The church year can be split into two mirrored halves. They both follow the same rhythm. The rhythm starts with a season of waiting and preparation, Advent and Lent, where we are expectant of the high holy days that are to come. These seasons of preparation are followed by the high points of the church year, Christmas and Easter. Each of these seasons are more than just a day, Christmas lasts for twelve days and Easter lasts for several weeks. Following these high points there is a specific day that marks the end of the season, for Christmas this is epiphany and for Easter, Pentecost. Following these days are periods of time referred to as “ordinary time.” Ordinary time is a time where we are invited to reflect on the role of the church in the world. The life of Jesus has been reenacted and now the question remains for how the church is to function in light of that life.
Today we are celebrating epiphany, the day that remembers the Magi arriving with their gifts to worship Jesus, the king of the Jews. But in the context of the year it stands as the transition from the story of Jesus, reenacted in the season of Christmas, and the response of the church in ordinary time. Epiphany both proclaims Jesus as king and asks us what are we going to do in light of that proclamation?
The scripture readings for epiphany encapsulate the whole movement from the expectation of the coming king of the Jews to its realization.
The exile shaped much of the time of the kings, the prophets, and the New Testament.
The Context of Expectations
Before we start that story I want to set the stage a little. To understand what the Jewish people expected we need to first understand the position they were in when these expectation were formed. One of the moments in the history of the Israelite people that had a profound impact on the way that they understood themselves and their relationship with YHWH was the exile. The exile shaped much of the time of the kings, the prophets, and the New Testament. This moment even affected the way that they wrote their own history as it was often written from the context of the exile.
The people went from a nation living in the context of the promises made to their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to a scattered and dispossessed people. They were YHWH’s chosen people living in the promised land, but because of their own choices and disobedience they were conquered by neighboring nations, Assyria and Babylon. When those nations conquered Israel, those who were not killed in the fighting, many were taking in to slavery back in, primarily, Babylon. The people who were a free nation were now a dispossessed people enslaved in a foreign land. All the promises that had been passed down to them from their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob seem to have been cast aside. Their God, YHWH, who had been present in the temple now seemed to have abandoned them as the temple lays in ruins. All hope seemed to be lost. The light of God had given way to the darkness of their reality.
But scattered throughout the writings of the prophets we see hints of a hope beyond the darkness. They affirm that YHWH had not abandoned the people. Things were dark now but they would not stay that way forever. Hints then gave way to explicit expectation that God was doing something new and that this would not be their reality for long. They had an expectation of hope.
When we hold the Isaiah and psalter readings together we get a picture of the expectation of the exiled Israelites. What’s interesting is, normally the psalter is more poetic because it is poetry, prayers, and songs and the other readings are usually more concrete because they are generally narratives. But in this pair of readings it is the exact opposite. When we look at the Isaiah reading we see an abstract vision of the expectation and the psalter fills out the picture.
Isaiah’s prophecy comes from a place of darkness but is looking ahead to a day when that darkness is going to be overcome by the light of YHWH. His vision has two parts. First, the light of YHWH is going to come to the Israelites. He begins his prophecy by saying, “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of YHWH has risen upon you.” Second, the light of YHWH is going to be embodied by Israel. He says that when the light of YHWH comes upon Israel, “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” The light that is going to draw the nations is not the Israelite’s own light but the light of YHWH shining through them.
Isaiah’s message to the people is that there is coming a day when the light of YHWH will shine through them, they will be a nation that other nations recognize as set apart, and they will be exceedingly blessed. Essentially, the shame and the devastation of the exile will be undone. While the vision is before them, Isaiah does not address the practical means through which this end is to be achieved.
The Isaiah reading leaves the question of, how is this vision of Israel as YHWH’s light to be achieved since that are in the midst of the darkness of slavery and exile? The psalter puts the answer quite simply, the Israelites will be delivered by a king. YHWH will give Israel a king who will “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” YHWH’s deliverance will be manifested through the leadership of a king who cares deeply for the weakest among Israel. This king will lead them from slavery and to being YHWH’s light to the world.
Israel’s expectation was twofold, that they would be the nation who was YHWH’s light to the world and that this would be achieved through deliverance by a king. And they knew that God was moving toward the realization of that expectation.
Realization That Subverts Expectations
As we have all experienced, sometimes things don’t work out the way that we plan or expect. We have hopes that things will work out one way and then we realize that God is working towards something we never could have imagined. The same is true with the story of epiphany. The expectations of the Israelites are subverted in their realization. Their expectations are fulfilled but not in the way that was expected.
Jesus, King of the Jews
The Israelites were expecting a king to come and lead them out of the slavery that had come to characterize their lives. That expectation is realized but not in the way they expect. The Matthew reading tells us the story of the magi who have set out from the east, whose journey shows us that God is fulfilling this expectation. They arrive before Herod and say that they are searching for the “king of the Jews.” They had seen the sign of his arrival and want to pay homage to him. The king has finally arrived, but when they find him, he is in the arms of his mother. The king that had come to save Israel is an infant. They had expected a king who would ride into Jerusalem and throw off the chains of oppression, lift up the weak, and strike at the Romans. How is an infant going to do any of that? The king that they had long hoped for is not in any way what they expected.
The Israelites were expecting a king to come and lead them out of the slavery that had come to characterize their lives. That expectation is realized but not in the way they expect.
Then to compound the problem, this king of the Jews is at odds with, not only the Romans, but all of Jerusalem. The coming of this king has disrupted the empire and the status quo simply by existing. Herod fears this king because he is a challenge to his authority. There can’t be two kings of the same land; people are either going to follow Herod or Jesus. Unsurprisingly, Herod seeks to remove this challenge to his authority. He does this by ordering the deaths of all infants in or around Bethlehem. Jesus and his family are forced to flee this violence to Egypt, the neighboring country. It’s a good thing there wasn’t a wall stopping them.
But we must also reflect on the actions of Jesus as king, in response to Herod. We know that you cannot serve two masters, one must choose Herod or Jesus. And so Herod sought to remove this challenge. Jesus the infant king, on the other hand, facing the same challenge, chose instead to allow his family to take him away to Egypt. On the one hand it is understandable because he is an infant and can’t be expected to stand, let alone fight. But at the same time he is still God. And so it is an interesting choice to go to Egypt. Jesus chose the way of peace, as opposed to a path that would have undoubtedly lead to violence. I think it is important that the Gospel writer choose to include as one of the first moments of Jesus’ life, him choosing the way of peace in the face of violence. This act sets the tone for the rest of the message that Jesus came to proclaim, that is, the coming of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is characterized by peace and not violence.
The psalter reading also shows us that this theme of a peaceable kingdom of God has always been the expectation. Ps. 72:1 reads “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son.” Why the son? The son is mentioned because it is a symbol of a kingdom that is passed on through birth and not through violence. The coming king is not a usurper but the rightful king, not taking power through violence but through birth. But that is held in tension with the fact that Jesus’ birth, while being a peaceful announcement of the kingdom of God and Jesus’ own kingship is also an act that disrupts the empire. And the other actors in the story, the magi, participate in that act of disrupting the empire. They refuse to return to Herod and expose the location of Jesus, and instead sneak out of the country back to their homeland. Their actions resist against the authority of the empire. And it shows us as the church that sometimes the most biblically faithful thing to do is to stand against and resist the empire.
Gentiles in the Kingdom
The kingship of Jesus also disrupts the expectation of the kingdom of God being a specifically Jewish kingdom. The Israelites were expecting a day when they would be the chosen people of God again. And while the kingship of Jesus does create a chosen people of God, Paul shows us that this chosen people, the church, is not just the Jews but also the gentiles. Those who were once considered on the outside of the chosen people are now an integral part. Paul says in Ephesians, “the gentile have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” The realization of this expectation is that all people regardless of ethnic or national origin, can be called chosen people of God through the universal work of King Jesus. Jesus didn’t just live and die for the Jewish people, he lived and died for all people, so that all could be a part of his kingdom.
Reflections for Ordinary Time
Epiphany then forces us to wrestle with the question of how the kingship of Jesus affects the way the church lives in the world. The first principle that this story of subverted expectations forces us to grapple with is unity. One lamentable outcome of the protestant reformation has been the splintering and tribalism of the church. We see clearly division in the wider world, but the division has been mirrored in the church. We have countless denominations, that all stood for important issues, but now have become tribes that stand alone. Ecumenical projects are met with suspicion and rejection, because it does not fit our narrow definition of what the church is supposed to look like or act like. But the Ephesians reading should remind us that The Kingdom of God is now:
- Not just the Jews but now also the gentiles
- Not just the protestants but also the catholics
- Not just the Free Methodists but also the United Methodists
- Not just Democrats but also Republicans
- Not just conservatives but also progressives
- Not just Americans but all people
The kingdom of God is a united kingdom under the leadership of King Jesus, all other allegiances are secondary to or in opposition against. As Paul said, we are now all “members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.”
Our inclusion in and unity within the kingdom of God also points to the second consequence for the church that requires some reflection. The expectation of the coming of a king, which was realized in the birth of Jesus, means that we are now participants in the kingdom of God. In the same way that Isaiah saw Israel being the means through which the other nations saw the light of God, the Church is to be the means through which the world sees the light of Christ. The Church is to be the light in the darkness that has come to characterize our world. We are the light of Christ in the world, not because of our own ability but because of Christ’s work in and through us.
Epiphany urges us to recognize the kingship of Jesus as the magi did and then live differently because of that realization. Epiphany should cause us to reflect on the joy that has entered the world through the birth and kingship of Jesus, and it should cause us to reflect on what our role is in that kingdom.