Isaiah 60:1-6 (call to worship); Exodus 3:1-15; Matt 2
After four weeks of searching preparations, on Christmas we celebrated the arrival of Jesus, the warm presence of God with us. What is at the center of Christmas is the sheer presence of God, the very fact of God’s union with humanity in Jesus. In a way God saved us all right there by the very event of Jesus’ birth—saved humanity itself by uniting with it; even if no one else ever came to learn about Jesus. (There’s room to disagree about that; this is a matter of speculation.) Fortunately, God’s embrace of our humanity was in fact made known, and not just privately to Mary and Joseph, but publicly, and most notably to the Magi or wise ones, according the Matthew’s Gospel. They are interesting because, unlike Luke’s shepherds, the Magi were gentiles who sought out the birth of Jesus from their own research into the stars, without being informed by Angelic revelation. The Magi therefore represent the continuing goodness in God’s creation, which both gives us signs pointing to God’s revelation and an inner desire and wisdom to seek it out.
Epiphany celebrates this public making-known of Jesus, his appearances to people. The pair, Christmas and Epiphany, runs strikingly parallel to pairing of the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances at Easter: one represents the fact of the happening; the other, its coming to be known. Epiphany, which means “showing forth,” is thus the ideal time to consider one of Christianity’s most basic concepts: revelation. It will deepen our reflections if we compare the revelation beginning with Christmas to the revelation that begins the Exodus story of the Old Testament; and this is particularly fitting, for Christmas also represents our liberation or exodus from bondage and oppression.
Quite often in Scripture a revelation of God is a terrifying event. The shepherds were terrified by the angels. Isaiah was terrified when God revealed himself in the temple. John is terrified when he receives a vision in the book of Revelation, falling to his feet “as though dead.” But rarely are we terrified by God’s revelation, as it comes down to us. We take revelation for granted; we just open the Bible and read, as if consulting the Encyclopedia Britannica. We find the story of Jesus’ birth charming and sentimental, not terrifying; we certainly have no need of angels consoling us with tidings of “Be not afraid!” Maybe that shows our theological sophistication over those shepherds, but it is worth asking, is there any reason for us to be afraid of revelation, as so many in the bible were?
Curiously, the Wise Men are an exception to the biblical rule. The Wise Men, unlike the shepherds at the appearance of the angels, were not terrified, but “overjoyed.” The whole revelation event almost seems like no big deal to them: they present their gifts and leave, never to be heard from again. Perhaps their apparent casualness toward seeing God in person is the risk that God takes when adopting the form of a baby, and of our humanity in its full range of smallness and vulnerability. God as an infant is utterly disarming, but a disarming God can easily seem innocuous, and easily be taken for granted.
By comparison, the revelation of God that Moses receives is more arresting and commanding. Moses asks for God’s name, but what he gets is no normal name: it is a name both familiar—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—but also perplexing, mysterious, and unfathomable. Imagine if you met someone who said, “Hello, my name is ‘I am what I am.’” (I take that back; that would just be silly.) The Hebrew phrase, “ehyeh asher ehyeh,” is itself mysterious. God’s name can be brought over into English as “I will be there for you”; but also “I will be whoever I want to be”—in other words, you don’t own me. So while God reveals a personal name to Moses, a name familiar to his ancestors, that name remains holy because it is inherently beyond our grasp. Indeed, the amazing insight of Israelite Judaism is that God is utterly beyond us, ungraspable, never an idol whom we can control, as Israel’s neighbors typically tried to do with their gods. This insight is all the more sharpened in the public revelation of God to the Israelites on Mount Sinai, when the mountain almost burns up or shakes to pieces when God descends upon it: “Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; …the whole mountain shook violently.” We also read several times in Exodus and elsewhere that, “No one can see God face to face and live.” It seems that God can hardly draw near human beings, let alone become a human being, without destroying us.
Drawing upon the insights from the Old Testament, we ought to reflect on what then is this mysterious, dangerous God. What is God that no name can grasp God’s being? That mountains would fly apart upon God’s coming? We generally get by thinking God is like a big human being in the sky, who is very powerful, but beneficent; remember Orson Wells playing Zeus in Clash of the Titans? Maybe something like that is what we imagine. Well, from the Exodus perspective, we would do well to recognize that God is whatever God is or wants to be; saying more will probably lead us into idolatry (or bad film-making).
But for the purpose of beginning to think about God in light of these insights, let’s say that God is the Absolute, or the Infinite. That is, God is that reality human beings come up against whenever we try to think of what is beyond the ordinary scope of things. You and I are kind of good people, probably. God is absolutely good, a perfection of goodness beyond all “kind-of” goodness. You and I have some power to do things; God is absolute power, and somehow absolutely everything is subject to God’s power. So imagine for a moment if you said to yourself, “I don’t just want to do some good, to be kind of helpful, I want to be absolutely good.” Could you still spend most of your time basically looking out for yourself and for those who bring you joy? Wouldn’t you have to become some kind of Mother Teresa—an impossible saint? Could you ever stop scouring the world for those most in need of goodness and justice? Could you ever relax, enjoy a sabbath, and say with relief, my work is done here? And so, if you really tried to see and embody God’s absolute goodness and glory, as if an equal to God, face to face, wouldn’t it be the death of you? The infinity of God, of even the ordinary notion of “perfection”—as neurotic perfectionists will attest—is at odds with ordinary, finite human possibilities.
Maybe if we begin there, with thinking of God as the Absolute that collides with humanity on Mt. Sinai, but which also can be found in our quite ordinary use of words like “perfection” or “absolutely”—if that is our guide for what God is, then we are in a better position to truly marvel at the incarnation. If God were just like Orson Wells in the sky, then the infant Jesus would be nothing more than a strange disguise. But if the Absolute has become a small, powerless, finite human infant, then something mind-blowing is afoot.
What then shall we make of this Absolute in the flesh of the infant Jesus? Shall we say, with good reason, that the terror the Israelites felt at being called to embody God’s perfect holiness and justice has been abrogated, rendered tame? Is God no longer to be feared? Perhaps. Or should we wonder to ourselves, with a dawning amazement approaching apprehension and finally out and out terror: “What is the absolute God going to do with this humanity he has embodied, now that he is here?” Is this God in the flesh going to turn the whole world upside down? That is apparently what King Herod took the coming of Jesus to mean, and so he could only conclude that he must destroy this Jesus first. I’m going to suggest that we not completely put away that worried wondering about the God-man, especially if there is any chance that we have made God into something too tame, too cozy, or too Orson Wells, for that matter—someone we perhaps respect but keep at a distance. But obviously King Herod got something very wrong.
Instead of the terrifying presence of the Absolute God, the Christmas story tells those of faith—that’s pretty much everyone in the story except Herod and his collaborators—that this Absolute God coming into human form is good news, news of comfort and joy. This is God with us, a savior, who brings peace on earth. We get comfort first, rather than fear. One of the brilliant insights of Christianity is that true, effective fear of God can only arise out of faith and love: first, we come to know God’ acceptance, mercy, grace. Only when we know ourselves as God’s own can we come to know God’s holiness, awesomeness, God’s fearful righteousness, God’s total mystery, even God’s wrath and judgment. Through Christ, the Absolute nature of God becomes something life-giving, not contrary to and destructive to life. But woe be to us if we go no further than to know the gentle and mild God of the manger, if we remain infants in our faith. Jesus, in taking our form, makes seeing God face to face seem fairly easy, but as we see and follow, we are led to the foot of the cross; that, at the end rather than the beginning of the story, is where Christian revelation becomes completely unfathomable, mysterious, even dreadful.
Now we perhaps have some idea of what divine revelation is. God off by himself, if we think of God, say, dwelling in her own heavenly world, is Absolute goodness, justice, perfection, power. God revealed, however, is God adapting this absolute being to our human limits, frailties, and finitude. God adapts to our form—whether as the Torah law, or as a prophetic word, or finally as Jesus Christ in person—so as to both bless that human form, as the object of God’s joy, and also to lead it beyond its narrow confines and limited possibilities; to direct us God-ward, embodying God’s perfection, justice, and total self-giving nature. That’s it in a nutshell, I think; it’s simple but also infinitely complicated, because it’s not at all obvious how God can both bless our humanity as it is, while also leading us beyond ourselves into God’s infinite goodness. In trying to figure this out, we will want to keep watching what becomes of this infant Jesus, this sheer but mild presence of the Absolute in our flesh. The twists and turns of his particular life will be an invaluable guide as to what it means for human beings to find peace and rest, real sabbath, while doing the work of the infinite, perfect God.
And so with Epiphany, besides celebrating and marveling at the presence of God in our midst, we also begin the long process of revising and relearning once again all our hopes and expectations for what it will mean to live with God, now that Jesus is among us. This revising of our hopes, in light of their fulfillment, began already in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew is probably not reporting actual events regarding the Wise Men.. He constructs his story as a way to redirect the wealth of submerged hopes in Israel; that is why he over and over says, “this was to fulfill the scriptures…” Seeing it this way makes the story Matthew is telling much more interesting than just a newspaper report of some wise men showing up with poorly chosen baby gifts—heavy gold, smelly tree resins. From the perspective of a father of a three year old, I’m guessing those gifts would be received about as warmly as a lump of coal.
And so Matthew takes the hopes that he inherited from Israel, like the hopes of Isaiah we heard in our call to worship. Writing from exile in Babylon, Isaiah expressed the hope for a restoration of Israel, resulting in her becoming once again a dominant power in the near-east. Our call to worship left out some of the more nationalistic phrases, as when Isaiah predicts that, “The wealth of the nations shall come to you.” And later in the chapter, he sees that “The descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you; and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet.” Despite some triumphalism, it is ultimately a song of peace, and of consolation to a people that has been hard pressed.
Let us not become self-righteous at the slightly skewed, nationalistic perspective of Isaiah’s hopes. Those of you who go way back, don’t you recall when the church enjoyed uncontested power and dignity? When we could ignore people of other faiths? When everyone went to church because ‘it was the thing you are supposed to do?’ When pledges were plentiful, and so there was plenty for everything we needed? The wealth of the nation came to us, back then. America was rich and confident, and we basked in her glow, perhaps confusing it for God’s glory. No longer; we are in some respects exiles in our own land. Isn’t it tempting to long to go back to the old kingdom, the empire of bygone glory days?
But Matthew reinterprets these hopes in light of the strange reality of God with us, one who is mighty precisely in a meek and vulnerable form. Old dreams of power and glory cannot go unchallenged. And so Matthew portrays the Wise Men as gentile outsiders who, from out of their own wisdom and desire, are the first to discover Jesus, leaving the putative King of the Jews, Herod, squirming in a mad rage. The wealth of the world no longer belongs to one great nation, Israel; for the new King of the Jews belongs to the gentiles as much as to the Jews.
Who from beyond the confines of our old Christian order is paying homage to Jesus this Christmastide, bringing wisdom and gifts that we old Israelites never imagined? Are they from the east? From Korea, from Syria, from Palestine…from Boston? Or do they hail from the south: from Africa, South America, Holyoke? Let us welcome the Wise Men from far and near, realizing as it must be, that when the Absolute God is revealed in the flesh, absolutely everything might have to change.