Epiphany Meditation 2017
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Epiphany provides an afterglow that prolongs the light and joy of our Christmas celebrations, before we settle back into the weeks that will lead us to Lent. We love the story of the three kings or wise men who travelled on camels, bringing precious gifts to the baby Jesus in the stable.
Actually, we don’t know that there were three of them, or that they were kings; there is no mention of camels in the gospel account (Matthew 2: 1-12) and Jesus appears not to have been a baby any longer by the time the visitors arrived. Nor was he in a stable, but a house. There is nothing, though, in Matthew’s nativity account that contradicts the story as it is told by Luke (2:1-20). Both stories, with their different viewpoints and timescales, can be fully reconciled. They are not fables.
The gift-bearing strangers – the magi – may have been kings; they were wealthy, as their offerings testify, and they were clearly learned. Isaiah and Psalm 72 hint at kings – and camels – bringing tribute, including gold and incense, to the Lord. However, our speculations regarding the magi are not important, because the real king in this story is Jesus himself.
The magi acknowledged this. They had not come in royal progress to display their own power and majesty. They came seeking a king, and they came not just to honour, but to worship. We can only imagine what they saw in the face of the child Jesus, but we know that they fell at his feet in adoration and offered gifts that signified his kingship, his godhead and his future sacrifice.
There is a most extraordinary aspect to this story. When the travellers had inquired of Herod, regarding the whereabouts of ‘the one born king of the Jews’, and he called in the chief priests and teachers of the law, who consulted the book of Micah to reveal that ‘the ruler who would shepherd Israel’ would be born in Bethlehem, none of these same religious leaders and experts in the law showed any interest in finding this king for themselves. Yet his birth marked the beginning of the fulfilment of all the promises of the Old Testament. It was for this very purpose that people had read and studied the scriptures. It was what the people had been longing for – a king who, like a greater Solomon, would ‘defend the afflicted, save the children of the needy and crush the oppressor.’ (Psalm 72:4).
Of course, a king like that threatened Jewish traditions; radical things would happen and nothing would be the same again. It seems the religious leaders preferred to maintain the status quo and keep Herod as their titular head of state. Perhaps they hoped that if they kept their heads down, the new king would just go away. They may even have realised that Herod would attempt to remove him. In our joyful celebration of Christmas and Epiphany we sometimes forget the aftermath - Herod’s scheme to destroy the child, the warning dream, the hurried flight into Egypt and the terrible massacre of innocentbabies (see Matthew 2:13-16). The designs of evil men could not stand in the way of God’s purpose, or of the king whom he had chosen, but it is worth asking ourselves if we also would be cautious about welcoming one who would radically overturn our way of life.
It has been God’s will to reveal himself and his purposes to humans. Long before the coming of the Messiah, the prophets were given insight into God’s activity. Isaiah wrote of a light – “the glory of the Lord” – like the rising sun shining upon those dwelling beneath “thick darkness” (60:1-2). The psalmist wrote similarly of the royal splendour of a king; no earthly monarch, however, no mere man, for to this king “all kings will bow down and all nations will serve him” (72:11), and his kingdom will be “from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (72:8).
It is all couched in language that is shrouded in mystery – no dates and times or precise details – but it was enough to sustain people’s expectations until the Messiah was revealed. Part of the revealed mystery was that the Messiah was not just for God’s chosen people, the Jews, but for all races. This was an unprecedented move – to make Gentiles ‘co-heirs’ with the Jews, ‘sharers in the promise’ (Ephesians 3:6). And the promise is this; that all – Jew and Gentile – may approach God ‘with freedom and confidence’ (3:12). For this reason, both Isaiah and the Psalmist speak of people of the ‘nations’ coming to his light (Isaiah 60:3) and ‘kings of distant shores bring[ing] tribute to him and present[ing] him with gifts’ (Psalm 72:10).
It was no accident, then, that Gentile magi visited the infant Jesus, seeking him as king when Herod sought only to destroy him (Matthew 2:13).