This sermon was given by Jerry Sears on Epiphany Sunday 2011 at Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship
Verses from Isaiah and Matthew are linked together for Epiphany to reveal echoes of the Old Testament, and prophesy fulfilled in the New. One obvious similarity between the two passages, lies in the bringing of gold and frankincense. But mentioned before these gifts from afar, in both verses, is the very first gift spoke upon Creation in Genesis. Even preceding and making possible life, is light. We have the magi beckoned by divine starlight, and the book of Isaiah instructing: “Arise, shine; for your light has come”, a theme which resonates throughout scripture. And the Gospel of John has this to say: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” Itself a word from the Greek, Epiphany is celebrated in the Greek Church as an end-of-Christmas festival known as “Ta Phota”, or “The Lights”. A fitting and comforting association for this time of year, with the winter solstice barely behind us, when short days can only grow longer.
Back to the magi, about whom Matthew’s account actually tells us very little, while the other three Gospels don’t mention them in the first place. From what particular country or countries did they come? Did they find the newborn Christ in the manger, or – perhaps later – in a house, as the text reads. Were they in fact kings, or are we drawing that conclusion based on Isaiah’s references to kings coming to brightness? Or, what were then considered wise men? Do we know if there were even three of them, or is that an assumption based on the number of gifts they bore? (And yes, one of the undetermined group must have thought mere gold and frankincense were just too underwhelming to give an infant king without that gum resin called myrrh.) In any case, about the only description of the magi that sits well with biblical scholars is that they were foreign Gentiles. Understanding this detail is of great importance, as it reveals a holy redemption that does not divide, does not label, does not exclude. In short, God is available to all.
Others described as righteous and faithful would revere and praise the young Jesus. In Luke we read this to be the case with the elder prophet named Anna, and with Simeon, who exalted, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to your people Israel.” But the magi had journeyed to Bethlehem, to recognize and revere the one born King of the Jews. The birth of any child, in any land, brings with it hope and promise for the future. But was the magi’s faith so boundless as to see in one small, frail infant, nothing less than the salvation of all humankind?
Or, were these ancient stargazers, acquainted as they would have been with mysteries of the skies both common and uncommon, able to simply appreciate without fully understanding? Sometimes it does take the fresh eyes of such outsiders to see what many local citizens cannot, an idea not too far removed from the teaching of the adult Jesus, that a prophet is only without honor in his own hometown. Does familiarity breed contempt?
That the magi return home by a different route makes practical sense, since the path by which they’d arrived would have taken them back to Herod, but also symbolizes that encountering the Christ Child had changed them and what roads they would choose to follow. A sign of their personal revelation, maybe, of their epiphany. They came, they saw, they transformed.
The book of Isaiah in our pew Bibles begins chapter sixty with the heading titled, “The Ingathering of the Dispersed”, while these words come later: “Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you ( . . . ) Your gates shall always be open; day and night they shall not be shut, so that nations shall bring you their wealth ( . . . )” Although some of the undertones in the chapter can be viewed as unsettling, it should be noted that in those same verses we do not read of fears regarding porous or open borders, local labor being supplanted, of weakened national security or national sovereignty. All of these concerns we hear today surely existed then, but are not celebrated in those passages. Walls not built to keep foreigners out, but built by the foreigners themselves. Those masses gathered in are viewed as bringers, not takers, of national wealth. We can presume not only existing wealth, but future taxes might be meant by this, not to mention the bringing of worship. Above all, it seems these immigrants constitute an acceptable offering themselves, with their very own beings.
Of our own time and place, in recent years and months, the contentious issues surrounding immigration policy have demanded attention from church, from federal and state governments, and on the local scale. Media attention has lately focused on the plight of a teenager from Guatemala named Bernard Pastor, who has resided in the U.S. since the age of three, for many years in my hometown of Reading. The breaking TV news story caught Violet’s attention right away. “What’s going on with Bernard?” She voiced concern at the sight of his picture, having taught him in many classes as a substitute teacher before his recent graduation. She knew him.
Bernard had been pointed out to me as a “really great kid” of hers, in fact, when he was working in a local thrift store where we shopped. While he was imprisoned for over three weeks, under threat of imminent deportation to a country he scarcely knew, it was inspiring to see how just many people in the area quickly rallied to Bernard’s defense. One of those supporters, Cincinnati pastor Troy Jackson, had this to say when interviewed: “We need to begin with every person as a human being created in God’s image.” Among others vigorously taking up Bernard’s case were many who’d been his fellow students. Here in the flesh wasn’t a statistic or a stereotype, but a classmate, a co-worker, a friend and neighbor. Again, they knew him. It’s kind of amazing how that fact of personally knowing someone as an individual can change so much, enlighten so much, make it so much harder to project hostility or indifference. Today, Bernard Pastor is no longer in jail, and his deportation is no longer officially considered a priority. So, sometimes it’s unfamiliarity which can breed contempt. When one becomes familiar, one may be treated more like that word suggests, like family.
The concept of enlightenment, as well as redemption, is not the exclusive domain of any one time, any one place, or any one people, alone. Long after the poetry of Isaiah was created, the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote these lines taken from his work, “Old and New”, which he included in the collection known as “Gitanjali”:
Thou hast made me known to friends whom I knew not.
Thou hast given me seats in homes not my own.
Thou hast brought the distant near and made a brother of the stranger. (. . . )
When one knows thee, then alien there is none, then no door is shut.
Oh, grant me my prayer that I may never lose
the bliss of the touch of the one
in the play of many.