After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him….” Herod sent the Magi to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me so that I too may go and worship him.” After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed…. They bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. Matthew 2:1-12
For the purpose of review, and with apologies, I am going to violate a personal rule and introduce this essay by repeating excerpts from what I wrote for Epiphany Sunday in 2021. Commemoration by the early Church in Rome of the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem began in the late 300s AD on January 6 each year. They called it Epiphany Day (from a Greek word that means “manifestation”) to celebrate the first manifestation or revealing of the Messiah to Gentiles, and the good news that his salvation was for all the world, not just for the Hebrews. The Magi are believed to have been advisors to a king from Persia (Iran), Chaldea (Iraq), or southern Arabia – obviously not Hebrews. They most likely were a composite of astronomer/astrologer/philosopher tasked with helping their king “see” what lay ahead in time by studying the heavens and written prophecies. The new light they saw in their western sky suggested the birth of a new king somewhere, and their king thought it best to send envoys to show respect and assess potential competition. Scholars point out that the Magi’s home likely was between 700-900 miles from Jerusalem. That means the Magi needed from 30 to 90 days of traveling by camel to reach Bethlehem, and 30-90 days to get back home.
There is general agreement that by the calendar we now use, Jesus was most likely born at Bethlehem in 5 BC. Matthew’s narrative does not say how many wise men there were, only that they brought three kinds of gifts. And Matthew indicates that they reached Bethlehem a considerable time after Jesus’ birth, when Mary, Joseph, and the baby had moved into a house. Herod’s questioning of the Magi about when they first saw the star led him to think that Jesus by that time could be approaching age two. When God warned them in a dream of Herod’s intention to kill Jesus, the Magi left the area without reporting back to the king. Enraged, Herod sought to eliminate a future threat to his reign by ordering the killing of all male babies in the area younger than age two, but he was too late. The angel of the Lord also had warned Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus for safety. Only after Herod’s death more than a year later did the angel of the Lord tell Joseph it was safe to return to Galilee and settle in Nazareth.
Matthew’s is considered the “most Jewish” of the four Gospels. He wrote Jesus’ story primarily for a Jewish readership who had been trained to consider Gentiles unclean and to avoid them at all costs. By the time he wrote his gospel, Matthew and the other disciples had witnessed Jesus’ mercy to Gentiles; Peter had seen his vision of the sheet let down from heaven filled with unclean animals (Acts 10:9ff); Paul had witnessed the Holy Spirit being given to Gentiles (Acts 13); and the elders’ conference in Jerusalem had affirmed their ministries, free of Jewish regulations, to people beyond the Hebrew world (Acts 15:1-29). Matthew told the Epiphany story because his Jewish readers needed to hear it. They needed to see that from the beginning, Jesus’ entry into the human family was an expression and affirmation of God’s ancient covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:3). That covenant assured that “all peoples on earth will be blessed by you,” that Jesus’ offer of salvation and friendship with God was freely extended to every creature made in God’s image. Christians ever since Acts 15 have been reminded that inclusion of everyone in God’s invitation is required, not optional, in their work for the Lord. Yet far too often, the modern Church has been better known for its exclusionary practices and tendencies than for its New Covenant commitment to bless “all peoples on earth.”
JWST Two things took place in the past two weeks that seem ironically somewhat similar to the events of the Epiphany 2000 years ago. Early on Christmas morning (Coordinated Universal Time), a rocket lifted off from a facility in French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America to carry the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to outer space. In its two weeks of flight thus far, its engines have done course-correction burns to keep the telescope on track to reach L2, a spot in the universe 930,000 miles from Earth that is optimal for its temperature (-370 degrees Fahrenheit) and its unobstructed view of deep space. In a carefully choreographed sequence, antennas and solar panels have been unfolded, and the five-layer sunshield has been framed, deployed, and tensioned. The most recent steps were the unfolding of the mirrors that will collect light emitted by distant stars and reflect it to the telescope’s computers to be translated into viewable images. As JWST continues toward L2 for the next two weeks, the mirrors will be adjusted and aligned for the sharpest focus. When it arrives at L2, it will be “parked” in orbit, and testing and adjustments will continue for another four months. Its first images of deep space are expected sometime in June. Webb’s primary mirror is three times larger than the one on the Hubble Space Telescope, thus giving it vastly greater range. The astronomers on the project have said that during JWST’s ten years of expected usable life, they hope to be able to peer from L2 backwards in time to see light emitted by the Big Bang (their theory of the origin of the universe).
It is interesting and ironic that Matthew’s Epiphany story also is about astronomers studying the heavens and investing large amounts of time, effort, and money to investigate an unusual star that appeared. Their search was motivated by questions similar to those of their 21st century counterparts – what is that light, and what can it teach us about where we came from, why we’re here, and where we might be headed? They followed a star and ended up finding a Savior, eternal Truth incarnate as a human baby. As I watch the reports of JWST, I find myself hoping that 2022’s astronomers will find not only lots of beneficial science, but an encounter with the Living God of all Truth as well.
January 6 The other event in the news this week was the first anniversary of the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol building in Washington, DC. In both Matthew’s Epiphany narrative and in the events of one year ago, a ruler who had grown accustomed to the privileges of power resorted to drastic measures in attempting to eliminate a threat to those privileges and that power. In both cases, the ruler demonstrated willingness to allow a lot of damage and harm to people in order to hold on to his position. It was coincidental that the violence on Capitol Hill took place on Epiphany Day – I doubt whether anyone there was even aware of it. The demonstration was planned for that date to try to stop Congress from carrying out its scheduled constitutional duty to certify the 2020 election results.
Part of the irony of it all is that Epiphany has for centuries been celebrated on January 6 to remind us that Jesus came to teach and embody our Creator’s welcome of every person who is willing to seek, know, and obey him. His offer is to all, no matter their race, nationality, gender, ethnicity, or other demographic traits. For years to come in this country, January 6 almost certainly now will be remembered for the use of violence to attempt imposing a regime of marginalization or exclusion of the refugee, the foreigner, and people who are “different” from those in power. My sense is that we would do well in the future to remember the stark contrast between these two events on January 6 as a reminder always to choose the way of love and life — the way of Jesus. In a purely devotional way, Herod also should remind us followers of Christ regularly to invite the Spirit’s Light upon any rationalized lengths to which we may have gone to protect self-will and keep Christ from truly being in charge of our lives.
Jesus’ Lived Example The Epiphany event happened when Jesus was just a toddler, but its meaning didn’t catch on for many more years. Although Jesus came to share the blessing of knowing Yahweh with both Jews and Gentiles, the Gentiles had to wait for thirty more years. He needed some Jewish spokespersons whose minds and hearts had been transformed in order to give his message and movement enduring credibility. All during his three years of public ministry and training of his disciples, Jesus lived his new covenant in front of them. When a Roman centurion saw Jesus’ authority over evil spirits and illness, he asked Jesus to heal his sick servant, and Jesus complied (Matt. 8, Luke 7). He intentionally took his disciples to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, a Gentile region, where they encountered a possessed man who lived in a cemetery and wandered around cutting himself. Jesus cast the evil spirits out of him and into a herd of pigs. When the healed man asked Jesus to let him join the band of disciples, Jesus told him to stay at home and tell others what the Lord had done for him (Mark 5, Luke 8) – the first Gentile missionary since the Magi? On a trip through Samaria, Jesus sat down by Jacob’s well in Sychar while his disciples went in search of food. A Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water, and Jesus asked her to give him a drink. She was stunned that a Jewish man would speak to her, both because of her ethnicity and her gender. A lengthy discussion ensued about living water, eternal life, and God’s identity. When it was over, the woman brought several friends to meet Jesus, and later she evangelized her town (John 4:4-42)
In Mark 7, we find Jesus traveling near the Mediterranean coast at Tyre where he encountered a Syrian Greek woman whose young daughter was possessed by an evil spirit. When she begged Jesus to heal her daughter, he quizzed her about his identity and mission, and her answer expressed such understanding and faith that Jesus immediately healed the girl. On another trip along the Galilee-Samaria border, Jesus encountered ten “untouchable” lepers who stood at a distance and called out to Jesus by name to help them. He instructed them to do what the Jewish law required – to go allow a priest to inspect their skin. They believed Jesus had the power to heal them, so they obeyed his instruction and discovered they had been healed. One cleansed man of the ten – a Samaritan — returned to thank Jesus, and Jesus lauded his faith which was far greater than that of the nine Jews who were healed and failed to give God praise (Luke 17:11-19). In his Great Commission to his disciples before he ascended into heaven, Jesus told them to “go into all the world and make disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28:19). The Greek word for “nations” used in that instruction is the same word as “Gentiles.” He literally preached what he practiced.
The Gospels include other such accounts of Jesus’ acceptance and outreach to Gentiles, but despite all that, it took his disciples years to change their thinking and look beyond Israel in their efforts to share the Gospel with all people. Even in our time, openness to new leading from the Lord for building his kingdom still seems to be awfully difficult for most Christians. The Epiphany and Jesus’ lived example should teach us that seeking God’s kingdom is worth investing our whole selves, that resisting Christ’s lordship is the way of spiritual death, and that we must be always attentive and open, especially in this era of polarization, to all who would like to join us in the journey to eternal life.
–Ron Ferguson, 9 January 2022
Queries for Worship-Sharing and Reflection
1) Matthew’s readers needed to hear the Epiphany story. What stories of Jesus’ life do people in our time need most?
2) In your imagination, what impact do you think the Epiphany experience had on the Magi as they returned home?
3) What makes it so difficult to share our lives and spiritual experiences with people who are different from us?
4) After all they witnessed, why do you think it took Jesus’ closest disciples so long to understand his Great Commission?
5) What for you is the most challenging, instructive, or meaningful part of the Epiphany story?