Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and Yahweh’s glory has risen on you. For, behold, darkness will cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but Yahweh will arise on you, and his glory shall be seen on you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.
My husband bought me a lovely necklace for Christmas. Unfortunately, it was not my size or my style. I have never asked to return any of his gifts before because I believe it is important to honor the time and the thought that goes into each one. This time, however, the gift would have been a complete waste of money, a trinket that would sit unused until it was handed on to our daughter one day. He told me we could go back to the store and buy something I would like, but I had another idea.
I have had a ring that was my mother’s. I received it when she died twenty years ago, but since my fingers are bigger than hers were, I could never wear it. Instead of buying a new piece of jewelry, we had her ring resized. Now it is on my finger and it is the best present he could have given me. I know it was hard for him to make a choice; I wasn’t very helpful in giving him ideas for Christmas. I don’t want or need anything. He wasn’t much more helpful. We both have enough; we love each other very much and want to give each other the world, but we have realized that the “stuff” that goes under the tree doesn’t prove our love. We’ve realized that the daily graces are more important than anything we can wrap with paper.
Unfortunately, some people are hard to buy presents for. They have everything or want nothing. They are particularly picky about their possessions, insisting on specific brands or colors or items. They make an impossible shopping list or choose to return everything. I once heard about a phone call a friend received from a niece a few days before Christmas. This person had chosen a special gift for the girl and was excited about it. During the call, the girl told her aunt that she wanted only money or gift cards for Christmas. My friend was very sad because she thought the gift was perfect. “If all we are going to do is trade money back and forth, why do we bother?” And yet, many people have turned to the practice of giving gift cards because it is so much easier than suffering the humiliation of getting the wrong gift.
An episode of “Everyone Loves Raymond” is the perfect example. Ray entered his parents’ home with a box filled with musical CD’s. At some point in the past, Ray had ruined his father’s record albums and he wanted to make up for the mistake. He had bought them a CD player and was excited to show his father how he could listen to his music again with the CD’s. “Where is the player I bought you?” he asked. “Ask your mother” his father answered. Ray discovered that the player was on a pile of gifts he had purchased for them, technology and electronics that would make their life easier. They weren’t interested. Ray asked his mother about the pile and she said, “What would we need an electrical knife for?” The gifts were useless. By the end of the show, the family decided that Ray should not buy presents for his parents any longer.
I had a hard time with gifts this year, too, but I still prefer to go to the trouble. I admit that I did buy a few gift cards, but I also made sure that there were thoughtful gifts for those people to whom they were given. I agree with my friend that it is foolish to be trading money back and forth. Gifts mean something. They tell a person that you have something you want to share or that you recognize something special about the recipient. Getting a book about roses for a gardener tells them that you know they like to garden and you thought about them when you saw the book. The thought is as important as the gift itself.
This Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany, the day when the wise men met Jesus. We give gifts at Christmas because of the example of those men. They gave gifts to Jesus that had deep and important meaning to His purpose. These foreign wise men from far away recognized the star in the sky as a sign of the new king. They traveled a dangerous and difficult journey to worship this child. The gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense foresaw the work of Jesus. The gold was a symbol of royalty and wealth. It had a practical purpose, too. The holy family had no wealth and the escape to Egypt would be expensive, so the gold paid for the care and protection of Jesus. The frankincense was a sign of Jesus’ ministry, a foreshadowing of his role as High Priest and the perfect Lamb sacrificed to atone for the sins of the world. Myrrh was an expensive ointment that was used only for the anointing of the dead. By giving this gift to Mary and Joseph, they pointed to the day when it would be used for Jesus’ own flesh. It indicated the importance of Jesus’ death in the purpose of His life.
Who were these 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. 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 through the eyes of the Old Testament.
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 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.
Matthew’s purpose of his Gospel was to prove that Jesus was the one for whom they had waited. His style and order 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. All these places were probably in the general vicinity of southwestern Arabia, near Yemen or even Ethiopia. Travelers from these places would go north on the east from Arabia along the Red Sea and the Jordan, turning toward Jerusalem just east of the city to cross the river.
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. Perhaps not literally, but 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 flashes from the east, and is seen even to the west, so will 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?
If Matthew’s purpose in writing the Gospel is to help Jewish believer learn the story of Jesus, then it is helpful to look at this story in light of the Old Testament texts. The prophecies all 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 was not always good, as God instructed 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 her 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. Ethiopian 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 visited Solomon and delivered 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 to their place of prominence in the world.
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 was also a nation that honored Solomon; there was a great deal of trade done between the two nations. The location of Tarshesh is 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 had a good relationship with Solomon, perhaps even religious ties to the Jewish people.
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 house and a young boy. 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.
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 the entire 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. 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, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your 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 see another ruler like Solomon or 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, frankincense and myrhh establishes for us the truth that Jesus came to live and to die, King of kings and Lord of lords, High Priest over all and Lamb that was slain. He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God; death and the grave could not keep Him down. He lives again 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.
The irony of the Christian message is found in Paul’s writing to the Ephesians. 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 still 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. 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.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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