Epiphany • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
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.
I’m sure you all know how distinctive and off the wall British humor can be, sometimes even irreverent. Whether “Monty Python” or “Little Britain,” the humor is bound to be unusual. Well, a few years back there was a Brit-com, as they are called, appeared that was even by these standards a little bit unusual. It took place in a small North-of-England town in which all of the inhabitants looked as if they were rejects from some botched genetic experiment gone awry. When anyone normal would show up in this little out of the way town, and go to the one shop, the odd shopkeeper and his equally odd wife would, before saying anything else, confront the visitor with an accusation: “You’re not local; there’s nothing for you here!” And if the visitor was wise, he or she would take the warning and leave town very quickly.
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In ancient times most localities and nations were like this; however odd or imperfect or peculiar, they thought they were normal, and everyone else was bizarre. “Foreign” was a synonym for “bad.” To be different meant to be “not one of us.” So it was with the Egyptians, so it was the Babylonians, and so it was with the Israelites, too. They came to think of themselves as God’s special people, a peculiar people and proud of it, God’s own chosen ones, and they claimed that their God, was special, too; their God, not anyone else’s.
And so it was for many years. Anyone who wasn’t “local” — that is, who wasn’t an Israelite, or to put it as they would, who was a Gentile, an alien, one of the Goyim, one of “them” from the outside world, the Godless world, or worse, the world of false gods, of idols — such people didn’t matter to God, and they had no share in God’s kingdom.
Then along came Isaiah. What a man he must have been! It is the prophet Isaiah who championed the idea that God was not just the God of Israel, but of the whole world. God was not, whatever else might be said, just local, but universal. God was God not only of the Jews, but of the Gentiles, too — even though they didn’t know it. In fact, they didn’t know it — this was a secret, the best-kept secret in the world revealed only and ultimately to those chosen people — chosen not because they were particularly good; in fact their own written history showed them most of the time to be particularly bad! — but chosen nonetheless precisely for this particular and peculiar task: that through them the secret kept, the plan of the mystery hidden for ages, might be made known to the whole world. And so it was that Isaiah began to speak not just of the salvation of the people of Israel, but of the salvation of the whole world, through one Lord, one God of whom most of the world’s peoples were utterly ignorant at that time.
And not only salvation, but exaltation! For not only would God bring the Gentiles, — the “nations” that would come to that light, these people, all of those peoples, these Goyim, those Gentiles, those aliens — not only would they be brought to the light but God would even do the unthinkable: God would take some of the Gentile and make them Levites and priests. No longer would one have to be “local” to serve the God of the universe: people of all flesh, of every nation under heaven would worship God in his holy Temple. All — all people — would be welcome to worship together, welcomed by God to the glory of God, finding the walls of division, the old sense of who is “local” and who is “foreign” fading into insignificance in the light of dawning revelation of the presence of God, uniting former strangers into a single congregation, uniting former enemies in the bond of love, a universal peace that would replace the endless, endless years of war and division.
And this would be God’s doing. As poet George Macdonald wrote, “‘Tis but as we draw nigh to thee, my Lord, We can draw nigh each other and not hurt.”
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Isaiah had a vision of the dawning of that light — a light that would rise from Israel to draw the nations to its dawning. And he described the coming of kings on camels bringing gold and frankincense to proclaim praise to the Lord. That vision did not come to reality during Isaiah’s lifetime; nor for some hundreds of years after he died. It began to come true one cold season long after Isaiah died, but long before any of us were born, when Gentile visitors from a foreign land, guided by a star at its rising, approached a humble dwelling with gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. The child to whom those gifts were brought was not only going to be the glory of God’s people Israel; he was also, as old Simeon had said, to be the light to enlighten the Gentiles — the foreigners represented by these visitors from afar. They were not kings exactly, but wise men, sages, though perhaps they looked like kings as they must have been dressed in the exotic silks and finery of their homelands; and whether there were three or not Matthew’s gospel does not say; the tradition arose because of the three gifts that are named — and who would come to the king of the universe without bringing a gift!
So it was that the secret kept from before creation was on the point being revealed. The light of salvation had dawned in Israel, and wise men from afar who looked like kings had come to the brightness of this dawn, as had been foretold. The local was about to become universal.
I have to say, though, that there is — as alluded to at the end of our gospel — one sour note in all of this glorious affair; there had to be one more secret. This time it was a secret that was kept, not told. For in addition to the three so-called kings, there is another king, a real one, King Herod the Great. And just so you know he was not called “Great” because he was good, but because he was powerful. The wise men inadvertently tipped him off — innocently because they thought they’d go to the palace if they were looking for a king, a new king — and at the beginning of the account, you see them go to the present king to ask where this child is. They gave him quite a fright when he heard about some other king. This Herod was bloodthirsty character — he was very protective of his power — he was so bloodthirsty, that he had even killed one of his own sons when he got wind of the rumor that his son might be planning something to take over. So at the end of the account, the wise men in their wisdom, warned in a dream, and do not go back to Herod to fill him in on the identity of the one whom they had sought, found, and then chose to protect.
Our gospel left out the rest of the sad story, but you know it, I’m sure. You remember the story of how Herod, because he didn’t have the exact information, but knew the town, sent and had all the boy children killed up to the age of two, in that town. As I said, he was a bloodthirsty man, out to protect his throne. It is a sad story, which we’ve seen echoed even in our own time; may we pray that it not be echoed any longer.
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But that secret, that secret that this was the child, that secret that this was the one who would bring the light, had to be kept a just a little longer — that secret that had been kept from before creation, was kept just a bit longer, about thirty years longer; that secret that the good news that God had come in person to visit not only his chosen people, but all of humanity, it had to be kept under wraps for a few more years, until that holy Child was grown to adulthood, and John the Baptist would herald his arrival on the scene.
That holy Child is the one in whom all are welcome, the one in whom all division comes to an end. He is the one in whom all localities find their universal source, the one in whom no one is foreign, no one a stranger, no one is an alien. He is the one in whom we set our hope. It is a hope that will not be discouraged despite the continued struggles of peoples and nations and clans. It is a hope that will not be denied despite the continued warfare and violence perpetrated in the name of local gods for local ends. The one in whom we hope is the ruler of all localities, the universal king of all nations, the one before whom every knee will bend and every head will bow. It was in accordance with God’s eternal purpose carried out in Jesus Christ our Lord, that we and all people have access to God in boldness and confidence through their faith in him.
And we as his people will continue to hope and continue to witness and continue to welcome all to this place, this place where no one will be cast out for being a stranger, or turned away because they are foreign, but welcomed, welcomed in as Christ has welcomed us. To him alone be the glory, from the beginning to the end of the ages, a secret long kept but at the last revealed, a child shielded in secret, but at the last proclaimed to the farthest corners of God’s good earth, to nations near and far.+