Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12.
Epiphany is light to the nations, whose sages come to find a king, and who hear of their inclusion in the good news.
If Christmas celebrated the share of the humble and poor in God’s salvation for Israel, Epiphany glorifies the royalty of God’s servant, whose righteousness and power shine like a beacon light for all the nations.
Epiphany is about light shining.
This great Prophetic passage of Epiphany summons Zion to shine with the reflected light from God’s “dawning” upon her. (The verb and noun “dawn” appear three times in 60:1-3, translated in NRSV as “risen” and “will arise” as well as “dawn.”) This light is to shine in a darkness, deep darkness that enshrouds the peoples of the world, the nations (“gentiles”).
This is a breathtaking view, worthy of a Hollywood extravaganza or a Disney laser-light spectacular.
The script of verses 1-3 would read: All the world is a vast black space when a piercing light cuts through from the east and illumines a glorious city on an elevated summit (see Isaiah 2:2). The city on the hill shines for all the distant lands that have only that brilliant glow to guide them as they move to redistribute the wealth of all the world according to new priorities, now manifest as the righteousness and peace of the Lord of all creation.
The great light that shines on Zion attracts the wealth of nations. And as the nations bring their wealth toward the center, they also bring the dispersed sons and daughters of the mother city now restored to her glory (verses 4-5). Included in the tribute flowing to Zion from Midian, Sheba, Kedar, and the like, are gold and frankincense. Such gifts constitute “the praise of the Lord” (verse 6), and are the kind of gifts discerning sages will bring to a king as offerings from the nations.
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14.
The Psalm selection also focuses on the tribute and enrichment from the nations, but now the emphasis is on God’s rule through a chosen king instead of on the glory of the city.
The psalm is a prayer uttered on behalf of God’s king by the king’s people. The superscription says the psalm is “For Solomon,” i.e., for “the Son of David.” In the prayer the king is seen as the source of blessing for the whole natural realm, producing “prosperity” (shalom) for the people and rain and showers for the earth.
More especially is the king the source of justice and righteousness for the poor and oppressed of God’s people. The tribute prayed for from the kings of Tarshish and Sheba is deserved because “he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper” (verse 12, NRSV). He redeems the poor from oppression and violence, “and precious is their blood in his sight.”
This is the kind of rule by the Son of David that will lure the devotion of the nations and cause them to stream to God’s city with gifts and new orientations of their power and wealth!
The Epistle selection for Epiphany is an instance of a passage too rich to be exhausted in a lectionary reading.
The relevant thread, however, is “the mystery of Christ” (NRSV; “secret plan” or “hidden plan” in CEB). This mystery concerns the nations. (The English versions use “Gentiles/gentiles” to translate the Greek ethne and the Hebrew goyyim. “Gentiles” is an archaic Latin word left over by lazy translators. Instead of “gentiles” read either “the nations” or “people of the nations.”) While much of this passage emphasizes Paul’s status as the Apostle to the Nations, the major point is the content of the “mystery.”
The mystery referred to is that the assembly of God’s people (the church) is not confined to the people of Israel, but is destined from of old to include the nations. It is the peoples of the nations who are here told about the mystery. They “have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus [with the people of Israel] through the gospel” (verse 6, NRSV). In the old days, this mystery was a secret, not revealed to former generations. Now, however, through apostles and prophets the Spirit has revealed this new inclusiveness of the gospel of Christ (verse 5).
The conclusion of this inspired line is that the heavenly powers themselves have received the revelation — the revelation that the nations are joined with Israel in the church of Jesus Christ. Why? “So that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (verse 10).
The multi-ethnic and multi-cultural church of Jesus Christ is a revelation to the heavenly beings themselves!
The exalted language and imagery of the message about the nations used in the Prophetic reading and in the Epistle are left behind by the Gospel reading. Here a series of simple circumstances are related very concisely. We do not even hear of these magoi while they are still in the east, but they simply appear in Jerusalem and say, Where is the king? We learn only later that they had previously seen a star leading them from the east (verse 9).
Here there is no fanfare or spectacular laser light show; only some ambassador types trying to get local directions in order to make an appearance in a very modest court. Where the prophets and the psalmists exulted in pyrotechnic language to refer to worldly realities that were more modest, here the divine aura behind the simple events is significantly understated.
Some of the mystery behind these events is revealed unintentionally by the current king, Herod the Great. Learning of the foreign ambassadors’ goal, Herod has the local scholars consult the scriptures. The small town of Bethlehem is relatively insignificant among famous Judean sites, but it was long ago identified by the prophet Micah as one from which a ruler would come for Israel (Micah 5:2 [Heb. 5:1], quoted in verse 6). Thus for both good and evil, Bethlehem becomes deeply involved in the light for the nations.
The narrative presents, without emphasizing, that these sages are lofty representatives of the nations of the world, seeking the secret king whose coming changes the whole world. Their star leads them to precisely the house they needed, and they bow in worship before presenting their gifts.
These are royal gifts, representing great treasures, but their glory is presented in a few simple narrative phrases. The modesty and the secrecy of the real identity and destined work of God’s saving King are preserved. Only those with special wisdom (knowing the “mystery”) are aware of the cosmic import of what has happened and know how to conduct themselves accordingly.
The welfare and the secret of these sages are preserved by God. Having been warned in a dream, as is usual in Matthew, they “left for their own country by another road.”
The light which Epiphany is about had come into the world, and only a few knew it.