Preacher Prep: Epiphany of the Lord

November 1st, 2014

The following is an excerpt from the Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary, available from cokesbury.com.


THE LESSONS IN PRÉCIS

Isaiah 60:1-6. This “Arise! Shine!” passage is a proclamation to the nations that their light and Lord has come. People will praise God and bring gifts of “gold and incense.” 

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14. The psalmist prays that God will bless the king “generation to generation” and that all people will kneel before him, for he cares for the needy, the poor, the weak, and the oppressed.

Ephesians 3:1-12. The good news of Jesus Christ is for the Gentiles also, and God enrolls Paul in a ministry to them. God’s eternal plan is carried out in Christ, and through the church God’s wisdom will be revealed to the rulers and powers (v. 10).

Matthew 2:1-12. God reveals to the wise men that a king is born and guides them to the infant and then away from Herod, who is threatened by Jesus.

 

THEME SENTENCE

 Christ is the true authority over all. The first two readings stress the nature of the coming king who will be for all nations, and the second two identify that the good news of the birth of this king extends to the Gentiles.

 

A KEY THEOLOGICAL QUESTION

Jesus is our true authority and the true wisdom of God. The prophetic hope that a great light will shine in Israel and lighten all nations (Isa 60:1-3) arises from the Hebrew tradition going back to Abraham. The hope for liberation from slavery and injustice extends back to Moses and the Exodus. Psalm 72 expresses this same longing for liberation from all oppression and violence, through the reign of a righteous king who will take the side of the poor and lowly. The hope for a just ruler is found again in many prophetic texts that proclaim confidence that the Holy One who freed the people from Egypt will establish “justice in the land” (Isa 42:4) through a Spirit-inspired Servant of God. 

In continuity with this tradition of hope stands the legend of the wise ones (magoi) who visit Bethlehem in search of the “king of the Jews.” Matthew proclaims, in a tale rich in symbolism, that Jesus is this true king and the true wisdom of God. Those who seek wisdom will find it in this humble child, born in poor circumstances to ordinary folk in an obscure, oppressed nation. The star and the wise men point, in a poetic manner, to this true authority who rightly rules in our lives and in our world. His authority is signified by gifts fit for a king: gold and frankincense (Isa 60:6), and myrrh, an ointment for anointing the dead, foreshadowing that this king will suffer for the people. The authority of this suffering Servant of God lies not in power over others, but in his self-giving love. 

Thus true authority stands in sharp contrast to the violent rule of Herod, whose main concern is his own power. The story that follows, of Herod’s slaughter of innocent children in order to be rid of a rival king, and the flight of the infant Jesus and his parents into Egypt (almost certainly nonhistorical) bespeaks the fear of Jesus in the hearts of those who rule with violence and cruelty, for Jesus “has pulled the powerful down from their thrones / and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52).

Matthew, like all New Testament authors, writes of Jesus out of his post-Easter faith in him as the Christ. It is only in light of the resurrection that Jesus is given the titles not only of the God of Israel (Lord, Savior, Emmanuel—“God with us”) but even more remarkably, those of the emperor of Rome! It was Caesar who was called deus (a god), soter (savior), kurios (Lord), who brings pax (peace) on earth. But it was Jesus who ate with outcast “tax collectors and sinners,” defended a “sinful woman,” reached out with compassion to lepers, the lame and blind, and challenged the greedy rulers of the temple who reigned in Judea in collusion with the Romans. It should come as no surprise that the Romans wanted him dead. His execution was no accident, no arbitrary fate; he died because of the way he lived (Sobrino, 1993, p. 201). With delicious irony, this gentle, loving man, crucified like a slave in a conquered nation, is now called the true king, the true Lord and Savior, who brings true peace on earth (Luke 2:11, 14). It is to him and not to Caesar that royal gifts are presented. It is he who evokes the adoration of the wise ones of the earth, not Herod. No wonder Herod and Pilate wanted to be rid of him and that the tyrants of the world are threatened by Jesus and those who seriously follow him. In the Roman Empire, Jesus was indeed proclaimed as an “alternative Emperor” (Horsley, 1997, p. 220). By his radical teaching of love, justice, and peace, by his courage unto death on the cross, by his resurrection victory over death, he (together with his followers) has the power to revolutionize the world. Luke says it clearly: “These people who have been disturbing the peace throughout the empire have also come here. . . . Every one of them does what is contrary to Ceasar’s decrees by naming someone else as king: Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7).

It should come as no surprise either that Paul, a follower of Jesus, finds himself in prison (Eph 3:1) and endures many sufferings (2 Cor 11:24-27), or that countless Christian martyrs down through the centuries have suffered imprisonment, torture, and death because of the challenge they presented to tyrannical authorities. It is not only that they acted politically, as they often did and still do, but that they proclaimed the mystery of “revelation”—that the “wisdom” (the Sophia) of God (1 Cor 1:24), who is God’s very self, is found incarnate in the crucified and risen Jesus (Johnson, 2007 p. 205). Our whole understanding of God is turned upside down! True deity is revealed not in macho, domineering force, but in this strong and suffering One, born in a stable, dying on a cross, and quietly, unobtrusively, raised up from death. Thus, “in Jesus of Nazareth . . . the one God of Israel has been personally revealed, so that Jesus himself is now part of the meaning of God. It means that Jesus is Lord, and Caesar isn’t” (Wright, 2000, pp. 169, 173). 

While we are no longer ruled by kings, there remain many “rulers and authorities” in every sphere of life. Jesus did not come to replace Herod or Pilate, but they, and all presidents and prime ministers, CEOs, and bosses who have succeeded them, are answerable to Jesus’s true authority and wisdom. His is a liberating authority, which evokes our final love and loyalty, so that “at the name of Jesus everyone / in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow / and every tongue confess that / Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10-11).

 

ETHICAL IMPLICATIONS

If Christ has authority over all, one of our key responses can be to become as the magi, worshiping God in Christ and offering our gifts, setting aside any false objects of worship. Our ability to do this on our own is limited, but with God all things are possible. For the workaholic, this might mean finding one’s value in relationship to God, perhaps praying more and listening, or extending oneself to relate to neighbors. For the rich and powerful, it might mean shunning status and living each day seeking to serve others. For the unemployed, it might mean trusting one’s value and worth regardless of circumstance. 

Ann was a caring and attentive mother, and she did not notice her life getting out of balance. She wondered aloud if her grade-school children were too reliant upon her, and Ann’s sister responded, “Billy and Sarah seem fine to me. I sometimes wonder if you are too reliant upon them.” Initially hurt, Ann tried to cover it up with laughter. The more she thought about it, the more she thought her sister was right: “My center of gravity shifted over the years without my even being aware.” She said that her sister’s comment was the beginning of her spiritual journey. 

Others might journey in other ways. Recognizing Christ’s authority means putting aside our own pursuit of power and authority of a dominating and aggressive sort, without setting aside Christ’s agenda for justice, mercy, and righteousness. In other words, we do not become passive when acknowledging Christ’s rule; we become responsible and empowered by the Spirit in the kinds of ministries that further the Realm of God.
 

GOSPEL IMPLICATIONS

By the light of a guiding star the magi kneel and worship Jesus and give him offerings of their lives and treasure, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In the first light of the incarnation the magi have glimpsed the blazing light of Christ’s eternal glory. Already here at the stable, by night, is the dawn of a new age that will shine luminously on Easter morning. Here is the One who ends all night. Kneel here, arise, and depart, knowing that you need not illumine your own paths, for God in Christ lights your way. He is the One who has drawn you into the circle of God’s light. From the end of time he says to us and all humanity, “Follow me and you shall shine by God’s light, not your own. This light will never fail you. No matter where you go, in the Spirit I will never leave you. No matter how hard the path, my light will guide your way, and my Spirit will empower your steps. Though your eyes grow dim, I walk with you. Come and follow, and I will light the path of justice for the oppressed, mercy for the condemned, and love for all eternally.” 

 

Notes:

Richard A. Horsley, The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World (New York: Grossett/Putnam, 1997).

Elizabeth A. Johnson, Quest for the Living God: Mapping Frontiers in the Theology of God (New York: Continuum, 2007).

Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator: A Historical-Theological Reading of Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Paul Burns, Francis McDonagh (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1993).

N. T. Wright, “Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire” in Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel Imperium Interpretation. Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2000), 160-83. 


Paul Scott Wilson is professor of homiletics at Emmanuel College, University of Toronto, in Toronto, Ontario. 

Harold Wells is professor of theology emeritus at Emmanuel College, University of Toronto, in Toronto, Ontario.

About the Author

Paul Scott Wilson

Paul Scott Wilson is Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Emmanuel College, University of Toronto. He is the author of read more…
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