Epiphany of Our Lord
Psalm 72:1-11 (12-15)
And nations shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.
Who are the wise men? This is a question that has plagued theologians for nearly two thousand years. Matthew tells us that the magi came from the east, and yet the prophecies we identify with these wise men speak of visitors from Arabia. Traditions have arisen over the legends of these visitors to the baby Jesus. Our understanding of this particular aspect of the Christmas story is based on those traditions, not the biblical witness. Matthew is the only Gospel writer to tell us the story of the wise men. All he tells us that they came from the east in search of the king of the Jews born as indicated by the appearance of a new star in the sky. He also tells us that when they found the baby, they presented him with three rare and costly gifts while worshipping. That’s all we know. Everything else is based on interpretation of Matthew’s story and the prophets.
We do not know exactly where the wise men lived when they saw the star, but many experts suggest that they were from Iran, about eight hundred miles from Jerusalem. We do not know how many wise men traveled to see Jesus, but we base the number on the number of gifts given. It is likely that the three gifts were brought by a caravan of people, not only numerous wise men, but also family, servants and soldiers.
Some have suggested that the wise men were named Balthasar, Caspar and Melchior. Balthasar is said to be an Arabic scholar, Caspar an Indian scholar and Melchoir a Persian scholar. This is why the representations of the wise men in our Nativity scenes show different racial features. Some suggest that the wise men were not simply scholars, but kings. Other traditions give them different names. In Syria, the wise men were thought to be Larvandad, Gushnasaph, and Hormisdas, which are Persian names. Others identify the wise men as Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater (Ethiopia,) or Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma (Armenia.) Chinese Christians believe that the wise men were from China.
Matthew’s purpose was to prove that Jesus was the one for whom they had waited. His style and organization seems to be in line with typically rabbinic education, suggesting that Matthew intended his work to be a catechetical document for teaching the faith to new believers, particularly Jewish ones. This is why we look to the Old Testament texts for answers to our questions about these wise men.
Isaiah and the psalmist give us some hints about the place from which the wise men came. Isaiah tells us that many camels from Midian and Ephah would come, and that all from Sheba would come. The psalmist says they are from Tarshish, Sheba and Seba. Where are these places and what do they mean? Though there is some question as to the actual location, most agree that they would have been in the general vicinity of southwestern Arabia, near Yemen or even Ethiopia. These would travel north from Arabia along the Red Sea and Jordan, the turn toward Jerusalem just east of the city to cross. Some suggest that the wise men were Persian. So, whether they were to the south or the east, they would have entered from the east, as Matthew says.
Wherever the wise men began their journey, they likely would have entered Jerusalem by the East, or Golden Gate. It was the only gate to face the east and it was the largest and most impressive gate into the city; an impressive caravan with wise men or kings would likely have entered by this gate. I’m not sure that it matters to this story, but the East Gate is the one through which the Messiah was expected to come. The gate leads to the Temple Mount and is just opposite the Mount of Olives. It is the gate through which Jesus entered on Palm Sunday for His triumphant parade into Jerusalem. The Muslims walled up the gate in 810 A.D. to halt the coming of the Messiah. The gate remains closed today, although we know that no walls will keep the Messiah from coming again.
While these facts may not be significant for the story of Epiphany, it perhaps gives some insight into Matthew’s description of the wise men coming from the “east.” Matthew may have wanted his readers to be looking east as they studied the story of Jesus, not literally; it may have been a literary device that would come full circle later in the book. Matthew writes in chapter 24, “For as the lightning cometh forth from the east, and is seen even unto the west; so shall be the coming of the Son of man.” Is the east important because it tells us where the Magi live, or because it makes us look toward the second coming of Christ?
We generally understand that Epiphany is about the Light reaching out to the nations, which we can see in the promises of the prophets. However, I’m not sure the story of the wise men in Matthew necessarily contributes to that belief, since his purpose has to do with helping Jewish believers know the story of Jesus, especially since the prophecies point toward places that may have had some connection to historic Israel.
We are familiar with the story of Midian from the scriptures. Midian was a son of Abraham by his concubine Keturah (Genesis 25). Joseph was sold to the Midianites (Genesis 37). Moses lived in exile in Midian, and married Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest. The relationship is not always good, as God instructs Moses to destroy Midian. In the book of Judges, Israel is oppressed by Midian, and Gideon is sent destroy Midian. Ephah is the son of Midian.
Sheba is said to be in, or near, Ethiopia. Sheba was another son of Abraham by the concubine Keturah. History suggests that there was a thriving civilization in Ethiopia during the days of Solomon. According to tradition, the Queen of Sheba returned to the country after her visit to Jerusalem with a son she bore with Solomon, King Melenik. He founded the Solomonic dynasty in Ethiopia. A small Jewish community still thrives there today. There are those who believe that Solomon also sent the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia with the Queen of Sheba, to keep it protected from the enemies of Israel. Ethipian Christians continue to claim they are the keepers of the lost ark. Ethiopia continues to have strong Jewish and Christian communities, as well as a strong Muslim community. The three religions live in peace, working together for the betterment of the nation and the people.
Sheba seems to have a much different relationship with Israel than Midian and Ephah, one of mutual respect. In the days of Solomon the nation of Israel was wealthy, powerful and independent. It was a place where the roads of the world crossed, where the best products from all over the world found a place in her marketplaces. The Queen of Sheba came and brought magnificent gifts of gold and incense, for which Sheba was world renowned. Isaiah seems to be promising a restoration to the Golden Age, and the people were searching for a Messiah that would restore them as a people to her God and to her place of prominence in the world.
Isaiah says, “The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come; they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praises of Jehovah.” Another difference between Sheba and Midian is that Sheba was a nation that was settled. They built great cities and established trade with other nations. Midian was a nation of nomads, constantly on the move.
It is interesting that we use this as a text as a prediction of the wise men from Matthew’s Gospel, but perhaps he was thinking of this text, too, when he was telling the story. Sheba is not a surprise, since the people had long had a relationship with Israel, but what about the Midianites? Perhaps Isaiah was telling the people that the Messiah would come for Israel’s enemies, too. After all, the forgiveness of God is available for all.
The psalmist mentions Tarshesh along with Sheba, whose kings will come to honor and give tribute to the king of Israel. Of course, Tarshesh would have been among those to honor Solomon; there was a great deal of trade done between the two nations. The location of Tarshesh is even more in doubt, as some think that it is in Phoenicia, an ancient Semitic culture along the Mediterranean. Others specifically name it as Carthage, a city in Phoenicia. Yet others think it is Tartessian, a city in Spain that had open trade with Phoenicia. It is a city far away from the land of Israel, and apparently one that has a good relationship with Solomon, perhaps even religious ties to the Jewish people.
The psalm is a prayer given at the coronation of a king. It was used first by or for Solomon the son of David, and then for the kings that followed. It is the ideal reign of a king and prays for a nation of peace and righteousness. It calls the king to a right relationship with His people, taking care of their needs and leading them in the right path. It is a prayer for a long reign, for a kingdom that spreads far and showers blessings on the entire world. It is no doubt a prayer that reflects the hopes for the coming Messiah, and that’s why we identify it as foretelling the gifts of the wise men to Jesus.
King Solomon was a great king. He accomplished amazing things for the nation and for God such as the building of the Temple. His rule brought about a golden age during which Israel shined the world over. Kings and Queens visited Solomon, offering great gifts to pay homage to the power and authority he had in the world. Solomon ruled with justice, wisdom and a heart for God. But he was imperfect. He failed to be faithful; he even built temples to the gods of his wives.
The prayer continued for the sons of David as they were raised to the throne of Israel. Some of the kings were more righteous than others. Some of the kings were just and merciful. The kingdom thrived and the kingdom fell under the leadership of the sons of David. But the people believed God and trusted that He would provide the king who could fulfill this prayer. They waited for the Messiah. They longed for the king that would restore Israel.
Now, while Matthew may have written with the intention of uplifting and training Jewish Christians, there is no doubt that the Christ child came to save the whole world. Isaiah wrote about the light that will shine out of Israel, the glory of the LORD which will rise out of His people. The light will draw all nations to Jerusalem, strangers and foreigners will come to worship the God of Israel. Though the visitors may not have been as detached from the faith as we have suspected, the light no doubt did not come for Israel alone.
The light first appeared as a star in the sky leading magi from foreign lands to a humble stable in Bethlehem. There, the magi found the true light, the true King, the Messiah that had been promised. While Israel may have looked forward to the day when they would be restored, Epiphany shines the light on the real mystery of faith: that the mercy of God is available to us all.
The divine mystery, though once secreted from the world is now made visible in the life and grace of Jesus Christ. It is still a mystery; it is a thing that cannot be fully understand by human power or knowledge. It is given as a gift, but it has been given to the whole world. Paul tells us in the text from Ephesians that it is not hidden any longer. The light shines for all to see. We might enjoy calling ourselves part of a chosen people, but we haven’t been chosen to be separated from the world. We have been chosen to take the light of Christ to others, to shine the grace of God that all might see Him and receive the faith He has to give. We have been chosen to share Christ that all might believe.
Israel never expected that the Gentiles would understand God’s hand in the world, and yet it was God who made the light shine into all the world. Paul realized quickly during his ministry that he’d take the Good News to those outside Israel. He was the least of all the apostles because he was made an apostle apart from the twelve. But from the very beginning Paul knew His mission: to take the Good News to the Gentiles. It wasn’t clear to earlier generations that God’s salvation would reach beyond His people. Even the promises keep the Messiah close, foretelling the coming of the other sons of Abraham. But though we are not children through Abraham, we are adopted by God’s grace. Paul’s message was given to all nations, to the kings and authorities drawn to the light.
Epiphany is defined as “a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.” The story of Epiphany talks of wise men, or kings, or magi following a star toward the fulfillment of a promise. They saw the star rise in the east and they followed it. The journey ended in Bethlehem where they saw the true Light. Isaiah writes, “And nations shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” Jesus Christ was the rising light and His birth was the dawn of a new age.
Our lessons focus on what God does for the poor and oppressed through much of the church year. Many of our lessons talk of how God will tear down the thrones and topple the wealthy. But in today’s lessons, we see that there is also a place for the rich and the powerful in His kingdom. The light draws all people, young and old, rich and poor, those who lead and those who follow. Rulers are called to the light, and encouraged to live faithfully for the sake of God’s people. God can do His work in their lives and through their vocations, too. It is our prayer that all our rulers will live in the light. The ruler who knows God does what is right. When the king rules with righteousness, the people prosper under his care.
We may never have another ruler like Solomon, or see a Golden Age for any nation, but the promise has already been fulfilled. The Messiah has come; there is no turning Him away. He was born in a stable in Bethlehem and honored by strangers near and far. He has already crossed through the Golden Gate and finished the work He was sent to do.
On the day of Epiphany, we recognize that God revealed the divine nature of Christ to the world. We see this most clearly in the gifts they presented to the child, and this is where Matthew really points to Jesus as the Messiah. The gold was a symbol of royalty and wealth, it pointed to Jesus the King. The frankincense was used in worship and was a sign of Jesus’ ministry as priest. Myrrh was an expensive ointment that was used only for the anointing of the dead. This gift is the most shocking because it points to the reality of Jesus’ purpose for coming. He came to die.
And He lives so that we might live. Life comes through forgiveness, and forgiveness is offered to all men through Christ. It is given to those who hear God’s word and believe. Our present rulers might fail us, as the kings of Israel often failed God’s people, but we have a King that will always be faithful. His light still shines in this world even though it seems like it is dark as night. But there is something wonderful about the night: that is when we can see the stars. The wise men found the baby by following a star, but now we are the stars that draw men to Christ.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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