01/07/18 – Shining Light on Another Road


January 7, 2018
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

I don’t know about your experience, but I did not see any more evidence this year of Christians ‘putting Christ back in Christmas’ than before. Despite the ridiculous claims of anti-immigrationists and white supremacists that there has been a “War on Christmas,” our consumer-based culture demonstrates every year that is a blatantly false accusation. We seem to forget that those revered first immigrants from England actually did ban Christmas. In Plymouth Colony, Gov. Bradford imposed forced labor, fines or jail for anyone caught celebrating Christmas in any fashion. Puritan Christians truly waged a war on Christmas! If it were not for our country’s multicultural heritage that brought wave after wave of new immigrants, we would not be enjoying the festivities of the season as we do now. Though Epiphany is not as big as Christmas for the majority of American Christians, it is in other cultures. Maybe, one-day American Christians will be celebrating, with food, parties, and gifts, the Christian holiday that commemorates the arrival of strangers from far away.

Christmas did not have a significant presence in this country until the 19th century. It was not a federal holiday until 1870. By then, the melting pot that once characterized this country had brought joyous Christmas customs that were irrepressible.

In the early Christian church, the feast of the Epiphany was celebrated before the feast of the Nativity was added to the Christian celebrations. From the beginning, Easter was the big day. The reason was understandable. In the culture of the early Christians, birthdays were not important. Saints were celebrated on the anniversary of their death, often their martyrdom, rather than the anniversary of their birth. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the predominant Christian church in many Mediterranean countries and most of Eastern Europe, Epiphany, on Jan.6, is a much bigger celebration than Dec.25. It is also a major holiday for Christians from Spanish cultures.

Since early years of the Christian Church in the Roman Empire, as it still is in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Epiphany has celebrated the revelation of Jesus Christ to the world. This includes the visitation of the Magi guided by a star; Jesus’ circumcision at the temple when Simeon and Anna announce the infant’s identity; and Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River when the heaven’s opened and God declared: “This is my Son.”

The fun part for the children celebrating Epiphany, also known as “Three Kings Day,” is leaving out their shoes at night for the “Three Kings” to fill with presents. Instead of milk and cookies for Santa, hay or grass is left for the camels, or appropriate regional creature transportation. I learned about the Puerto Rican celebration of Three Kings Day from an NPR feature this past week. The report was about newly arrived Puerto Ricans, displaced by hurricane Maria, in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Between the heavy snow, arctic temperatures and the lack of kitchen facilities in their accommodations, preparations for the big celebration has been challenging. Based on our past history, our descendants will celebrate Epiphany with far more festivity than we do now. Look how we have embraced St. Patrick’s Day celebrations from the once despised Irish immigrants. Quite a few “Euro-Americans” flock to their favorite “watering holes” to celebrate Cinco de Mayo these days.

Today’s scripture passages present the imagery we will find in our readings throughout the Epiphany season. There is the light imagery, which represents revelation, God’s glory, and transformation. The star is the most familiar representation of Epiphany. We also have royal imagery —  kingship and gold. Throughout our scripture readings is the message of inclusivity, which highlights the universality of God’s intent with the gifts and message of salvation sent.

In the poem we read from Isaiah, we begin our reading with the sentence which gives us the essence of Epiphany: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” (Isa. 60:1) After decades of exile and feeling abandoned by God, God comes to the exiled Jews with joyful news. Israel will once again be great, but not for the sake of their worldly power, but to serve. The glory of God’s presence will transform them and make them reflect the light of God’s revelation and glory so as to bring all the world to God.

God’s original covenant with Abraham and Sarah is still in effect. God’s people were chosen to be a beacon of God’s light to the world and draw all people to it. Israel’s light will be a light to all Gentiles, meaning everyone else – the non-Jews. If we take the words of the bible to heart, we must acknowledge that God’s intent has been for the Jews to show us God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, God’s mercy and justice. What does that say about the world’s lack of acceptance and unjust treatment of the Jews?

Kingship is another dominant theme of the Epiphany season. Isaiah promises that one day kings of all nations will flock to Jerusalem because they have seen how the Jews reveal God’s glory. The kings of the world will bow down to God the King. This is Matthew’s reference to the story of the Magi, or the Three Kings as they have become known in folklore.

The psalmist answers this Isaiah’s joyful poem with a poetic description of what a worldly king does when he shines with the glory of God. The king acts with justice and righteousness, particularly towards the poor and the oppressed. This kind of king helps those who cannot help themselves. Above all, he values the lives of his people and protects the lives of the vulnerable.

The conflict in Matthew’s story is between two kings – Herod and Jesus – the worldly and the divine. It is critical to the understanding of this passage that the Magi were Gentiles. This is in keeping with God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah that their descendants would be a light and a blessing to the Gentiles. The “Great Commission” announced at the end of Matthew’s gospel reports that Jesus said to his disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the Gentiles.”

Herod the Great’s title was “King of the Jews,” as he was the provincial ruler of Judea. Matthew gives us a description of Herod and his leadership style that matches what has been written about him in secular historical accounts of his reign. He was a brutal tyrant who killed any potential competition – including his own family. Matthew makes it clear that the threat to Jesus, throughout his life, came from men who abused power that created economic injustice, political oppression and military domination over their own people. Matthew tells us Pontius Pilate ordered the title, “King of the Jews,” placed on the cross Jesus was forced to carry up to Golgatha; thus, announcing Jesus guilty of sedition.

Though astronomers have been consulted to provide proof of the star that appeared over the stable in which Jesus was born, we have no scientific evidence. But, that is of no consequence for us. Matthew did not set out to write science, his goal was to tell people who Jesus was and why God sent him to us. It was important for Matthew to tell his audience that God was the instigator who led these men, from different directions outside of Judea to the Christ. The star that the Magi followed was in keeping with Jewish folklore that a star heralded the birth of Abraham, Isaac, and Moses. For Matthew, the star referenced in the book of Numbers: “a star shall come out of Jacob,” foretold the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. (24:17)  It is always God, whose Holy Spirit urges us to seek so that we might find Jesus.

The Magi play the role of the first Gentiles coming to worship the newborn king. King Herod represents the worship of the false gods of wealth and power. He represents imperial power, the ways of which are not God’s ways. Whereas Herod’s power was so weak he had to support his position with domination and violence, Jesus will be the king whose power comes from God and brings universal inclusion and peace. The Magi were considered learned and wise.  Even so, they came to Jesus, a mere infant, and bowed down before him. The light of the star led them to one who embodies greater truths than they could discover for themselves. Their first stop at Herod’s palace reveals their naivete but provides Matthew with the opportunity to remind his audience that the revered prophets of the Old Testament foretold the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Matthew cites Micah and Isaiah as the source for Herod’s advisors telling him about the Old Testament prophecy of a new king.

We recognize the Magi’s gifts of frankincense and gold from our reading from Isaiah. But, why the myrrh? Since myrrh was used then to anoint the bodies of the dead, it would seem Matthew added it to remind his audience that the consequence of Jesus’ conflict with worldly powers, both political and religious was his execution on the cross. That is an indictment of human sin, but also a reminder that God overturned the defeat to victory in the Resurrection.

Not only do the Magi represent the first Gentiles to come to Jesus, Matthew tells us they were the first Gentiles to receive a message from God in a dream. Heeding this divine message the Magi changed course. They did not report to King Herod on their return trip. This is where we find, what I believe to be the most significant verse in this passage. After seeing the Christ child and hearing God’s warning message in a dream, it is written: “they returned home by another road.”  The Magi changed their direction to follow God’s direction. That is the authentic and righteous response after an encounter with Christ.

In the letter to the Ephesian congregation, the author refers to the “mystery of Christ.” The mystery, in this case, is why did God include the Gentiles in the grand scheme of salvation? Why select an enemy of Chris, Paul, to be the premier evangelist for Christ? Why reveal Godself to the godless? In the traditional communion liturgy, we thank God for the mystery of our faith. In accepting Christ’s invitation to his table we proclaim our gratitude for God’s grace given for us. The epistle writer goes on to address the role of the church in accepting God’s gift of inclusion. The church’s mission is to make God’s gift known to others. As Christ is made know to us in the breaking of bread at his table, we are to make him known to others by giving bread to those that are hungry – physically and spiritually.

In the words of Isaiah, we are to “arise and shine” the light of God’s steadfast love for the sake of the whole world – no exceptions. Exclusion, exploitation, and neglect of the least powerful in society is the way of the Herods of this world. We are to be like the Magi, ‘going home to God by a different road.’

All power, honor and glory to our Triune God.


© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2017, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois