The Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord, 6 January 2019

TheFeast of the Epiphany, Christmas Eve, 6 January 2019

Background: The Star


In the ancient near east, especially in Mesopotamia, the eight or six-pointed star was associated with the worship of Ishtar or Inanna. The goddess Ishtar was also associated with the planet Venus, as is Jesus – the Morning Star. The star is found on boundary stones, stele, and other sculptured monuments. It is often found with the crescent moon, the symbol of Sin, the moon god, and with a circular disk, symbol of Shamash, the god of the sun. In Egypt the star was associated with Nut, the goddess of the sky. She is usually depicted as being clothed in a star-covered robe. Hieroglyphs associated with her included stars, the sky and cows. In Canaan, the star was often associated with Astarte or Ashtarot, the goddess of fertility, sexuality, and war. Her star was often represented within a circle, and was associated with Venus. In Greek mythology, the planet Venus was known as phosphorus, or eosphoros, “light-bringer”, or “dawn-bringer”. In ancient Israel, the star, the hexagram appears largely as a decorative device.

First Reading: Isaiah 60:1-6


Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lordhas risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lordwill arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses' arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah; 
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.


Chapters 60-63 form a central focus for Third Isaiah. There are eight themes that play themselves out in these chapters, and many are related to our pericope for this morning. The themes are: 


1.    God will save God’s people

2.    God will give light to them

3.    God will share God’s glory with them

4.    Nations will be drawn to what they see

5.    Nations will restore the exiles to Zion

6.    Nations will bring wealth to God.


One commentator describes the image evident in 60:1 as that of a young woman standing on Mount Zion, illuminated by the rising sun. She then reflects in her own being the very light of God. Israel then becomes the embodiment of God’s glory – a vision that is seen and appreciated by the nations – a perfect Epiphany theme. The second verse takes us back to Egypt and the darkness that was a part of the plagues. The subsequent light that shines up Israel is the light of freedom and peace that God brings to God’s people. The hope in Isaiah is not the mere restoration of a people, but rather a people as a demonstration of God’s power, seen by all the nations. The scene is reminiscent of an Egyptian tribute ceremony.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. What do you hope with each dawning day?
  2. Where is God’s light in your life?
  3. What blessings does God bring to you?

Psalm 72:1-7,10-14 Deus, judicium


1      Give the King your justice, O God, *
and your righteousness to the King's Son;
     That he may rule your people righteously *
and the poor with justice;
     That the mountains may bring prosperity to the people, *
and the little hills bring righteousness.
     He shall defend the needy among the people; *
he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.
     He shall live as long as the sun and moon endure, *
from one generation to another.
     He shall come down like rain upon the mown field, *
like showers that water the earth.
     In his time shall the righteous flourish; *
there shall be abundance of peace till the moon shall be no more.
10    The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, *
and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts.
11    All kings shall bow down before him, *
and all the nations do him service.
12    For he shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress, *
and the oppressed who has no helper.
13    He shall have pity on the lowly and poor; *
he shall preserve the lives of the needy.
14    He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence, *
and dear shall their blood be in his sight.


The superscription of the psalm is “to Solomon”, which the text will bear out. A royal psalm, verse 20 leads us to believe that the psalm was written by David in honor of his son, Solomon. The elided verses of the psalm complete the vision of imperial majesty and suasion, Solomon as a king who rules over many lands and is the admiration of the peoples and kings of the earth. 


The editing of the psalm for liturgical purposes ties the psalm to the Epiphany feast, and the mention of “the kings of Arabia and Saba” connect with the visit of the wise ones from the East.  More important, however, are the gifts that kingship is to bring to the people: to the needy, the poor, and those who are oppressed. The themes of justice are used by both later prophets, and by Luke as they describe what Messianic kingship is called to be like.

Breaking open Psalm 72:
  1. Who was/is your favorite ruler?
  2. Why?
  3. Which of Solomon’s attributes apply to your favorite ruler?

Second Reading: Ephesians 3:1-12


This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles-- for surely you have already heard of the commission of God's grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God's grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 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. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.

One commentator, Margaret Y. MacDonald, titles this pericope as “Paul as Interpreter of the Divine Mystery”.[1]The pericope is not a diversion but rather a bridge between the initial doctrinal section, and the studies of the ethics of the Christian. Paul makes certain of his credentials to reveal the mystery, and to expound upon it. His initial depiction is that of one who suffers, “I am a prisoner for Christ Jesus,” and thus identifies with the Suffering One, Jesus. The revelation is that the mystery once hidden from the people of God, has now been revealed not only to them, but to the Gentiles as well. Paul calls them “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise.” 

What follows is that Paul is not only a prisoner, but a servant as well, “I am the very least of all the saints.” In humility he reveals the mystery of Jesus. There is a whole spectrum of humanity that is to see the revelation, from the lowliest to the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” All are to see the mystery once hidden, and now revealed.

Breaking open Ephesians:
  1. How is the Gospel a mystery?
  2. What don’t you understand about your faith?
  3. Who will reveal it to you?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 2:1-12


In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Matthew makes us aware of the divide that Jesus’ birth brings. The wisdom from out of the east on one hand, and the cruel egocentricity seen amongst Herod and his court. Taking themes and images out of the Joseph story, Matthew sees Jesus moving from quiet Bethlehem, to the place of exile – Egypt, but that is later. Right now, we are meant to wrestle with the mystery of Jesus worshipped by the gentiles who come from somewhere else, somewhere distant. And then there is the star, the sign of ancient divinity (see Background) that indicates here, in this lowly place is the king of promise. Here for all peoples, for more than Israel and Judah, for all the nations is “a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Indeed, a new Israel.

Breaking open the Gospel: 
  1. How were these women blessed?
  2. How are you blessed?
  3. How are you blessed in your children.

Principal Idea:            Glory revealed

First Image:                 The young woman, Israel, enlightened by the rising sun – the hopes of Third Isaiah (First Reading)

Second Image:            Righteous kingship, God seen in the justice and righteousness of kings and leaders (Psalm)

Third Image:               The glory of Jesus revealed as a hidden mystery. (Ephesians)

Fourth Image:             All the nations guided to see the glory (St. Matthew)

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday: 

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2019, Michael T. Hiller

[1]       Gaventa, B. ed.  (2010), The New Interpretor’s Bible, One-Volume Commentary, Abingdon Press, Nashville, Kindle Ediction, Kindle location 32178.


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