The Adventurous Lectionary – Epiphany Sunday – January 5, 2020
Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-4, Matthew 2:1-12 and John 1:10-18
Preachers on January 5 have two options, theologically and scripturally. On the one hand, they can use the assigned readings for the Second Sunday of Christmas. On the other hand, congregations, like my own, will be celebrating the Feast of Epiphany. While one can focus on the Johannine contrast of light and darkness and God’s power to transform our lives when we follow God’s light, it is also appropriate to focus on the spiritual pilgrimages of the magi and the holy family’s flight to Egypt. Both foci contrast light and darkness in responding to God’s call. Herod chooses darkness when he could have followed the magi’s path. John notes that despite the ubiquitous presence of God’s light in our lives, many choose darkness and suffer the consequences of their choices, not in terms of punishment but in forfeiting the divine power that comes when we follow God’s light.
In the case of the journeys of the magi and holy family, geographical journeys shape spiritual journeys and are at the heart of the Epiphany adventure that is to come. As Jimmy Buffett sings: “Changes in latitudes [lead to] changes in attitudes.” Whether these changes are the result of a change of heart, forced pilgrimage, or spiritual experience, they can be windows into divine transformation. To that end, I have extended the Epiphany Sunday to include verses 13-15, the flight of the holy family to Egypt, which puts in sharp relief the awe and wonder of the magi and the diabolic response of Herod.
Often read on Christmas Eve, the coming of the magi (Matthew 2:1-12) sets our epiphany journey in motion. Traveling from a far-off land, today’s Persia, and a different religious tradition, the magi present the holy family and baby Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. God’s star shines over the holy family’s home, but the revelation begins in Persia among the Zoroastrian religious elite. These followers of Zoroaster’s divine light experience God’s light among the Jews and are, as a foreign people, also the recipient of divine revelation. For ages, these magi and their predecessors may have been looking for testimony that their spiritual tradition was part of a larger revelation. They found that confirmation through a bright star and a baby’s birth. The birth of Christ is profoundly local but also amazingly global, reflecting the words of John 1:5 and 1:14: the word that becomes flesh enlightens all creation and every person.
Epiphany celebrates God’s generous and varied revelations among the peoples of the world. Ephesians 3 speaks of a divine mystery that was hidden but is now revealed as God’s wisdom in all its various expressions. The religion of the magi, different as it is from the faith of the Jewish people, is not a fall from grace, but the result of God’s unique manifestation, appropriate to the Persian people. The season of Epiphany invites us to celebrate the many faces of God, found in the many religious pathways of humankind. Surely the magi were not the recipients of a second-class religion that needed to be completed by their encounter with Jesus. The text says nothing about conversion. Rather, their encounter with the baby Jesus and his star signaled the expansion of their faith beyond parochialism to become a truly global faith. There are as Rumi, the Sufi mystic proclaims, a hundred ways to bow down and worship God.
The magi were guided by a star. However we understand the movements of the stars – astronomically or astrologically – there is congruence, the scripture suggests, between heaven and earth, between the non-human and human worlds. God’s word and wisdom – Logos and Sophia – are the creative principles of all things, guiding the stars and our souls to wholeness. We live in a revelatory universe, where the stars above and the spirit within witness to God’s loving providence.The magi are also guided by a dream. Four dreams characterize the Christmas stories (the Magi’s communal dream and Joseph’s three dreams, all protective of the Christ-child and his mother.) Like Joseph, the dream changes the course of their lives. Perhaps perplexed by Herod’s response to their quest for the holy one of Israel, their ambivalence is confirmed by a dream, alerting them that Herod intends to harm the holy child. Taking the unconscious – dreams, synchronous encounters, visions – seriously as revealing of divine wisdom, they follow their collective dream.
The magi “left for their country by another road.” This is one of the most insightful phrases in scripture, especially for those of us whose journeys have taken us to unexpected places, who have survived setback and failure to land on higher grand. Following God may mean changing direction or choosing a new route for our lives. Sometimes this road presents new vistas and fills us with excitement. Other times, we recognize that we will be lost if we fail to take another route, or change our lives. Transformation occurs as a result of divine lure, it also occurs through our recognition that we must change or die. The magi’s careful planning needed to be revised in light of God’s new vision presented to them.
Joseph’s dreams are transformative. Joseph is alerted that he must take his family to Egypt and later informed when it is safe to return. They needed to leave Herod’s realm to survive! While you can argue that they were going from one part of the Empire to another, laws were meted out differently in different jurisdictions, and in Herod’s jurisdiction a price had been placed on the infant’s head.
Political refugees in the first century and our time depend on their own resourcefulness and the kindness of strangers. While borders were more porous and laws more flexible in the Roman Empire, nevertheless, their coming to Egypt might have been viewed as one more Jewish immigrant mouth to feed. While they likely moved to a Jewish community, finding people of their own ethnic background as today’s immigrants also do, they were no doubt looked upon as foreigners and perhaps chided as outsiders, unwelcome given the current state of affairs in Egypt.
The flight of the holy family is a reminder that forced immigration – political or economic – is also part of God’s revelation to humankind. The bible is a book of immigration in which God calls people to leave the familiar in search of a better life. While we need to be a “nation of laws,” we should greet immigrant children as Christ-children rather than alien invaders, and we should welcome them with clothes and meals, not placards and invectives and the separation of children from their parents. The journey of the magi also reminds us that revelation is given to – and can come from – persons beyond our ethnic and religious boundaries. God is generous with revelation and salvation, and desires that we – like the magi – keep our eyes on the heavens, looking for stars to guide us beyond our religious comfort zones to discover and grow from our encounter with the varieties of healthy and insightful religious experience.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books including “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God,” “Become Fire: Guideposts for Interspiritual Pilgrims,” “One World: The Lord’s Prayer from a Process Perspective,” and “Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed.”