This week’s story is about The Great Realisation — God’s gracious salvation was not to be confined to one nation, however much they were chosen and set apart by Him in a special covenant. The intention, from that earliest promise God made to Abraham, was that God’s people would live in His light, and be His light to other people and nations around.
As usual we’re following the Revised Common Lectionary readings, used by a broad spectrum of churches and chapels, and this week’s readings are for Epiphany Sunday. The full readings and links to them are here:
Introduction: Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Isaiah 60:1-6 — God’s glory on those that are His, attracts others to worship Him
Matthew 2:1-12 — The first Gentile worshippers, the Magi, come to Jesus
Ephesians 3:1-12 — Jews and Gentiles share the same promise as one body
YouTube — The Great realisation
The Living Word verse by verse commentary and reflections for January 9
This Great Realisation is about the spiritual awareness of God’s salvation breaking out, a bright light in the darkness, attracting a variety of others from different people groups. These range from wealthy, influential foreigners from afar, to the local and socially mixed, mainly Gentile, participants of the new churches springing up across the Roman Empire.
Some verses from the Psalm set for this week set the scene. Psalm 72, like many psalms, has an immediate, close focus and also a prophetic and more distant sense. So the first hearers applied these words to King Solomon, but we can see clear resonances with the birth of the King of kings, and the worhipful homage offered by dignitaries from afar — who happened to be Gentiles. And this is the picture of that Great Realisation, or Epiphany, of this Saviour and the salvation which all could choose to enter.
Endow the king with Your justice, O God, the royal son with Your righteousness.
May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores bring tribute to Him.
May the kings of Sheba and Seba present Him gifts.
May all kings bow down to Him and all nations serve Him.
For He will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help.
He will take pity on the weak and the needy, and save the needy from death.Psalm 72:1, 10-13
The visit of the three ‘kings’ is a much loved and much embroidered Bible story. Distinguished, wealthy and insightful these visitors may have been, but there was only one king in the picture and He was, as yet, an infant. Isaiah’s prophecy depicts the wealth, and the sense of worship, in offering to God our very best. It also makes a bold statement about the ‘nations’, a euphemism for Gentile infidels, being drawn to the light, coming from afar yet proclaiming the praise of the One True God.
Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the hip.
Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come.
Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.Isaiah 60:3-6
The gospel reading contributes more detail. We’ll let this excerpt from Matthew 2 pick up the story:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.”…
…After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
On coming to the house, they saw the child with His mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.Matthew 2:1, 9-12
There are a lot of contrasts here — Gentile and Jew; regal wealth and the relative poverty of an artisan family; treasures from world trading centres and village life in provincial Judea.
Another contrast, an important one which is in the story but never in the popular artistic representations of the visit, is between the two sets of ‘wise men’.
When Herod had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born.
“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child.”Matthew 2:4-8 NIV
So here are the chief priests and teachers of the law, called in to advise King Herod, who correctly recall Micah’s prophecy that the Messiah was to be born in the small village of Bethlehem. And here also are the Magi, wise observers of the signs, who may well have been familiar with Micah’s prophecy through following the tradition of Daniel in Persia, who was exiled some 200 years later.
But the point is, these Gentile ‘wise men’ travelled 600 miles to search out and give adoration to the Messiah of the Jews. But the local temple fraternity would not stir themselves to walk six miles, see for themselves and offer their worship!
This is The Great Realisation — the Good News will be heard, if not by those who are closest to its source, by others who the Lord will call.
And there were many others. The church of believers in Jesus, brought into being with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, started off with a few thousand Jewish believers and a very few Gentile friends, like the gospel and Acts historian Luke. But as it spread beyond Jerusalem across the Mediterranean region, it became more and more Gentile in nature — not that those distinctions meant anything anymore, as the letters to churches continually remind us.
For us, the Jew/Gentile divide is between the ‘insiders’ of the Christian worshipping community, who value the familiarity of their Sunday morning meeting and their name on the membership roll — and the ‘outsiders’, the 97 per cent in the UK who do not attend church with any regularity, and mostly not at all. These are the modern ‘Gentiles’. So let’s pause for a moment and consider how God sees them.
It is clear from Paul’s writing, here in the letter to the Ephesians and elsewhere, where his focus lies.
For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles… surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly.
In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.
This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.Ephesians 3:1-6
There are two phrases here which are not immediately clear, and they both have an important bearing on this theme of The Great Realisation.
The administration of God’s grace is about the sharing out of God’s merciful and entirely undeserved goodness. Specifically, that is being shared out to people beyond the people of covenants with Abraham and Moses.
And this was a difficult idea to grasp for some of those early readers or hearers of Paul’s teaching. And he recognises the difficulty. This is the mystery of the gospel, the hidden and unexpected blessing and startling love contained in the good news.
In our world, the goodness of God is for the ‘good’ people who are found in the holy building called a church (although the word in the Bible always refers to the assembled people, never a building — there weren’t any). Our mindset is that who deserves, gets.
But in the kingdom of God, there is the mission of God which is to reach and reconcile all people with Himself through Jesus. Nobody, in a building or outside it, can earn what He has given freely, and what His Son Jesus has paid for with His life. To think that we have any entitlement is to diminish what Jesus has done for us. Don’t go there!
This is how God’s grace works, and it is hard to grasp — humanly impossible, we might say. But when we turn to consider Jesus, who He actually is and what He has done for us, and when we humbly ask Him into our life — a light goes on for us. This is the mystery of the gospel being revealed. That is our personal Great Realisation, or epiphany, and that is how we becomes followers of Christ, spiritually united with new life in Him — or in our shorthand, ‘Christians’.
So a favourite and pretty story about camels and expensive gifts and visitors from afar evading the trickery of Herod, is actually a challenging story for us. Because these visitors are unbelievers, outsiders, uninitiated and not belonging to our circle of worship. Yet they, (and the shepherds who were social outsiders) are the first and most privileged worshippers of the Saviour.
What is God saying to us through this, about our priorities and our generosity of spirit to those who don’t tick all our boxes of qualification? What is God saying to us about about the 97 per cent of people? If this story is the starting point of a revival among the Gentiles, which it is, where is God doing His renewing, reviving and saving work now?