We, Three, Maybe Four, or More, Maybe Less, Kings of Orient Are...

And, when did they get to be kings, I ask you? They were magicians... Luke has the Kings...the Shepherds...   

Welcome to the first post-vacation blog. 

Before we get started, here is the link to the texts for this week, with thanks to you, Diocesan web site…

http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearABC_RCL/Epiphany/Epiph_RCL.html

And, now that you have read them, let’s dig a little deeper. (Warning: No one under 17 allowed to read without parental guidance. This gets pretty violent before the end...)

Isaiah 60: 1 - 6

OK. I can understand why this text appears as part of the Epiphany package. (That whole bit about nations streaming into the light and bringing gold and frankincense… you do get two of the gifts that the wise men bring to Jesus in Matthew – arguably, the Queen of Sheba brings all three to Solomon. I sense a pattern here). Our tradition also uses this to support the Gentile mission trajectory, although I do not think the wise men narrative has anything to say about the Gentiles place in the emerging church. (A little more proof-texting, here, by our ancient theological ancestors).

The Isaiah text does, though, indicate that the whole world will be streaming into Jerusalem at some point, once the Jews return to rebuild the ruined and war-scarred city. Historically, this passage is a pep talk delivered to the returning exiles who have a huge rebuilding task in front of them. In this proclamation of Good News to Jerusalem, Isaiah says, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Take heart! Get to work! It will pay off as your labors melt into the new age of God.

I also thought this was interesting, though not worthy of taking up sermon time (thank me later as you are sipping coffee before 9:37), this from the Girardian Lectionary Page:

“Raymund Schwager notes the contrast (Isaiah’s view of the rebuilt city of Jerusalem as the capital of light) with Jesus’ words of judgement on Jerusalem:

‘In that saying where Jesus so explicitly spoke of the wishes of those who opposed his task of assembly, he also gave a precise description of the forces hostile to him. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you. How often would I have…” (Matt. 23:37). Jerusalem, the holy and chosen city, in which the “holy people” and the “redeemed of the LORD” (Isa. 62:1-12) were meant to come together and which was destined to be a place of peace for the nations (see Isa. 60:1-22; Zech. 9:9-11), was experienced by Jesus in a very different way, namely, as a city of murderers of the prophets. The contrast between the promise and the judgment which he delivered could hardly be greater. (P. 59)’”

Ephesians 3: 1 – 12

Again, this text is inserted into our Epiphany celebration to undergird the presence of so many non-Jews in the new movement.  Yes, the gentile mission has a way of creeping into the Gospels – but this is due to the fact that Paul has already created it and it has found support from the Jerusalem church (though not without too much arguing about circumcision). Keep in mind, Paul and Peter have both come and gone, and communities of gentile faithful were already in place before the first Gospel was written.

It becomes hard to deny the existence of those gentile communities, so the gospels create some pre-history (the story of the Syrophoenician woman – the dog remarks – or the healing of the centurion’s servant come to mind).  But, Paul has already made the case in our passage: “as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

His point to the Ephesians is that it is now his job it to proclaim the hugeness of the mystery of God's generosity, so that people's minds may be broadened to be able to perceive and thus share in that expanded generosity that includes the Gentiles.

But, that it still not the point of Matthew’s text, even though the wise men are foreigners…

Matthew 2: 1 – 12

I hope I remember this line for the sermon, but in a very real sense, the story of the wise men is the Matthean equivalent of the Magnificat in Luke’s gospel.  If you recall Mary’s song of defiant revolution from the third Sunday of Advent, Matthew in this passage presents his own take on the contrast between the “kingdom of heaven” which Jesus comes to inaugurate as opposed to human Empire, which operates by force and terror.

Mary sings about defiance. The wisemen actually put it into practice by disobeying the order of a king and thwarting the Empire’s plans. (There is so much working in this story).

As I have commented before, Matthew is re-telling the history of Israel by re-casting it as a statement about Jesus and his meaning. Key elements of that re-telling include:

The appearance of the star of David from Chapter 6 of Isaiah; the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh which were originally presented to yet another OT King, Solomon, by the Queen of Sheba; the threat to his power that is felt by Pharaoh; the order to kill all male children under the age of two because of threat – also by Pharaoh; the desperate move to Egypt to ensure survival –

We have to pause here, because this is so cool. Joseph takes his family to Egypt to save their lives. Jacob – or was that Israel, hmmm – moves with his family to Egypt to save their lives because they discover that Joseph is there and – with all that extra food he has on hand, he will save their lives. (Joseph – Jesus’ dad – gets his name from Matthew, and he is named for Pharaoh’s Joseph, the son of Jacob (Israel).

Did you get that?  Good.  Where were we…?

Matthew in our portion of the passage is not only making a statement of defiance in the face of power. He is also setting the stage to explain Jesus – ultimately – as a king that defies the definition the world would use. (Why the church and the faithful continue to consider Jesus to be the other kind of King escapes me. Read your bibles!!!!)  Jesus – ultimately – is a king who will choose to suffer the violence of human empire rather than mimic it or try to compete with it.

Jesus is – of course - eventually killed under Rome’s authority, and at the time his death will mean nothing to Rome. How could Rome know that this man would be the most decisive political challenge it would face? Rome knew how to deal with enemies: you kill them or co-opt them. But how do you deal with a movement, a kingdom whose citizens refuse to believe that violence will determine the meaning of history? The movement that Jesus begins is constituted by people who believe that they have all the time in the world, made possible by God’s patience, to challenge the world’s impatient violence. The wise men are the tip of that spear of resistance.

One last note: We move the second half of this story – the wholesale slaughter of male children – to the Feast of the Innocents right after Christmas. If nothing else drives home how misplaced the sentimental depictions of Christmas and Jesus are, it is in the death of these children. This story reminds us that Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants. Sobering….