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Matthew 2:1-12  (January 1, 2023)

(I am grateful to my friend and former colleague at San Francisco Theological Seminary, Robert Coote, whose essay, “The Magi For All Seasons,” (Fall, 1981, issue of Pacific Theological Review), provided the substance to this sermon on Epiphany.)


In the church calendar, the season immediately following Christmas is called Epiphany.  It is a season that centers around the biblical story of the Three Wisemen.  Traditionally, the theme and meaning of the season of Epiphany is how the Christ-child is worshiped by all the nations of the world, as symbolized by the three wisemen who are foreigners.  The three wisemen—guided by a star and stopping along the way to ask for directions—find the Christ-child, worship the infant Jesus and lavish him with gifts.  Now what about the word Epiphany?  The word epiphany is the transliteration of a Greek verb meaning “to be manifest, to appear openly.”  A pre-Christian Syrian ruler named Antiochus was so impressed with his own power that he took the name Antiochus Epiphanes to declare that he was the appearance of god on earth.  In this season, the church proclaims Christ Epiphanes.  So the Season of Epiphany is the time when the church proclaims the appearance or manifestation of Christ to Israel and to the nations.  And the gospel reading from Matthew is the principle reading for the Season of Epiphany.

Just as Matthew 2 is the principle reading for Epiphany, the hymn “We Three Kings of Orient Are” is the most familiar and popular hymn sung at Epiphany.  Well according to Matthew’s recounting of this event, the travelers from the orient were NOT kings.  They were astrologer-priests.  They had the gift and ability to read the stars and interpret dreams and forecast predictions.  As astrologer-priests, they were valuable servants in the courts of kings, especially when their ability to forecast and predict would be so helpful to kings to preserve and expand their power and influence.  So the more accurate and appropriate description of the travelers from the orient is wisemen, and not kings.  Furthermore, when you re-read the text, nowhere in the text are the travelers described as kings.  And yet, the main characters in the story are KINGS.  There are two kings in the story and the whole point of Matthew’s story of Epiphany is the battle between two kings, Herod and Jesus.  Herod and Jesus, that is the heart of the story.

And the amazing fact is that in our story we have three astrologer-priests, servants of a competing court (historically-speaking), coming to the court of the rival king, King Herod, to ask for directions to the court of yet another king, a rising threat.  No wonder Herod feels threatened to the point of commanding the killing of all the babies of the land, one of whom is predicted to be the future king.  The amazing fact in this familiar story is that we have three wisemen who slight Herod, putting their lives out on the limb, to find, donate their wealth to, and to serve Jesus!  That is the heart of the Epiphany story by Matthew.  So who are today’s wise who would dare to slight Herod in search of Jesus, who would dare to slight the powerful in search of the powerless, who would dare to slight the popular in search of the humble, who would dare to slight the rich in search of the poor?  That is the message and the challenge of Epiphany to us.  Given the choice, who is our king?

Epiphany arrives at the start of a new year.  The newspaper that arrives at our house this time of year includes sections that look back at the year that just ended and ahead to the year to come.   2022 included the war and devastation of human life in Ukraine, refugees and detention camps, the political divide in our country, fed by conspiracy theories, resulting in the threat to our democracy, gun violence, the coronavirus and all its new variants, climate change, the great resignation of pastors and the greater challenge of whether or not to stay Christian.  How do we respond to these concerns and challenges as we look forward to 2023?  Epiphany summons us to identify and choose the King/God who will inform and guide our response to the issues of our time.


So how will you respond?  How will you invest your time, resources, energy to the presenting issues of the day?  In the 60’s, Harvey Cox coined the phrase, “Not to Decide is to Decide.” The inescapable fact is that how we decide and what we do will be a manifestation of the King/God we choose to obey.

7 thoughts on “Epiphany”

  1. Amen.
    We cannot avoid “doing” so even if we do not “intentionally decide”, we will by our action have decided.
    Thank you for this deeper into the onion layers of discerning. Happy New Year.

  2. Gwen, I want you to know how very much I appreciate your faithfulness in reading my weekly posts. And on top of that to post a reply, sharing your thoughts. I will count on you to keep this up as I will remain steadfast in posting weekly in this New Year. May the New Year be hope-filled for you and your loved-ones.

  3. It will be more fun when other members of your family, friends, colleagues chime in as well. That’ll provide more dimensions for understanding and knowing how you became you and how they have been impacted by you.

  4. I’m thinking today about how Matthew’s text says the Wise Ones, after encountering Jesus, “went home by another way.” I’ve always loved that line, but it never made much sense to me. Is this just explainable because of Herod’s threats that they chose another way home? Or maybe, having met the true King, a new path was required? Maybe even “home” looked different to them after meeting Jesus.

    The other thing I’m wondering about is that now, for a lot of us, Epiphany Day, January 6, will be forever marked by the insurrection that took place two years ago, when a different “Herod”, also feeling threatened, tried to take his “kingdom” by force. What are we all doing with this? What is the invitation for us? This Epiphany story feels very current.

    Thanks, Cal.

    1. Good question. “Warned/summoned/enjoined in a dream (i.e., by an angel/messenger sent by God) not to return to Herod…”

  5. The verb chrematizein implies divine injunction. Cal can show you the dictionary entry. They’re just following divine orders (possibly of Israel’s god, starting with the star, though he is not mentioned anywhere in the episode, so maybe their own [Persian] god[s]).

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