Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany 1/6

          Tonight’s gospel, the story of the Wise Men is one of the literary masterpieces of the Bible.  It’s a wonderful little story, a piece of the overall Christmas story that contributes to our sense of wonder this season even if we tend to blend the wise men and the star in with the shepherds and angels of Christmas Eve.  Whether considered separately, or woven into the rest of the Christmas narrative it is a great story, but in the biblical account, details are sketchy, especially regarding who the wise men were.  Because of that numerous legends have developed around this story in an effort to fill in missing details and some of the legendary stuff is so familiar that you might be surprised to know that it’s not in the Bible. 

As Bible focused Lutherans, we can have a tendency to look askance at some of the legendary material that develops around certain Bible stories.  Regarding the wise men though, I think these legends are useful, because I think what they do is to add layers of interpretation to the story.  They act kind of like sermons actually, as those who developed the legends read between the lines to try and get at the meaning of the story.

          It’s quite clear to me that part of what Matthew was doing in his telling of the story of the Wise Men was to show parallels between the story of Jesus and the story of people of Israel.  For example, King Herod becomes the new Pharaoh; just has Moses escaped Pharaoh’s attempt to kill the male children of Israel, Jesus escapes to avoid Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.  The people of Israel migrated to Egypt to avoid famine; Jesus and his family flee to Egypt to escape Herod and as Israel and Moses are called out of Egypt for the redemption to be found in the Promised Land, Jesus is called out of Egypt as part of a new plan of redemption.

          That’s the overarching story, and writing for a largely Jewish audience, Matthew was being careful to connect Jesus to the tradition that they knew.  But the legendary material adds additional layers.  As I said, the biblical account doesn’t really tell us who the visitors central to the story were.  Wise men from the East is all the text says but the word is magoi,   magi which actually means something closer to magicians or astrologers, not who we would necessarily think of as wise men.  According to the Bible they are not kings, but may have become identified as such to make a connection to the Isaiah text, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”  Perhaps it was also to highlight the fact that these kings offered gifts and paid homage to Jesus.  This child, the Messiah was greater than any earthly king.

          The text also doesn’t actually say that there were three kings or wise men.  That too is part of the legend seemingly based on the fact that there were three gifts.  However, the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox church has suggested twelve wise men.  We’ll settle on three though, lest things get too confusing.

          The character of the three kings was rounded out in response to seeing this story celebrating the sharing of the gospel with the Gentiles, the wider world, which was also probably part of Matthew’s original intent.  So we have Melchior portrayed as an old man with white hair and a long beard said to represent Asia.  Caspar or Gaspar is young and beardless, having a ruddy complexion representing Europe.  Balthasar is black skinned and heavily bearded, said to represent Africa.  If you were to look at paintings portraying the kings you would see that this rendition of them is not universal but it’s pretty common. 

          Now all this detail about the wise men is outside the biblical text but nonetheless it is quite effective.  The major foreign regions of the world as it was known at that time are represented in these characterizations of the wise men emphasizing the fact that Jesus isn’t just for the people of Israel but for the nations, the whole world.  In addition you have different ages and generations represented again in an effort to show that this new born king is for all people.  There are no women which puts a dent in the inclusivity of the message, but you could argue that the gospels make up for that, at least in part, with the prominent place women have in the resurrection stories. 

          The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are named in the Bible story but their significance again is mostly interpretation or part of the legend.  Most often the gold is seen as a gift appropriate for a king and frankincense would have been used by a priest with priest and king being two of the roles we understand Jesus to play. Myrrh was one of the spices used to anoint a dead body so it is seen as foreshadowing Jesus’ death.

          Even the star central to the story is enhanced by legend.  In stories and pictures and paintings and in our imagination, it is large and brighter than all the other stars.  In the 400’s Leo the Great wrote “A star with new brilliance appeared to three wise men in the East that was brighter and more beautiful than the others attracting the eyes and hearts of those looking on.” 

The text itself just mentions a star but the enhancement of people like Leo the Great who make the star bigger and brighter also adds to the interpretation as the other legendary details do.  Jesus as the light of the world, the light shining in the darkness is one of the significant images of Christmas as well as Advent and Epiphany, the seasons that surround Christmas and the bright, shining star helps to emphasize that.

The central texts of this season are Luke’s Christmas Eve story of Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels and the baby Jesus, Matthew’s story of the star and the wise men and the opening verses of John’s gospel which celebrate the wonder and mystery of the Word made flesh.  These are literary and poetic masterpieces that we never tire of hearing and light shining in the darkness, in different ways, figures prominently in all of them. 

Now as the liturgical season changes we move on to other stories; but  as the lights that brighten this season are turned off and come down we are reminded that we become carriers of the light.  As Matthew will report Jesus saying in the Sermon on the Mount, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”  With those early witnesses, shepherds and wise men who carried the light, we follow and our light reflects the light of the star, the light of Christ.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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