Isaiah 60:1-6– Arise! Shine! Your light has come… Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… they shall bring gold and frankincense and bring the praise of the Lord.

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14– Give the king your justice, and righteousness to a king’s son. May all kings fall down before him, and nations give him service.

Ephesians 3:1-12 – The mystery made known by revelation: That the Gentiles have now become fellow heirs.

Matthew 2:1-12 – The magi consult with Herod, then visit the child Jesus with his mother Mary. They offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, returning to their country by another road.

THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD – January 7, 2018

Genesis 1:1-5 – In the beginning God created, by the Word and the Spirit hovered…

Psalm 29 – Ascribe to the Lord O heavenly beings… glory and strength. The voice of the Lord is over the waters.Acts 19:1-7 – Paul encounters disciples in Ephesus who were baptized with John’s baptism. They are baptized again in the name of Jesus. Paul lays hands on them, and they receive the Holy Spirit.

Mark 1:4-11 – John appears in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance, and pointing to Jesus. Jesus is baptized, and a voice comes from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

January 15, 2018 – Martin Luther King Day
Another option for January 14 is to call out the heresy of racism, mourn the division of Sunday morning, preach the dream of justice so embodied in the Scriptures. This theme goes well in Epiphany, which focuses on the nations coming together around Christ.

January 23, 2018 – Mark Allen Powell: Preaching Lent and Easter Sunday
Zion Retreat Center
Tuesday, January 23, 2018, 8:30-3:00 PM
$30, includes a continental breakfast and lunch.
Stay overnight on Monday the 22nd and/or Tuesday the 23rd for $45 a night.
Register with Lutherhill by Epiphany, January 6, 2018 

January 18-25 – Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – Texts at this link 

January 25, 2018 – 5th Annual Houston Ecumenical Prayer Service
Thursday, January 25, 7:00 p.m.
St. Paul Methodist Church in Houston

The Baptism of Jesus

This coming Sunday is January 7, so the preacher and worship team have a choice to make. Epiphany, one of the six great feasts of the church year, is on Saturday, January 6. This is also Christmas in some parts of the world. Many congregations will observe this feast on Sunday the seventh. Others hold Epiphany services on Saturday (or whatever day January 6 falls on in any given year), and then will observe the Baptism of our Lord on January 7, the first Sunday after the Epiphany. I will cover both options here.

The Gospel reading for the Baptism of our Lord is from Mark 1. After all the Luke stories of Jesus’ birth, and the Shepherds from Matthew, we now hear Mark’s version of the story. It’s very different than Luke’s and Matthew’s stories.

The earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, has no birth story of Jesus. If you look at the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, you will notice that his gospel begins with Jesus, fully grown, and John the Baptist at the Jordan River. The first Gospel has no Christmas.

Likewise, the apostle Paul and his letters mention nothing of an extraordinary birth of Jesus. This is to say, the earliest writings we have of the apostles never mention anything unusual about Jesus’ birth. Paul writes his letters in a period 10-30 years after the crucifixion. There is no mention of Bethlehem in Paul. There is no star, no inn/no guest room, no manger, no shepherds, no Magi and no virgin birth. Either Paul and Mark did not know about the events in Bethlehem, or else they just weren’t important enough to them to mention.

Paul was able to construct a perfectly good theology without Jesus’ birth stories. Mark constructed a perfectly good gospel (the first one, many believe) without an infancy narrative. The fact of the matter is, the birth of Jesus simply wasn’t that important to the early church. Christmas did not become a major celebration until the fourth century. The baptism of Jesus, however, figured prominently.

The birthday of the emperor, the Son of God, was celebrated throughout the empire. In time, the birthday of Jesus, however it came to be set, would gain importance. The earliest mention of a Christmas celebration occurs towards the beginning of the fourth century. There is a brief mention of a group of people who have fixed a date for Jesus birth in Clement of Alexandria, but that date is May 20, and there is no mention of a celebration.

For the first 300 years of Christianity, the birth of Jesus appears to not have had much significance. In fact, birthdays were less important than death days. The early church ascribed much more importance to Jesus’ baptism.

Here are the very first words of Mark’s Gospel, Mark 1:1–3:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

This Sunday’s Gospel reading begins with verse 4:

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

baptism of our lord

Interestingly, Christian and non-Christian scholars alike believe the baptism and crucifixion of Jesus to be the most certain historical events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Historical studies of Jesus begin with these two events. Jesus’ baptism is described in the first three Gospels. John’s Gospel does not directly mention Jesus’ baptism.

Why did Jesus need to be baptized? If John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and Jesus, according to traditional Christian theology, was sinless, why would Jesus need to be baptized by John? Why be baptized at all?

Admittedly, it seems odd, John baptizing Jesus. In Matthew’s version, even John balks at the idea: John tried to prevent him saying, “Wait. Haven’t we gotten this backwards? Shouldn’t you be baptizing me?” (Matthew 3:14-15, paraphrase) Jesus responds, “Allow it for now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” So, being baptized by John is perhaps Jesus’ way of submitting to God’s plan. (Just as Mary did in our Advent IV reading?) Fulfilling all righteousness may be a first reason for Jesus to be baptized.

Jesus came to John, whom he considered to be one of the greatest people ever born (Luke 7:28, Matthew 11:11). Jesus’ baptism is an alignment with John’s vision and mission. This may be a second reason for Jesus to be baptized. Some have suggested that Jesus was a disciple of John. Others have suggested that they had parallel ministries, and that Jesus’ ministry took off with the arrest and subsequent death of John the Baptist.

A third reason: the purpose of baptism is not just repentance. In Acts 2:38, Peter tells people to be baptized for forgiveness and to receive the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in the Markan narrative.

A fourth reason: the baptism is the launching of Jesus’ mission and ministry. The affirmation of Jesus’ call from God is made clear in Mark, “You are my Son…” not “This is my Son…” as in Matthew and Luke. This is a private communication between God and Jesus, because in Mark, Jesus’ identity is not known to the other characters in the story, yet. It unfolds. Also, we have a reflection of Psalm 2, the David king as God’s son:

I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you. — Psalm 2:7

These words of affirmation will be repeated on the last Sunday of Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, February 11, 2018, only this time for everyone, “This is my beloved Son…”

Most importantly, Jesus’ baptism anticipates his own death and resurrection. Baptism represents death, and coming out of the waters, resurrection. Romans 6:3-4 says the familiar words:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

The central event of Jesus’ ministry is his death on the cross and subsequent resurrection. This Sunday may give the preacher an opportunity to talk about baptism as an inauguration of our own ministry, as well as our call to “be buried with Christ” so that we might rise with him and walk in newness of life. Into what ministry have you been baptized?

This Sunday might be a great time for an affirmation of baptism, complete with sprinkling, and a sermon inviting people to consider what ministry God has called them to in their baptism.

The Epiphany of our Lord

Epiphany is one of the six great feasts of the church year: Christmas, Epiphany, Transfiguration, Easter, Pentecost, 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.

There was some debate about when to celebrate Christmas. The first Christmas in Eastern Christianity was probably 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’ conception (by the Holy Spirit) was on the same day as his resurrection. Since they set resurrection day around March 25, Frank Senn (The People’s Work) tells us 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. 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?”

The coming of the Magi is a tremendous opportunity to talk about gift-giving and generosity. We bring our gifts, whatever we have in our hands to Christ. We offer our time, talents and treasure to God’s work of renewing the world. I am reminded of Christina Rossetti’s famous poem In The Bleak Midwinter which was set to a brooding hymn tone. The final stanza goes like this:

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Coming of the Magi

Another potential theme is global diversity. In the New Testament texts, the coming of the Magi is symbolic of the nations coming to Christ. It is a turning point. The gospel is for the Gentiles, for all people. This theme is picked up in the epistle reading from Ephesians. Paul states unequivocally that the mystery of the gospel that has been hidden for the ages is this: That God planned all along to bring in the nations. This was foretold by the prophet Isaiah in chapter 60, our Hebrew Bible reading.

No longer is the divine favor upon only those who eat kosher, observe Sabbath in a strict way, and commemorate Pesach and other festivals. Christ is now our Pesach, our Passover.

Another theme is global mission. The gospel for the world – the whole world. This means not preaching our culture, or even our peculiar religious traditions. This means preaching Christ alone. The Magi come from the East (Persia). People of other cultures and other religions come to see something in this Jesus.

Christianity in China will look different than it does in Germany, or North Dakota. Christianity, and also Lutheranism, look very different in Latin countries than they do here. This is something to celebrate. The core message is the same, but many of the customs and traditions are different.

In the southern hemisphere, Christmas and Epiphany are not about the days getting longer, or about snowscapes and a heavily clad Santa Claus. There, Christmas falls on the longest, hottest day of the year. Epiphany may be a time for us to learn to strip our proclamation of Christ of its cultural trappings, down to the meat of the matter, so that we ensure that we are proclaiming Christ to the world, and not our cultural bias.

Epiphany may be a time to consider sponsoring a missionary. Even a small amount helps! Get started with a special Epiphany season offering.

Another theme is local mission. Epiphany is also a time to consider the ways that Christ comes to those in our own culture who have wandered from God. An increasing portion of our own population have no church home. How do you proclaim Christ into this increasingly irreligious world?

ἰδοὺ μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν 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 or 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 Hellensitic 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 an older pre-Muslim religion based on magic and paganism.

In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), in Daniel 1:20; 2:2, 2:10, 2:27; 4:4; 5:7, 5:11, 5:15), magus is usually 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 in this Sunday’s text from Matthew, where it is transliterated “Magi” or translated “wise men.” This is an odd choice based more on legends than linguistics. Interesting though: Justin, Origen, Augustine and Jerome all translated it “magician,” even in Matthew.

Consider reading it like this: “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?”

The Magi were pagans. These pagans were interested in Jesus. There is great symbolism here. Pagans today are interested in Jesus is well, they just seem disillusioned with the church. Instead of seeing those who are disillusioned with the church as enemies, what might it look like to honor the spiritual hunger they have, and the righteous indignation they have when religious communities are more self-focused and other-focused? How might welcome them to the manger?

Finally, there are also power themes in this text. 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 the paradoxes, opposites we heard in the Christmas story. Angels vs. shepherds, the mighty vs. the humble, the first vs. the least city of Judah, kings vs. animals, an inn vs. a stable, mortality versus 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. (Rev. 12:1-4)

A woman, clothed with the sun, moon under her feet, crown of stars, bears a child to rule the nations. Mary. Then a red, seven-headed dragon wants to devour the child. Herod? Or Rome (city of seven hills)?  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.

Tangent: In 1529 Johann Cochlaeus used the above Revelation text to disparage Luther. His treatise has a woodcarving of a Seven-headed Luther on the cover.

seven headed martin luther

Perhaps this is a time to talk about our relationship to civil authority, or to the power structures of the day. With all the demonstrations that have been taking place, when is it appropriate to challenge civil authority? A few years ago there was an execution of 132 children at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan. Herod’s execution order does not sound so far-fetched. It still happens today. In our own country, there have been over 200 school shootings since 20 children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. Perhaps this is a Sunday to pray for children everywhere. Children trafficked. Children in danger. Children and their families running for their lives. Refugees, most of whom are children.

I leave you with a poem by Ann Weems, from her book, Kneeling in Bethlehem.

The night is still dark

The night is still dark

And a procession of Herods still terrorize the earth

Killing the children to stay in power

The world still knows its Herods

And the world still knows those persons

Wise enough

To follow a star

Those who do not consider themselves

Too intelligent

Too powerful

Too wealthy

To kneel to a child…

Ann Weems