Print This Post

Sermon – “Epiphany” – January 6, 2013

Sermon for Epiphany, January 6, 2013

The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Epiphany Isaiah 60: 1-6; Ephesians 3: 1- 12; Matthew 2: 1-12

You know what’s really hard to find? It’s hard to find an intelligent article about astrology and the Bible. I was looking for one because the Magi obviously use a gift for stargazing. Perhaps if I had gone to a library I might have done better, but using “Google” on the computer got me a page full of articles which had either a pro-astrology slant or an anti-astrology slant, and nothing which simply presented a considered comparison of Biblical and traditional Jewish and Christian ideas about interpreting the stars.

That’s a sign of the times, isn’t it, that nobody is looking for an evenhanded approach to a topic? Everything is about taking sides and disparaging other points of view. What’s also common in such writing as you find is either weak or nonexistent argument, which I guess goes along with controversy.

There is a controversy of sorts at the heart of this. The traditional religion of Israel is jealous on behalf of its God, and tends to hate and outlaw any religious or semi-religious approaches not sanctioned in its own tradition. Using the stars to learn anything other than keeping track of time or perhaps navigation is regarded as an abomination by the Old Testament. It has a couple of things against it. Because divining by the stars makes an effort to attain hidden knowledge by astral clues, it’s a rival method to counting on God’s spirit to speak through prophets or to be institutionalized in established scriptures, so it’s the wrong way to do things. The other thing that’s objectionable is that it is a method employed by non Israelites, whose religion is either a corrupting influence or a ridiculous waste of time, depending on which part of the Old Testament you read.

Here’s a couple of verses to illustrate. The prophet Isaiah, heckling his countrymen for putting their faith in foolish guides, says, in chapter 47, verses 13 and 14: “Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators, stand up, and save thee from these things that shall come upon thee. Behold, they shall be as stubble; the fire shall burn them; they shall not deliver themselves from the power of the flame…” which goes back to Deuteronomy, chapter 18, which says “There shall not be found among you any…that use divination, or an observer of times…for all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord.”

The status of such secret arts as reading the stars is similar to other ancient efforts to pierce the veil of ordinary experience, like consulting the spirits of the dead. That’s forbidden as faithless and foreign by the Old Testament. It’s not regarded as entirely useless, however, because King Solomon consults the dead spirit of Samuel with the help of a witch, for which Solomon gets in trouble with God– but it works. It’s being forbidden is not the way the Food and Drug administration forbids things. They are supposed to forbid remedies which don’t work. It’s more the way that, when the French nation failed to back us politically in one of our international schemes, people began to refer to “French fries” as “American fries” as a way to despise the French. It’s unacceptable because it’s foreign, and foreign in a way which doesn’t support our own sense of how things must be.

That’s all to give a little depth to the background of the story of the Magi. Magi, even though the word is related, are not magicians. When we translate them “Wise Men” we don’t adequately imply that they are adept at secret arts of understanding. My big point about them is that they are foreigners who are twice foreign because they rely on a means of fathoming the workings of the Almighty which is forbidden to the Jews themselves.

Both the gospels which have what we consider a Christmas narrative find ways to bring outsiders into the story of Christ from the beginning. Luke’s emphasis is on socioeconomic outsiders, and Matthew’s is on foreign-born outsiders. The meaning of Christ in the New Testament period compellingly was connected with the elevation to importance and inclusion of the materially poor and the non-Jewish, and Matthew’s gospel emphasizes that the latter–the expansion of Jewish religion’s reach to the wider world– began before Jesus’ birth.

That comes in a little-read part of Matthew, in a long genealogy which includes foreign-born ancestors for Jesus. It continues with the story of the Magi’s being signaled by a star to come to worship the Christ child. It is further complicated by a parallel tradition, not written in scripture but with long roots in Christianity, which asserted that the three Magi were kings, which appealed because it made their appearance on Epiphany a fulfillment of Isaiah 60.

The big thing about these visitors is that they are the wrong kind of people relying on the wrong kind of revelation. They, however, are right, and instruments of God, and the government in Jerusalem, though it has the prophecy about Bethlehem correct, is wrong, and in the wrong. Worldly power, wealth, and politics as usual are worthless, and being foreign and coming to Christ by foreign methods is good. Not only is it okay for these outsiders to honor the Christ child, and to use their own weird customs to get there, but it’s okay even though those weird arts of divination are forbidden by God to God’s own people.

So there’s two things about Christ coming to the world. One is that it is the fulfillment of long expectation, that it is a defining, conclusive chapter in God’s working out the world’s salvation, and has been predicted, notably by Isaiah, long before. So there’s continuity, it’s what the Bible expects, based on the Bible’s own tradition.

The second thing, though, is discontinuity. God is doing something new. The coming of the Christ is unexpected, and it involves things which break from tradition. These Magi, looking to the heavens and attentive, when the time comes, to their dreams, are the first believers in a Christ meant for the world. They are our forerunners, because who among us is descended from those first Christians who were Jews? We are likelier to have our ancestors in peoples from all over the world who responded to a vision of God’s sending a Savior to the world. We’re likelier to have descended from people for whom the gospel was interpreted in culturally-appropriate ways, so that our ancestors could, relying on what was familiar to them, make the transition from heathen to disciples.

A couple of days ago this church was one hundred and sixty-nine years old. Baptists who formerly had traveled to Milton for church founded one on this side of the river, beginning with a series of sermons meant to persuade anyone willing to listen that Baptists had the best possible grasp of what God had been doing and what God wanted us to do.

I don’t know what was said which galvanized that little band of converts into undertaking this church life and establishing the university, alongside the Baptists who already lived here. Part of it, however, must have relied on the two things we see in the Christmas narratives– the idea that the new faith possible is consistent with the authoritative witness of the scriptures from of old, and the idea that it is available in a new way to people who may have been considered, for whatever reasons, outsiders, people different from the pattern already established.

It’s hard to do that, to have it both ways. It’s difficult to bring new people, with their own ingrained habits and expectations, into an established community, where they at least initially are out of their depth, just because things are new to them. Look at the Magi– they thought, once they got to Jerusalem, that they’d know what to do, but they didn’t. Nobody, including the foreigner called by God, is immune from presumption and failing always to be consulting God through prayer and attention to make sure of the path. No; everyone who has a little religion is quick to believe he or she knows best, and what to do next.

That’s the first lesson from the Magi, once we swallow the notion that God really wants to bring in these different types, with different languages and racial characteristics and worldviews. The lesson is persistent reliance on God. That was forced on the founders of this church, who didn’t have the numbers and didn’t have the money to make a go of their sense of calling. They were a handful, and though they were dedicated and generous, their own resources weren’t enough. They counted on prayer. If you hear the accounts of the founders of Bucknell–members of this church–they counted on prayer, early and late, and when obstacles arose, they went right back to prayer. They couldn’t presume they knew where God was taking them, they had to work that out from constant attention, together, to God.

It’s still a world in which there is an old, established faith with profound guidance about right and wrong, and what is holy and what is profane, and where hope lies, and what love means– a revelation of God which God wants to expand, which God intends to bless those who up to now haven’t known it, those who have presumed it was foreign to them– someone else’s truth, someone else’s community. Pray for yourselves and your church, that we in our time seek God’s will and find a way to make God’s vision for the wider world come closer to the story of Epiphany, when the world first witnessed the glory of God.

To read sermons from past years, hit the “View All” link beneath the “This Week’s Sermon” button, and then hit the “Archives” link in the sentence at the top of the page presenting recent sermons.