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Introduction To The Scripture For The Epiphany of our Lord - Year A/B/C
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Epiphany of Our Lord - Year A/B/C


ISAIAH 60:1-6        It cannot be repeated too often that the writers of the
Gospels depended to a considerable extent of the Hebrew scriptures that
they knew.  This passage from the unknown prophet of the Babylonian exile,
styled as "the Second Isaiah," is almost certainly the source for Matthew's
story of the visit of the Magi bearing gifts for Israel's new born king.
The modern depictions of that event and the carol, "We Three Kings of
Orient Are," also take their basic elements from this passage


PSALM 72:1-7,10-14   Here again we find elements of the popular rendition of
the Christmas story.  Probably written to celebrate a king's coronation or
birthday it emphasizes the prophetic image of a just and effective monarch
who receives honour and tribute from many nations. 


EPHESIANS 3:1-12     Paul cites his understanding of the mystery of Christ
which had been revealed to him in his conversion from a radical Pharisee to
a Christian apostle.  Jesus Christ had come to bring about the
reconciliation of Gentiles to God through faith.  Paul's whole ministry
rested on this insight.  For a devout Jew to say this indeed qualified as a
divine mystery, as Paul reiterates several times in this passage.  The
liturgical Season of Epiphany celebrates this revelation.


MATTHEW 2:1-12  Matthew tells quite a different story about the birth
of Jesus.  It would appear to be original to the author of the gospel
himself, evidenced by misquoting of a text from Micah 5:2-4 that the coming
of the Messiah had been prophesied by one of Israel's best known prophets.

This characteristic of Matthew shows that he was writing for a Jewish
audience late in the 1st century AD.  The issue with which the early church
had wrestled for several decades was the inclusion of Gentiles in the
Christian community founded by Jews. 

************

ISAIAH 60:1-6   It cannot be repeated too often that the writers of the
Gospels depended to a considerable extent of the Hebrew scriptures that
they knew.  In fact, they knew no other scriptures for the NT had not yet
been written or collected into a canon as the official documents of the
church.

Rather, those early Christian under the leadership of the apostles, all of
them Jews, sought out whatever passages in the Hebrew scriptures they could
find which they interpreted as pointing to Jesus as the Messiah long
promised to Israel.  This process went on for at least a generation or two
after the resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. 

This passage from the unknown prophet of the Babylonian exile, styled as
"the Second Isaiah," is almost certainly the source for Matthew's story of
the visit of the Magi bearing gifts for Israel's new born king.  Many
modern depictions of that event and the carol, "We Three Kings of Orient
Are," also take their basic elements from this passage.  As it stands,
however, it presents a clear description of Yahweh's activity within human
history interpreted metaphorically as giving light where darkness has
previously prevailed.  This, of course, recalls the first act of creation
in Genesis 1: the creation of light where there had been only chaos and
darkness.  It also reiterates the theme of the first poem in the collection
of Second Isaiah (40:5): "The glory of the Lord shall be revealed.."

If this passage was written from Babylon, as many scholars believe, it
could be a reminiscence of dawn over Jerusalem as the sun rises over the
Mount of Olives flooding the holy city and it temple with the radiant
splendour.  As the city awakened, people began flocking toward the sacred
precincts to witness the morning sacrifice.  In the prophet's vision, not
only faithful Israelite sons and daughters returned from exile gathered
there.  With them came people of many nations and even their kings bringing
the wealth of their countries from afar as offerings acceptable on Yahweh's
altar (vss.3,7).

The phrase "the glory of the Lord" in vs.1 (Heb. *kabhodh*) appears
extensively in Isaiah and elsewhere in the OT.  It is a central word for
divine self-revelation or epiphany.  The Christian festival and the
liturgical season of Epiphany have this fundamental meaning.  It refers not
only to the revelation of Christ to Gentiles, but the self-revelation of
God in Christ to the whole world.

The prophet's vision is eschatological.  Dawn and sunrise over Jerusalem
occur daily.  Pilgrims and tourists still flock to see the site dominated
for many centuries by the golden Dome of the Rock, third most sacred site
of Islam.  Jews and Christians gather to pray too at the foot of the
Western Wall, all that remains of the temple which once towered above the
huge ashlars of which its foundation was built.  But the vision of Second
Isaiah remains unfulfilled.  The day when people of all nations will
worship there together in peace is still far off.  Conflicts frequently
break out even as people come to pray, as happened recently, when a
visiting Egyptian diplomat approached the Al-Aqsa mosque and was forbidden
entrance by fundamentalist Moslems.

Yet, the passage offers hope that the day will come when all people have
the same vision as this ancient prophet and make their commitment to bring
about the time of rejoicing in worship of the God who wills that it be so.


PSALM 72:1-7,10-14   Here again we find elements of the Christmas story,
especially a deep concern for social justice.  Probably written to
celebrate a king's coronation or birthday, the psalm emphasizes the
prophetic image of a just and effective monarch who receives honour and
tribute from many nations. 

The psalmist pleads that the king will exercise justice above all
throughout a long reign.  He also desired that there be prosperity in the
land. As the Books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles attest, by no means were
these common features of Israel's monarchy.  So we have an idealized
version of what the monarch should be and do for his people.  The psalmist
was a poet, however, not a political scientist or historian.  Nonetheless,
he/she incorporated the theme of social justice from the great prophets of
Israel into a profoundly meaningful prayer.

It would not be difficult to extrapolate from these verses a vision of what
any modern political leader might bring to a new mandate.  As the new year
begins, in both Canada and the USA we are entering what will be a time of
political campaigns leading to federal elections.  Any political leader
seeking election might well use this idealized vision as the basis for
setting priorities for our two nations.  Although not included in this
reading, vs.8 was the motto adopted by Canada's Fathers of Confederation in
1967 in naming our country "The Dominion of Canada".  No longer a dominion
of the British Empire, but an independent nation with its own Constitution
and Charter of Rights and Freedoms, our struggle continues to create the
just society envisioned by the psalmist.


EPHESIANS 3:1-12   As we have seen in other references, the Letter to the
Ephesians remains one of the anomalies of the Pauline corpus.  Without its
title, which may indeed have been added at a later date, it could well be
taken as a letter from rather than to the Ephesians.  It has been regarded
by some scholars as the missing "letter to Laodicia" (Colossians 4:15-16).
John Kirby, formerly of McGill University, Montreal, decided that it was
originally a baptismal liturgy and sermon for Pentecost that was later
transformed into a letter for wider circulation.  Kirby's analysis stated
that this passage marked the beginning of the exhortative homily which
composed the remainder of the letter.  He did not believe that it was an
authentic Pauline letter, but one written by a disciple who knew the
apostle's story and thought exceedingly well some decades after Paul's
death.

The author - "I Paul ... a prisoner for the Lord" - cites his understanding
of the mystery of Christ which had been revealed to him at the time of his
conversion from a radical Pharisee to a Christian apostle.  Jesus Christ
had come to bring about the reconciliation of Gentiles to God through
faith.  Paul's whole ministry rested on this insight.  For a devout Jew to
say this indeed qualified as a divine mystery, as Paul reiterates several
times in this passage (vss.2,4,5,9).  The liturgical season of Epiphany
celebrates this revelation.

The conflict between those apostles who supported James and the Jerusalem
community and those who supported Paul's mission to the Gentiles did not
end with the death of either James or Paul in the early 60s CE.  It may
actually have become more intense after the destruction of the temple
during the Jewish-Roman war of 68-70 CE when the party of the Pharisees
dominated the synagogues of the Jewish Diaspora.  In asserting their
identity as Jews obedient to the Torah, the Pharisees also formulated a
canon of scripture authorized for study by the faithful.  The ideology of
Israel as the chosen people would not have appealed to many non-Jews.  If,
as Kirby avers, that this letter did not appear or circulate until circa 90
CE, one can see it as an apology for assertive Christian missionary
activity in those same communities where God-fearing Gentiles were drawn to
a more acceptable message than the Pharisees permitted.

In this passage, the author of the letter clearly presents an alternative
argument.  Gentiles are indeed included in God's promise and purpose,
"fellow heirs, members of the same body and sharers in the promise in Jesus
Christ through the gospel" (vs.6).  For proclaiming this gospel
persistently and consistently, Paul had suffered many trials and
imprisonments fomented by his own fellow Jews.  Indeed some scholars
believe that it may have been during his imprisonment in Ephesus that some
elements of this letter took shape.

Those of us who are "servants of the same gospel" wrestle with another but
not dissimilar conflict to which this passage may well speak.  The
underlying issue of our age is the inclusiveness or exclusiveness of the
Christian gospel.  Can we assert that our tradition is alone and
exclusively "the revealed mystery" of God?  Who now are the excluded
"Gentiles"?  Have we made our Christian tradition into an ideology as
exclusive as that of the Pharisees of the 1st century CE?  Does God's grace
not include those who have through succeeding centuries followed the
traditions of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and all other ways in which humans
of other cultural milieux have been conscious of a Transcendent Being who
touched and transformed their lives as ours have been touched and
transformed?  Is it God's purpose  to bring all faith traditions together
in confessing Christ as the one and only way to believe and live?

Do the words of Augustine of Hippo still hold: 

 "By means of Christ who is human you proceed to Christ who is
 God.  God is indeed beyond us.  But God has become human.  What
 was far from us has become, by the mediation of a man, very near. 
 He is the God in whom you shall dwell.  He is the man by way of
 whom you must reach him.  Christ is at once the way you must
 follow and the goal you must reach." (St. Augustine, "Sermons"
 261, 6) 

In what way is Jesus Christ "the way, the truth and the life" for us in the
21st century?"


MATTHEW 2:1-12   Matthew tells quite a different story about the birth of
Jesus than did Luke.  It would appear to be original to the author of the
gospel himself, evidenced by misconstruing of a text from Micah 5:2-4 that
the coming of the Messiah had been prophesied by one of Israel's best known
prophets.  As with other NT authors, it was characteristic of Matthew to
search the Hebrew scriptures for passages which could be reinterpreted as
messianic prophecies pointing to Jesus.

This characteristic of Matthew shows that he was writing for a Jewish
audience late in the 1st century CE.  The issue with which the early church
had wrestled for several decades was the inclusion of Gentiles in the
Christian community founded by Jews.  This story, quite possibly a parable
rather than a historical narrative, is Matthew's response to that conflict. 

Foreigners, as the magi certainly were, came seeking the newborn king of
Israel whose signal star they had been following for some time.  They could
not have been Jews for they asked Herod questions which a Jew would have
already known.  Legend has it that they came from the east, but that cannot
be proven from the story's details.  The phrase "from the east" could just
as well be translated as "at its rising."  That would mean that they could
have approached from the west, since stars only rise in the east.  The
astrological event that led them to Jerusalem could one of several known
astronomical  occurrences  - a supernova; a bright conjunction of two
planets, Saturn and Jupiter, within the astrological zone of Pisces, the
sign of the Jews (this occurred three times in 7 BCE); Halley's comet also
visible in 7 BCE; or a very bright morning star like Venus or Mercury.  But
these are all speculative quibbles.  We shall never know for sure what they
saw or who the magi really were. 

Nor is it certain that Matthew did not write his narrative using some
actual data but with is eye even more directly focused on the Hebrew
scriptures such as the one he misquotes.  He could also have quoted Isaiah
60:3; Numbers 24:17; Pss. 68:29 and 72:10.  From these poetic statements,
later generations assumed that the magi were kings when they may instead
have been Zoroastrian priests who spent a great deal of time observing and
interpreting the stars so vividly seen in the Middle Eastern nights of that
era.  Of course, they could also have been priests and kings, as monarchs
frequently were in those days.  It is conceivable that Matthew also knew of
a delegation of Parthian magi going to Rome to pay homage to Nero at Naples
in 66 CE.  They are said to have gone home "by another way."

We have tended to idealize and romanticize the story in so many ways that
we have neglected its more obvious meaning.  It would appear that Matthew
told this story to help his audience draw the conclusion that the
prophecies being fulfilled were about foreign nations coming to Jerusalem
to worship Israel's God.  This note of spiritual universalism is prominent
in many parts of the OT, but especially in Isaiah 40-66, a collection of
prophetic poetry with which Matthew would certainly have been familiar.

As Christians we may fervently hope that the meaning of the story will not
be lost on modern audiences at a time when religious traditions seem to
clash rather than coalesce around the worship of the God whom we know in
Jesus Christ.  But who is to say that within the new millennium on which we
have so recently ventured, God will not bring about the reconciliation
through love for people of all religious traditions?  Does that not seem
impossible at this point in time?  As we start this year of our Lord 2004,
we would do well to recall that, as our ancestors believed, each year is a
twelve month period of God's infinite and eternal grace.

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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