5 January 2014
The Epiphany (observed)
Epiphany A (RCL)
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
In one of those on-line sermon services (they just show up in my inbox — I don’t subscribe) I read that the passage from Isaiah bore remarkable similarities to Matthew’s story of the visit of the magi. I almost choked on my coffee — could it be that Matthew had read this passage from Isaiah, and intended those similarities? The thought seemed never to have occurred to the author of the sermon help.
Matthew’s infancy narrative recapitulate the history of Israel: Joseph the dreamer, the flight to Egypt, the call out of Egypt. This is no literary accident. If that is so, then the visit of the magi from the east corresponds to the return from Exile (hence the similarity to Isaiah 60, a prophecy of the restoration of the former glory of Jerusalem). Of course, the magi return home ‘by another way (hodos).’ That is, they have become Christian. Cyrus, Darius and those who allowed the return have now become Christian — the whole world has been gathered up into Matthew’s story of Jesus.
Matthew adds one very important detail to the Isaiah prophecy. Of course, Matthew never mentions camels, but all of our nativity scenes have camels, so the similarities between these passages has been clear for a long time. In Isaiah, the camels bring gold and frankincense to Jerusalem, but no mention of myrrh. Myrrh, of course, was a compound used in embalming bodies for burial. Gold and frankincense would have been usual ways for one people to show tribute to a foreign king and cult. The magi are paying tribute to Jesus as king and God, but adding myrrh to their gifts. Of course, we know where the story of Jesus is going — toward his burial and resurrection. In recapitulating the story of Israel, Matthew’s story is implying that the restoration is yet incomplete; the power structure currently in Jerusalem is not the end of the story, but the conclusion has yet to be told. The resurrection of the just from their tombs at Jesus’ resurrection (a detail unique to Matthew) suggests that only with the resurrection of Jesus and his replacement of the temple cult has Israel finally arrived home.
Matthew’s use of the device of the fulfillment of prophecy, and his inclusion of the servant songs of Isaiah in the prophecies to be fulfilled imply that previous understandings of the fulfillment of the prophecies of the restoration had been incomplete, because they had not included the salvific component of Israel’s suffering. Israel’s suffering was intended for the restoration of the whole world, for the restoration of justice to all, and not just the restoration of Israel. Interestingly, it is eastern sages who introduce this motif into Matthew’s story. Until they present their gifts, any understanding of Jesus’/Israel’s suffering must be incomplete, and restoration cannot simply be a renewed triumph for only the chosen people, but must include the whole world.
(Deutero-)Paul says something similar in the Ephesians passage: he received his mission to the Gentiles as a gift. It was not his to begin with, and was given to him by others (God). This was the piece missing in earlier prophecies: the inclusion of all peoples is not something that can be accomplished by the usual means (conquest) but only something given. And it requires a gift in return — Jesus receives the myrrh, the vocation to die, as a gift, and gives his life for that vocation as a gift.
All of our vocations, for whatever purposes, have been given to us as gifts. The vocation of the church has been given to us as a gift. Those gifts may not always seem like happy things, but our vocations may have just as often emerged out of painful circumstances as out of happy circumstances. As individuals and as a congregation, we need to reflect on who has given us the gifts that make our vocations possible. Often the least likely people have gifted us with the grace necessary to be about God’s work.