1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, "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." 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They 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.' " 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then 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."
9When 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. 11On 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. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany when we celebrate Jesus as light of the entire world and we particularly recognize the God of the bible as God for all, God with all religions, ethnicities, abilities, social statuses, etc. Despite the Twelve Days of Christmas song, the day of the Epiphany actually is the thirteenth day of Christmas.
Epiphany means revelation, revealing, uncovering. We sometimes tell people we've just "had an epiphany." The "epi" prefix means upon; "phan" is revelation. We've discussed theophanies and fantasies quite a few times; the name tiffany actually means theophany, or a revelation of God: theo= god; phan=revealing.
The church began a New Year of Grace on the first Sunday of Advent that this year also was the first Sunday in December; today is only the sixth Sunday of that new year. On the day of Epiphany that this year happens on a Sunday and during the Season of Epiphany we concentrate on Jesus' early public ministry and celebrate the universalism of God for and with all people and all creation, the God who breaks ordinary barriers and shatters conventional boundaries and expectations.
We recently had four Advent Sundays of waiting, hoping, and anticipating Jesus' arrival; then we celebrated Christmas, the Nativity of the Bethlehem Christ Child on Christmas Eve; on the first Sunday of Christmas we sang a lot of Christmas carols and didn't even have a musical guest soloist so we could enjoy our own singing.
From now on until Lent, we'll number Sundays after Epiphany. Next week, the First Sunday after Epiphany, we'll re-experience Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River by his cousin John the Baptist and we're experience a trinitarian theophany, or revealing of God as Father, Son, and Spirit. This year we'll read about two of Jesus' first acts of public ministry, his Initial Public Offerings from both Luke (our featured gospel account for this lectionary year) and from John. In Luke's emphasis on the neighbor, Jesus reads scripture in the synagogue and announces himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah's call to justice, economic and social leveling, the reign of Shalom. John brings us Jesus at the Wedding at Cana with water that not only tastes like wine, but water that has turned into wine as a sign of the ongoing feast that's the reign of heaven on earth.
Today we'll sing "We Three Kings" for the worship entrance song, but scripture doesn't say the gift-bearing visitors were kings, and it doesn't say how many visitors from the east there were. However, it does mention three gifts, which likely is the reason we talk about three guys.
There's very little historical information in scripture or anywhere regarding Jesus' very early life, but many traditions have grown up around Christmas and Epiphany. That's fine, because traditions such as naming three kings Melchior, Kaspar, and Balthazar, traditions like decorated evergreen trees, carols and songs, and giving gifts rooted in creation are ways we make Jesus' life real to ourselves and our neighbors. Those and other traditions are ways of incarnating, enfleshing, embodying the Nativity or birth account. You've likely noticed our Christmas story combines narratives from Luke's gospel and from Matthew's.
The only Kings in this story are the Roman puppet King Herod and the infant King Jesus.
These three guys from the east along with their retinues most likely were religious leaders, probably Zoroastrian priests who also were astrologers who studied and interpreted stars in the sky for signs and meanings; they well may have been astronomers in our sense of people with expertise about the heavenly bodies. In any case, they were of a different culture, religion, and ethnicity then the Jews (Israelites, Hebrews) the bible has written about as the distinctive people of God. These wise persons who almost definitely were guys based their decision to set out for Bethlehem on studying signs in the skies, on reading their own scriptures or holy book, on heeding messages they received in a dream. They got outside themselves and their everyday endeavors to figure out where they were supposed to go. The word for worship/homage/adoration in this passage is the word the bible uses for the worship of God. These religious and ethnic "others" recognized Jesus as a very special baby, possibly recognized him as divine.
I mentioned Bruce Springsteen's song The Rising about 911 that can be given many interpretations, including variants in the meaning and location of The Rising title.
This story of wise guys from the East, from The Rising – the direction where the sun rises to start a new day – opens up questions of inclusion, boundaries, people who are like us, people who are different from us, in a similar way to Jonah's encounters with the people of Nineveh.
Us/them, insiders/outsiders, natives/strangers talk. Even earlier than the three-part Hebrew Bible book of Isaiah, scripture reveals (gives us an epiphany) of the real God who fills heaven and earth as God for all, God with all, yet we still need some bounded, contained places and relationships, we really cannot leave all our doors unlocked for everyone to enter and violate our space. As families, as individuals, as a church, it often can be difficult to discern answers about who we let in or keep out.
We discussed King Herod's insecurity at the idea of another King. Steve mentioned the territory of any monarch or ruler (both then and now) typically was very limited. Although most of the world follows the British royals to some degree, Elizabeth II is head of state only for the British Commonwealth of Nations or whatever its current nomenclature and has no real authority over anyone anywhere else.