Clockwise from Top Left: Arise, Shine, for Your Light Has Come. © Dietmar Rabich, rabich.de, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.
See the texts, artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.)
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
Para obtener más recursos leccionario, Estudios Exegético: Homiléticos.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé
Isaiah prophesies to people just returning from exile that the day would come when all nations would stream to their light.
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, include all the verses.
Paul says that his imprisonments are enabling the Gentiles and even the leaders of the nations to come to know the mystery that they are invited to become fellow heirs with Christ Jesus.
Matthew tells of the visit of the Magi and their participation in God's subversion of Herod's plan.
Epiphany Culminates the Advent/Christmas Season Today
The preparatory season of Advent and the mystagogical Season of Christmas culminate today, the Feast of the Epiphany. In early Christianity, today marked at least three major reasons to feast in one. January 6 was one of the early Church’s dates for celebrating the birth of Christ, and with it the coming of the wise men. In the Eastern tradition (Orthodox), today is known as “Theophany,” the appearance of God. Epiphany/Theophany, East and West was (and in the East still is) also celebrated as the date of Christ’s baptism by John, and in the Eastern tradition is marked by “The Blessing of the Waters,” a rite of blessing of the major waterways near the location of the church in honor of Christ entering the waters of baptism. To see an recent image of the “priestly” part of this rite from Germany, click here; and the “lay” part of the rite from Bulgaria, click here.
For us in the Western tradition, the Baptism of the Lord became a separate feast from Epiphany in the mid-twentieth century. The further revision of the liturgical calendar by Vatican II and in the Revised Common Lectionary made Epiphany the capstone of the Christmas Season and Baptism of the Lord the inauguration of a period of ordinary time prior to Lent.
Epiphany for us, then, is sheer celebration of God with Us. By all means, plan to celebrate Holy Communion today, and next week as well as part of the baptisms or reaffirmations that may occur in the celebration of Baptism of the Lord.
A New Season Begins Next Week
The (green) Season after Epiphany is “bookended” by The (white or gold) Baptism of the Lord and Transfiguration. All good bookends provide a frame for what lies between them. In this case, the frame itself marks the beginning and culmination of our lives in Christ, and what lies between marks core practices and lifeways of disciples of Jesus Christ, individually, and as his body, the church. This is a season for helping the church get ready for its Lenten ministry of accompanying newly-called disciples on the journey toward baptism at Easter. For more on using this year’s texts to help your church use this “season of discipleship” well, see "Planning Worship for the Season after Epiphany, Year B."
As you can see below, the Season after Epiphany is also chock full of other programmatic emphases, including a Special Sunday with Offering (Human Relations Day, After Epiphany 2). If you take a look at the panoply of programmatic possibilities ofered, you could easily lurch from week to week on a “programme de la semaine” sort of journey. But where would it take you as disciples of Jesus, or even as good church members? Keep the discipling theme of this season in the foreground, and, while not ignoring the programmatic emphases, put them clearly in the background, perhaps addressing them more via social media and other communications than in worship or formation opportunities per se.
January 4/6 Epiphany Sunday/Epiphany
January 11 Baptism of the Lord (also this) Human Trafficking Awareness Day
January 18 Human Relations Day (Discipleship Ministries Resources)
Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
January 19 Martin Luther King Jr. Day
January 25 Ecumenical Sunday in The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
All Month: Black History Month (USA)
February 8 Scouting Ministries Sunday (USA)
February 15 Transfiguration of the Lord
February 18 Ash Wednesday
All of today's texts are about the manifestation ("επιφανια") of God's saving intervention in history -- whether in the days following the ending of the exile (Isaiah) or in Jesus Christ (Ephesians, Matthew) -- and in particular God's outrageous revelation of salvation to Gentiles, who were formerly bitter enemies and oppressors. Paul's imprisonment by Gentile leaders gives him the opportunity to witness to Gentiles in high places that God is out to save THEM through Jesus Christ as well. The Magi were descendents of the Babylonians, the very people who carried the people of Judah into exile. When word about God entering history gets out, no part of the world is unaffected.
Isaiah offers a word from the Lord to exiles or new returnees to their homeland after at least a 39 year absence. Isaiah here picks up up on the themes of light and darkness we saw in Isaiah 9 (Christmas Eve texts). The people 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, Jerusalem in particular, 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 (no longer battle zone territories within Palestine) 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 also sent orders to have supplies and building materials sent (including gold and frankincense) for the rebuilding of the city and its temple. Part of what Isaiah’s word may have accomplished in its day, then, was to remind the returned exiles that though things were not yet to their prior state, if they did look around and pay attention (verse 4), they would, in fact, see other nations bringing camels, gold, and frankincense into Jerusalem. At the moment it may not look like tribute, but they could see it as God’s glory shining on them as they rebuilt.
They and the prophet both seemed to have more in mind, of course. In this prophecy, thick darkness covered the nations. The thick darkness is an ambivalent symbol. It can refer to the unfathomable mystery and presence 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 appear to be at work here, in interplay.
In the day of the original prophecy, the rest of the 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. More people were generally better off. The light shining on Judea would have been perhaps brighter than the light around them, from their angle, but would not have manifested the contrast of light to thick darkness this prophecy proclaims, if only as poetic hyperbole.
Part of the value of this prophecy has been its power to speak words of hope to the people of God in times when the world has fallen into chaos and disorder, when “thick darkness” had become reality nearly everywhere. That reality has been known in more local worlds—in the nations and among the peoples that have lived in poverty and under oppression of one sort of another for decades or centuries. In the early twentieth century, it became known more globally during the Great Depression. Here in the early twenty-first century, it appears we are on the brink, if not already in the midst, of another such period of global instability, chaos, thick darkness.
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 as he said: the light of the world. Our mutual care for each other 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. It is shining. Do we see it? Do we amplify it? Or are we blind to it, or do we seek to suppress it?
In the reading from Ephesians we see another angle on suffering and gospel, and in particular on suffering and the manifestation of God’s glory through evangelism. It was typically evangelism that got Paul locked away. And 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 simply has been made manifest to all, and the good news about him will go out from all who are committed to him and to all the world, including the Gentiles.
Hear the challenge in this in its own day. The whole letter to the Ephesians is a reflection of the capacity of that community of Christians to live as Jews and Gentiles together in Christ. That was not happening everywhere, and the notion that Gentiles were to be included on an equal basis with Jewish people and in the same assemblies was still controversial in early Christianity at the time.
From a Jewish perspective (such as Paul’s), there were really only two divisions in humankind—Jewish and Gentile. Race as we construe 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 Ephesians, Paul boldly declares what was lived reality in that community, that in Christ that dividing wall in humanity between Jewish and Gentile had been broken down, and that in Christ, God was making one new humanity in place of the two (Ephesians 2:11-16).
While Paul and other Jewish Christians primarily saw only these two basic divisions, the Gentile world was (and remains!) deeply divided on all kinds of lines of culture, ethnicity, race, social class, religious practices, and others. Thus while from a Jewish angle, Paul speaks of Christ as healing only one division, in practice among Gentiles, Christ actually continues 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 house churches that would later become congregations and other formats 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. 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 way to go. Following the realities of the Jewish-Gentile divide in early Christianity, however, neither “market niche-ing” (perhaps a euphemism for segregation) nor assimilation seems to be appropriate for the call to Christian community. Rather, each brings all of its gifts and distinctiveness to the table, each using all, not as a “melting pot,” but perhaps something more like a rich stew. The aroma of molten metal is acrid. The aroma of a rich stew is pleasant for all.
The usual pageantry for Matthew’s gospel this Sunday includes the three kings, their gifts, and perhaps the use of incense. There is something comforting about repeating the usual elements, even when the materials we may use to do so are bathrobes and other commonplace items we may have available. That comfort and familiarity, even some of the domestication that comes with it, can be a blessing.
Iraqi or Iranian astrologers just didn’t normally go waltzing into Jerusalem looking for a child alleged to be born to become the new ruler of that nation. If they did, they didn’t walk around asking common people and maybe a priest or two where this child might be. Such matters, one would have thought, would have been handled by an official delegation and through all the right channels, not by apparent freelancers talking to ordinary folks, some of whom might eventually get word up to the proper channels. In short, what these men were doing in Jerusalem and how they did it was bound to draw suspicion from the powers that be.
What we know of Herod we know primarily from a historian (Josephus) who did not like him, as well as from this testimony in Matthew. He was, by their testimony, insecure, paranoid, easily threatened, and ready to act violently if he thought someone might be in his way. But in this story, Herod is not just Herod. He is also stand-in for the powers of the world that keep others from access to truth they do not want to have accessed, and then try to control the outcome of the truth discovered. The Magi come as free agents. They are drawn into Herod’s scheme as pawns. The angels in dreams send them home by another way, and send the Holy Family into exile in Egypt, though strangely in such exile as free agents. Herod lashes out with extreme violence, ordering the execution of every Jewish male under age two unless he may have missed someone.
God’s consistent activity—in nature through the alignment of planets viewed by the astrologers, in the astrologers going to Jerusalem and their impertinent inquiries of the wrong people, through and despite Herod to lead the astrologers to Jesus, and then through dreams to lead them all to safety and freedom—was a subversion of the powers that be and what they would do to try to stop God’s reign from happening in Jesus. The violence against the innocent male children revealed the violence and fear that lay behind the system, violence and fear normally not so evident or at least better justified as acceptable.
Note that the Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer 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?
In Your Planning Team
Light shining in improbable places (Isaiah), the mystery of God breaking down all barriers that divide people (Ephesians), and the subversive work of God, angels, astrologers and a family visiting Bethlehem then fleeing into Egypt (Matthew). These are rich themes to develop the overall theme of what the manifestation of God to the whole world has done, and still does to this day.
This is not a day to choose just one. This is a day to play out the implications of all three where you are and in the wider world, and do it lavishly—in song, in pageantry, perhaps even with incense (hypo-allergenic, resin-based, non-perfumed incenses are widely available—just make sure you have adequate ventilation and space to deal with the smoke you may generate!).
As you construct worship today, think of it as a musical with distinct acts and songs, but with these three themes that interweave to form the central theme of celebrating all that the incarnation of God in Christ has loosed among us. Start with ruins, and sing of new life. Move to barriers, and tear them down. Then inhabit the story of the magi, with pageantry perhaps, but with the spotlight always on what God is doing that undoes and exposes the threats and violence of the kingdoms of this world.
And conclude with a call to the Lord’s Table. This is where we celebrate today most of all. The God who brings light, the God who breaks down barriers, the God whose coming becomes known to far-off strangers and actually does topple the powers that be to establish a way of hope and life and full salvation for all—this is the one to whom we pray at this Table, this is the host of the Table, and this is one by whose power our common gifts of bread and wine become nothing less than a participation of the life of the Triune God, whose birth among us then the constellations he will later make new proclaim.
- Greeting: UMBOW, 296
- Opening Prayer: UMBOW, 297 or United Methodist Hymnal, 255
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, Iran, Iraq
- Great Thanksgiving (Communion): UMBOW, 58-59