A sermon on Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12 & Matthew 2:1-12 by Fr Richard Treloar
Vicar of the Anglican Parish of Christ Church, South Yarra
for our ecumenical celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany
In this season of exchanging greetings and blessings, you can just imagine the Hallmark card derived from (the original Hebrew of) our first reading: ‘Happy New Year! May a multitude of camels cover you in 2014.’ Why, thank-you, I think! (Rendered more sensibly to our ears perhaps in the translation used: ‘they will come from everywhere, like moths to a flame’.)
The prophet Isaiah has in mind the caravans of surrounding nations bringing their offerings of gold and frankincense to Jerusalem: such a pilgrimage that it would be gift-bearing camels as far as the eye could see, covering Dame Zion – that holy ground – like holiday-makers on the Mornington Peninsula! It’s the same vision the psalmist sets out – indeed it’s almost certainly an allusion to Psalm 72: ‘The kings of Tarshish and of the Isles shall bring tribute: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.’
This sixtieth chapter of Isaiah marks a shift in the mood of this complex and composite prophetic book. After several chapters of divine admonition of the southern kingdom of Israel, judgement suddenly gives way to promise, and hope. The light that pierced the primordial darkness in the first creation story in Genesis, will pierce the political darkness in which Judea has been stumbling. The nations will recognise the grandeur of Jerusalem as the seat of God’s presence; and those dispersed in exile – the sons and daughters of Dame Zion – will be brought home in peace and safety, on their nurses’ arms.
More than a vision of mere restoration, these final chapters of Isaiah echo the promise to Abraham in Genesis that ‘by you all the families of earth shall bless themselves’ (12:3). The source of Zion’s joy is not so much the prospect of its own privileged status, then, as of seeing the nations bless themselves through it.
It is a vision of radical inclusion: of Israel worshipping side by side with its enemies, who contribute to the refurbishment of a desecrated Temple. In spite of everything – its own displacement of indigenous peoples, its experience of slavery and oppression, of civil unrest, exile, and foreign occupation, its apostasy – notwithstanding all this, the promise and the call to Israel is unchanged: to be a source of blessing to all peoples, a light to the nations.
The Matthean tradition of the wise ones who come from the East is strongly reminiscent of Isaiah’s imagery: the rising of a star over the place of Jesus’ birth in Matthew evokes the rising of the glory of God over Zion in Isaiah; and both texts describe the pilgrimage of dignitaries from the nations to Jerusalem with lavish tributes, specifically gold and frankincense, culminating in worship. For Matthew’s community, then, Jesus is to be understood as the place where God’s glory is seen; his light will gather the nations into a unity of service.
In the letter to the early Christian community in Ephesus, Paul’s ministry – and, by extension, the church’s mission – is presented very much in terms of this same vision of radical inclusion: ‘the Gentiles’, we read, ‘have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body’. By virtue of Christ’s reconciling work they – we, that is – may share in God’s continuing covenant relationship with Israel.
The question of the inclusion of the Gentiles arises repeatedly throughout the New Testament, indicating the heat in this issue for mostly Jewish first-century churches – a controversy about the criterion and conditions of full belonging, not without parallels to some that currently occupy my own Anglican communion of churches.
It also has a belated echo in the Civil Rights movement. Preaching on the Declaration of Independence text as ‘the American Dream’ on 4 July 1965, Martin Luther King observed with his Baptist congregation in Atlanta, Georgia:
The first [thing] we notice in this dream is an amazing universalism. It doesn’t say ‘some men’, it says ‘all men’. It doesn’t say ‘all white men’, it says ‘all men’, which includes black men. It does not say ‘all Gentiles’, it says all men, which includes Jews. It doesn’t say ‘all Protestants’, it says ‘all men’, which includes Catholics. It doesn’t even say ‘all . . . believers’, it says ‘all men’, which includes humanists and agnostics . . . It says that each of us has certain basic rights that are neither derived from or conferred by the state . . . They are God-given, gifts from his hands. [Clayborne Carson and Peter Holloran, eds, A Knock at Midnight: The Great Sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Abacus: London, 1999), 86.]
As well as perhaps using more gender inclusive language so as to indicate that this amazing universalism also includes that other half of the world’s population, all women, I wonder, were he preaching this sermon today, what other examples of what this text doesn’t say, Martin Luther King would use?
In each of these texts – Isaiah, Ephesians, and Matthew – as well as traces of heat there is ‘epiphany’: literally the shedding of light. And in each case that revelation carries with it vocation: a call to act.
Isaiah’s vision recalls the people of Judah to their original blessing as children of Abraham – a blessing that is to be extended to all who draw near.
Among those who, with Paul, now see the mystery of God’s providence in Christ, the Ephesians are called to make known more widely that rich and diverse wisdom of God – a manifestation which, as the letter goes on to explain, is chiefly a function of the unity they demonstrate, and the hospitality they extend to one another in the church and in the wider community.
And, ironically, by responding to what is shown them in the ‘Book of Nature’, Eastern astrologers become the very first characters in Matthew’s gospel to bring fitting tribute to the newborn king of the Jews. By contrast, Herod and his advisors’ fearful, self-interested reading of the ‘Book of Scripture’ turns the sacred text from being a source of revelation into an instrument of violent exclusion.
What might this story, Paul’s advocacy for the inclusion of the Gentiles, Isaiah’s hopes for an international caravan convention, and a table which is never full, have to say to us this evening? How might the biblical witness and the Eucharistic meal set before us shed light on our sense of vocation, on the offerings we seek to bring, individually and collectively?
Even were we able to share at it fully, ecumenically, who would still be missing from our table? Whose inclusion is an issue for us? How can we better fulfill the Abrahamic vocation and promise, into which we have been graciously grafted, to be that by which all who would draw near may bless themselves? Where are the boundaries, the limits, of our unity, our hospitality? These are among the hard questions that the Feast of the Epiphany invites us to reflect upon and wrestle with together in this new year of grace.
And I know you’ll take it in the right spirit when I say, may a multitude of camels cover us.