Tis the holiday season so three posts in one, re Sundays coming up.
SUNDAY 2nd JANUARY 2022: THE EPIPHANY OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST (translated)
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! 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.
There are many things to be said about baptism. One of them is the simple observation that in baptism, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, God says to the baptised, 'Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine' (43:1). Baptism joins us to God and God to us: each baptised individual is known to God and belongs to God. All this, we might continue to read in the Isaiah passage, is the working out of God's universal vision for the increase of God's family. The depth of God's love is measured by its broad inclusiveness and its particularity: each individual is known to God by name. All this, 43:7 declares, is for the glory of God who says that we have been 'created for my glory.'
Jesus' own experience of baptism involves God voicing his approval, love and affirmation of Jesus as 'my Son, the Beloved' (Luke 3:22). Obviously this is a special moment in the unfolding story of Jesus, both affirming Jesus in his relationship to God and confirming Jesus's relationship with God to those witnessing the baptism. But we should not neglect that the baptism of Jesus is also a model of our baptism in which God affirms us as his sons and daughters, as beloved ones who belong to God.
From this perspective, the voice of God declaring love for God's family is a powerful, transformative voice. We change people's lives when we tell them we love them (or, sadly, change lives in the opposite direction when we tell people we hate them). How much more powerful is the voice of God declaring God's love. Psalm 29 celebrates the mighty power of the voice of God.
Another of the many things to be said about baptism is that Christian baptism involves both water and the Holy Spirit. John prophesies of Jesus that he will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:16). The baptism of Jesus includes the coming of the Holy Spirit upon him (3:22). In Acts 8:4-17 a point being made is that full Christian baptism is baptism with water and the Holy Spirit - the latter was missing and Peter and John pray for the lack to be made up by laying hands on disciples in Samaria.
Christian baptism is not the splashing of water alone but the outward rite of washing with water and the inner filling of the baptised person with the Holy Spirit. That the Holy Spirit coming into our lives necessarily means God making us holy means, in turn, that John's prophecy referring to 'fire' alongside the Holy Spirit is effectively an underlining of the work which Holy Spirit does in our lives. The fire of the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit burning away all that is not holy.
The next verse in Luke's Gospel, after today's reading, says that 'Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work' (3:23). Baptism inaugurates the ministry or service of Jesus. It has both set him apart for serving God and empowered him for that work. Similarly for each of us who are baptised. But there is one difference between Jesus and us: we never hear of Jesus being refilled with the Holy Spirit. By contrast St Paul urges us to be filled (i.e. continually filled) with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:8). Today as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, do we need a new filling of the Holy Spirit to empower us for our work for God?
Postscript: our reading in Acts raises a tough question, sometimes coming up for debate in our day, Is the formula for baptism sufficient if the baptism is 'in the name of Jesus' only, or is sufficiency only when the baptism is 'in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit'?
Deliberately, causa brevitatis, I avoid offering a full answer to this question here! We can say that Luke was writing before the fullness of the revelation of God in Christ was recognised and formulated in the church (that the God of Jesus Christ is God Father Son and Holy Spirit). Thus Luke's baptismal "formula" is not an alternative to the Trinitarian formula of the church (which is anchored into Scripture at Matthew 28:19). In the context of Acts, Luke was expressing the distinctiveness of Christian baptism when some were being baptised according to teaching associated with John the Baptist and when generally ritual washings were part of various religions including Judaism. Christian baptism was not one of these washings because Christian baptism was centred on Jesus Christ.
your Son brought good news to the despairing,
freedom to the oppressed
and joy to the sad;
fill us with your Spirit,
that the people of our day may see in us his likeness
and glorify your name. (NZPB p. 564)
What business is God in? A consistent answer to this question through John's Gospel is the business of transformation. The 'miracle at Cana' - our gospel reading today - in which water is transformed into wine is repeated throughout that gospel as hungry people are fed, paralysed people get up and walk, blind people see and even the dead are raised to life. Even in the Epilogue to the gospel (John 21) a night's fishing without success becomes a morning's abundant catch!
Isaiah looks ahead to God transforming Israel: no longer to be called Forsaken or Desolate, God's people will known as My Delight Is in Her and Married.
Paul's teaching on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 could yield many sermons (on spiritual gifts, on what each gift consists of, on the contribution of spiritual gifts to the life of the church, on the core confession and creed of the church, Jesus is Lord, etc).
If we take the perspective of Transformation as our guide then this passage speaks of the transformative work of the Holy Spirit, enabling people to become Christians (see verses 2-3, 'pagans' to those who confess, "Jesus is Lord",) activating gifts within Christians which serve 'the common good' (12:7) of the church, each of which has transformative potential (not least a gift Jesus himself demonstrated at Cana, 'the working of miracles' (12:10), and all of which contribute to the change in which individuals are transformed into the 'body' of Christ (though this last matter is the subject of the remainder of 1 Corinthians 12).
As for the wedding at Cana itself in John 2:1-11, the bare story of water being turned into wine is a marvellous story of God's power to transform situations. But in John's narratival hands the story also conveys other messages. Here we note
In other words, one aspect of transformation in this story is the transformation of the disciples. Turning water into wine is (in a literal sense, as here in today's passage) a party trick if it happens in such a way that people marvel at it and then carry on their lives as previously. But the water transformed into wine is symbolic of lives transformed through encounter with Jesus. Further, the miracle is an abundant transformation (lots of water is changed, and what it is changed into is high quality wine), this too symbolises lives being transformed through Christ because what he brings is 'abundant life' (John 10:10).
To what transformation in our lives through Christ can we testify?