Today is a study in how our Christian calendar and the lectionary readings work. Actually, yesterday, January 6th was the feast of Epiphany and the start of the Epiphany season. And from what I can tell, most Episcopal churches are celebrating Epiphany I this Sunday, which has a totally different set of readings culminating in a Gospel reading about the baptism of Jesus (talk about moving right away from the birth of the baby King!).
WE are celebrating the Epiphany feast day instead, because we almost never get to do this, and its Gospel reading is about the three wise men coming to see the new baby Jesus. And we also get to renew our baptismal vows as part of this celebration. Seems much more fun to me!
To my view, our readings today have two different but related themes. The first two, from the Old Testament and the Psalm, look at a future time of great peace and joy.
Our reading from Isaiah has been used by Matthew and others to “preview” the coming of a great King to rescue the Jewish people, actually all people! Basically, the reading say that everything will be wonderful when the Lord comes to claim his place, and all the people will rejoice and sing praises, even those from other lands along with their kings. This reading brings up several Biblical names—Midian, Ephah, Sheba, Kedar, Nebaioth, and of course, Tarshish. It turns out that most of these are either ancient kingdoms on the Arabian peninsula around Israel, or a tribe of people who were led by kings or leaders with these names. The name here most used in the Bible is Tarshish, which has not been pinned down as anywhere specifically, and could have been one of many places on the coast of or in the Mediterranean Sea, from the tip of Spain to Cyprus. Regardless, the point to this writing is that as far as the writer knew, this great Lord King would be gathering the people from all over to make a splendid place where there would be peace and prosperity. In every sense this would all be very inclusive and not just about the people of Israel.
And, the Psalms reading today is just a repeat of that same sentiment, with the additional declaration in several verses that the poor be treated with justice—
-- 4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.
--12 For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.
--13 He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.
--14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.
Our last two readings turn toward the response of all people to this great Lord and King and how to live within this community and to help others. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians reminds them of their place in this kingdom as Gentiles (it’s not only for the Jews!) and what Paul has brought to them to see: “Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
Our Gospel reading about the three wise men from the East is only read on Epiphany, and this account from Matthew is the only one in the Bible. Yet it has a very rich legacy in our Christian history and traditions. If you think about it, it is yet another example of people responding to the story of a great future King and wanting to be a part of it first hand. These wise men acted upon hearing of the newborn king and came to “pay him homage”. However, they got sidetracked by the evil Jewish King Herod (the first one!), who asked (basically told them!) to go and find the baby and then report back, so Herod “could come and also worship the new king” Yeah, right!
Well, the wise men (good title for them!), knew better so they came and brought their gifts to the baby Jesus and then after being warned in a dream, they left by other routes so they would not see Herod again. These men saw the future of the world through the new baby Jesus and they did their part to allow the grand plan to proceed without interference.
Last Thursday Bonnie and I attended a celebration of new ministry at St Benedict’s Episcopal Church in Lacey. Their priest has already been there for about 2 years, first as their interim, and then as their selected priest in charge after a long search. This church community has a long history of supporting social justice and doing action to help the homeless, hungry and oppressed. They are the largest mission church in our Diocese, and are focused on how all their members can use their many gifts. Bonnie and I actually spoke to them about Total Ministry as a possible model during their search, and I think their eventual choice was wise--a ½ time paid priest who would be very supportive and enabling of the ministry of the baptized, and also allow them to have plenty of funding to be able to continue with their mission work in their community.
We are about to renew our baptismal vows, and I find it fitting today because the words we will say reflect what we have just heard in our readings and hopefully in my sermon. We recognize God as our “King” (not others as it seems like we hear about in today’s world), we follow the teachings and examples of Jesus Christ in our lives, and we know the Holy Spirit is with us as we move forward with our own ministry and that of St Mark’s as a community of believers and activists. Let us say the words boldly and with a real vision for how we can work ever more to do that which we are called to do, in the name of our Savior Christ Jesus. Amen.