The Season of Epiphany
The seasons of the church year that we follow with the rest of the mainline churches in Western Christianity were created with the goal of “telling the whole gospel” each year, with selections from all four gospels chosen to carry the narrative. The season immediately after Christmas begins with Epiphany, the coming of the Light, and is usually followed immediately by the baptism of Jesus and the calling of the disciples.
That approach means that there are stories in each of the gospels that never make it into the preaching schedule, because they don’t match the schedule created by the authors of the church year and its seasons.
So this year, we are slowing down a little bit, and spending the time between Christmas and the beginning of Lent looking at the rest of the stories in the gospel according to Matthew. We will hear the story of the Coming of the Magi, and the terror unleashed by Herod when he heard of the birth of a child who might be a rival to his power. Of Joseph taking his family into Egypt and then into Galilee, a province where Jewish radicalism had already found a home. Then we will hear about John the Baptizer, his teaching and his prophetic work, before we tell the story of Jesus’s baptism and his taking up the work of bringing hope to his people.
January 8 — The Coming of the Magi
Focus Text: Matthew 2:1–12
It is tempting to see Christ’s birth as the end of the story, but in the gospel of Matthew it is the beginning. Astrologers and wise men see a new star on the horizon and follow it to find the baby whose birth it announces. The story brings both good news of God bringing about a new world, and the threat of a tyrant who is afraid of the changes that will come.
What are the stars you see rising, and what are your hopes for the new year and the new world? What are the fears that threaten those hopes, and how can you choose “another way” when fear threatens?
January 15 — Flight into Egypt/Massacre of the Innocents
Focus text: Matthew 2:13–18
Matthew continues to tell the story of a messiah who will be a new Moses. Forced to flee from King Herod, who is the tyrant that acts like Pharoah did in Moses’ time, the holy family goes into Egypt to escape the threat. Their escape into safety ignites Herod’s wrath, and he takes a dreadful revenge on the people of Bethlehem. The grief and lament in this story offer a reminder of the suffering that people experienced in Judea and Galilee around the time of Jesus’s birth.
In a world where “tales of terror” persist, we are challenged to speak hope in new ways, not by denying or avoiding the suffering, but by catching the vision of what God is already bringing about in the world and entering into the work of redemption and liberation for God’s people.
January 22 — Settling in Galilee
Focus Text: Matthew 2:19–23
Like the ancestor for whom he is named, Joseph settles in a new place to assure his family’s safety. There he builds a life, and it is from the town of Nazareth in Galilee that Jesus takes his identity and begins his mission. How did the specific time and place affect Jesus’s life and ministry? How does our specific context shape the way we see the world, and affect our life together and our work in building God’s realm?
January 29 — The Proclamation of John the Baptist
Focus Text: Matthew 3:1–12
Matthew gives us a lot of information about who John was and what his preaching was about. We are given a vivid picture of a passionate, intense preacher who is not afraid to challenge authority and who invites people to step outside the traditional forms of ritual purity as a sign of repentance and commitment to the inbreaking of God’s reign in the world. John is clear that he is “preparing the way”, and warns that no one should believe that they are safe from God’s judgment. At the time Matthew is writing, the center of religious piety — the temple in Jerusalem — has literally been destroyed, and the question of how God’s will finds its center among God’s people is hotly debated.
What does it mean for us to continue to proclaim that God’s rule is coming near? Can we still hear the need for transformation and new life in John’s message? How can we recenter our vision so that the will of God for all of humanity is our focus?
February 5 — John Baptizes Jesus
Focus Text: Matthew 3:13–17
All four gospels tell of John’s ministry as a way to introduce Jesus’s ministry; Matthew alone gives us a dialog between John and Jesus to make it clear that John views Jesus as his spiritual superior, perhaps to avoid the suspicion that Jesus was just carrying on when John was arrested. Jesus’s entry into John’s baptism to “fulfill all righteousness” seems to point to Jesus’s solidarity with sinful humanity. When the voice from heaven proclaims Jesus as God’s beloved child, we are reminded that we, too, are claimed as God’s beloved children.
February 12 — Jesus is Tempted in the Wilderness
Focus Text: Matthew 4:1–11
Immediately after his baptism, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he remains for 40 days being “tested” or tempted by the devil. The testing comes after 40 days of fasting, and there are three tests: to turn stones into bread when he is hungry, to throw himself off of the temple so God’s power can be shown by saving him, and to compromise God’s claim on Jesus by worshipping the devil, who claims to be in charge of all of the empires of the world.
The Spirit is in charge of the process, and Jesus’s authority is shown to be complete when he banishes the devil and angels minister to him. This story is a kind of theme-setting interlude, showing the main themes that Matthew will continue to develop in the rest of the gospel. God’s claim on our lives does not come with immunity from hardship or conflict or struggle. In fact, living in this new realm brought by Jesus will bring us tests and temptations, but we know that his authority is secure and his victory is already won.
February 19 — The Feast of the Transfiguration
Focus Text: Matthew 17:1–9
The cycle of the church year continues to turn, and we are about to enter into the season of Lent — a time of testing and preparation as we prepare for Jesus’s passion, crucifixion, and resurrection. To prepare his disciples, Jesus takes them up on a mountain and shows them a vision of Moses, Elijah and Jesus together. Jesus’s face is “shining like the sun”, and we hear again the voice of God saying, “this is my son, the Beloved.” The affirmation that was heard in Jesus’ baptism is now brought full circle as we prepare for the conflict in Jerusalem that will lead to his death. God’s love and God’s claim do not shield Jesus from suffering, but give him the tools he needs to follow faithfully.