Ahh, last but not least in this week’s installment of Josh Catches Up on Posting Sermons: This is the first sermon preached for the Christ the King campus and my second sermon overall preached at Unity. Sadly, CTK doesn’t (currently) have the technological capability to record audio or video of sermons, so this is one you’ll have to read in your best Pastor Josh voice.
The day I almost burned down the chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago… was during the funeral of a beloved professor. I was standing in one corner of the over-capacity chapel, and just as the service was beginning, I looked towards the opposite corner and… oh my God, flames!
Let me explain: In one corner of the chapel, we had set up a small altar of icons and images of saints, along with some candles — including a large bowl of sand, where we invited people to light thin tapers and place them in the bowl. I thought maybe a handful people would light candles… I’m pretty sure literally everyone lit a candle… because that wax burned down so quickly and then… basically a big bowl of fire… and a couple singe marks on the altar fabric.
Lesson of the day: Fire spreads. (Though I’d like to point out it didn’t spread very far before a well-positioned usher and myself saved the day… and the seminary chapel still stands.)
What does all this have to do with the Epiphany of Our Lord? Two things: First, today is a day that we get to celebrate that, like fire, good news spreads! And second, while the traditional images of Epiphany are the star and light, it’s not altogether far-fetched to consider fire itself.
You know the song… We three kings of orient are… They may have been from the orient, but there probably were more than three and they definitely weren’t kings. Far from it. These so-called “wise men,” or “magi” in the Greek, were Zoroastrian priests, part of an ancient Eastern religion. Central to Zoroastrian practice, still today, is the sacredness of fire, said to represent the light of God. These magi also spent a great deal of time stargazing — interpreting signs in the light of the stars and paying special attention to one such sign that would announce the birth… of a savior.
These magi were essentially astrologers, fortune tellers, and horoscope writers. Not exactly royalty. But these are the ones who come looking for Jesus!
This visit of the magi to the holy family gets at the heart of this day called Epiphany: This good news of great joy we hear at Christmas is for ALL people — and ESPECIALLY those we would least expect.
Notice who doesn’t get it: Herod the king and all Jerusalem with him who are “frightened” about the suggestion that a new ruler has been born… and the chief priests and scribes who exhibit absolutely zero emotion about something they should be ecstatic about.
And then notice who does get it: the magi. Foreigners. Non-Jews. Outsiders.
As one biblical scholar puts it, a text like this about the visit of these outsider magi seems better suited for Luke’s gospel — written for a non-Jewish / Gentile audience, always concerned with the inclusion of outsiders. And yet, here we are in Matthew — written for a very Jewish audience, hyper-concerned with showing that Jesus is the messiah promised in the Hebrew scriptures.
But by intentionally including the magi — these outsiders — Matthew does a remarkable thing: Matthew shows us that Jesus is the long-awaited savior for both the Jewish people and the Gentile outsiders.
This is good news for ALL people! Especially those we least expect — outsiders, foreigners, anyone we might imagine is somehow outside the bounds of God’s love.
This is the message of our text from Isaiah too, surely a text Matthew would have had in mind when he wrote his gospel, and most of his original hearers too. In the third major division of the book of Isaiah, the people are finally returning from exile in Babylon… but disputes quickly arise over who is welcome to participate in the redevelopment and rebuilding of Jerusalem. The opening words of “Third Isaiah,” as it’s called, are quick to remind the one-time exiles: God’s house is a house of prayer for ALL people. And then, here, only four chapters later: It’s happening! All nations and peoples are being drawn toward God’s holy city. There are NO outsiders here.
No outsiders… all are drawn in… Some years ago, before I started seminary, I spent a great deal of time with South Loop Campus Ministry in Chicago. The thing you need to know about South Loop Campus Ministry… it’s no ordinary campus ministry.
In the months that pre-date my time with this community, the campus pastor at the time put out a sign in front of their building advertising “free food for college students.” A sure-fire advertising hook, right? The thing is, when you put out a sign for “free food” in a city with a high number of folks experiencing homelessness and hunger… that’s the only part they read. Soon, South Loop Campus Ministry’s weekly dinners grew into large community meals of nearly 100 people, some students, many not — but all gathered together over food and community.
This is the good news of Epiphany: This is good news for ALL people. Nations flock to Jerusalem. Magi are drawn to the messiah. All people are drawn and gathered into the wide embrace of God’s love.
That’s welcome news for today — in a social climate more polarized and divided than ever. It doesn’t mean our differences go away or cease to matter. But it does mean that there is a place everyone here, around this table, in this sacred space. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, whatever has drawn you here, however you feel about church or faith or religion, this is a place of welcome. And it’s also place of commissioning — of sending out to continue to spread this good news.
As days grow ever longer, and as winter slowly gives way to spring, the light spreads and gets brighter and lasts longer. An apt reminder… The light of Epiphany — God’s love made known to all people — spreads and grows stronger and lasts forever and doesnotstop.
Thanks be to God!