Sunday 5 January Epiphany
Theme: Coming of the Wise Men / Light to the Gentiles / Light of the World
Sentence: Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him. (Matthew 2:2)
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. Amen.
The resonances with Matthew 2:1-12 are easy to see. Most obviously in v. 6 'gold and frankincense', among the gifts of the wise men. But the theme of light and darkness is also important. The prophet sees Israel as a beacon to the nations. Jesus will focus Israel and draw the same homage from the nations, represented through the visit of the wise men after his birth to present their Isaianic gifts.
In original intent this psalm is a prayer for the prosperity of Israel's king ('of Solomon' in the superscription). It envisages among other signs of that prosperity that foreign kings will bring expensive tribute to him. The reason for connecting this psalm with the Epiphany when wise men (possibly kings) brought tribute to baby King Jesus is obvious.
The coming of the wise men from foreign lands in Matthew's Gospel, celebrated as the 'Epiphany' or revelation of the gospel to the Gentiles, is a landmark in the history of God's people. Israel has been the chosen nation living in the promised land: an exclusive people, partly required by allegiance to their god, YHWH, unique to them and distinctive among all the gods of surrounding peoples, and partly resulting from the circumstances of being enslaved in Egypt, exiled to Babylon and encircled by oppressive empires of Greece and Rome, each exerting force against their holy way of life. YHWH, the God of Israel was God of the world, but the world was generally expected to convert to Israel if it wanted to follow Israel's God. In other words, a Gentile needed to become a Jew to be truly counted among God's people.
Matthew tell us the story of the Gentile gift-bearers as part of an explicit but soft line within his gospel in which he makes clear that God is happy to include Gentiles as Gentiles among his people now redefined as the kingdom of God/heaven (alongside Matthew 2:1-12 note also the references to Gentiles in the genealogy of Jesus, 1:1-17, and the Great Commission, 28:16-20). Likely Matthew completes his gospel writing after Paul's apostleship is completed. That apostleship, described in this Ephesian passage, broke open the Jesus movement which was strongly Jewish, and challenged it to include Gentile followers of Jesus who remained Gentile (e.g. by not being circumcised).
Paul's contribution, both as a theologian with new insight into God's global purpose and plan and as an evangelist with a divine commission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, was to boldly challenge the assumptions of his fellow apostles that Christianity was inescapably Jewish. Not so, said Paul. Ephesians (including today's passage), Galatians and Romans are the epistles in which Paul's reasoning for inclusion of the Gentiles as Gentiles in God's people are laid out.
In this story Matthew opens up several important themes for his gospel. One, already noted in comments above, is that the coming of Jesus as the Christ of God is an event of significance for the whole world, for Gentiles as well as for Jews. That Gentile or foreign world which surrounds Israel is represented by the Magi or wise men who come bearing gifts. (Note, by the way, that there were three gifts but no mention of how many wise men!)
Two, Jesus is a light for the Gentiles, thus a star is seen guiding them towards the presence of God on earth (Emmanuel). Hence 'Epiphany' or manifestation: a revelation of a significant divine intervention in the world comes to the Magi who respond by seeking out the 'one who has been born king of the Jews' (v. 2). This revelation draws them not to seek further wisdom but to worship the king. Luke betrays no knowledge of the Magi coming to worship Jesus but he records for us the acclamation of Simeon when Jesus is presented in the Temple. This acclamation accords with the Matthean story: 'For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles' (Luke 2:30-32).
Three, Jesus is caught in conflict from the beginning of his life. Any story in which the protagonist dies an unnatural death needs to provide an explanation as to why the protagonist dies. Each of the gospel writers provides this explanation (spoiler alert: it's complicated). But each of the gospel writers has a slightly different starting point for when the conflict either begins or begins to be signalled as imminent. Thus, to return to Luke, Simeon forecasts future conflict for Jesus and sorrow for Mary (2:34-35). Mark offers a hint of conflict to come in an early story of exorcism (1:21-24) but the first murmurings of opposition come in 2:6-7).
Here in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus is a rival to Herod. His birth, announced by the wise men as the birth of the king of Israel (2:2), disturbs Herod and sends him into a literally murderous rage (2:16-18). Neither this Herod (the Great) nor one of his successors will kill Jesus, but his execution will come because something to do with the kingly status and manner of Jesus disturbs the power structures of Israel, both religious and political structures. Pilate will place a charge against him on the cross, 'This is Jesus, the king of the Jews' (Matthew 27:37; also Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19).
Sunday 12 January Epiphany 1
Theme: Baptism of the Lord
Sentence: I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me ... He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Matthew 3:11)
you anointed Jesus at his baptism
with the Holy Spirit,
and revealed him as your beloved Son;
grant that we who are baptised into his name
may give up our lives to your service,
and be found worthy of our calling;through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This is the first of four passages in Isaiah with similarities which have led to scholars naming them the 'servant songs'. The others are 49:1-6; 50:4-11; and, best known, 52:13-53:12. Naturally we ask who the servant is.
For the first hearers/readers of Isaiah it is likely (and reasonable) that the servant would have been understood as Israel itself. Israel the servant thus has important purposes in the great plan of God for the world, with a special role as agent of justice and bearer of light for the world (v.3, 6 respectively) and a way which involves suffering (notably in the fourth song, 52:13-53:12).
For Christians, and especially because of the way 52:13-53:12 dovetails into the passion narrative of the last days and hours of Jesus' life, the servant is Jesus Christ.
In this first song we see features of Jesus' mission foreseen (and later noted by Matthew or Luke). In particular and relevant to today's gospel reading, Matthew 3:17 works in elements of Isaiah 42:1 into the divine approval of Jesus as the Beloved Son at his baptism.
In this psalm attention is paid to 'the voice of the Lord' (verses 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9). When we read in v. 3 about the voice of the Lord being over 'the waters' we readily understand the link between this psalm and the baptism of Jesus.
Why attend to the voice of the Lord as the psalmist does? One reason goes back to the story of creation in Genesis 1: when the Lord spoke, things came into being. At the command of the Lord the world begins. Here the same voice continues to rule creation. Likely the 'voice' is understood as being expressed through the howling winds of storms which break cedars, shake the desert and twist oaks. In a thunderstorm it seems that the 'the Lord thunders over the mighty waters' (v. 3).
Peter preaches to Cornelius and the crowd gathered with him. In these nine verses he offers a summary of the gospel narrative of Jesus' ministry. Though it does not refer directly to the baptism of Jesus, Peter's summary does refer 'how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power' (v. 38).
If this were our only gospel narrative we would be well justified in thinking of Jesus as a human being especially endowed by God with the Holy Spirit but not as the divine Son of God. Our belief in Jesus as the Son of God rests on the cumulative testimony of the four gospels, as well as Acts and the epistles.
Why might Luke not pay more attention to Jesus' divinity in such a summary? One response could be that Luke does not completely downplay it! To refer to Jesus as 'Lord of all' in 10:36 is a very significant statement. For Peter subsequently to order that the new believers be 'baptized in the name of Jesus Christ' (10:48) raises the question whether a 'mere mortal' could be in a position in which his name was invoked for such a life-changing event as baptism.
Another response is that Acts is a theological narrative about the Holy Spirit (as well as about the early Christian movement). By referring to Jesus as one anointed with the 'Holy Spirit and with power,' Luke's report of Peter's sermon invites his readers a few verses further on to recognize that one and same Holy Spirit at work in Jesus falls upon Cornelius and the new believers with him. What readers are invited to consider at this point is not what Luke thinks about the status of Jesus (i.e. Luke's christology) but what God is up to by endowing believers in Jesus with the same Holy Spirit which was at work in Jesus.
Since the Epiphany a week ago, Jesus has grown rapidly into an adult!
The silence over those growing years suggests that whatever 'internal development' may have been happening in Jesus' life, nothing happened which Matthew thinks we need to know. What is now told about Jesus' life is presumably important and to be noted by all disciples of Jesus.
John has been baptising people (3:1-12) and this seems to have been some kind of renewal mission: Israel was called by John to a re-commitment to live a holy life and baptism was the ceremony which symbolised the forgiveness of past failure and the beginning of a renewed holiness. Simultaneously John has also preached the coming of a greater missioner than himself (3:11-12), one who will bring the kingdom of heaven (3:1-2).
Now that missioner comes and John, understandably, thinks that if baptism is a ceremony marking this new stage in the unfolding of God's plan, then he should be baptised by Jesus. Unexpectedly Jesus wants things to be different: he will be baptised by John. Not the other way around. Why?
Jesus enigmatically says, 'it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness' (v. 15). What is going on here? One thing is that Jesus identifies with his fellow Jew. As far as baptism for the forgiveness of sins is concerned, Jesus has no need. He was righteous. But as far as being a true Israelite, committed to holy living in God's name, Jesus sets himself to identify with his fellow citizens. He will be baptized as a symbol of his commitment to living a righteous life. Another things is that Jesus has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17) and to live a life whose 'righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees' (5:20). Jesus will submit to baptism as a sign of his commitment to righteous living. Even if this did not identify with fellow Israelites (e.g. they did not get baptized), Jesus would do this, would do anything to demonstrate his zeal for the Lord's will.
Nevertheless, this statement remains enigmatic. How, for instance, does baptism at the hands of John 'fulfill all righteousness'? It was not a requirement of the law.
The reading concludes not with Israel celebrating Jesus' commitment to righteousness but with God expressing his pleasure. The Spirit of God descends on Jesus and the divine voice (recalling Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1; also anticipating the Transfiguration, Matthew 17:5) says, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'
Here, at the beginning of Jesus' mission and ministry, we meet Jesus as the Son of God. The infant worshipped by the sages in Matthew 2 has always been the Beloved Son but now this status is declared in the public event of baptism.
A final note: we include the story of the Baptism of the Lord in the season of Epiphany = Manifestation / Revelation / Appearance because at Jesus' baptism a manifestation takes place (the coming down of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove) and a revelation is given (the divine voice's approval of Jesus as the Beloved Son).
Sunday 19 January Epiphany 2
Theme: Jesus the Lamb of God / Jesus the Baptizer with the Holy Spirit
Sentence: He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit (John 1:33).
you wonderfully created
and yet more wonderfully restored
the dignity of human nature;
grant that we may share the divine life
of your Son Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,one God now and for ever. Amen.
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Noting the remarks above (Sunday 12 January) about Isaiah's 'servant songs'; this is the second of the four servant songs.
If, generally speaking 'the servant' originally referred to Israel and her role in God's great purposes for the world, here in these verses an opening is made for the possibility that the servant is a particular agent of God (while still remaining Israel as well). Note that one formed in the womb (v. 5) for the purpose of bringing Jacob/Israel back to God is odd if it is also referring to Israel: at this point the servant seems to be an individual agent of God, a prophet perhaps charged with calling Israel back to God. Yet in the same vein the verses go on to speak of the servant as having a role beyond the 'light' thing that Jacob/Israel is raised up. 'I will give you as a light to the nations' (v. 6). But it is difficult to see how this could have been understood in Isaiah's day as a role for an individual rather than a role for (restored, reinvigorated) Israel.
Again, as Christians we look back through the lens of Jesus Christ and understand the passage to refer to the one we believe in as 'the light of the world.'
Why is this psalm chosen for an Epiphany Sunday? Presumably because there is talk of not hiding, that is, of revealing God's plan of salvation (v. 9-10).
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
In the season of Epiphany we think about the revelation of God through Jesus Christ. Here Paul writes his introduction to 1 Corinthians and talks of 'the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ'. In that particular verse, 5, the emphasis falls on the revelation to come when Christ returns. But Paul also talks about what has been revealed in and through Jesus so that the Corinthians have been 'enriched in him' (v. 5), and 'not lacking any spiritual gift' (v. 7). Soon Paul will talk about the wisdom found in Christ (1:18-31) and later will talk about the spiritual gifts which include those which reveal divine knowledg (chapters 12 and 14).
What has been revealed to the Corinthians is not knowledge for knowledge's sake but that which 'strengthens' them 'to the end' (v. 8).
'I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel' (1:31)
In the baptism of Jesus, something is 'revealed' about him (see notes for 12 January) and thus Epiphany spends a few of its Sundays on the baptism of the Lord.
Here John the Baptist talks about Jesus (greater than himself) and the baptism of Jesus (including the fact that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit) in ways reminiscent of Matthew, Mark and Luke. But look closely at the Johannine text: nowhere is the actual baptism of Jesus as an event described directly - only in the report of John the baptizer.
What is revealed here which we do not find in the other gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus?
1. Jesus is described as 'the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world' (1:29, 36)
2. Jesus is explicitly identified as 'the Son of God' (1:34)
3. There was something about Jesus ... note how in 1:37 two disciples of John hear John acclaim Jesus as 'the Lamb of God' and immediately 'followed Jesus.' They do not even need an invitation from Jesus.
4. Jesus issues an invitation to these two disciples but, really, to all readers of the gospel, 'Come and see' (1:39, see also 1:46). In and through Jesus, God has come into the world to transform the world: will we come and see this? Of course through the gospel lots of people see what Jesus is doing but only a few see=understand what Jesus is doing. Something is being made manifest in Jesus which can be seen, but not all can see it. One key to true seeing of Jesus is to 'remain' or 'abide' with him. This great theme (see especially John 15) is introduced here in a subtle, and matter of fact way. The two disciples respond to the invitation: 'they came and saw where he was staying and they remained with him that day' (1:39). In our language we might say that they hung out with Jesus!
5. The opportunity to join with Jesus is open to all and works with each current follower of Jesus inviting others to follow Jesus, preferably with the excitement and enthusiasm of Andrew inviting his brother Simon (1:40-42).
(Incidentally, there is food for thought putting together this account of the calling of Andrew and Simon to be disciples with the variant account in Matthew, Mark and Luke in which Andrew and Simon are fishermen plying their trade when Jesus calls them to 'Follow me.')