Singing the Next Stanza (Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12)
Maxine and I missed being with you last week, on the first Sunday of the New Year. As we think of this New Year that we will walk together, many of us would like to know what kind of a year will it be? How will we succeed in our mission to reach out to our community as the hands and feet of Jesus? Might a few more people want to come and join us? There’s the ever practical question, will we keep up our finances? Do we have any grounds to be optimistic? This morning’s scripture lessons are the texts for Epiphany, which occurs on January 6th each year. This is the Sunday closest to the day itself. “Epiphany” is a thinly disguised Greek word that means “made manifest” or “shown.” Epiphany celebrates the the revelation of God in Jesus as a human being in the world. Jesus was shown to be not only the messiah of the Jews, but the saviour of the world. In the Western Church tradition, Epiphany has been associated with the arrival of the Magi, who were not Jews, to find the one who was “king of the Jews,” and, as their actions show, saviour of the whole world.
In just a few minutes we will climax our worship by demonstrating our belief that Jesus is saviour of the world by joining together in the Lord’s Supper, possibly the oldest rite in which the Christian Church joins together. It joins past and present, rich and poor, high and low, all over the world as one in Christ. But, before we do that, let us think for just a few minutes together on the year 2017 and the challenges that lie ahead of us in this year. First, let me say a few words about the scripture lessons as such. Really the central text today is Matthew’s story of the Magi, and we read the others in the light of this text.
The Old Testament begins with the words: “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” You might recognize these words from Handel’s Messiah. The next words have to do with “deep darkness” upon the face of the earth, and the point is that, when God shines light on people, no matter how thick the darkness, the light shines not only on insiders, so to speak, but on outsiders, as well, including, in this text, foreign kings (with gold and frankincense, thus a surface reference to two of the three gifts that the Magi brought. The text implies that God’s power attracts those unlike the readers, who were Israelites that were anything but royal. It is a word of joy and inclusion.
The Epistle offers us the point that when God reveals the mystery of Christ, all kinds of very different folk – as different as who were from the Jewish homeland, and those who were not, with all that says about different values – are made one in Christ and given the responsibility of both proclaiming and living out God’s inclusive, joyous love in Jesus. Such a thing would have taken a mighty act of power in the first century, a miracle.
As if to respond to such a thought of miraculous inclusion, the Gospel lesson comes along with its contrasts of kingship and power. It teaches that those with power and a desire to overpower others endanger the gospel. God loves outsiders such as the Magi, who are included in the circle of that love as they worship Jesus the baby, the king. And this power of inclusive love cannot be stopped by the might and power of Herod. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.” There is a contrast between Herod who wants to plot with the magi “secretly,” which in that ancient day would have meant much the same thing as “for an evil purpose.” Good things, in Bible times, were done in public, with transparency, so the community could see, not in private deals.
These texts address our journey through 2017. First, the common thread through them all is the love of God that shatters barriers, surmounts walls, and simply says: “All are welcome because all are included in God’s loving purposes in Jesus.”
In Ephesians 3 we have two clues as to ways to make this inclusive love of God in Christ real in our midst and in our world in 2017. This passage names two remarkable things that empowered Paul in his mission to break down the barriers that threatened the church in his day. These two things are “the unsearchable riches of Christ” and “the wisdom of God in its rich variety.” The first is, if you will, the source and the second, the result: the multiplex wisdom of God through the measureless riches of Christ. The one phrase calls the resources we find in Christ, literally, “beyond fathoming.” This same word is used in the Greek translation of Job 5:9 and 9:10 in reference to the wonders of God’s creation and providence that are beyond our wildest dreams. Paul found that there were undreamed of resources for bringing God’s inclusive love to the world in Christ. The other phrase uses a word that means something like “multi-faceted” or “multi-coloured,” to describe God’s wisdom. The word was sometimes used to describe a field of wild flowers in their flagrant variety of colour, or a crown laced with many different jewels, or a tapestry made up of many colours of thread and textures of cloth. In a world in which wisdom or greatness is sometimes defined by how alike we must all be to be accepted, we need to be biblical enough to emphasize that the wisdom of God is not monochromatic, or “one size fits all” or “black and white,” (or just white), but richly textured, multi-coloured and beautiful. And the inexhaustible supply is available so that the people of God may speak (and act out) God’s dappled wisdom in the world to the end that God’s inclusive love may say: You are welcome, all are included in my loving purposes in Jesus!” Paul says that the wisdom of God is found within the people of God, which ought to be (and be open to being) as diverse as the multifaceted, multi-coloured, multi-textured wisdom of its creator, redeemer, and sustainer. Let me say it again. From the measureless riches of Christ’s love flows a church that is as open, multi-faceted, multi-coloured, and multi-textured as the wisdom of God. What a mission for 2017 or any other year!
Of course, there are likely to be obstacles in the way, such as the times when the spirit of Herod rises in our hearts with fear of losing our power, whatever that may mean. Herod wasn’t just an dastardly villain a long time ago. His spirit is alive and well.
In the first century, the struggle that almost undid the church was between Jews and Gentiles, and the contention was, whether God was to continue missionary work only through the chosen people of Israel (especially those who had chosen Jesus as Messiah), or whether those born non-Jews (as if they could help that) were equal sharers in the mission of the People of God. You see, it’s the same power issue in a different guise. Will those like me and only like me have power or will our wisdom and our community be just as diverse and multiplex as the wisdom of God? Paul says clearly, “God intends all to be included through the love of Jesus!” Today, it isn’t the Jew/ Gentile issue that concerns us, but many other issues in church and society threaten to polarize us with the spirit of Herod, the spirit of power only for the already powerful, the spirit that says “one size fits all.” What are our Jew/Gentile issues today? Are they ethnic, political, economic, sexual? How will we decide? There are differences among us. Without telling you how you need to decide, let me just remind you of a couple of things. First, let me remind you of the value that we chose for ourselves as a congregation that is called by the name of Soul Liberty. It, briefly, means that we don’t need to agree before we can love each other and work together. We have said this is one of the things we are about in this place. More importantly, let me remind you that this grand old (Baptist) belief in soul liberty is based firmly in the Bible, and specifically in the texts of the morning and others. Remember the measureless riches of Christ, remember the multi-coloured, richly textured wisdom of God, remember that Jesus is the saviour of the world. Remember that Epiphany witnesses to the action of God in the world in a single, small act in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King. As far as God’s grace is concerned we’re all included in Christ. It’s not about our doctrine matching somebody’s standard list, it’s not about one way of interpreting the Bible, it’s not about all agreeing on one political or social agenda. No, we will continue to have discussions and differences. But may these very things remind us of God in Christ, our resource, and the wisdom of God, the result. And the inclusion of others as a goal.
When I get down to it, the words of the hymn we sang before the message “Live into Hope” with their concern for freed captives, opened eyes, and the end of pride and fear could be the anthem we sing into our New Year. Each day, of course, is one that can only begin with hope, not certainty. But we do have Christ’s riches and God’s wisdom, and the assurance that all are included in God’s plan of love and mercy.
Jane Parker Huber’s words were fairly new, but I want to end with the words of an old song, which isn’t really a church song at all, but an old folk song that my mother taught me. Many times we think of it as applying to individuals and to romantic love, but think of it as having to do with how we approach our world from the doors of FBC, I can hear my mother sing it still:
Tell me why the stars do shine,
Tell me why the ivy twines,
Tell my why the sky’s so blue,
And I will tell you, just why I love you.
The words suggest that it’ll take something as profound as understanding the way nature is (why stars “shine” [no this isn’t astronomy class, it’s a poem], or ivy twines (not botany), or the sky is blue (not physics either or optics). If we can understand that, we’ll understand why one person loves another. Then, there’s the next stanza:
Because God made the stars to shine
Because God made the ivy twine
Because God made the sky so blue,
Because God made you, that’s why I love you.
I want to suggest to you that, in 2017, our mission is to sing the next stanza to our community, and say to them, just as the phenomena of nature are what they are because God made them so, just so because you (all of you, red and yellow, black, brown, white) are precious in God’s sight, we, as a congregation love you (in the biblical sense of doing things that embrace you and want to do the best we can to pull alongside of you.) What a goal, what a mission, to sing that next stanza together!
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.