Lectionary Commentaries for January 6, 2018
Epiphany of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12

Jan Schnell Rippentrop

The structure of the Epiphany gospel, Matthew 2:1-12, is a chiasm:

A. Wise men came asking “Where?”

B. Herod heard, asks “Where?”

C. Chief priests and Scribes answer, quoting Micah 5:2 “In Bethlehem.”

B2. Herod sent for wise men, then, although he had no jurisdiction over them, sent them to Bethlehem.

A2. Wise men went to Bethlehem following star, honored Jesus, and returned by another road.

Literarily, a chiasm does up to three things:

1. Highlights the center of the chiasm,
2. Highlights the first and final position of the text, and/or
3. Highlights the mutual critical interpretation between the middle and the first/final position.

How is the season of Epiphany itself a liturgical chiasm? How does this text function as a chiasm?

First, Epiphany could function as a liturgical chiasm since it is a focused season that comes directly between the Christmas cycle (Advent, Christmas) and the Easter cycle (Lent, Easter). Epiphany could provide a lens of mutual interpretation when the preacher considers how the concept or experience of epiphany — or a manifestation of the divine — interprets Christmas and/or Easter. How do Christmas and/or Easter transform one’s interpretation of what epiphany means? While consideration of a chiasm in the liturgical year is theologically sound, there is also a limitation to this consideration: there is not historical evidence that the liturgical year was structured to include a chiasm.

Second, this pericope, like the Gospel of Matthew, intentionally uses chiasms. Scholars have suggested that the whole of Matthew may be structured around a chiasm. In Matthew 2:1-12, the center of the chiasm is verse 6, when the chief priest and scribes’ quote of Micah 5:2.

Micah 5:2

Matthew 2:6

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.

“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.”

Stunningly, this quoted passage does not only answer the question that the wise men and Herod voice out loud — that is the question of “Where?” this one will be born. While the quote does respond to the twice asked “where?” question, with the answer, “in Bethlehem,” it also answer Herod’s implicit question “Who?” These texts answer the “who?” question by saying that the one whom the wise men seek is “to rule in Israel.”

Taking a closer look at how this news may have sounded to Herod, we realize that Herod has been on a long career climb to get to the place he is now.

  • Herod was named governor of Galilee by Antipater II.
  • Antipater’s successor Mark Antony appointed Herod as the tetrarch of Judea.
  • During a Parthian siege, Herod was finally named the King of Judea.

This man, who had spent his whole life climbing to the political height he had achieved, is unlikely to favorably receive news that a baby is to be born with a right to Herod’s rule. Furthermore, Herod is used to getting rid of people who don’t serve his ambition. He:

  • had ten wives,
  • ordered multiple assassinations, including assassinations of some of his own sons, and,
  • changed succession plans multiple times as he decided who would take his throne when he died.

When Herod heard that a baby could get in the way of his plans, he defaulted to his regular pattern of figuring out how to execute the problem child. In verse 12, the wise men’s dream makes them leery to return to Herod with more information of Jesus’ location. Verse 16 confirms the wise men’s (and the readers’) suspicions when it says, “[Herod] sent and killed all the children.” Herod’s attempts to rid himself of competition for the rule of Judea.

Dreams, like the wise men’s dream in verse 12, serve an important function in the Matthean birth narrative. In ancient Near Eastern society, dreams were viewed as supernatural and as crucial methods of divine communication with humans. Joseph married Mary, left Bethlehem, and returned to Nazareth (instead of Bethlehem) all on account of listening to dreams. Similarly, the wise men averted disaster by listening to their dream and returning “by another road.”

What part do spiritual practices and dreams have in the way your community discerns the path ahead? There are plenty of roadblocks out there currently in any given congregation. How is it that you might communally discern if there is a new way forward by another road?

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 60:1-6

Samuel Giere

The contrast of light and darkness is ancient and universal spanning cultures and religions.

It’s primal. Fundamental. Foundational to human experience. Consider that the first creative movement in Jewish and Christian scripture is the creation of light, the second, the separation of light and darkness. So, the day was born and with it the basic movement of all life in the rhythm of light and darkness.

Textual horizon

The prophet’s language in this text is vivid.

Arise, shine; for you light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. (Isaiah 60:1 New Revised Standard Version)

In the exilic and post-exilic contexts the “glory of the Lord” was understood to be the presence of the Lord, which guided the children of Israel through the wilderness,1 was present in the tabernacle,2 and resided in the Holy of Holies.3 The prophet’s poetic parallel here equates the light which shines and the glory of the Lord. The light is the very presence of Lord.

The context wherein and whereupon this light shines is one of darkness. The image here is of a land covered with darkness and people wrapped in thick clouds.4 At the very least, the poetic structure here suggests that eyes are veiled from any clarity near or far. It is the darkness of a moonless night far from the ambient light of any city with clouds obscuring even the faint flickers of the stars. Such is the metaphor of darkness here.

Yet, even such pervasive darkness is not impervious to the light, the glory of the Lord.

Actually, it’s quite the opposite. This light vanquishes darkness that surrounds the returnees from Babylon. It escapes their horizon and impacts the nations and their rulers. The scattered are beckoned home. The heart swells at this gathering in. The text speaks even of riches — the abundance of the sea, caravans of camels, and then… gold and frankincense. It is the Feast of Epiphany.

We’ll come back to this, but before making this move to the afterlife of Isaiah 60 in the imagination of God’s people, it is important to think carefully about what the vision is here.

It is at the same time poetic and truthful. The meaning, then, dances back-and-forth across the line of the physical eyes and the eyes of the heart.

How do we think about this light? Blinding? Something like the revolving beacon at the small airport by my hometown? Perhaps like the bright beam of the Cape Hatteras Light towering over the Outer Banks? These riches from afar, are they rare tuna steaks from the northern Pacific? Camels… I haven’t a clue with what to compare the riches of camels… You get the idea. We are operating in the realm of the poet where the line between the eyes of the body and the eyes of the heart are blurred.

What is clear is that the promise is that the very presence of God that illuminates what is covered in thickest darkness.

Homiletic horizon

This text has been read and heard on the Feast of Epiphany for centuries. Epiphany being the Christocentric feast of the resonance of the light of Christ to the nations. The gospel story — Matthew 2 — recalls the visit of the Magi — wise folks from afar. They followed a light — an anomalous star. The light of which drew them to the incarnate Son for whom they brought gifts, the riches of their lands. Gold. Frankincense. Myrrh.

The Epiphany story of the magi with hints of the fantastic draws the magnificent, vivid vision of Isaiah 60 into the orbit of a small child, to the light, to the glory of the Lord as revealed in the weakness of a child. No pyrotechnics. Just a simple encounter of those from afar with the Light who drew them to himself.

By the most basic experience of darkness and light we are drawn to the very presence of God.

Welsh priest and poet, R.S. Thomas (1913-2000), penned a simple verse that draws me in as it creates an intersection with this vivid vision of Isaiah on this Feast of Epiphany. Perhaps it will draw you in as well.

in the small hours
of belief the one eloquence

to master is that
of the bowed head, the bent
knee, waiting, as at the end

of a hard winter
for one flower to open
on the mind’s tree of thorns.5

Without exhausting the poem by way of explanation, Thomas’ words here seem to come from the confluence of Isaiah’s vivid call, “…your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you,” and Matthew’s story of the revelation of the one in, by, and through whom the cosmos came to be drawing all people to the light that is himself.

The Feast of Epiphany draws us deeper into the mystery of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Light in the midst of darkness. A flower on the mind’s tree of thorns. A swelling heart at the good news of the Lord.6


1. See also Exodus 16:10

2. See also Leviticus 9:5f.

3. See also Ezekiel 1:28

4. The New Revised Standard Version translates “araphel” as “thick darkness,” but the image leans more toward the darkness of a heavy cloud.

5. R.S. Thomas, “Waiting,” in Collected Poems 1945-1990 (Phoenix Press, 2001) 376.

6. The Septuagint translates the Hebrew of Isaiah 60.6b as: “… and announce the good news of the salvation of the Lord.” (NETS) The interpretive move from the Hebrew, which is closer to “…and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord,” to being more specific about the content of the announcement and proclamation. This is the salvation of the Lord.


Commentary on Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

James Howell

In America, the relationship between political leadership and faith matters is tenuous, superficial, and rather manipulative.1

Candidates know that must declare their spiritual mettle in order to win elections, and once in a while a pastor like Billy Graham makes a cameo appearance in the White House.

For ancient Israel, God and the things of God were prior to and at the heart of things political. God’s prophets were even in position to bring down divine judgment on a reigning king. Psalm 72 is a remarkable hymn, a prayer we believe was used on the day of a new king’s coronation — and many believe the prayer would have been repeated annually at a festival of the king’s enthronement.

With some imagination, we can picture the raucous day. Still grieving the previous king’s death (or perhaps harboring a sense of relief that he was no more), caravans of citizens would gather around the hillsides of Jerusalem. Hearing the blowing of the shofar, they would gather for worship, for the anointing of the one they fantasized might just be a king like David, the kind of king they had prayed for so long.

A magnificent, noisy, joyful procession would make its way from down in the valleys of Kidron and Hinnom up the spur of the hill, winding past the royal palace (which archaeologists now believe they have uncovered!) toward the temple. Horns blaring, dancers somersaulting, crowds shouting, then a hushed silence as the sacred oil was poured by the high priest over the young king’s head, soaking into his hair and garments, soiling his feet and the ground. See the moment — and read Psalm 72.

The very notion of praying for a ruler is instructive. What if Americans measured the amount of time they expend complaining about a president or governor or mayor and instead of grousing, actually offered up intensive prayers for the leader in question? The Episcopalians prescribe, as part of their weekly worship regimen, prayers for the president (or for the queen if the praying is being done in the British Commonwealth). During campaigns, many voters are terrified that if the one they are not supporting wins, catastrophe will strike. But wouldn’t it make sense, if that dreaded candidate is elected, that we pray constantly that we will be proven wrong, and that the new leader will in fact prosper?

But even if we pray for a leader, what would the objective be? We might pray for military success, or wizardry with the economy, a quelling of political opposition, or the greatness of our nation. In Psalm 72, we overhear something very different, and we should be uneasy.

The Psalm begins by asking God to “Give the king Your justice… and Your righteousness… May he defend the cause of the poor, and give deliverance to the needy.” Such a campaign in our day would be lambasted as “liberal,” and a debate would be touched off about governmental programs versus private sector aid or, more likely, the conversation would drift toward blaming the poor, and insisting they get busy and take care of themselves.

The cluster of Hebrew terms used in these phrases is telling. “Justice” is not fairness or the good being rewarded and the wicked punished. Rather, mishpat (“justice”) is the Bible’s subversive term for God’s desired state of affairs: mishpat is when the poorest are cared for. A society is just to the degree to which every person has enough and is lifted up; a king is measured, not by hordes of chariots or the gold in the treasury, but by whether the cause of the poor was defended, whether the needy were delivered. Similarly, “righteousness” isn’t smug goodness; zedekah (“righteousness”) is being in sync with God’s ways, embodying God’s will.

Sadly, modern church people in America tend to vote for the more conservative candidates who are prepared to shirk any responsibility for caring for the needy. Not only that, many congregations themselves do little to nothing to engage the poor, advocate for their cause, or ensure that those who oppress the needy are fought tooth and nail. Psalm 72 is an ancient liturgy, a museum piece of an old prayer, but the designs of God that shout from its verses echo across the centuries and raise hard questions pointed right at today’s church.

The most fascinating verse in Psalm 72 is the verse 11: “May all kings fall down before him.” Israel was a small time power, forced into subservience more often than relishing independence. The other kings most certainly would not be falling down before him! Was this national pride? A fantasy? A sick dream? Or a Messianic hint, that in God’s good time, God’s king would be the one before whom all would bow (Philippians 2:10).

But notice why those kings in verse 11 will bow down: “For he delivers the needy when he calls… He has pity on the weak… From oppression he redeems their life” (verses 12 and 13). Other kings never do such things; but one day the truth will be made palpable, and they will realize the wisdom, wonder, and grace of God’s way.

The lectionary mandates that this Psalm be read on January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas, the Epiphany. What a perfect time to weigh God’s desires for leadership, to contemplate what God would like to see done down here for the oppressed, for those who have nothing! The greens we wear and with which we decorate our sanctuaries intimate the growth and life that are the natural result of God have come down to earth to be the kind of King that not only was wanted by God, but desperately needed by God’s people.

During Epiphany, when leaves do not yet hang from the trees, and our yards and the fields are brown and lifeless, we look to God for the Spring to come, for a new day when we give life, and abundantly. Psalm 72:6 dreams that the king will be “like rain that falls… like showers that water the earth.” We are not purveyors of death or condemnation, and we do not dwell in oblivion in our fortress churches. We go out into the world, and seek to be the Body of Christ, to be Jesus out in the world, the Jesus who was the king prayed for over so many centuries.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 6, 2013.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12

John Frederick

It is quite common within our various churches and within the broader Christian subculture to hear statements like: “After completing my theological studies, I plan on taking a ministry job” or “I became a Christian when I believed and then, soon after, I decided to be baptized.”

On the surface, there is nothing severely wrong with these statements. After all, they are simply trying to convey the personal experience of conversion and the pursuit of ordained ministerial leadership. Yet, lurking underneath the surface resides a theologically dubious assumption, namely, that my decision about vocation or conversion precedes God’s supernatural, sovereign, spiritual empowerment for my conversion, calling, and redemption.

However, the priority of God in revelation and redemption could not be clearer than it is in the Epistle to the Ephesians. There we find a frequent emphasis on the power and prerogative of God in process of receiving divine revelation and in the application of redemption to and through the church to the entire cosmos. This divine initiative precedes and empowers the salvation of humanity and opens up the possibility of the human reception of the knowledge of God.

In Ephesians 3, for example, Paul does not say that he “decided to become a minister,” as if it was one of many options that he could choose between, perhaps forsaking a promising career in dentistry, opting to focus on developing his apostolic kudos rather than an exhaustive knowledge of the intricacies of incisors. Rather, using the Greek passive form, the text makes clear that Paul “was made” a minister according to God’s grace and according to the working of God’s power. This was part of God’s plan before it was part of Paul’s.

In our highly individualistic contemporary culture it sometimes stings our egos to consider that the entirety of our existence, preservation, vocation, life, and salvation lies totally beyond our control, in the hands of a loving, sovereign God without whom we have neither existence, nor subsistence, nor any vitality, purpose, or hope whatsoever. We don’t choose God; God chooses and elects us, and he elects to be for us — for all humanity — in the person of Jesus Christ (see also Ephesians 1:1-14).

Paul continues to express in the context of our passage (verse 8) that God’s grace is the source of his own ability to preach and to “bring to light” the “mystery” of the Gospel, which is the full inclusion of the Gentiles in the one “body” of the Messiah (verse 6). Even the “mystery” itself was “made known” (passive tense) to Paul by a divinely-initiated, spiritually-communicated “revelation” (verse 3). The literal word translated “revelation” is the Greek word apokalupsis which can also be translated “apocalypse.”

God’s historical work in and through Israel which culminates in the ultimate display of his covenant faithfulness in the salvation of the cosmos through Messiah Jesus can indeed be observed in hindsight throughout the canon of Scripture. Yet, the humanly observed historical links alone are not sufficient not make the words of the biblical text a divine revelation of Jesus Christ to us; the Word of God. God alone can work that miracle in our hearts and in our minds by his Spirit, thus causing the words of the text to become for us the very living and active Word of God.

So what does all of this mean for preachers, for ministers, for theological students or lay students of the Bible, and for members of our congregations? It is a reminder that none of our noble efforts in exegesis, sermon preparation, ministry, nor any of the elements of our pursuit of holiness in the life of faith derive their genesis, unction, or saving power from our own human skills and initiative. Yes — diligent study and intentional, holy living are vitally important to faithful ministry and to the life of faith; without them our faith is dead! Yet, the merely human study of God’s word can never quarantine, quantify, or contain God’s power and prerogative to supernaturally, apocalyptically reveal himself to us through his Word.

The Christian life is not made “successful” through the simple following of paradigms and pragmatic patterns for success. The only way to experience the words of the Bible as the Word of God, or to experience the message of the Gospel as the power of salvation, is by a God-initiated, grace-empowered leap of faith into a new world and into a new way of knowing, mediated by the Bible, empowered by the Spirit, in which we come to know Jesus to be the divine Son of God and the Savior of the world — not by mere human evidence — but by the disruptive, apocalyptic, supernatural saving power of Almighty God.

Lastly, it is crucial to point out what might be the remedy to the common misperception that our salvation consists of 99% of God’s work, a 1% of our own, namely our response in faith. Verse 12 concludes by expressing that the boldness and confidence that we have in approaching Christ Jesus our Lord is “because of his faithfulness.”

While many translations opt to turn the Greek construction here into a statement about our own faith as the root of our confidence, it is more in line with the Christocentric emphases of the book of Ephesians to envision this as a statement about Christ’s faithfulness to us (which is what the Greek literally says, namely “because of his faithfulness”) rather than as a statement that loads too much weight onto our own faith, which can ebb and flow, experiencing varying degrees of strength or weakness, and upon which often we cannot place our full confidence because of our sinful human condition. Whether you are a preacher, teacher, congregant, or a little child, the message of Ephesians is that your confidence as a chosen, loved, valuable, redeemed human being rests in the election, work, initiative, power, and faithfulness of Jesus Christ.