Epiphany, celebrated on Sunday 3 January 2016
Note: The ACANZP Lectionary 2016 provides for Sunday 3 January to be celebrated as either Christmas 2 (and Epiphany celebrated on its normal calendrical day, 6 January) or as Epiphany. The latter is chosen here.
The width and breadth of the gospel
The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight is coming, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:1b, NZPB p. 560)
O God, by the leading of a star
you revealed your Son Jesus Christ to the gentiles;
grant that your Church may be a light to the nations,
so that the whole world may come to see
the splendour of your glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. (NZPB p. 560)
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Rightly Matthew is described as the most Jewish of the gospels. Its interests in the law of Moses and Jesus' relationship to the law (e.g. 5:17-20) suggest a Jewish writer of a gospel whose primary audience are Jewish Christians. Yet this gospel, in keeping with the other gospels, has a wide vision of the kingdom of God. It is for Jews and for Gentiles.
The first appearances of Gentiles in this gospel are in chapter 1 where Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Uriah, all Gentiles, feature in the genealogy of Jesus.* Today's gospel reading takes us to the second Matthean reference to Gentiles, the three wise men (Greek, magi: astrologers, sages) who come 'from the East.' Their coming to Jesus with gifts in order to pay homage is both an act of worship of one born to be king and the development of Matthew's gospel vision: the gospel is for all people, the kingdom of God includes Gentiles with Jews.
If we ask about the historicity of this visit, we have no other confirming details anywhere else in Scripture. For other parts of the birth narrative, Matthew links events to Old Testament prophecies (Mary's giving birth despite her virginity,1:23; Bethlehem as the birthplace, 2:6; the family's flight to Egypt, 2:15; the massacre of the innocent children, 2:18; growing up in Nazareth, 2:23).
For some scholars this raises the question whether Matthew creates details in the story to match prophecies (with the purpose of developing the theme that Jesus is the (long ago predicted, much anticipated) Messiah/Christ.) But for the wise men, no such prophecy is brought forward by Matthew, even though, noting our Old Testament reading, at least one such reading is to hand. Isaiah 60:3 could have fitted neatly as a quotation in today's gospel reading, as could 60:6 with its mention of gold and frankincense!
We cannot probe Matthew's mind at this point (did he, for instance, discipline himself regarding citations from ancient prophets?). But the situation is suggestive that a real visitation by strangers from the East took place, even if the manner of telling this part of the birth narrative drew on a passage such as Isaiah 60:1-6.
Isaiah 60:1-6, therefore, offers a background to the visit of the Magi: one day the glory of the Lord would shine in a specific manner, chasing the darkness away which covered the earth - a darkness, reading, e.g. Isaiah 59, occasioned by manifest injustice and unrighteousness. To this light, a light shining out of Israel, the 'nations shall come' (60:3). Represented by the three wise men and the star, this ancient prophecy about nations coming to the light is fulfilled. So, also we note, today is 'Epiphany', the manifestation of the glory of the Lord to the whole world.
Making Psalm 72 the psalm for this day is an astute lectionary decision. Originally, we believe, the psalm was composed for Solomon who, in his own way, was a shining star (of enlightening wisdom) to whom rulers of nations came for advice. But in the context of Matthew 2:1-12 in which the Magi come bearing gifts for a new king who will (among many attributes) be wise, this psalm reads very well, especially noting verses 10-11.
Ephesians 3:1-12 is a natural epistle reading to include in Epiphany readings. Its themes are the inclusion of the Gentiles, the making known of the mystery of God's will through revelation, the wisdom of God and the commission to make the gospel known to all. Where Matthew's Jesus eventually leaves his readers, with the Great Commission in 28:20, the apostle Paul continues on to fulfil that commission.
What then does a preacher say on such a day as this with readings so tightly bound together in relation to the significant Feast of the Epiphany yet so wide-ranging in themes? Options abound!
Some are drawn to the details, such as the nature of the three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh and their implications for the future life of Jesus (myrrh being used for the anointing of dead bodies). Though here, in background notes, we must note the intriguing fact that Matthew makes no further mention of myrrh in relation to Jesus' death. Compare Matthew 27:34 (wine 'mixed with gall' is offered to Jesus before he is crucified) with Mark 15:23 (wine 'mixed with myrrh'); and the (absence of spices) burial according to Matthew 27:57-61 with the particular details of John 19:39 where Nicodemus' role in Jesus' burial includes 'myrrh.'
Options for preaching on these passages include themes of light, the universality of the gospel, the unfinished mission of Jesus (e.g. the 'darkness' still enshrouding the world today because of injustice and unrighteousness), and the wisdom of God embodied in Jesus.
The Rev Dr Peter Carrell is Director of Theology House in Christchurch.