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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Epiphany of Our Lord - 1/6

          Last week you got the end of this story, today you get the beginning as the lectionary doesn’t always do things in chronological sequence.  What that means though is that if you were here last week you know that following the visit of the Wise Men, things don’t go well.  In fear Herod had all the children in and around Bethlehem, two years old and younger, killed.  The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph escaped the slaughter having been warned in a dream to go to Egypt but still, it’s not a happy story.  But, as Luke said in his sermon last week, this is the world that Jesus came to, a broken world, subject to evil and injustice, but Jesus is present in the brokenness, whatever form it takes.  For the gospel writer Matthew, this is his way of saying that all this isn’t just a feel good fairy tale, but that God has come to this world, the real world, our world, not some make believe one.  He meets us in the brokenness and messiness of life.

          Anyway, last week may have felt like a splash of cold water on the joy of Christmas while this week we return to that sense of joy with the familiar story of the Wise Men except maybe by now you feel like we ought to be done with the joy of Christmas, the twelve days are over, most of the decorations are gone and even for we Epiphany diehards who still have our decorations up it may be less about Christmas joy and more about the fact that that we just can’t work up the energy to take them down.

          Even in church where we do try to observe the full twelve days and treat Epiphany separately, it still tends to get lost in Christmas.  The Wise Men get lumped in with the shepherds and we sentimentally picture them all there together at the manger.  If that’s where it ends for us though, we miss a lot, because as we found out last week in the story of the slaughter of the innocents, it’s quite clear that Matthew isn’t into sentimentality as he writes this account.

          There’s more going on here, but first of all, who were these Wise Men?  They weren’t kings; that idea mostly comes from legend or from the song “We Three Kings” or from Sunday School Christmas pageants; I know we’ve got three king’s costumes in the closet in one of the classrooms here.  Their identification as kings is not biblical though.  They weren’t kings and one could even question how wise these men were.  The term translated as Wise Men is more accurately translated as astrologer or magician and those are not necessarily people we would think of as being particularly wise.  In fact the only other place that this term magoi shows up in the New Testament is in reference to Elymas the magician in the book of Acts and Paul says to him, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?”  Paul certainly didn’t welcome Elymas as a wise man.

          However, while they could be seen as representatives of Gentile idolatry, practitioners of religious hocus pocus as opposed to having knowledge of the faith and tradition of Israel, it does seem that Matthew views them as wise, although to be sure it is a different kind of wisdom that they possess.  Maybe most significantly, wise or not, they were outsiders.  They don’t belong in this story at this point. 

You may know that Matthew’s is the gospel with the long genealogy in chapter one; Abraham was the father of Isaac and Isaac the father of Jacob and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and so forth.   Well, Matthew is careful though, to place Jesus in this genealogy as part of the line of David as fulfillment of Messianic prophecy.  He is careful to place Jesus in this Jewish context but he is also careful to make these outsiders, the Magi, the first ones to come and pay their respects even though the Magi shouldn’t be there.  They are the wrong race, the wrong denomination, the wrong religion, the wrong God.  They don’t know about the prophetic writings, they don’t know the appropriate rites and rituals, yet there they are and you can be sure that it is intentional on Matthew’s part.

The traditional interpretation of this has been to see it as a story of Jesus’ acceptance by seeking Gentiles as opposed to his rejection by the Jewish leadership represented by King Herod and the rest of the Jerusalem religious power structure, the ones who did know the prophetic writings and the appropriate rites and rituals.   One can’t disregard this interpretation because it does reflect what Matthew knew to be true.  Jesus was later rejected by the Jewish leadership and by the time Matthew wrote his gospel, Gentiles were becoming an important part of the early Christian church.  So Matthew may well have written this story intending it to prefigure what would happen later. 

But while there is an insider/outsider component to this story with the Gentile outsiders portrayed more favorably than the Jewish insiders, we have to be careful of an anti-Jewish interpretation of this text.  From the writings of the New Testament we know that one of the prevailing questions in the early Christian community was about who the story of Jesus was for.  Was the Messiah only for the Jews or had God rejected the Jews because they didn’t all see Jesus as the Messiah so that now it’s just a story for Gentiles?   Matthew was wrestling with that question but rather than excluding anyone from the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, Matthew was announcing the Magi as the first fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that, “Nations shall come to your light, Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they all come to you.”

The story of the Wise Men represents the first of the Gentile nations coming to the light of Christ but Matthew doesn’t tell the story to put down the Jews and exclude them but instead to use their scripture, the Old Testament to help those who read or heard his gospel to understand the identity of Jesus as the savior of everyone.   In looking at this story we do better to worry less about ethnic and religious identity that might exclude one group or another and instead to consider the openness of the Magi to receive this good news as opposed to Herod and his people who weren’t open to much

Matthew is definitely creating a contrast here and he does portray Herod negatively but it’s because Herod was set on preserving things as they were.  He took action, aggressively, decisively, deceitfully and violently in an effort to maintain control.  He was afraid, unwilling to consider the possibility that what the Wise Men reported to him might be good news.  All he could picture was a threat to the settled arrangements of his world so he took action and before you jump to condemn him, keep in mind that we often admire such people of decisive action, even if it does involve a little collateral damage.

The Wise Men on the other hand demonstrated their real wisdom in being open to a different realm of wisdom. They knew a lot about some things, like how to interpret the stars, but they were open to the fact that maybe they didn’t know everything, that there could be another dimension to life and wisdom, that new lessons might be learned in strange ways and in strange places.  They followed the star and encountered Jesus, they responded with joy and they gave gifts, even though they couldn’t possibly understand it all.  And then… they went home another way. 

In part it was to avoid another meeting with Herod, but symbolically it shows that things were not the same for them.  They were changed, life was changed by their encounter with the infant Jesus.  Herod or no Herod, they couldn’t go home the same way.  Life would be different, in their wisdom, they knew that, but unlike Herod, they were OK with the mystery of what wasn’t yet known to them. 

Herod wanted the certainty of what he could manage and control.  The Wise Men were open to ambiguity and mystery and new possibilities, that was their real wisdom.  Matthew clearly leans toward the Wise Men in this account wanting to move us, his readers toward the same kind of openness, but there’s probably some Herod in all of us.  We too like what we can manage and control and predict.  We like certainty and are uncomfortable with ambiguity.  We come to church and encounter Christ in Word and Sacrament, but do we go home by another road, changed by the God who has come into our world?         


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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