It’s Epiphany! In seasons of the church, this Sunday marks the start of the season after Christmastide (the 12 days of Christmas) and the celebration of the three wise men (or Magi) finding Jesus. This scripture tells that story, but moreover it begins to outline for us who Jesus is, and what a revelation he has been!
Scripture: Matthew 2:2-12
1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Background on the Text:
- This story only occurs in the Gospel of Matthew. The timing is key: since Herod will kill “all the children who were two years old or under,” this implies that the wise men came when Jesus was around 2 years old. It is only in popular tradition that we put the wise men in the manger scene.
- The Greek says these men were “magi” which can be translated as “astrologers.” They were people who interpreted celestial events as omens of great importance. Many rulers used their services to try to predict their own successes and failures.
Exegesis (close reading) of the Text:
- This is the first Herod. His son will rule when Jesus is an adult. Herod is in the group of people who oppose the work of God.
- The wise men from the East are outsiders, who in this gospel are very likely to support the ministry of Jesus.
- The wise men go to the heart of power, Jerusalem, because they are searching for the One who is at the heart of power. It’s just bad luck that they run into Herod.
- Herod “and all Jerusalem” were afraid. That’s a bit of exaggeration, but it points to this division of people into supporters and opponents of God’s plan.
- Herod consults his own experts, and the priests quote Micah 5:2. This links Jesus to David, an important link in the Gospel of Matthew.
- Herod sends the wise men to Bethlehem, presumably to trick them into revealing the location of this king.
- The magi offer the gifts expected to be offered in passages in the Hebrew scriptures.
- The star is a symbol of God’s continuing presence and intervention in the story.
- God intervenes once again through a dream. God sends the wise men home by a new route.
Questions the Text Asks of Us:
- The theme for this season is “Who is Jesus?” Of course the answers depend on who is asking the question, and for whom we are seeking an answer. The Gospels essentially are centered on this question. Each gospel was written for a specific audience. The Gospel of Matthew was likely written for an early Christian community, perhaps located in Syria, made up of a diverse population of both Jewish and Gentile Christians. They are going to be struggling with a lot of questions of identity. If you are a Christian, how do you respond to the question “who is Jesus?”
- What difference does your answer make to your life?