Epiphany Sunday (January 8, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Isaiah 60:1-6; Ps. 72:1-7, 10-14; Matt. 2:1-12; Eph. 3:1-12
This week Daryl spent several days in Jerusalem with the MCC Palestine team and Cindy completed a family visit in Virginia. We both returned to Amman on Thursday evening.
In the region this week:
- A series of bomb attacks targeting Shia Muslims in central and southern Iraq killed 72 persons.
- The European Union agreed in principle to ban all oil imports from Iran. The EU currently accounts for 18% of oil purchases from Iran.
- Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Amman for preliminary talks. There were no substantive agreements from the meeting.
- A bomb attack in Damascus killed 26 persons, mostly civilians.
On Saturday evening Daryl shared the following sermon at the International Anglican Church of Amman, our home congregation during the years we have been in Amman.
The movie Ice Age tells the story of a great migration. Thousands of animated animals migrate south to avoid a coming ice age. While all the other animals head south, an anti-social Mammoth named Manny heads north. Manny is eventually joined by an extroverted sloth named Sid and an angry saber-tooth tiger named Diego. Manny and Sid have nothing in common except their mission to return a human baby who has been separated from its family. Diego pretends to be part of this humanitarian mission but secretly schemes to return the baby — not to its family — but to Diego’s pack of tigers that have plans to eat the baby as revenge for human hunters who killed tigers.
As they travel together, Manny, Sid and Diego — who throughout the movie find ways to annoy, disgust, insult and threaten each other – eventually unite in their efforts to reunite the baby with its family. In the process of learning to work as a team, they become friends.
Today there are many migrations of people around the world. By some estimates more than 200 million people world wide — 1 out of every 33 human beings — are international migrants. People migrations are well-known to us in this part of the world – large Palestinian, Iraqi, Somali and Sudanese populations are uprooted from their homelands. These great people migrations are not because of a coming ice age — but due to wars, famine, economic and natural disasters – and in some cases religious persecution.
The Bible includes a number of migration stories — Abraham and Sarah journey from Ur to Canaan by way of Haran; the exodus from Egypt; and the exile of God’s people to Babylon. The Lectionary readings for this Epiphany week highlight two great biblical migrations of a different character.
The first is a divine migration — God’s movement in history from mystery to revelation. The second is a human migration from darkness to light. The divine migration is the story of an invisible and mysterious God who — over time — reveals his character and purposes to humankind. God’s movement from mystery to revelation climaxes in the coming of Christ. In the Christmas story, the once invisible God becomes visible in the person of Jesus Christ, who represents God’s fullest self disclosure. By looking at Jesus, we get our clearest picture of what our invisible God is like. Today’s text from Ephesians highlights another chapter in the story of God’s migration from mystery to revelation. With the formation of the church, God unveils another mystery: God’s plan for reconciling all things.
The second great migration is the human migration from darkness to light. This migration happens — not as a result of human cunning and skill — but as a result of God’s invitation and grace. Paul writes to the church at Colosse that God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of light (Colossians 1:13). The texts in Isaiah 60 and Matthew 2 paint powerful pictures of this human migration. In the Old Testament reading, Isaiah portrays people from all nations streaming to God’s light — bringing with them their gifts and worship. The Gospel reading tells of Magi – Gentile wise men – who are drawn to the light of Jesus’ birth. They also come to worship and to bring gifts to Jesus.
Have you ever experienced thick darkness? Darkness so dense that it seemed to swallow you? Darkness from which there seemed to be no escape? Perhaps on a camping trip? Or when the electricity went out during a storm? Or perhaps when life events just seemed totally overwhelming?
The prophet Isaiah says that darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples (60:2). Isaiah describes this thick darkness in chapter 58. It is a darkness caused by injustice and oppression; a darkness from exploiting workers (v.3); a darkness from quarreling and strife (v.4); a darkness from failing to share food with the hungry (v.7a); a darkness from failing to provide shelter to the wanderer (v.7b); a darkness from failing to clothe the naked (v.7c). In short, it is a darkness of failing to care for one another.
In chapter 59, Isaiah describes the situation as one of utter hopelessness and despair: “We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows,” laments Isaiah. “Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like men without eyes. . . . So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found . . .” (vv.9b-10, 14-15a) That is thick darkness!
And yet, Isaiah speaks of hope in the midst of utter darkness and hopelessness. Israel is a nation in exile, a nation under judgment. In the midst of this despair, Isaiah promises hope. Many in his day may have wondered whether Isaiah was taking hallucinogenic drugs! “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you,” declares Isaiah. “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you (Is. 60:1-2). These are incredible words of hope.
This is the step-by-step as outlined by Isaiah: First, there is thick darkness. Second, God’s people repent — they are truthful about their sin and choose to turn around and walk in God’s ways. Third, God’s light and glory scatter the darkness and shine brightly on God’s people. Fourth, like ants to sugar, the surrounding nations migrate to God’s light — a light which is reflected by God’s people. “Nations will come to your light,” Isaiah promises, “and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (60:3).
As the nations stream to the light reflected by God’s people, they bring along their gifts. Just as the Queen of Sheba brought expensive gifts to King Solomon, the nations now bring along their riches — “the wealth on the seas” (v.5); “herds of camels,” flocks and rams (vv.6a,7a); “gold and incense and silver”(v.6b). These gifts are used to offer worship and praise to God and to enrich God’s people. Finally, when the nations come to God’s light, Isaiah says they will learn God’s ways (Is. 2:2-4).
The story of the Magi — found only in Matthew’s gospel — is partial fulfillment of Isaiah’s hope-filled prophesy. This story also tells of a great migration. Magi from Persia or some other eastern country follow a star, while looking for the one who has been born king of the Jews. It was typical in those days to believe that a bright star represented the angel – or heavenly counterpart – of a great person. For example, in both Jewish and secular histories, stars announced the births of Moses and Isaiah.
The Magi come first to Jerusalem. This seems like a logical place to find the king of the Jews. But in Jerusalem the Magi encounter Herod – known as Herod the Great. Herod is a complex character. On one hand, he seems to be a renaissance kind of guy. He is committed to the arts and culture. During his reign, he constructs many theaters, amphitheaters and monuments. He begins a massive reconstruction of the Jewish temple — a project that takes more than 80 years to complete. On the other hand, Herod is a brutal leader. He kills his wife, his three sons, his in-laws and, eventually, all the baby boys in Bethlehem. Unlike the righteous king described in Psalm 72 — the king who “delivers the needy who cry out” (v.12) — Herod oppresses and rules with an iron fist.
And so when the Magi come to Herod looking for the one who has been born king of the Jews, Herod is more than a little bit interested. A new king could be a threat to his power and influence. So he calls his advisers who tell him that Christ will be born in Bethlehem. It is perhaps God’s providence — or maybe Herod’s stupidity — that Herod did not simply tell his soldiers to shadow the Magi and to kill this new king right on the spot. After all, Bethlehem is only 10 kilometers from Jerusalem. They could easily have made the journey in several hours. But instead, Herod tells the Magi to “Go and make a careful search for the child and then report back so that I, too, can go worship him.” (v.8) The Magi complete their long migration by going to Bethlehem. There they find the Christ child and offer their worship and gifts. But rather than report back to Herod, they go home another way.
It is important to remember that Matthew writes primarily for a Jewish audience. So he is bold to portray the Gentile Magi as among the first to recognize Jesus as the king of the Jews. This story of the Magi — which is told each year on Epiphany Sunday — foreshadows the fact that the Gentiles will have an equal place in God’s kingdom. Indeed it is often “outsiders” who see the light of Christ most quickly and most clearly.
The Ephesians text is vintage Paul. It reflects his hyperactive mind that darts constantly from one profound thought to another. In chapter 2, Paul describes how God created one new humanity, reconciling both Jews and Gentiles to God through the cross of Jesus Christ. In chapter 3 Paul continues “Oh, by the way, did I tell you about the great mystery . . . ?” What is this mystery that so excites Paul? The mystery, says Paul, is that through the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gentiles — previously considered to be the enemies of God’s people — are now heirs together with Israel; they are members together of one body; they are sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
That is the mystery. So what’s the big deal? Perhaps it doesn’t sound like a great mystery to us today after nearly 2000 years. But we dare not forget the level of animosity and disdain and distrust that existed between Jews and Gentiles at the time. Paul’s message would almost certainly have been received differently by Gentiles than by Jews.
For Gentiles, it was a message of empowerment and hope. Previously, they were not on the team. Now they are part of God’s team. In Christ, they now are on equal footing with believing Jews. They now are heirs with God’s people, part of God’s family.
For Jews, this mystery may have seemed rather unsettling. They had viewed themselves as having a position of special favor with God. Their sense of identity and security grew out of this special relationship with God. And now Paul tells them that God’s blessing, God’s favor and God’s promises will be shared more broadly than they had imagined. Indeed:
- God’s plan is always grander than we imagine.
- God’s grace is always greater than we can grasp.
- God’s mercy always reaches farther than we would allow.
And, in fact, this mystery isn’t just good news for the Gentiles. It is good news for the Jews as well. For God has transformed their former enemies, the Gentiles, into friends. And what could be more secure than that? God’s purpose is that the church will demonstrate this mystery to the world. “God’s intent,” says Paul “was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms . . .” (v.10).
When Paul speaks about rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, he is referring to the spirit world which, in his day, was thought to control and shape events on earth. Some Bible scholars would say that today, we might speak about these principalities and powers as giant networks or concentrations of power that shape or control our lives — for example, economic or political systems or ideologies. It is to these very systems — these principalities and powers that so often resist God’s reign — that God has chosen the church to reveal his mystery. Principalities and powers usually seek to order life by means of domination and control.
God’s mystery – revealed in Christ and through the church – is that in God’s reign:
- Life finds its order through serving others, not by controlling them.
- Life is ordered by transforming enemies, not by destroying them.
- Life is ordered by creating mutual relationships, not by dominating others.
This is the mystery that the church makes known to the principalities and powers. Just as scientists help unlock the mysteries of the natural world, the church unlocks this mystery of human relationships, as we demonstrate what it looks like to love one another in spite of our differences. According to Paul, making known this mystery has cosmic significance.
Two great migrations: The divine migration from mystery to revelation and the human migration from darkness to light. What does all this mean for us at the beginning of 2012?
With God’s revelation comes human responsibility. Because Jesus has come to earth, we have clear and convincing evidence of what God is like and what God wants from us. As we look at the life of Jesus we know a great deal about God’s concern for compassion, for justice, for serving one another, for trusting God. And because, through Christ, God has in the church reconciled bitter enemies to himself and to one another, we know that the ministry of reconciliation is to be central to our work and witness in the world.
Of course we will always have questions about God’s specific will for this or that situation in our lives. How often have you said, “I just wish God would tell me what to do?” But you know what? Usually we know as much as we need to know in order to make good decisions. We have the example of Jesus. We know that God has given the church the ministry of reconciliation. Within these parameters, God usually gives us broad liberty to make choices. God seeks neither to insult our intelligence nor to constrain our freedom to choose. What gifts has God given us? About what has God made us passionate? These are usually clues about the specific kinds of ministry we should be doing. How well are our lives and work lining up with what we know to be true of God’s purposes? We are called to:
- Scatter God’s grace.
- Practice God’s justice.
- Model God’s peace.
- Reflect God’s light.
God does not ask us to create light, God simply asks us to reflect God’s light and glory. That means that we dare not hide it under a bushel basket. We dare not keep it to ourselves. The world is filled with hurting and broken people who long for healing and grace. Isaiah reminds us that, when we reflect God’s light, the nations will stream to it.
It requires eyes of faith to see these great migrations. Perhaps some of you are thinking — well, if these are such great migrations — why don’t we see greater evidence of them? If God has migrated from mystery to revelation then:
- Why is God’s will for my life so hard to figure out?
- Why do God’s purposes sometimes seem so complicated?
- Why is there still so much division within the church — the body that Christ has reconciled by his own blood?
And if the nations are really migrating from darkness to light then:
- Why is there still so much violence in the world and why is the threat of another war always so real?
- Why is there still so much evil and hatred and pain in the world?
- Why does so much darkness remain?
- Why are there so many situations that seem hopeless?
Yes, it requires eyes of faith to see these great biblical migrations. But God’s word declares these migrations to be true. The writer of Hebrews says: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Heb. 11:1)
But our faith is not rooted in some fuzzy or wild-eyed possibility. Our faith is rooted in a God who is faithful and true. Our faith is rooted in what God has already done. Because of Who God is and what God has already done, we trust in what God has promised yet to do. This is our faith.
Just as in the movie Ice Age Manny chose for so long to ignore the great migration southward, we can — for a time — choose to ignore God’s migration from mystery to revelation. But that doesn’t change the fact that this migration has happened and continues to happen in the church. We can choose for a time to resist the fact that God is drawing the nations from darkness to light. But it doesn’t change the fact that this is what God is doing in history.
Like the Magi, the wise ones will see and come to God’s light. The wise ones will seek to reflect God’s light. The wise ones will join the great migrations — sooner rather than later. May this be true for each one of us in 2012.