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Epiphany of Our Lord, Cycle B (2015)

The light of grace shows the way. In these texts, in accord with the major theme of the festival, testimony is given to God’s overcoming the darkness of chaos or evil, especially raising up the lowly. The Classic View of the Atonement (Christ overcoming evil), its newness (Eschatology), and Social Ethics should receive special attention.

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Culminating Book II of Psalms, this is an Elohistic Psalm of David (Psalms traditionally attributed to King David, probably because the conclusion [v. 20] and preceding Psalms claim to be his work, and employing Elohim as God’s name). Yet it is attributed to Solomon. Probably occasioned by the coronation of a king vv. 17-18), the Psalm is a prayer for God’s blessing of the king. It is prayed that the king be given judgment [mishpat] and his son righteousness or justice [tsedaqah] (v. 1). These terms do not just connote legal, judgmental actions, but when applied to God they concern loyalty in one’s relationships (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 373, 376ff). Such loyalty to relationships is evident in the prayer that the new king judge the poor with justice, defending their cause and crushing oppressors (vv. 2, 4, 12-14). Typical of the aura of surrounding Ancient Near Eastern royalty a supernatural character to the king is noted (vv. 5-6). Not just righteousness but peace [shalom] is to accompany the reign of this king (v. 7). And as we have noted previously, “peace” in Hebraic thinking is not just a state of non-violence, but a state of well-being and thriving. The suggestion of a supernatural aura to the king (and so the legitimacy of a messianic reading of the text) is further legitimated by the Psalm’s prayer that the king’s empire might be universal (vv. 8-11). (Tarshish mentioned in v. 10 may refer to Spain or Carthage in North Africa, while Sheba and Seba noted in that verse are regions in Ethiopia or South Arabia. These kings from three regions rendering the supernatural-like king may be construed as foreshadowing the three wise men who came to the Christ Child.) It is his concern for the poor which seems to account for his universal rule. And so we might conclude that the Messiah’s universal rule is related to his concern for and ministry to the poor.

Application: The text could be proclaimed as a celebration of the coronation or crowning of Christ as king of all. This might also be related to his care for the poor (Social Ethics). Related to this is the affirmation of the Classic View of the Atonement (Christ conquering evil). That all earthly kings bow before Christ is another testimony to the power of God and the subordination of political power to God.

Isaiah 60:1-6
This text is part of a prophetic book which is an editorial compilation of two or three distinct literary strands. Our lesson is probably part of the book’s final and newest section, not written by the historical prophet Isaiah of the eighth century BC, but after the Babylonian exiles had returned to Judah in 539 BC, quite disappointed with how the return home was going. Reference made to the darkness [choshek] among the people (v. 2) seems to portray the disappointment of those who had returned home in this period. It is a term in ancient Hebrew connoting distress, oppression, or chaos. Reference is made to light [or] that is come (v.1). Light in biblical Hebrew refers to that which overcomes darkness (distress and chaos). This chapter also associates light with Yahweh (v. 2). It is promised that the Lord is coming to Jerusalem (v. 2). This comment along with the reference to the light is most suggestive of the Epiphany star leading to or accompanying the coming of Jesus to earth in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:2, 9-10).

It is promised to the downtrodden people that nations will see Jerusalem’s revival, its light (v. 3). Exiles are said to return or be returning (v. 4). Rejoicing will follow (v. 5a). These comments could again be interpreted messianically, in terms of the impact Christ’s coming might have on the world. The prophetic character of the text is even pointed out more clearly in verses 5b-6 with reference to the wealth of nations that would be brought to the light and how riches of Arabia (Midian, Ephah, and Sheba) would arrive by camel caravan, bringing gold and frankincense. This is most suggestive of the wise men and their journey to Jerusalem (Matthew 2:1-2).

Application: The text can be read messianically to open the way for preachers to proclaim that new reality Christ ushers in, the overcoming of all distress and chaos. A Classic View of the Atonement should be particularly emphasized in such preaching. Connections made in the text to the story of the wise men (the gifts they bring) and to the presence of the light (Christ) among us leads to rejoicing (Sanctification).

Ephesians 3:1-12
This chapter is part of a prayer for wisdom in this circular letter written by Paul from prison late in his career or by one of his followers who had a hand in assembling a collection of his epistles. The latter prospect is made likely by the fact that the letter includes vocabulary and stylistic characteristics different from the indisputably Pauline writings. It may have been written to and for a later generation of Christians, as the writer claims to have heard of the recipients’ faith and love toward all faithful (1:15).

Portraying himself as Paul and in prison (though on which occasion [2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:23; Philippians 1:13-14; Colossians 4:3, 18] is uncertain), the author first offers some comments on his ministry to the Gentiles. He speaks of a mystery made known to Paul by revelation (see 2 Corinthians 12:1, 7), which was not previously known (vv. 2, 4). (The theme of “mystery” [musterion] is very typical of Ephesians, and it may be deployed here to explain why no one previous to Paul recognized the validity of a ministry to the Gentiles.) The revealed mystery is that Gentiles are fellow members with Jesus of the same body and sharers in the promise of Christ (vv. 5-6). Paul proceeds to note that God’s grace has been given to the Gentiles, for he is the least of the saints [hagion, meaning "those set apart"] (v. 8). He speaks of an eternal purpose of God carried out in Christ that through the church God’s wisdom might be displayed to rulers and authorities in heavenly places (i.e., angels (vv. 10-11). In confidence and boldness we have access to God through faith (v. 12).

Application: This text opens the way to sermons proclaiming the new circumstances (the new inclusivism of God to all people), that has transpired through Christ. This is the full realization of the Christmas Dream (Justification by Grace and Realized Eschatology). Christ’s reign over the political and heavenly realms can also be affirmed and so we can be bold in faith (Sanctification).

Matthew 2:1-12
This text returns us to a gospel which was likely written to Jewish Christians no longer in full communion with Judaism (see 24:20). It is the most Jewish of all the gospels, evidenced like in this lesson with the concern to find links in the stories told to the Hebrew Scriptures. We read in this text the story, unique to this gospel, of the wise men (Magi, also translated “astrologers,” seem to have belonged to a learned class in Persia). Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is recorded as transpiring during Herod’s reign as a Roman puppet king which ended in 4 BC (v. 1). (Our dating of Jesus’ birth at the beginning of the Christian era is obviously incorrect by four or more years.) If the wise men came from the east, that does not rule out an Arabian or an Ethiopian African home for them, if we read Isaiah 60:6 prophetically. (And if Ethiopia, but even if from Persia, it is likely that the wise men came from a region with Semitic ethnics who might have at least known something of the Hebrew faith.)

The wise men come to Jerusalem seeking the child who would be born king of the Jews, whose coming had been revealed, they claimed, by a rising star (v. 2). The Messiah is associated with stars by Numbers 24:17. And a later, well-known Messianic pretender, a revolutionary named Jesus Bar Kochba (132-135 AD), has a name (Bar Kochba) which means “Son of the Star.” Herod is reported as frightened by the news, finally learning from chief priest and scribes (scholars of Hebrew Scripture) that based on Micah 5:2 the baby king is likely to come from Bethlehem (vv. 3-6). Herod then sends the wise men to Bethlehem wanting to learn the child’s location (vv. 7-8). The star leads the wise men to the Babe where they bring their gifts and worship, but do not inform Herod, as per instructions they receive in a dream (vv. 9-12). The idea that the king wants a savior killed in infancy is reminiscent of Pharaoh’s efforts to kill Moses, and so other Hebrew children in infancy (Exodus 1:15-16). Matthew may be trying to draw parallels between Moses and Jesus at this point.

Application: This lesson affords opportunities for sermons on God’s providence, how he guides us like in this story and in the man Jesus to overcome the darkness of chaos through lowly, ordinary things (like starlight and ordinary human beings). This takes us away from undue pride in ourselves and our accomplishments and also proclaims forgiveness (Justification by Grace and Social Ethics [a prioritizing of the poor and ordinary]).

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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