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.

Right Under Their Noses

Matthew 2:1-12

By Chuck Griffin

Today and tomorrow, we will consider the Epiphany, which marks the end of the Christmas season. The church traditionally associates the arrival of the wise men with this moment, officially on Jan. 6 each year.

From a distance, the wise men saw so much. At the same time, Jewish King Herod and his best advisers were oblivious to the most important moment the people of Jerusalem could imagine, the coming of the Messiah just six miles away from Herod’s court.

How do you see so much from afar? How do you miss such a big event when it’s happening right under your nose?

The wise men, most likely astrologers who advised rulers living in the area of modern-day Iraq, responded to a sign in the sky by packing their camels and making a months-long journey to Jerusalem. For them, whatever was going on in Jerusalem was huge, and they needed to get there despite the hardships.

When the wise men arrived, however, no one in Jerusalem seemed to know what they were talking about. Herod had to ask the wise men when the sign in the sky had occurred, despite having consulted with his chief priests and scribes.

So much for the “Little Drummer Boy” television version of Christ’s birth, where a star shines so brightly that its tail points toward the manger like a neon sign at a roadside motel.

The best astronomical explanation for the wise men’s sign in the sky probably lies in a series of conjunctions involving Venus and Jupiter near the constellation Leo and its bright star, Regulus. Such conjunctions would have screamed “a king is born in Judah” to these astrologers while going unnoticed by others. It’s also possible the star was a supernatural event, unusual in that it was intended for the wise men and no one else.

Regardless of exactly what motivated the wise men, it seems God spoke to them in signs for a simple reason. They were seekers. They spent their lives anticipating great events, looking for signs in the skies. God grants guidance to those who actively seek his will.

I’m not suggesting everyone take up astrology to hear from God. In this case, I think God simply was speaking to these seekers in a language they understood.

They also were the kind of men who were not afraid to go out into the world. These weren’t ivory-tower academics. They knew how to get those camels across the desert; with God’s guidance, they knew how to deal with the evil, wily Herod, heading home “by another way” to keep the Christ child safe.

And perhaps most importantly, they were ready to respond to the truth that had been revealed to them. They accepted God’s revelation, and they acted accordingly, honoring the Savior of the world.

The wise men stand in stark contrast to the corrupt King Herod, a man who sought his own glory rather than that of the God he should have been serving as the leader of the Jews. In many worldly ways, Herod was a great king. Certainly, he was a great builder, expanding the Second Temple and building the fortress at Masada.

He also was mercilessly shrewd, murdering his own wife and two of his children when he began to consider them threats. That ruthlessness is seen again in what we call “the massacre of the innocents,” the slaughter of all children in Bethlehem under the age of 2 in an attempt to kill the Messiah. Blinded by his worldly concerns, Herod could not have seen God’s glory if the baby Jesus had been born at his feet.

It’s not hard to see which model we should follow. Like the wise men, Christians should be seekers of God’s truth, listening for God’s sometimes subtle answers.

As seekers who begin to hear, it also is important to respond bravely. Do we put our possessions and even our lives at risk? What is our equivalent of getting on a camel and riding into the desert?

I would like to know more of the wise men’s story. I feel certain they were changed forever by the experience. For some reason God chooses not to give us those details through Scripture, however.

At least we are allowed to make a similar journey. We can be wise men and women ourselves, pursuing and worshiping Jesus as the Christ.

Dear Lord, show us the way. 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.