January 6, 2017 or January 8, 2017 is Epiphany of Our Lord
Jesus frees us to be wise. (Satterlee). The gospel is for all.
Isaiah 60:1-6 – Arise, shine, for your light has come… Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn… They shall bring gold and frankincense…
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 – 1 Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness… The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him. For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.
Ephesians 3:1-12 – The Gentiles become fellow heirs, members of the same body and sharers in God’s promises.
Matthew 2:1-12 – The visit of the Magi.
January 8, 2017 is The Baptism of Our Lord
Prayer of the Day
O God our Father, at the baptism of Jesus you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Make all who are baptized into Christ faithful to their calling to be our daughters and sons, and empower us all with your Spirit, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Isaiah 42:1-9 – Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
Psalm 29 – The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters.
Acts 10:34-43 – You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.
Matthew 3:13-17 – The Baptism of Jesus. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Christmas, Epiphany, Baptism, & the Church Year
Bear with me. This Sunday you can either use the texts for Epiphany or for the Baptism of our Lord. I am going to expound on both. This first section, however, is simply on the history of Christmas, Epiphany, and the Baptism of our Lord. The non-liturgical-geeks may want to skip down to the section on Epiphany
There is no evidence that Christmas was celebrated for the first 300 years of Christianity. Birthdays simply weren’t that important. Death days were. So the baptism of Jesus was probably the bigger festival for a long time.
The first Christmas in Eastern Christianity was probably celebrated on January 6. Because of the 13-day difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars, Ethiopians still celebrate Christmas on January 7 (which is December 25 on the Julian calendar). A few years ago, when the bishops went to the Holy Land at the request of Bishop Younan, it was a delight to celebrate Christmas here on December 25, then go to the Holy Land and celebrate it again on January 6.
Some early Christians believed that Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit on the same day he was resurrected. Since they set that day around March 25, it was easy to count forward nine months of gestation to December 25, which was the date set for Christmas in the Western calendar. Others may have set the date to coincide with the pagan celebration of winter solstice, around December 21. When Christianity moved into German and Scandinavian areas, this coincided with Yule-time, a pagan festival which ran from late December into early January. The historian Bede said December 25 was the first day of the pagan year.
For Western Christians, Epiphany is about the visit of the Magi. For Eastern Christians, Epiphany is about the Baptism of Jesus. In the Eastern Church the historical theme was the mystery of the incarnation. It included Jesus’ birth, the coming of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, some of his childhood events, and even the wedding at Cana. The earliest reference to Epiphany is in 361 A.D.
For a while Christ’s Epiphany and his birthday were used interchangeably. In 385 Epiphany still commemorated the birth of Christ. It was also called the Day of Theophany. Even into the 5th century, John Cassian tells us that the Egyptian monasteries were celebrating Jesus’ birth and baptism on the same day, but other churches had begun to separate the festivals.
For us in the West, Epiphany is the culmination of the 12-day Christmas season. Some Latino cultures have a 40-day Christmas, which extends to Candlemas on February 2. I could spend a lot of time going into the developments of the calendar and the religious festivals because it fascinates me. However, I’ve discovered that while I and a few of you are interested by this stuff, the majority of our people aren’t, so I would digest this for your own information only. The preacher might dare a short paragraph on the development of the holiday for the erudite who bask in the esoteric, but the bulk of the faithful are less interested in history and more interested in “what does all this mean for us today?”
Epiphany is one of the six great feasts of the church year: Christmas, Epiphany, Transfiguration, Easter, Pentecost, and Trinity. All six feasts fall in six months of the year, followed by six months of “green Sundays,” sometimes referred to as “ordinary time” with no major feasts.
Because Epiphany is always on January 6, 12 days after Christmas, it rarely falls on a Sunday. This year, January 6 is a Friday. Since it is a major feast, many churches will celebrate it on Sunday morning, January 8. Others will celebrate it on a Friday and then have The Baptism of Our Lord on Sunday.
Here’s the Matthew 2 text:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘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.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
The Visit of the Magicians
ἰδοὺ μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολwν παρεγένοντο εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα. “Behold, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem.” The word μάγοι (magoi) is the plural of μάγος (magos), a word used for a hundred years before Jesus to refer to Zoroastrian priests. Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) lived at least 6,000 years before Jesus. He was probably Persian by birth, but no one knows for sure. Most agree Eastern Iran, probably.
Zoroaster founded a religion now known as Zoroastrianism, Mazdaism, or Magianism, through the writing of hymns and liturgical pieces. Zoroastrianism focused on the worship of Ahura Mazda, a transcendent, benevolent deity. Zoroastrianism was at some point in the two millennia before Christ, the largest religion in the world.
Magi were Zoroastrian priests who studied the stars and gathered from them the fate of humanity. The oldest surviving reference to a μάγος is in Heraclitus (6th century B.C.), who does not give them a good review. A century later (5th C. B.C.), Heroditus uses “magi” a couple of times while commenting on Iranian expats living in Asia Minor. He calls them interpreters of omens and dreams. Xenophon (4th C. B.C.) refers to magi as experts in all matters of religion.
The Hellenistic world came to view Zoroaster as the father of magic and astrology. Later these priests came to be seen as tricksters, charlatans, and cheats. Magi became associated with magic. Zoroaster was the figurehead for the magi. Some believe we have seven days in the week today because Zoroastrians believed there were seven planets. The Suda (an ancient encyclopedia of the Mediterranean world) claims that the Babylonians learned astronomy from Zoroaster. There is archeological evidence that the Chinese character/word Wu (shaman/witch/wizard/magician),was a loan from the old Persian word magus.
Sadaam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party often pejoratively called Iranians “majus,” indicating that they were not true Muslims, but captive to older pre-Muslim religion based on magic and paganism.
In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible – the Old Testament (the Septuagint of Daniel 1:20; 2:2, 2:10, 2:27; 4:4; 5:7, 5:11, 5:15), magus is typically translated magician. This is pejorative as well, since Jewish law forbade sorcery of any kind.
The New Testament (Acts of the Apostles 8:9; 13:6, 8) also translates magus as “magician,” except Matthew, where it is translated Magi or often “wise men.” Interesting though: Justin, Origen, Augustine, and Jerome all translated it “magician,” even in Matthew. Consider how that changes the feel of the text:
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magicians from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”
What does it mean that magicians visited Jesus? What does it mean that this is important in Matthew’s narrative (And only in Matthew’s narrative. Mark, Luke, and John never mention them). It might be interesting to read it this way and see what it does to the way we hear and interpret the text. “The visit of the Magicians.” Raise a few eyebrows?
What is the point of this story in Matthew’s telling of the Jesus event? There are, of course, many points, but here’s one. I sense Matthew is saying this Jesus represents a new universal religion that will encompass and draw in all faiths. “And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people unto myself…” Jews, Romans, and even those pagan magician-folk to the East. This Jesus-stuff is big, really big. It will change the game. Matthew punctuates this at the end with the Great Commission: “Make disciples of all nations.” There is big vision in Matthew’s gospel. Although Christianity is spreading quickly, Christians still only make up a small minority of the Roman Empire at the time Matthew is writing.
The history of Christianity in Western civilization did not warmly embrace all faiths as one under the One who ate with outcasts and sinners, who healed lepers, and lived among the poor. We can only grieve this. Sadly, conversions were forced, heretics and infidels executed, and Christianity became a power religion. But the core of the original vision still lies within Matthew’s carefully chosen words, and the potential for reformation is always before us.
There is also in this text a power theme. Herod is afraid to lose his tenuous grasp on power, a power he has only at the will of the Empire. He will stop at nothing to keep that power.
We have here a continuation of our story of paradoxes, opposites: angels vs. shepherds, the mighty vs. the humble, the first vs. the least city of Judah, kings vs. animals, an inn vs. a stable, and mortality vs. the infinite. Here we have the ruthless power and scheming of a king who will stop at nothing, versus the innocence, vulnerability, and faith of a child who welcomes all, even magicians. “The difference between Herod’s rule and the one to be born in Bethlehem could not be more stark,” says Stanley Hauerwas in Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible).
If you go with this approach, consider substituting Revelation 12:1-6 as the epistle reading. Some associate Herod with this text.
“A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.”
A woman, clothed with the sun, moon under her feet, crown of stars, bears a child to rule the nations. Gee, who could that be? Then a red, seven-headed dragon wants to devour the child. Some associate Herod with the seven-headed dragon. I interpret it as Rome (city of seven hills), but Herod is certainly Rome’s functionary. Sadly, this text never gets read in Lutheran churches. Using it allows you to use an unused text, gives you an opportunity to teach people how to read John’s Revelation and helps you clarify the power dynamics in this text.
[Factoid: In 1529, Johann Cochlaeus used this text to disparage Luther. His treatise has a woodcarving of a seven-headed Luther on the cover.]
Perhaps this is a time to talk about our relationship to civil authority or to the power structures of the day. It could be a time to talk about outreach to those of different religious traditions. Without constantly having to tear down others’ systems, can we talk about what Jesus means for the world, in broader terms, as the fulfillment of all human religion and aspirations? Can we teach what he taught and live what he lived, not reducing faith to a philosophy or zero-sum mind game? What is the kernel of the gospel that is so compelling that even pagans, new-agers, and seekers will want to come and behold, maybe even worship?
This week we have John’s baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3:13-17. The question that often comes up in churches is, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized at all?” Church people are most likely to ask this question, since they will be familiar with the idea that Jesus was sinless and John’s baptism was one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. “Why does someone who is sinless need repentance and forgiveness?” they will ask. Newcomers to the church may not come with this burning question on their minds. In either case, the story gives the preacher an opportunity to talk about the meaning of baptism, the kickoff of Jesus’ public ministry or both.
We read the first twelve verses of Matthew 3 five weeks ago on December 8, Advent 2. We learned that John appeared preaching in the wilderness. That alone tells us something. He’s ascetic, perhaps monastic, seeking a purer spirituality apart from the corrupt religious system and leaders of his day. Reform often begins from the fringes. John does not start in Jerusalem or in the temple, but instead across the Jordan.
Though scholars debate this, John was likely an Essene, one of the three major sects of Second Temple Judaism (There were, however, dozens). The Essenes were based in the wilderness of Judea. Matthew tells us that this is precisely where John appeared 3:1. Not as numerous as either the Pharisees or the Sadducees, the Essenes rejected those more institutionalized sects in favor of asceticism. They also felt the mediation of priests and sacrifices was unnecessary and inevitably tainted by love of money. Pliny said the Essenes did not marry, possessed no money, and had existed for thousands of generations. The Wikipedia article on Essenes says they, “congregated in communal life dedicated to asceticism, voluntary poverty, daily immersion, and abstinence from worldly pleasures, including (for some groups) celibacy.” The gospel writers’ description of John leads us to this conclusion.
N. T. Wright draws a different conclusion. He points out that the Essenes practiced frequent (some daily) ritual washing/baptism, but John’s appeared to be a “one off” as he says, a one-time conversion of repentance. This makes Jesus’ baptism even more curious. Is this a conversion? John may be close to, but not formally aligned with the Essenes. Here’s a short video clip of an interview with Wright on the topic.
Contrary to Wright, Aslan points out that not all Essenes had the same practices. Some lived in cities and villages, while others lived in a more monastic community. Both kinds were ascetic. The only items of personal property an Essene at Qumran would be allowed were a cloak, a linen cloth, and a hatchet for digging a latrine in the wilderness. In addition to their numerous ritual washings by immersion, some Essenes also practiced a one time baptism for ritual conversion into the sect. The Essenes rejected temple authority, which put them at odds with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They opposed animal sacrifice and observed strict dietary restrictions. They actively prepared for the end times.
We also learned back in Advent the core of John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”. (Matthew 3:2)
Get used to this phrase, “the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew uses it 32 times. It is found nowhere else in Scripture. It is probably interchangeable with “kingdom of God,” which Matthew uses four times, compared to 14x in Mark, 31x in Luke, and 2x in John (John only uses the word “kingdom” five times). In the Markan parallel for this passage (Mark 1:15), John says, “… the kingdom of God is at hand.” Some have suggested that Matthew substitutes “heaven” for “God” so as not to offend his Jewish readers, who have a prohibition against speaking the name of God. This suggests Matthew has a significantly Jewish-Christian community.
Note that John says the kingdom is coming. We’re not going to it. It’s coming to us. And it is close. Jesus will teach his disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come… On earth…”
The way to prepare for the kingdom of heaven coming is to repent. Baptism is a sign of that repentance. This message must have had incredible traction in its day, and in its context (Rome brutally occupying Israel), because Matthew says “all Judea went out to see him.” He is drawing a crowd, and even the attention of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and finally Jesus himself.
Consider this passage from Ezekiel 36:25-27:
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.
This sprinkling/washing is the cleanse Israel from there idolatry and other uncleannesses. It replaces their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, and puts God’s Spirit in them.
John is in line with the prophetic voices of the Old Testament:
Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. (Ezekiel 18:30)
What transgressions? Ezekiel leaves no room for doubt. Idolatry, adultery, and usury. Neglecting the hungry and naked. Robbing the poor through predatory lending.
If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right, if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between contending parties, follows my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances, acting faithfully, such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God.
What helps with Jesus’ baptism is to move beyond an individualistic interpretation. Stanley Hauerwas says John is calling Israel to repentance as a nation. It’s not just about the individual turning. Those who submit to this baptism, therefore, are saying, “Yes. I’m in.” Certainly Jesus was all about Israel turning to God because the kingdom of God where the poor are blessed is coming. Repent or else all hell will break loose and all calamity will rain down. Indeed it did, in 70 A.D., with the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus, in his baptism, repents on behalf of Israel.
It’s interesting that when Jesus begins his ministry later, he carries on John’s exact message, word for word:
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)
Even John protests to baptizing Jesus.
I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Matthew 3:11)
Jesus says it is proper “to fulfill all righteousness.” Eric Barreto (Working Preacher) points out that “righteousness” is a difficult term. It means: justice, uprightness, correctness, innocence, and redemption. He suggests it means something they are doing in obedience to God. Perhaps it’s even simpler than that. Perhaps Jesus is just saying, “Relax, John, and roll with it. It’s the right thing to do.” John finally relents and Jesus is baptized. John sees the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove. Then there is a voice from heaven.
Luther understands that Epiphany is the launch of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus is 30 he posits. He also understands that the coming of the Magi is a foreshadowing of a theme that will slowly develop in Matthew: the gospel for the Gentiles. Jesus’ baptism is the christening of his earthly ministry. Luther says he wishes Epiphany was called, “The Baptism of Christ.” He would be delighted to know we now have a Sunday called just that. Today. This is most certainly true.
Jesus need not submit to baptism, Luther says, but he does anyway. He does more than what is required. The gospel frees us from the law, but it invites us to do more than what is required, not less.
Jesus’ vocation and calling are confirmed by the voice from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Luther points out God’s voice comes with nothing but kindness, grace, and mercy. If you want a gracious, loving God, cling to Christ, Luther tells us.
When we submit to baptism as Jesus did, we too are embraced by the loving grace of God. We too are called into ministry. Make no mistake, baptism is a call to repentance, a call to grace, and a call to ministry. We emerge from the waters of baptism as beloved children, called to carriers of God’s grace to the world. We are cleansed of our sin and filled with the Spirit.
Everyone needs to hear that they are God’s beloved child, loved unconditionally and precious. We also need to hear the call to share that with others, to be a part of what God is doing in the world, and saying in the world.
It seems to me we must do affirmation of baptism on this day. We must sprinkle the people with water calling to remembrance their baptism and inciting them to reflect on the ministry to which God has called them. Perhaps as a preacher or Bible study leader, it would be good for you to reflect on the ministry to which God has called you, and share some of that with your people, reminding them that all the baptized are called into ministry, not just pastors.