their silver and gold with them, for the name of the Lord your God, and for the Holy One of Israel, because he has glorified you.

The Wise Men are sometimes in tradition called Kings, although probably not specifically rulers, but they symbolize that all kings and rulers some day will bow down before the King of Kings. And how creative of God’s word to forecast in Isaiah the future gifts of gold and frankincense.  Seemingly even the camels that bore the Wise Men and their retinue on their long journey are mentioned here, symbolizing that not just men and nations but all creation, including all creatures, will someday worship their Creator.  What a wonderful image to see the little collection of Wise Men and their beasts, gathered about a baby and His mother, in probably a modest dwelling, perhaps still the manger, maybe surrounded by other animals as commonly portrayed, all symbolizing collectively how the whole universe, man and animal will on the final day and for all time gather around Jesus in constant worship and praise.  The excitement and fulfillment felt by these long pursuing Wise Men, and doubtless reciprocated by Mary when she received them, show us just a fragment of what each of us experience individually when we meet Jesus, and collectively what the whole Cosmos will experience when Christ is finally universally hailed as Lord of all.

The other fun prophecy about Jesus and the Nativity shared in today’s Scripture reading comes from Psalm 72: 1-20:

1Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. 2May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. 3May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. 4May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. 5May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations. 6May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth. 7In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more. 8May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. 9May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust. 10May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts. 11May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service. 12For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. 13He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. 14From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight. 15Long may he live! May gold of Sheba be given to him. May prayer be made for him continually, and blessings invoked for him all day long. 16May there be abundance of grain in the land; may it wave on the tops of the mountains; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field. 17May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun. May all nations be blessed in him; may they pronounce him happy. 18Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things. 19Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen. 20The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended.

Here again we see foreign kings bowing down before the King of Kings bearing gifts in service and adoration. Here is a new kind of King, who does not violently subdue, but who rules by serving others, lifting up the poor, defending the defenseless, and showering healing and prosperity upon all.  He is also the first King whose dominion will be over all the world, and not through conquest, but through His intrinsic power as Creator. And how beautiful that this Psalm concludes by declaring that the prayers of David are ended, because of course they have been so perfectly answered forever and forever.

Our final Scripture on this Day of Epiphany comes from the New Testament with Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, in Chapter 3 verses 1-12:

3This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— 2for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, 3and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, 4a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. 5In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: 6that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 7Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. 8Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, 9and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.

This reading appropriately comes from St. Paul the first apostle to the Gentiles, who emphatically declares that the Gentiles who seek Jesus will become joint heirs in the promise of Christ the King along with the original Jewish followers. Here St. Paul is a sort of successor to the first Gentiles who sought Jesus, the Wise Men, who were also the first Gentiles who worshipped Jesus, and presumably later served as evangelists by declaring the News of Jesus. The Wise Men were among the first to publicly declare by their visit that the Baby Jesus was the fulfillment of ancient prophecy about an eventual King of the Jews who would become the King of all creation. And St. Paul, as their successor, more at length explains to the world, in His own day, and then to us and all humanity forever through God’s Word, that Jesus came for everybody, Jews and Gentiles, the whole earth, which He is redeeming and will eventually completely reclaim. Remember that St. Paul, like the Wise Men, also fell to the ground when he met Jesus. But unlike the Wise Men, he was brought low by a powerful voice and blinding light on the road to Damascus. Paul evidently was not as innately wise as the Wise Men and needed more of a jolt from God. The Wise Men, whose wisdom came from God, first crack open the door to the mystery of God’s redemption by their few words but even more so by their symbolically powerful actions in worship and adoration with gifts before Baby Jesus. It’s St. Paul the apostle and theologian and author of much of the New Testament who explains this mystery to which the Wise Men had cryptically but powerfully pointed.

Hopefully all of us this Christmas, especially over the last 12 days, have replicated in some way the visit of the Wise Men to Baby Jesus, adoring Him as our Lord and Savior, and also replicating St. Paul by more fully understanding and explaining to others that Jesus is Good News for ourselves and for all people forever. If you have not yet really done so then you have the rest of today to make it right! But of course you really have the rest of this year and the rest of your days to follow the example of the Wise Men and St. Paul. And like them, upon beholding Jesus, may you be filled with great and unending joy. Amen.


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