Epiphany 2022

Matthew 2:1-12 (NLT)

By Chuck Griffin

Gerard David, Adoration of the Kings, National Gallery, London, circa 1515

I hope I’m not overplaying the Epiphany by spending two days on the subject. To me, it seems appropriate. Throughout much of Christian history, the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany was a much bigger deal than celebrating Christmas.

From that alone, we should assume the story associated with it, the story of the Wise Men, is important.  So what does the story tell us about God?

We receive little detail about these men chasing a “star” in search of a newborn king, a star no one else seems to have noticed. Tradition has led us to think of three wise men, but the Bible doesn’t give us an exact number.

Today, let’s simply consider some odd facts. As mentioned yesterday, an event in a tiny village was communicated via the stars and planets. We also should note that these wise men likely would not have understood God the way a Jew did, and yet God drew them into the story of his ultimate intervention in history.

It seems the big lesson God gives us in this story is how surprising he can be as he tries to shower us in grace and save us from sin. He not only will meet us where we are, he will work through our current practices to change us. (Methodists call this “prevenient grace,” the love God tries to show us even before we acknowledge who God is.)

When I think of the wise men seeing Christ’s birth registered in the sky, I also think of all the stories I’ve heard of nonbelievers discovering God in unlikely places: in bars, in prison, in dive hotels—any of those locations or moments where we might wrongly think God is not present.

The story peaks in a happy way. God led the wise men on from their visit with Herod, and there was the baby, just as promised. They gave Jesus gifts. What a joy that must have been, to give the Christ child a gift! And even better, they were able to kneel before him.

Was it worship? Translators debate how to deal with the word describing their act. We kneel in worship, but the wise men also would have been likely to kneel before a king.

We can say for certain that the moment marked a dawning awareness. These wise men would have understood God was working in the world in powerful ways, and that they had been drawn into the plan. They even would continue to hear from God in dreams, protecting the child and themselves in the process.

These wise men, these magi, were a foreshadowing of the purpose behind Jesus’ work on the cross decades later, and the church’s Holy Spirit-inspired work today. God truly calls to all people, regardless of their location or circumstances. After all, “For God so loved the world … .”

Lord, in 2022, may we with great joy worship the Christ. Thank you for the revelations about Jesus that we receive through Scripture and experience in our hearts. May we give him our gift of faithfulness, made possible by your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Here Come the Pagans

Matthew 2:1-12

The story of the “wise men from the East” has embedded itself firmly in our Christmas practices. On the church calendar, their story is the centerpiece of Jan. 6, the day we call “Epiphany,” which marks the end of the Christmas season.

On the nearest Sunday, it’s not unusual to add three crowned characters to our church nativity scenes, often accompanied by camels. We sing “We Three Kings.” We read the above story found in Matthew.

And yet, I’m not sure we always grasp the identity of these visitors, which means we may also miss the significance of their trip.

Matthew’s gospel is very sparing in details about these travelers. Writing in Greek, he simply referred to them as magi, as if he expected the audience of his day to know exactly what that meant.

Our problem arises because at some point in history, what it meant to be a magi was largely lost by western culture, resulting in English translations using words like “kings” or “wise men.” The former is largely inaccurate, despite the popular hymn; the latter is accurate but so general that we gain little in terms of understanding.

Fortunately, researchers in the last couple of centuries have developed a better understanding of these travelers’ background. One hint lies in the fact that magi did make it into the English language in words like “magic” and “magician.”

It helps if we understand the religious practices of the lands east of Israel in Jesus’ day, places we now think of as dominated by Islam—modern-day Iran and Iraq, for example. We have to remember, Islam did not exist until about 600 years after Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry. One of the dominant pre-Muslim religions in the area was Zoroastrianism.

Historically, the Zoroastrian priests were known as magi, and they practiced all sorts of activities the Jews and even the Romans would have considered the province of pagans: astrology, divination, and other activities considered to be magic. Often, the magi used these practices to advise their kings.

It is revealing that Matthew chose to incorporate the story of the magi’s astrological discovery of Jesus and their visit into the birth narrative of Jesus. In the book of Acts, the works of similar magi are presented negatively, as a force working against God.

Matthew mentioned the magi to make a larger point, however. The birth of Jesus was the fulfillment of the dreams of the world, not just the dreams of the Jewish people. Through Jesus, God was speaking to all people in a way they could understand.

Matthew also was demonstrating that the Jews should have recognized Jesus as the fulfillment of their desire for a messiah. Even far-away “pagans” were able to use what the Jews would consider forbidden practices to spot Christ’s arrival.

We live in a culture today where many people are like the magi. There is a goodness about them and a fascination with all things spiritual, to the point that interest in astrology and magic are on the upswing among generations where church attendance is in decline.

If the magi in the book of Matthew are any indication, people with general spiritual interests at least may be open to hearing the story of God among us.

They will need a shining light to guide them. Christian, you may be that light as you gently connect their desire for goodness with God’s great plan of redemption.

Lord, help us to better understand how we can lead people with differing spiritual practices to Jesus Christ. Amen.