Friday, January 15, 2010

Epiphany

Isaiah 60.1-6, Psalm 72.1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3.1-12, Matthew 2.1-12

The beginning of Isaiah chapter 60 is the origin of a lot of the myth and fable surrounding the story of the magi, astrologers or wise men. Isaiah is probably talking about a spotlight shining on the renewed nation of Israel, lighting up the darkness of sin and ignorance around her and making her a beacon of God's glory for the whole world to see, to which peoples and their rulers will naturally be drawn like moths to a flame. But it was a rather optimistic view, wasn't it, and Christians have naturally seen the passage's true fulfilment in Jesus.

Once he becomes the focus of the prophecy everything falls into place and the origins of Matthew's famous birth narrative become clear. When Jesus is born the light of the Lord God will arise over the place where Jesus lies in his mother's arms and God's glory will appear over him. Nations and kings will journey towards his radiant light from faraway lands, acknowledging at last that God is their true overlord. These seekers after truth and light will be female as well as male, though whether they will walk side by side or whether the daughters will be gathered in the arms of their nurses or mothers depends on your interpretation of the Hebrew original. But they will come bearing lavish gifts, including gold and frankincense. And there will be camels - lots of them - and, in verse 7, sheep too. Even when Matthew doesn't weave some of these details into his own version of the Christmas story, other later writers don't hesitate to include them.

Psalm 72 was probably a coronation psalm, used when a new king came to the throne or perhaps at an annual enthronement ceremony, when the people pledged their allegiance to the king and he renewed his vows both to them and to God. But, again, it's rather idealistic. There is an appeal for the king to rule with justice and righteousness, but also for his rule to last for as long as the sun and moon endure, which seems extremely hopeful. The Psalmist prays that the king's reign may bring as much prosperity and vitality to the land as the Spring reigns and, once again, the hope is expressed that other nations will be drawn by his example to bring gifts from faraway places and kneel before him. It's all rather reminiscent of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, but whereas Solomon's head was turned by all the wealth and prestige which he accumulated, the Psalm prays that the king will remember that his first priority must always be the care of the poor, the oppressed, the victims and the needy - in fact the needy get repeated mention throughout the last few verses that we read.

Again, it's little wonder that Christians have used these words as a hymn to Jesus and have linked them with Matthew's account of Jesus' birth. Does Matthew himself allude to verse 11, perhaps, when he says that the wise men bowed down in homage to Jesus? The Revised English Bible certainly thinks so, because it uses the word 'homage' in both passages to heighten the allusion and the Revised Version does the same thing, only using the words 'fall down' as in the phrase, 'kings shall fall down before him'. And this, then, together with the passage from Isaiah, becomes the source of the idea that the astrologers or wise men were also kings.

Ephesians chapter 3 begins with a reminder that Paul's mission to the Gentiles was revealed to him in a vision of the risen Jesus. It's not clear to me where the 'secret purpose' of Christ comes into this, and perhaps - once again - this is an over translation by the Revised English Bible of what the Letter to the Ephesians actually says because the word the writer actually uses is 'mystery' - meaning something previously hidden but which God has now revealed.

Some early Christians did believe that their new faith was a bit like the popular understanding of freemasonry - something full of secret knowledge which only those who were initiated into it could properly understand - and the writer's cryptic reference to an earlier brief account which his readers already know about, and which helps to explain the mystery revealed to Paul, could suggest that the writer of Ephesians is that kind of Christian too. But I don't think so. I think it's a reference to what he has been saying earlier in the Letter, in chapter 1, that the mystery now revealed to those who believe in Jesus is that the entire cosmos is being gathered together or brought into harmony and unity in him. And Paul's special part in this mysterious plan was to be made the chief apostle - although the writer uses the word 'minister' rather than apostle - to the Gentiles, to give them the good news that in Jesus they have become part of God's chosen people and are now joint heirs to all God's promises alongside the Jewish nation. And, says the writer, when Paul has squared the circle by carrying out his special part in God's plan, the wisdom of God will finally be made clear to all the rulers and authorities in the cosmos.

Ephesians was written, or put together from the fragments of Paul's previous writings, by someone anxious to defend Paul's reputation and to argue that he had been right to preach to Gentiles that they could become followers of Jesus without adopting the Jewish faith, although this passage is most uncharacteristic of anything else written by Paul - or in his name - in that normally he is very explicitly called an apostle whenever the word is mentioned. This is because, even in his own lifetime, some of his fellow Jewish Christians had tried to deny that he was a real apostle like them and Paul and his friends were very touchy about it.

The passage finds its way into the readings for Epiphany because of its stress on God's plan to reveal the Gospel of Jesus to the Gentiles, since that also seems to be the main emphasis behind Matthew's birth narrative about the magi, wise men or astrologers. They are symbolic of all the nations of the world who will come to pay homage to Jesus as God's anointed leader, in fulfilment of the ancient prophecies and the psalms.

The rulers and authorities which the writer to Ephesians talks about are spiritual powers which he believes are in control of the universe, but who will now discover their part in God's over-arching plan and become part of his purposes too, whereas the rulers and authorities which Matthew, Isaiah and the Psalmist talk about are real flesh and blood people, who are also destined to discover their part in God's plan. Wicked King Herod, the pantomime villain of the Bible, pretends that now he knows about the need to join the procession of leaders and nations who are going to submit to the authority of God's new leader, he too will go and worship him, but the wise men or astrologers are warned by God not to take him at his word.

So what is the message of the Epiphany story for us, at the start of an election year? Obviously that we need to be wary of politicians, even when they very explicitly promise to do the right thing!

David Owen has argued that politicians, even Christian ones, all too easily fall victim to hubris. That is, they begin to believe in their own myth. He cites Mrs Thatcher as an example. She became so used to taking on her own cabinet colleagues, and apparently being able to prove that she knew better than any of them, that when everyone told her the Poll Tax was a crazy idea she simply wouldn't listen to them but pressed ahead with it anyway, believing she was always right, and thus bringing about her own downfall. And, he argues that a similar thing happened to Tony Blair when he insisted on supporting the American invasion of Iraq despite massive opposition and the misgivings of many of his closest colleagues and advisers. Even now he still can't accept that it was a massive mistake.

The template for true leadership is a politician's willingness to pay due homage to the will of God and put the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the victims and the needy at the top of their election manifesto, and then stick to those pledges when they are in office. Even the economy and high finance take second place to compassion and should be put at the service of those in greatest need. Bankers and captains of industry, as well as politicians, must be willing to bow the knee before Jesus and lavish their richest gifts on doing his will.

But, of course, the message of Epiphany is not just for politicians. As Ephesians reminds us, the Church is caught up in the purposes and plans of God, too. We have a special responsibility to call everyone into partnership with Jesus and to make sure that they know they belong to him - again beginning with those who are outsiders, who are the weakest and most vulnerable members of society or who are normally left out of everyone else's thinking.

Unless we allow the Epiphany story to shape our actions in this way, so that we too come to pay homage to the little child lying in the arms of Mary his mother, it will remain a picture book story, a pretty tale for nursery and infant school children to re-enact at Christmas, whereas it is meant to be a world changing event. It is our responsibility to work as partners and co-workers with God, to make sure that the spotlight remains fixed on Jesus and enables him to go on banishing the darkness which otherwise threatens to engulf the world.

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