Epiphany


Perhaps you thought Christmas was over. That was weeks ago! But today we continue the season of Christmas, which goes on for twelve days, which means if your Christmas decorations are still up, you are not lazy—you are liturgically correct! The season of Christmas ends on January 6th, the feast of Epiphany. Today we celebrate that Epiphany, which means “manifestation,” or that which is revealed. What is revealed to us is Jesus Christ, and all that he is—ruler, savior, anointed, Messiah, fully human, fully divine, Son of David, Son of God. During the next few weeks, we journey through the season after Epiphany, the season of light and revelation.


The season of light begins with the light from a star, bright enough to make people in faraway lands wonder what the star is about. Matthew tells us that wise men, or magi, from somewhere in the East, have interpreted dreams and followed the star to Israel, but they’re not sure where it is leading them. They are certain that the star must signify some kind of power, so they stop in Jerusalem to ask directions to where they can find the child who has been born king of the Jews. If you’re looking for a king, the house of the king in the capital city is the logical place to go, right?


But there has been no royal birth. Herod—and the whole city of Jerusalem—is frightened. Who is coming to take power? There are plenty of threats to Herod’s power, what with Rome occupying the land, but this is something new. Or is it? Herod calls the chief priests and scribes to have them review the holy Scriptures and find where the Messiah would be born. They find a reference in the book of Micah: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”[1]


Let’s take a moment and review Micah, one among the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. Among his words of warning to the people of Israel are these proclamations from God: “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”


And then there is a response to God: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”


And that’s when Micah reminds us of what God actually has asked for: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”[2]


Micah reminds the people of Israel about God’s saving acts, going back generations and generations, all the way back to God’s presence with Israel even while they were enslaved in Egypt, God’s presence as the people of Israel were liberated, God’s presence with them as they wandered in the wilderness, God’s presence with them even as they encountered evil kings like Balak and were delivered by a man, Balaam, who interprets dreams. These became part of the narrative that created the people of Israel, and the story of Moses was well known and much discussed—he had a miraculous birth, surviving a time when the pharaoh ordered infant male Hebrew children to be killed.


People kept telling the story. The midrashic community—those scribes and scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures who continued discussing the ancient stories and filling in details—had even developed stories about Moses’ birth, including the story of Moses’ father, Amram, who learned in a dream about the Pharaoh’s plan to kill the Hebrew baby boys.[3]


Generations later, Matthew knows this story well. Matthew knows the Scriptures well. And when Matthew writes down the generations, he traces Jesus’ genealogy all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, back to the beginning. So Jesus belongs to the ancient line of prophets and kings, and he is also the one chosen like Moses to lead God’s people through the wilderness to the Promised Land.


When Matthew tells us about Jesus’s birth story—with all the worried political rulers, the dreams, the gentiles making their reports, the deaths of innocent children, the parents fleeing for safety—we are supposed to hear these details and think of Moses, of God’s saving and liberating activity which has already been going on for a long time and which will come to completion in Jesus Christ.


Matthew knows the stories and the Scriptures, and he also knows his audience. When Matthew writes down the gospel story, the good news of Jesus’s life, he is writing for Jewish people, who belong to that long line of faithful Hebrew people. Some of them are like Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus and husband of Mary. Joseph faithfully observes the law and lives his life above reproach, but he is open to God’s leading, and he is attentive to divine revelation about Jesus—he is rooted in history but ready to receive what new things God is doing in Jesus. Some of Matthew’s community would identify with Joseph.


Though not all Jews heard the news about Jesus and readily received it. Some rejected Jesus, like Herod, the chief priests and scribes—Matthew tells us that there were people rejecting Jesus from the time he was born until the time he died. Matthew wants us to understand that not everyone will accept Jesus and where he comes from and what God is doing in the world.


And Matthew also wants us to understand that there will be people that we never imagined would have a place in God’s story of salvation—here are the gentiles, the magi who come from far away to worship and pay homage and bring gifts. Matthew wants us to understand that people who are different from us—through their language, culture, customs, even religion—are still part of God’s kingdom, and God will work in any way possible to reveal power and justice.