The Epiphany — 6 January 2008
Trinity, Iowa City — Evensong 5:00 pm
Pss 96, 100 Isaiah 49:1-7 Revelation 21:22-27
I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
When we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, subtitled The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, the primary focus of our commemoration is the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem, as indeed we did this morning. But that story — whether it be literal history, or parable, or a bit of both — is not self-contained. It points beyond itself. And what it points to is God’s purpose for the world.
The Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth was not just for the people of Israel. That’s the significance of the Magi. They were not wise men from Jerusalem. (In fact, there weren’t any magi in Jerusalem. The Jews weren’t into astrology so much.) The Magi were from “The East,” which in the story was presumably meant to be the Persian Empire, whether Persia itself (that is, today’s Iran), or somewhere like Babylon in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq). They were not Jews. The story does not indicate what kind of religious commitment they had. We could speculate that they were supposed to be Zoroastrians, but that’s speculation, and in any case it doesn’t really matter, because Matthew’s point in the story is that they represented the outside world. And I think this confronts us with the realization that the Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth is also not just for Christians.
This is something a lot of Christians seem to have a hard time wrapping their minds around. I’m not quite sure why, because it certainly seems to me that the Scriptures overall are fairly clear about what’s at stake here. Or rather, I probably am sure why this is; it’s because we are afraid that if we don’t maintain control of our own tidy religious system, in which we are Us and everyone else is Them and therefore Not Us, God might actually try to do something without our permission, like really call the Whole World into God’s Kingdom.
(Digression: One of the things I would like to see hanging somewhere in this place would be a big photograph of Archbishop Desmond Tutu with his famous and oft-repeated words, “God loves absolutely everybody!” End of digression.)
But the Scriptures make clear that calling the whole world into the Kingdom is exactly what God is up to. (Actually, what God is up to is calling the whole universe into the Kingdom, plus any other universes there may be, but at the moment we’ve got enough to handle just with our own little world!) For instance, the prophet Isaiah today, words to the Servant of the Lord: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
And John the seer of the Revelation: “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.”
What did Jesus do in his ministry? Primarily, he was proclaiming and enacting the Reign of God, teaching and healing. He was not, so far as we can tell, recruiting people into his religion. He did call some people to follow him, and become the core of his community; but he did not call everyone to follow him in that way. In fact, some people wanted to follow him and he told them, “No, go home and tell your people what God has done for you.” Jesus was summoning everyone to live into God’s Kingdom, but not recruiting them to join his club. Joining Jesus’ club is not the answer to the question, “What must I do to be saved?”
I’m not suggesting that Jesus’ community, which developed into his church, was not and is not important in God’s plan. On the contrary, God chooses to depend largely, though I think not exclusively, upon us for the implementation and fulfillment of the divine plan for the salvation of the world. We as the Church are instruments of God’s saving Kingdom, but not its sole recipients. Sadly enough, there seem to be some folks in the Church who apparently don’t get this distinction and who evidently think they have a monopoly on the Kingdom. Alas, they are members of the Big Brown Truck Society.
(They wouldn’t recognize the Kingdom of God if Jesus himself drove up to their house in a big brown truck and personally delivered it to their front door.)
As I believe I have said before, and will no doubt say again, Jesus did not say “I have come that you may have religion, and have it abundantly.”
Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said (another quotation I have made before and will no doubt make again), “Christ is not an object of religion, but something completely different, truly the Lord of the world.”
The season of Epiphany, which follows on Christmastide, calls our special attention to the mission of the Church, a worldwide mission that is not a recruiting trip but a proclamation and implementation of the eternal Reign of God.
 Isaiah 49:6.
 Revelation 21:23-24.
 E.g., Mark 5:19/Luke 8:39.
 See, e.g., Luke 10:25.
 Cf. John 10:10.
 “Christus ist dann nicht mehr Gegenstand der Religion, sondern etwas ganz anderes, wirklich Herr der Welt.” Letters and Papers from Prison, 30 April 1944.
© 2008 William Moorhead