Planning - Epiphany Sunday and the Epiphany of the Lord
Isaiah prophesies to a people just returning from exile that the day would come when all nations would stream to their light, and the wealth of the nations would come to them.
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 (UMH 795).
In praise of the righteous king who would receive tribute from all nations -- Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 (UMH 795), with Response 1. If you do not sing this Psalm, plan to include all the verses.
Paul writes that his imprisonments have enabled the Gentiles and their leaders to know the mystery; they are invited to become fellow heirs in Christ Jesus.
Matthew tells of the visit of the Magi and how they cooperated with God to subvert Herod's plan.
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Calendar and Colors
In the Northern hemisphere, the realities of workaday life, school, and winter are settling in. In the Southern hemisphere, it's summer, and life goes on. In New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, and other places that share similar traditions, the religious/cultural celebration of Mardi Gras season begins. In the Orthodox Church, waters of nearby rivers and streams will be blessed today in grand processionals.
For United Methodists and others who have adopted the Revised Common Lectionary and its calendar, Ordinary time (not a "season of Epiphany," but a series of "Sundays after the Epiphany") begins tomorrow.
The color for most of the Sundays and weekdays of this period is green, as it is during the Season after Pentecost. On those Sundays, the lectionary texts do NOT all relate to one another OR to a seasonal theme, except that the Old Testament lesson is chosen to relate to the gospel. The gospel itself, though, is a continuous reading from Matthew (Year A). The epistle is a continuous reading as well, but it was not chosen to coordinate with the other texts.
This means, on the "green" Sundays, worship planning should focus around either the OT/Gospel stream (with the focus intended to be on the gospel) or the epistle stream. Since Easter comes late this year, you will have time to develop a decent preaching series as well as common thematic elements in worship space design for either of these two streams.
These "green" Sundays are "bookended" by "white" Sundays -- two up front (Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord) and one at the end ( Transfiguration Sunday). For the "white Sundays," the texts were chosen all to coordinate with one another, with a particular intended focus on the gospel or a common theme you chose among them.
Baptism of the Lord Sunday (January 9) is a day for reaffirming the baptismal covenant and membership vows. If you are receiving new members this day, use Baptismal Covenant IV as revised by the 2008 General Conference. (Select the format you prefer on the landing page). If you are not receiving new members, you may choose the more interactive version celebrated at the 2008 General Conference (English, Spanish).
On the denominational calendar, January commemorations include Human Trafficking Awareness Day (January 11), Human Relations Day (January 16), and Ecumenical Sunday (January 23) in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
As with all Sundays that have some cultural or programmatic elements, keep in mind this advice from the Book of Worship:
"Such special Sundays should never take precedence over the particular day in the Christian year. The special Sundays are placed on the calendar in the context of the Christian year, which is designed to make clear the calling of the Church as the people of God." (UMBOW, 422).
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All of today's texts are about the decisive appearing ("" -- epiphany) of God in history to save God's people. Isaiah describes God ending the exile and bringing restoration to the people. Ephesians and Matthew show God acting not only on behalf of the people of Israel, but the whole world, in the appearing of Jesus Christ. Paul's imprisonment by Gentile leaders gives him the opportunity to witness to Gentiles in high places that God is out to save them, too, through Jesus Christ. The Magi were descendents of the Babylonians, the very people who carried the people of Judah into exile. When word about God entering history to bring salvation gets out, no part of the world is unaffected.
Where are you and your worship planning team seeing signs of God showing up to save? Its one thing to announce such interventions will happen (Isaiah, in part). Its another to be able to refer to clear signs that they have occurred decisively and are happening even now (all three texts).
Worship planners: Job one for this service after listening deeply to these texts is to look for every sign of Gods appearing around you that you can!
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Atmospherics: The Texts
Isaiah offers a word from the Lord to exiles or new returnees to their homeland after at least a 39-year absence. They knew to expect ruins on their return, and that is what they had found. If thick darkness (verse 2) were anywhere in the world they knew, their ruined homeland and their destroyed capital would be where they would expect to find it.
Against this backdrop, the prophet declares the coming of the glory of the Lord, ready to shine on the land of Judah while the rest of the nations were covered in thick darkness (verses 1-2).
This prophecy was partly fulfilled in those times. Not long after issuing the decree to set the Judeans free to return to their homeland, the new Persian government under Cyrus also sent orders to have supplies, building materials and all of the gold and silver vessels that had been carried away sent back to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and its temple (See Ezra 1-6).
So part of what Isaiah's prophecy accomplished in its day was to remind the returned exiles that though things were not yet to their prior state, if they would look around and pay attention (verse 4), they would in fact see other nations bringing camels, gold and silver into Jerusalem, and likely frankincense as well. At that moment, it may have looked more like charity than tribute; but even in this odd way, they could still see these events as nothing less than God's glory shining on them.
When you look around you, what do you see? Do you see ruins? Do you see "thick darkness"? Where do you also see signs that God's glory shines and offers all sorts of gifts for the rebuilding of Christian community where you are? What are those signs? Consider on your worship planning team how, in addition to the gold and frankincense mentioned here and in Matthew, you may incorporate these signs in worship today -- whether as physical objects in the worship space, or images you may project, or even in a litany of thanksgiving you may compose to celebrate God appearing among us.
The people and the prophet both seemed to expect much more, of course. In this prophecy, thick darkness covered the nations. The thick darkness is an ambivalent symbol. It can refer to the presence of God, the unfathomable mystery of God, as in the cloud on Sinai when Moses went up to receive the Commandments. From this angle, thick darkness is a positive sign of God's presence and power everywhere. At the same time, the thick darkness can attest to judgment, chaos and danger. The light in this prophecy seems to be the sign of God's favor, new order, and opportunity for the whole of the human race. Both of these senses of the phrase "thick darkness" appear to be at work in this prophecy.
The reality in the day of this original prophecy was that the Middle Eastern world was not covered by thick darkness. If anything, the overthrow of the Babylonians by the Persians freed up people and all sorts of resources throughout the Middle East and into Asia and Africa. Trade increased. Most people were generally much better off. The light shining on Judea would have been perhaps brighter than the light around them from their own angle, but it would not have been seen as having the degree of contrast of light to thick darkness this prophecy seems to proclaim.
Part of the value of this prophecy, then, has been its power to speak words of hope not simply in its own day, but in later years when more of the world had fallen into chaos and disorder, when "thick darkness" had become reality nearly everywhere. It has continued to speak among peoples and nations where many who have lived in poverty and under oppression of one sort of another for decades or centuries. Although for some the "thick darkness" and chaos created by the ongoing effects of the 2008-2009 global economic crisis have begun to "thin" a bit; for many others, instability and unemployment continue and may continue for several years to come.
This prophecy thus continues to speak to us in this very day. "Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you." It is not hubris, but an act of faith to say that God here calls us to stir from our own depression as church, to live in the way of Jesus, and in so doing to find that he, and we through him, are exactly what he called us: the light of the world.
How are we the light of the world? How might we be?
Our mutual care for one another and extended to all, our commitment and action that renounces the evil forces of this world and resists injustice and oppression, our praise of God in the midst of suffering and uncertainty, our witness through lives of holiness to the holiness of God -- all of these are signs of God's glory shining on and through us, if we will let it shine.
So who and what around you is shining with the light of God's glory in the midst of the thick darkness surrounding us all?
If you don't already have some of these "shining ones" on your worship planning team, invite one or two in for your planning for this service. Let their light become contagious among you, and then spread abroad in your celebration this day.
Ephesians is about the light shining through evangelism. It was typically evangelism that got Paul locked away. And even while being locked away, Paul never stopped evangelizing about God's kingdom and Jesus Christ to everyone he could, even to the point, as he writes in Philippians (1:12-14), of reaching the whole imperial guard in Rome, who -- in turn -- would have shared at least something of that message with the leadership of the empire. That is part of what Paul refers to here in Ephesians when he speaks of the mystery of the gospel now being made known to "rulers and authorities in heavenly places" (Ephesians 3:11).
The bottom line: Christ has been made manifest to all, and the good news about him will continue to go out from all who are committed to him to the entire world.
Hear how challenging this was in Pauls day, though. The whole letter to the Ephesians addresses the ability of that community of Christians to live as Jews and Gentiles together in Christ. That was not happening everywhere. Indeed, in most places, it was not happening at all. Christianity in this period was perhaps eighty to ninety percent Jewish, hardly Gentile at all. And the notion that Gentiles were to be included on an equal basis with Jewish people and in the same assemblies remained controversial in early Christianity.
From a Jewish perspective (such as Paul's), there were really only two divisions in humankind -- Jewish and Gentile. "Race" as we talk about it was not a factor. There were some ethnic differences among Jewish people and some prejudices to be sure. But basically you were either Jewish or Gentile, period. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul boldly declares the lived reality in the community in Ephesus at least, that in that place, at the very least, the single important dividing wall in humanity, that between Jewish and Gentile, had been broken down by Christ, and that in Christ God was thereby making one new humanity in place of the two (Ephesians 2:11-16).
The folks in Ephesus were already living this. The folks of the surrounding Christian communities (the six other churches mentioned in Revelation), maybe not so much. So for Ephesus this was a word of affirmation, and for the others, perhaps a word of challenge.
While Paul and other Jewish Christians primarily saw only this one basic division, the Gentile world was (and remains!) deeply divided along lines of culture, ethnicity, race, social class, religious practices and many other things. Thus while from a Jewish angle, Paul speaks of Christ as healing only one division, in practice among Gentiles, Christ actually continued to work at the healing of many divisions of many kinds, bringing all into unity with him and making it possible for them also to live in direct face to face community with one another in the early house churches that would later become congregations and other forms of Christian community.
The fracturing of Christian communities brought about since the time of the Protestant Reformation has continued to reinforce rather than break down divisions and has continued to allow individual congregations and Christian communities to be satisfied that they have accomplished God's mission in the world if they are getting a few more "folks like them" to join them in worship and other good deeds in their "market niche."
Sisters and brothers, that is disobedience to this word of the Lord! And it flies in the face of the work of Christ himself, who doesnt exploit and further fragment us, but rather who brings us all into one body by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Some more adventurous souls have tried to reach others outside their cultural frameworks to bring them into their particular congregational culture, but have assumed that assimilation -- making those different from us like us -- is the proper goal. That, too, is disobedience, because Christ makes us one not through uniformity, but through the sharing of our diverse gifts with one another.
Here is the way of obedience and faithfulness described by Scripture. Every person brings all or his or her gifts and cultural distinctiveness to the table. Each shares them all with integrity. This is no "melting pot." It is much more like a rich stew. The aroma of molten metal is acrid. The aroma of a rich stew is pleasing -- to us and to the Lord.
So how is the gospel making all sorts of people into one body in Christ where you are, breaking down every dividing wall?
And where are the opportunities around you for more people to experience and engage in this holy "wall-breaking" because God has shown up?
How will you challenge and show people living examples of such things in worship today?
These may be relatively easier questions for congregations in more diverse, urban settings, and perhaps harder for those who live in places long shared by only one or a few cultural groups.
So if physical proximity to multiple cultures isnt available where you are, remember that you are part of a church that does indeed include such rich diversity. What connections do you already have with people not like you through the United Methodist Church or other more diverse organizations in which you participate? What have you experienced in such relationships so far? How might this reading spur you to make those relationships both deeper and wider, both near and abroad?
The usual pageantry for Matthew's gospel this Sunday includes three kings, their gifts, and -- in most of the Christian world -- incense. There is something comforting about repeating the usual elements, even when what we have at hand to do so are bathrobes and other commonplace items. That comfort and familiarity can be a blessing.
But as I wrote on the United Methodist Worship blog, the purpose of comfort in Christian ritual is always to prepare us to live and encounter the subversive spark of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So in your worship planning team, plan to include the bathrobes, but dont forget to open up the subversion, too!
And if you can get your "bathrobe blinders" off for just a few minutes, youll see just how strange and subversive (and so gospel-bearing!) this story really is.
The verb describing the arrival or the Iraqi/Iranian astrologers might be translated most literally "started showing up." (Epiphany!) It's not clear that they had an organized agenda or had traveled all at once. Their "appearance" sounds less like an official delegation governed by protocol and more like a viral movement.
Its also not clear that they went to Herod or through the official channels first. Instead, they "started showing up" in Jerusalem and asking about where the king of the Jews was to be born.
How Herod heard about this is also unclear. What is not unclear is his response: terror mixed with rage. He summoned his religious experts to get the answer to their question, then summoned the astrologers to give them that answer along with specific orders to return to tell him exactly where this child was.
If the astrologers had intentionally avoided the official channels, why had they done so? Were they naive amateurs? The gifts they bring and the access they eventually achieve suggest otherwise. You cant purchase those gifts unless you have wealth, and you dont have wealth without some understanding of how power and access to it works in the culture. Perhaps they knew of Herods reputation for violence against any he might perceive as a threat to his power. Maybe they thought going around him might be safer and better for all involved. Subversion was the safer path!
This strange story gets stranger in no small part because of divine intervention time and time again. And that intervention, direct or indirect, is all about subversion of the powers that be. A peculiar alignment of planets had gotten these astrologers as far as Jerusalem. Their perhaps impertinent inquiries of the wrong people got them through and despite Herod to Bethlehem, and the end of whatever astronomical phenomenon had happened signaled they had arrived at the correct house. After that, dreams led both the astrologers and Jesus family to safety and freedom.
Strange, strange, and strange. The story sounds crazy in its telling.
Yet what the story tells is that all heaven was conspiring against the powers of the earth to show the child to the astrologers and keep him alive to fulfill his mission. The subsequent murderous violence against innocent male children in the region (Matthew 1:16-18) revealed the violence and fear that lay behind the worlds system, exposing it for all to see.
How do people in your congregation or community join God's subversion of the powers that be? How are you joining God's work revealed in this story to do whatever it takes to bring about the revelation of God's reign to strangers and to secure a place for God's reign not only to survive, but later to thrive?
Note that the Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer today calls all Christians around the world to pray precisely for the region from which the Magi came, and it includes Iran and Iraq, among other Islamic nations, several of which are hostile to U.S. interests or have a history that is hostile to or limits open expressions of the Christian faith. How will you pray with and for these people in ways that embody the spirit of these texts today?
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Epiphany is a celebration that, in some ways, is extended over two Sundays in The United Methodist Church and many other churches. The earliest recorded celebrations of this day incorporated the stories of the Magi and the baptism of the Lord, and it was a major day for baptizing in its own right, as it still is in the Orthodox Church, but less so in the West.
Over time, the two emphases became separated into two separate days. But in essence, they are two sides of the same celebration of the public revealing of Jesus as the Son of God. As you plan for worship today, do so then with next week's celebration of the baptism of Jesus in mind as well.
Communion. Here is another time to sing Christmas carols and Epiphany hymns during the giving of the bread and cup. Use the Great Thanksgiving on pages 58-59 of The United Methodist Book of Worship.
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- Greeting: UMBOW, 296
- Opening Prayer: UMBOW, 297 or
United Methodist Hymnal, 255
- Christ Candle Lighting: If you have been lighting candles during Advent, consider lighting the Christ candle on this Sunday as we close the twelve days of Christmas. See "Lighting the Christ Candle on Christmas Eve or on Epiphany." The candle lighting could take place following the first reading.
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: : Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, Iran, Iraq
- Great Thanksgiving (Communion): UMBOW, 58-59
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