Sermon for the Epiphany - January 6 2019

Sermon for The Epiphany, Year C
January 6, 2019
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

There is a long history of scholastic endeavor seeking to prove the events described in Matthew’s Gospel about the wise men from the east coming to Jerusalem actually happened.  Ancient astronomical records from China, examinations of the mythic beliefs of Zoroastrians in Persia, and attested traditions of ascribing heavenly portents to earthly events all play heavily in the published information.  One author went so far as to bring into play two major planetary conjunctions, followed by a tailed comet, as possibly combining to convince ancient watchers of the night skies that something unusual was afoot in Judea.  And apparently, visits by wise men, or magi, were not all that rare after the birth of the sons of kings, according to some early records.

I suppose they needed some amusement.

To my mind, it’s less important whether such celestial events occurred, than that it seemed worthwhile to place these events in the story. 

Only Matthew brings the magi in. 

Only Matthew brings in the story of the flight into Egypt.

As for those wise men: We don’t know how many there were – despite the hymns and traditions, which seem to be influenced by the fact that there were three gifts; and we certainly don’t know that they were kings, although they may have advised kings. 

But what were they doing here in Matthew’s Gospel? 

Dennis Duling writes that the Gospel of Matthew contains a certain “apocalyptic severity.”[1]  Portents are a big part of any apocalyptic narrative.  When I read this, I thought to myself “apocalyptic?”  So I went digging.  There are many, many theologians and scholars who have wrestled with the nature of apocalyptic narratives, and they are not agreed.  Still, it seems somewhat safe to say that there are levels of distinction that might be useful to bear in mind:  there is apocalypse, which may include end-of-the-world thinking – as in the Book of Revelation; but there is also a slightly more mundane version that points to and reveals things hidden, but not necessarily implying the end of everything.  This is more the sort of thing that we see in Matthew, according to a recent article by one Daniel Gurtner.[2]

So, this star, this comet, would be seen as revelatory – and in those days, comets might be perceived as harbingers of bad news, or of good – and that might be a matter of perspective.  Either way, comets were seen as signs that things were going to change: disorder replacing order, a new order replacing an old: disaster, or rescue.

Another harbinger of God making changes in Matthew’s gospel is dreaming.  We didn’t hear Matthew’s annunciation – but it didn’t come to Mary; it came to Joseph.  Joseph had just decided to “dismiss [Mary] quietly” when “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream” and told him that “the child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.”  So he should not “be afraid to take Mary” as his wife.[3]

The website of the Catholic Oblates of St. Joseph has this to say about God’s use of dreams to alert us to what needs doing:

While rare in the New Testament, dreams are rather common in the Old Testament, and a variety of significances accompany them. When foreigners such as Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar dream, a Hebrew man of God, such as Joseph or Daniel, is needed to interpret for them (Gen 40:5–41:36; Dan 2:1-49; 4:1-25). Israel, however, needs no help in interpreting dreams, which are often means of divine communication. Yahweh, whom no one can see and still live (Ex 33:20), commonly reveals in dreams and night visions his plans for his people and the role they are to play in those designs, as seen in the examples of Abraham (Gen 15:12-13), Abimelech (Gen 20:3,6), Laban (Gen 31:24), Jacob-Israel (Gen 28:12-13; 46:2-4), Joseph (Gen 37:5-11), Samuel (1 Sam 3:1-14), Nathan (2 Sam 7:4-17), Solomon (1 Kgs 3:5), and Daniel (Dan 2:18-23).[4]

Given this history of dreaming in the Hebrew tales, perhaps it’s not too far a stretch for us to understand why Joseph might take them as seriously as he does, and acts as the angel of the Lord tells him to do.

Dreams of angels, comets in the heavens, and more dreams – this time to tell the magi they should go home by another road.[5] These are all reminiscent of apocalypse – but here they serve to reveal God’s will, not the end of the world. 

Of course, they are messengers of great changes afoot as well. 

Matthew seems to be interested in how the Messiah, from before his birth and through his life, and after his death, is changing the world; and unlikely messages delivered in unlikely ways to unlikely people are a sign that God is at work in this endeavor.

We already talked during Advent about the unlikely places where God’s actions take place – in a no-where town, with nobody shepherds serenaded by angels bursting forth from the heavens to tell them the savior of everything is a new-born baby born far from home.

Today’s scripture tells us of another unlikely avenue for the revelation of God’s saving action:  foreigners, and not just any foreigners, but Gentiles.  Matthew doesn’t tell us how many they were, nor that they were kings – we get ‘three’ because they delivered three gifts, and ‘kings’ because they were obviously wealthy enough to provide those expensive gifts – but for sure we know they were from far away and did not rely on the Jewish texts to come to Judea, but rather on that strange star that they’d been following since seeing it first appear.  We don’t even know whence they came - where was their home - or how long they had been traveling, or how many were in their caravan.

None of that seems to matter to Matthew, as much as the fact that they came to this small town, to this small baby, brought by portents in the heavens – and, if we were paying attention, it was a dream that sent them home “by another road.” 

Angels tearing open the sky; comets traveling across the heavens, and dreams that announced God’s will in no uncertain terms.  Not much farther along, we would read that it was in a dream that Joseph was directed to take his wife and son to Egypt, and in a third dream, to take them back home, and in a fourth dream, to move to Nazareth. 

(The only other dream in Matthew is the one Pilate’s wife reports to her husband urging him to “have nothing to do with this man.”  He doesn’t listen.  Unexpected messages from unexpected sources were apparently something to which he gave little attention or credence.)

Today we don’t put a lot of stock in heavenly portents – comets are just rocks caroming around the solar system; strange meteorological phenomena are rare but explicable; and I suspect we don’t put much stock in dreams and visions either.

So what are we to make of Matthew’s story?

Perhaps one thing we can do is to not dismiss out of hand strange messages brought to us by strange messengers and by strange means, but to ask ourselves if there is not something that God is doing in this time and place and moment and occasion.  I think we need to stay alert to the possibilities of improbability as God reaching out to us.

Of course, we should exercise care when we do – to consider events carefully and prayerfully, to discern what God might be up to.  Joseph was aided by a long tradition of angels appearing in dreams, and by the promises that the Messiah was to come.  He might not have expected to play any role in that great day, but he was willing to accept the possibility of that improbable idea – fortunately for Mary, for the child, and for us.

My advice?  Stay open, stay alert, and discern with care.  But it is entirely possible – and not at all improbable – that God is calling you, in ways you might not expect!


[1] Introduction the Gospel of Matthew, The Harper Collins Study Bible, NRSV, © 1993, p.1858.

[2] Daniel Gurtner, “Interpreting Apocalyptic Symbolism in the Gospel of Matthew”, Bulletin for Biblical Research 22.4 (2012) 525–545.

[3] Matthew 1:19-20.

[5] Matthew 2:12.

  May 2021  
This Week's Events
Bible Search