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Sunday, 3 January 2010

Bringing Epiphany down to earth

The sermon this morning on the feast of the Epiphany started out with some promise. We were offered an account of the wise men in their social and historical context. The sermon then moved to an account of the world at the time of the incarnation as looking for God and the wise men as a model for that seeking.

No account of the reality that this was a time of Empire and any search for God had political implications - there was no distinction between "religion" and 'politics" as we know it today. Wise men from the east looking for a king in one of the more troublesome provinces on the edge of the Roman empire could only spell trouble, a suggestion of political manouvering and a hint of possible alliances to challenge Roman hegemony. Whatever the wise men thought they were doing Herod was not going to let anyone pull a fast one that might place his relationship with the Empire and its economic benefits in jeopardy.

There was no hint in the sermon that discipleship might be challenging, dangerous or place us in tension with the ruling powers. Kyle Childress in his commentary on the Ekklesia Project blog site for Luke 2:1-20 gets to one of the issues that bugged me about this morning's sermon:

One of the great dangers and persistent temptations of the Christian life is abstraction and reduction, universalization and generalization. We like platitudes and principles, spiritual laws and high-sounding words like “love” and “grace” or “justice.”

But not with Luke. Not with the New Testament. At Christmas we run up against the Incarnation. Instead of timeless truth we get God in particular: a teenaged mother and young father with their baby in a cattle trough, trying to stay warm in a cow shed on the backside of a dusty overlooked town on the far side of the Roman Empire. We get the specific, the particular, the concrete. None of this “once upon a time,” timeless and eternal we get in fairy stories. This story can be dated – when Quirinius was governor of Syria. We can take a road map and follow Mary and Joseph’s journey from Galilee to Nazareth to Bethlehem. ... We get an angel calling Mary. God speaking to Joseph. God coming in the particularity of a baby.

The particularity of the Gospel in the Incarnation then and in our attempts at discipleship now continually gets lost in a fog of spirituality that does not address the reality of the world in which I find myself living. An account of the wise men which ignores the politically motivated genocide that follows their visit and the account of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as refugees leaves us comfortably where we are in a consumer oriented society which is not worried about "religion" as a consumer choice that has no connection with the public realm.

Update: for a reading of Epiphany that sets it in the context of Empire, while reminding us of the current slaughtering of the innocents see Gene Stolzfus Massacring the Innocents.

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