Only a partial Epiphany
2008-01-02 by Dan L. Flanagan
I have in the past dealt with the Matthew 2: 1-12 passage from the perspective of the Magi being "seekers," and applying their spiritual search to the spiritual "seekers" of our contemporary culture. I continue to see this passage from the perspective of spiritual seeking; however, this week I am focusing on Matthew as an Epiphany text that only begins our journey toward what is outlined to Abraham in Genesis 22:18 -- that he by his offspring, "shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves."
If Christianity claims Christ to be the fulfillment of that blessing to all nations, Matthew's story (Epiphany) is only a beginning to the fulfillment of God's revelation to Abram. The Magi (who study the stars) follow a mysterious star. They encounter the Jewish lore of a Messiah to be born and associate this celestial mystery with the expected Messiah. Their encounter with the baby Jesus in Bethlehem brings them great joy for their "seeking" has been fulfilled....but only partially. One cannot demonstrate a faith commitment by the Magi from Matthew, only an offer of gifts to a child they hoped would bring fulfillment. Their return trip illustrates the place of Matthew's Epiphany in the unfolding gospel....as the Magi (directed by a dream) avoid Herod and return a different route instead of carrying the good news to someone who clearly needs it. Herod (and the rest of Jerusalem whom Matthew says reacted out of fear) represents the obstacles along the path of our spiritual journey.
Matthew's Epiphany is similar to Wesley's class structure in that the world is now aware of God's incarnation. The fulfillment of God's blessing to "all the nations" has begun, but is far from complete. Each step of our journey to encounter the faces of "fear," we may be able to advance in Wesley's class structure until one day all the nations have found blessing in Christ.
2008-01-01 by David von Schlichten
What if we just let the magi story stand without comment and focus instead on Ephesians, where we hear of the revelation of the once hidden plan? There are hidden aspects of God, and then there are hidden aspects that, through Christ, God has revealed.
As part of the sermon, we could invite hearers to consider anew how they can help the stumbling world see the light.
Also, be sure to read the blog entries below, as well as Dean Snyder's engrossing, effulgent sermon on Matthew 2:1-12 at the Sermon Feedback Cafe.
Yours in Christ throughout 2008,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
Draft sermon posted
2007-12-31 by Dean Snyder
Larry, I love your illustration about the plastic Christ and the shelter. I used it, with attribution, in a draft sermon I've posted over in the Sermon Feedback Cafe.
I am not satisfied yet with the sermon. It doesn't feel like it quite gets to where I want to go. I would like some reactions.
Kings of All Kinds
2007-12-30 by Larry Lange
January 6 is the traditional date for the visit to the baby Jesus by the “magi.” The traditional name for this visit is, of course, “the Epiphany,” although I don’t know how it was decided these visitors arrived twelve days after Jesus’ birth: the writer of the Gospel of Matthew does not specify a date. I’m also not sure why the Greek word for these visitors has been translated “kings” or even “wise men.” I am vaguely familiar with the story of how tradition gave these visitors names and limited their number to three.
I think it’s more helpful, however, to set all these entertaining traditions aside so we can get to the heart of the story. The “magi” are coming to visit “the child who has been born king of the Jews,” because they had seen “his star at its rising.” “Magi,” as I understand it, were both astronomers and astrologers. “Magi” were very familiar with the stars—so familiar they could tell when there was a new star among the millions in the sky. “Magi” also believed they knew how to interpret what new stars meant. Because they believed the new star announced the birth of “the king of the Jews,” they headed for Jerusalem.
Now, the “king” reigning in Jerusalem was a king only because the Roman Empire found it convenient to keep him as the king. The “king” was not an observant Jew. The “king” was, instead, a ruthless and relentless builder of cities, port facilities, fortresses, arenas, and theaters. He built these in honor of the Roman Emperor, but they made him look pretty impressive as well. The “king,” whose name was Herod, also renovated the temple in Jerusalem to impress his Jewish subjects. According to Matthew, when Herod heard that astronomer/astrologers had shown up looking for the street address of a new king, he was afraid. Herod was afraid of anyone he imagined wanted his power and was notoriously vicious about getting rid of his real and imagined enemies. Herod’s paranoia caused him to try to deceive the astronomer/astrologers into finding the new king, so Herod could also pay homage to him. What Herod really wanted to do, of course, was to kill the new king, just as he had killed all his other rivals.
An angel saves the day by warning the astronomer/astrologers about Herod’s real intentions, so they returned to “their own country by another road”; otherwise they would have undoubtedly been detained without due process and “interrogated” until they divulged the whereabouts of the new king. “When Herod saw he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (Matthew 2:16). Fear among “kings” over real and imagined enemies poisons the souls of “kings”; deceit becomes their modus operandi; they launch witch hunts of all kinds and often accomplish nothing but collateral damage.
For Christians, Jesus is the real king. The good news at the heart of this story is that Jesus eluded Herod. The good news at the heart of the whole Gospel is that Jesus eludes all kinds of “kings” still. In Matthew’s story of Judgment Day (Matthew 25:31-45), Jesus reveals that he has been with us all along. In Matthew’s story of Judgment Day, Jesus reveals that his real subjects had seen him whenever they gave the hungry food, or whenever they gave the thirsty something to drink, or whenever they gave the naked clothing, or whenever they visited the sick or the prisoners. The Real King lives mysteriously somehow in the lives of these the least of our brothers and sisters.
During the month of December, several towns in northeastern Wisconsin including Green Bay, the town in which I serve, have set up nativity scenes on public property to protest the perceived assault on the Christ Child of our godless, atheistic government. But since the Real King lives mysteriously somehow in the lives of the least of our brothers and sisters, real nativity scenes are not plastic statues with light bulbs inside of them. Since the Real King lives mysteriously somehow in the lives of the least of our brothers and sisters, the real nativity scenes are mysteriously somehow homeless shelters, shelters for battered women, hospitals and nursing homes, jails, prisons, and detention centers. Here wise men and women bring their gifts and through them, pay homage to the Real King.
Ironically, the same local governmental officials who put a Plastic Christ up on the roof of the entrance to Green Bay City Hall, have been fighting all fall long to get rid of a homeless shelter just down the street. They have failed thus far. The Real King has eluded them again. For now.
Reading Magi Story As More Theological Than Historical
2007-12-29 by David von Schlichten
I imagine not addressing the historicity of the magi narrative in any major way, at least not in a sermon.
I might say something like, "There has been endless debate over the years about how much of this story is factual. I don't know. Regardless of how much of it really happened, the story has come to us in this form. The question, then, is, 'What does this story teach us about God?'" Then I'd go from there.
I probably have parishioners who doubt the historicity of the tale (I sure do), but I also have parishioners who believe every word of it. Either way, we Christians can ponder the theological significance of this delightful and beautiful story.
I have what I call the Ethel Test. Over and over I ask, "Would Ethel benefit from my message?" Ethel is my average parishioner: blue collar, senior citizen, not well-educated, has a hard life, average intelligence. When Ethel hears this story of the magi, she more believes it than does not, and she reverently and earnestly wants to know what it has to do with her. Historical demythologizing confuses and upsets Ethel. She either doesn't understand it or does not want to.
Perhaps your congregation is different, Dean. Context informs proclamation, as you know.
I tend to save more complex historicity issues for Bible study, where we can get into a careful discussion (Ethel is more receptive to historicity questions in Bible study). Even there, however, I tend to conclude with, "Regardless of what really happened, this is the story that God has given us, so let's go with this."
Am I being reductionistic?
Thanks for your effulgent and sage input, Dean. I look forward to more from you. It's great to have you blogging with us.
Trying to see the light as a wise man, I am
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
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