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Epiphany of Our Lord (A, B, C)

by Norman Beck

We have a responsibility in our ministry to observe and to preserve the festival of the Epiphany in some way each year, not only on the years in which January 6 happens to be a Sunday. The Sundays after the Epiphany will not have much special meaning unless we observe Epiphany itself in some way that will bring it to the attention of the members of the congregation. If we do not have a worship service within our usual setting, perhaps we could gather a group of young people — or people of all ages — and go Epiphany caroling to members of the congregation and community who are older, are shut-in, or otherwise are special in some way. This activity would also be a reminder to us that a substantial portion of the Church, i.e., the Eastern Orthodox tradition, observes January 6 as the Festival of the birth of the Christ. A carol singing would also highlight the beautiful Epiphany hymns on the Day of Epiphany.

If an Epiphany carol singing event is not chosen, some other unusual worship setting produced by the Worship Committee of the congregation could be most meaningful for those who plan it and participate in it. For example, worship could be in a public place to illustrate that this is the festival of revealing Christ to the “nations.” It could be held in a circle on the floor or within a circle of chairs. The setting should be appropriate for a relatively small number of participants, and the setting as well as the message should be memorable. With a little imagination and some preparation, a group of youth or adults could act out each of the four texts in simple drama form, not necessarily with a narrator and following the dialogue verbatim, but with a measure of creative inspired imagination not unlike that displayed by the writer of the Matthean tradition that became Matthew 2:1-12. The accounts could also be memorized by four different persons and presented in the form of biblical storytelling.

Isaiah 60:1-6

This is a truly beautiful text, especially when we consider its original “life situation.” Certainly the people who first shared this message had vivid memories of the darkness that they and their parents and grandparents had experienced through defeat, the destruction of Jerusalem, and decades of exile in Babylon. Now they dared to hope and to dream of a glorious future when the glory of the Lord God would shine again on them and when people from all nations would come to that light. In their minds they pictured the return of parents with young children coming to Jerusalem from every direction. They visualized also pilgrims and foreigners bearing gifts that — in contrast with the total losses suffered during deportation and the flight of refugees — would restore the economy of their city. They expressed this in terms of camels laden with precious metals and perfumes, a picture of the greatest imaginable value brought on the largest “trucks, trains, cargo planes, and ships” known to them at that time. We can be joyful with them within our imaginations without at this point trying to make any Newer Testament application of this text. The Newer Testament application can come in our use of the Matthew 2:1-12 account.

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

This is obviously a Royal Psalm intended for use at the coronation of a new king or at some commemoration in honor of a king. We notice the high expectations of the song writer and of the people with respect to their king. They were especially concerned about justice for all and about righteousness in all relationships within the realm. Most of all, they were concerned about justice for the poor.

Within our own experience the theme of justice for the poor becomes extremely significant when national, state, and local governments directly or indirectly withdraw sustenance from those who have the greatest need among us. As members of communities of faith, we have the responsibility to hold our government units accountable through our direct actions and participation in government, advocacy, voting, and so on. In addition, we can and should do everything that we can to employ those who are poor, provide skills training opportunities, and to provide immediate assistance in terms of food, medical care, rent, mortgage payments, and utility payments. The Day of Epiphany can become a time when we recover some of this kind of service, a service that the Judaisms of the time of Jesus’ public ministry, the early Church, and traditionally people within the Islamic tradition have provided. Our efforts locally and through regional and national church bodies have sometimes been very significant. Certainly much more can and should be done.

The mention in Psalm 72:10 of kings from Sheba and Seba in Arabia bearing gifts of great value and falling down in front of the Israelite king — something that was very rare within Israel’s history — is apparently the reason for the selection of this psalm in connection with Matthew 2:1-12 on this occasion within our lectionary. The writers of the Matthean tradition probably used both Isaiah 60:1-6 and Psalm 72 when, inspired by the Spirit of God, they prepared the Matthew 2:1-12 account.

Ephesians 3:1-12

This text was most likely chosen for use on the Day of Epiphany because of the mention in Ephesians 3:6 and 8 of participation by Gentiles, along with those who were of Jewish background, in the one Church with its one faith and one Lord. These are very important Epiphany themes.

Matthew 2:1-12

This story is so well known that we may hardly notice how it was constructed. The inspired writers made good use of their Older Testament resources and in the process produced some quite remarkable subtle polemic against the Persian Zoroastrian magi religion that was still a significant factor in the East at the time of the development of this text. According to the subtle polemic in this text, Zoroastrians who are truly wise will bring their most precious gifts and fall down to worship the baby Jesus. The story is told so simply and beautifully that, accustomed to it as we have been from our childhood, we hardly stop to think about it. With some mature reflection we might ask whether the Herod of history would be so careless that he would not send spies to follow the magi to the home of any newly born “king of the Jews” who would be a threat to his own plans to be followed in power by one or more of his favorite sons. Also, with mature reflection we might be interested in how differently the Matthean and Lukan redactors developed their infancy narratives. The Matthean writers moved the action from Bethlehem to Egypt, back to Bethlehem, and then north to Nazareth. Luke started in Nazareth, moved the action to Bethlehem, and then returned to Nazareth. If we try to understand the story genre used in both of these infancy accounts, we shall not be unduly troubled by these very different geographical scenarios. Each writer used research, inspiration, and creativity. The purpose of each writer was primarily theological and only secondarily historical. Should our purpose not be the same today, since we believe that we are inspired and led by the same God who inspired and led them?

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen