Lectionary Commentaries for January 6, 2013
Epiphany of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12

Craig A. Satterlee

God is so determined to proclaim the “good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10) that God reaches beyond fields in the region around Bethlehem to “the East” (some scholars say Persia).

God reaches beyond shepherds at the bottom of the barrel to Wise Ones at the top. God reaches beyond people scared witless by God’s glory to those who observe the glorious star at its rising, and methodically, persistently, and sincerely follow it to a king. All along the way, God directs them, first by a star, then via a verse from Micah, and finally in their dreams.

Yes, I am aware that I am conflating Matthew and Luke; this is precisely what the liturgical year does as well. Preachers overly concerned about biblical literacy might use this occasion to untangle the Christmas story in order to teach that the Magi never made it to the manger.  But then the preacher needs to explain that Matthew makes no mention of a manger. Better to save this for Sunday School and preach the Epiphany gospel in its liturgical and calendar context.

That said, at our house and in the congregations where I’ve served as pastor, we move our Magi from windowsill to windowsill during the days of Christmas, rather than placing them in the crèche on Christmas Eve, and only bring them to “the house [where] they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage” (Matthew 2:11) on Epiphany. Placing the Magi in the manger on Christmas Eve misses how far God reaches to ensure that all people — emphasize all — receive the good news of Christ’s birth.

While Christian tradition holds that the Magi were kings (an interesting contrast between these kings’ response to Jesus’ birth and the way Herod, king of God’s people, responded), a more precise description might be that the Magi belonged to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, which paid particular attention to the stars. This priestly caste gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science.

So these Wise Ones from the East were scientists and practiced other religions, and God used their faith and knowledge to bring them to the Christ. More ironic, God used scientists who practiced other religions to let King Herod and the chief priests and scribes of the people in on the news that their Messiah had been born.

God seems to do whatever it takes to reach out to and embrace all people. God announces the birth of the Messiah to shepherds through angels on Christmas, to Magi via a star on Epiphany, and to the political and religious authorities of God’s own people in through visitors from the East.  From a manger, where a child lies wrapped in bands of cloth, God’s reach, God’s embrace in Christ Jesus, gets bigger and bigger and bigger.  Jesus eats with outcasts and sinners. Jesus touches people who are sick and people who live with disabilities. Jesus even calls the dead back to life. Ultimately, Jesus draws all people to himself as he is lifted up on the cross. In Christ Jesus, no one is beyond God’s embrace.

God’s radical grace is wondrously frightening. I experience a bit of a shudder as I think of the implications of portraying the Magi as scientists who practiced another religion, because to do so pushes me to expand my understanding of both the ways God reaches out to people to announce good news in and through Christ and what it means for individuals to have faith and for gatherings of the faithful to be church.

The Magi did not come looking for the Christ through preaching, liturgy, sacrament, a welcoming congregation, or a vital social ministry — things I hold dear. They came seeking the Christ after studying the night skies. As someone who holds on to favorite, cherished ways that God works to proclaim the gospel and bring people to faith, it’s always wondrously frightening to realize anew that God’s own work of embracing all people is more “mystery” than “formula,” because God’s ways are always bigger than my understanding. It’s much safer to spend the sermon piously and sentimentally embellishing the Magi and reading meaning into the number and kind of gifts they bring. 

Yet, if I am honest with myself, these days I sense God reaching out to embrace me in new ways. God is using late Saturday nights spent metaphorically studying the stars to lead me to Christ, more than early Sunday mornings spent sitting in church. Even as I write these words, I worry about a phone call from my bishop warning me that I am in trouble for saying this out loud. A sermon that leaves me basking in the light of Christ’s star, rather than worrying about the implications of the Magi coming to faith apart from the church or outside our formulaic approaches of how faith happens, would be really good news.

The alternative, of course, is to join Herod in not seeing God’s ever-expanding embrace, or feeling threatened by it, and instead giving way to just plain fear: “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3). Herod jealously reached out himself, just far enough to violently protect his place and preserve his power.

We too can feel jealous when visitors show up seeking Christ due to experiences outside of our purview and control. We have our own ways of reaching out, just far enough to slaughter someone’s experiences of God’s grace for the sake of our patterns, practices, and perspectives. And so the stage is set for another liturgical year of proclaiming Christ overcoming the conflict between God’s ever expanding embrace and our need to protect and preserve, a drama resolved on the cross and continuing in our day.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 60:1-6

Dirk G. Lange

Every prophetic oracle is spoken within a historical context. 

I believe that, as preachers, we must always begin from this simple but poignant realization. Too easily can we craft the words of proclamation by slipping beyond the limit imposed by context. We shape an overarching narrative to bolster a particular viewpoint (our own viewpoint, our own cultural bias), applying the story to ourselves without much disruption of practice. The prophetic voice, however, always calls for disruption of some sort, even in its most jubilant and comforting exclamations.

Too simplistically, we can read Isaiah 60 on Epiphany and conjure up images of the three magi bearing gifts, finally making it to the manger. We can reduce epiphany to a cute story that satisfies our deepest longing for narrative integrity. And yet, epiphany is so much more than a story of three magi. Even of that story, T. S. Eliot writes, “I should be glad of another death.”1

The liturgical season that Isaiah 60 inaugurates is a season of revelation. Epiphany, in the early church, was not about the arrival of the magi but the revelation of Jesus Christ, at his baptism, to the whole world as God’s only and beloved child. Epiphany is God’s self-revelation to the world, the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. It was one of the three major feasts of the liturgical calendar around which faith communities organized the rhythms of their life: Easter, Epiphany, Pentecost (not Christmas or a nativity scene or magi!).

Isaiah 60 is part of Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66). Rather than being the voice of one prophet, it is assumed that this prophecy arises out of the Isaianic school, a school of disciples dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the prophecies of first and second Isaiah, as well as speaking those prophecies to a new and complex situation. There are several passages in Third Isaiah that are almost direct citations from Second Isaiah (including the text for today — see Isaiah 49:12, 18).

Third Isaiah is situated in the sixth century BCE as the exiles from Babylonian returned to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, a major conflict had arisen between those who remained and those who returned. Living conditions were extremely difficult. Jerusalem was in ruins. The people were now divided again not against some outside threat or enemy but among themselves.

The remnant associated with the Isaianic school were on the margins of power. They were a small group. It is possible that they were embattled against those who had much more narrow, exclusionist understanding of what it meant to serve God (rather than the inclusive position argued in Third Isaiah where, for example, even foreigners and eunuchs can serve at the altar).

When reading Isaiah 60 publicly, without also reading at least the preceding chapter, the radical irruption of light and glory, consolation and joy is missed. Chapters 58 and 59 are characterized by gloom, by despair, by a call to repentance (the ways of the wicked are crooked, our transgressions are many, our sins testify against us). They are also marked by a yearning for light and glory to come (we wait for the light but there is only darkness).

The opening line of Isaiah 60 is like a thunderbolt of glory (exegetes, of course, interpret this sudden change of tone to different editorial sources). What surprises the reader or hearer is the abruptness of the shift from doom and gloom to light and glory. Perhaps what is most surprising in this shift is God’s response to the people’s crooked ways and their sense of despair: they are not to mend their ways first (out of fear) rather God comes, God irrupts, God arises and shines forth in glory!

This coming, this shining forth is unconditional. God is always a God whose glory is salvific. The people’s repentance, the mending of ways, the living out of justice is a response to this coming! It is not an attempt to be made right with God but it is thanksgiving for the one who comes, who reveals life and salvation in the midst of the community.

God’s glory in the Hebrew scripture is always God’s presence. The glory of the Lord appears in the wilderness when the people complain about lacking food and God promises manna; when the Arc of the Covenant is completed, the glory of the Lord descends and fills it so that even Moses could not enter it; when Moses asks to see God’s glory, God responds, “You cannot see my face”; it is the glory of the Lord that fills the sanctuary in Isaiah 6 (Holy! Holy! Holy! Kabod in Hebrew – Glory! Glory! Glory!). Throughout the Hebrew scriptures God’s presence, God’s very own face, is designated by glory. God does not posses glory — God is glory.

Now this glory and light arises among the people, it is the Lord who arises among them, giving what the Lord gives: life and salvation. But this giving is not just for the remnant of Israel, it is not just for those who have returned from exile, but for all the nations. Now, all the nations will come with what is specific to them — their own little “glories” — and bring them to the Lord. Just as in Isaiah 6, the Temple could not contain the glory now also here, the people of Israel cannot contain it. The presence of God expands outwards toward the whole cosmos.

A sermon based on today’s texts might want to embody this glory in a doxological manner. Who is this God who now enters into our midst? Who is this God who now actually shows us God’s face, the face of a child? God’s glory is no longer far off in some heavenly realm, experienced as a cloud, but it is calling all people together. Even the story of the magi is a call of a radical responsibility toward all those who have been excluded from our classical narrative. All are swept up in singing a cosmic doxology.

1T.S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi” in Collected Poems: 1909–1962 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1963). See and hear the poem at http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=7070


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.

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.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12

Amy L.B. Peeler

Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season for the church calendar.

By the sixth day in January, the wider society has long moved past the celebrations of Christmas. Employees have returned to work, children have returned to school, and stores are beginning to set out Valentine’s merchandise.

The church, on the other hand, persists a full 12 days after Christmas Day to remember the visit of the wise men to the young Jesus as recorded in Matthew’s gospel (2:1–12). First noted in the fourth century,1 this celebration of the revelation of God to humanity called the faithful to reflect upon the awesome reality of the Incarnation. God became man; in Christ, the two natures were neither confused nor divided. The revelation of this unity prepared the way for another, for the Gentiles to be joined with God’s people Israel.

An Epiphanic Life

It is the revelation of this second mystery that Paul proclaims in Ephesians 3. Actually, this mystery seems to be forefront in his mind from the very beginning of the letter. He hints at it in the first chapter when he declares that his readers have been chosen by God for adoption, a description fitting for those who were not born into the people of God (2:11).

Then, in chapter 2, he describes the mystery explicitly. They, as Gentiles, were formerly separate from God and his people, but now in Christ, the two have been made one (2:12-13). Because of his proclamation of this mystery, Paul is a prisoner (3:1). If we look to Luke’s narrative in Acts, Paul ends up in chains because the Jewish leadership finds great offense at this aspect of his message and actions, namely that he teaches “against the law” and “brings Greeks into the Temple” (Acts 21:28).

Paul, however, seems undaunted by his circumstances. In his view, this is the task to which God has called him, to administer this aspect of God’s grace. His tone conveys a sense of grateful awe that God saw fit to reveal this great mystery to him. For Paul, Epiphany is not just one day, but describes his entire life and calling. He preaches, and subsequently he has been imprisoned for this preaching, because God has revealed this mystery to him. Paul mentions that he wrote about this mystery briefly before. It is not clear if he is referring to his statements in chapters 1 and 2 of this letter or if this refers to another letter to the Ephesians to which we no longer have access.

Even if we are missing another explanation, thankfully, Paul’s description of his understanding of the mystery seems clear from the following verses. The Spirit has now made known what in former times was concealed, namely that the Gentiles are now fellow heirs, fellow members of the same body, and fellow participants in the promises.

A compact reference to Paul’s extended discussions in Galatians and Romans, Ephesians 3:6 asserts the reality that in Christ through the gospel, those who were once not God’s people have been grafted in and become children of the promise. Paul now serves this mystery and does so because God’s power energizes him. This task has cost Paul his freedom. Nevertheless, he does not do it begrudgingly, but gratefully.

An Eternal Plan

The rich alternative economy in which grace comes to unexpected recipients is not a new thing according to Paul’s understanding. It might have just recently been revealed to the apostles and prophets, of whom Paul considers himself to be the least important, as he, a former persecutor, was the last (1 Corinthians 15:8), but Paul finds proclamations of God’s gracious mystery in Israel’s Scriptures to make his case.

Even more, he asserts here that the mystery has been hidden with God, who is the creator of all things, suggesting that this mystery has always been God’s plan. This hunch proves correct in the following verse. This mystery in Christ — Lord over all peoples, both Jew and Gentiles — was the eternal plan of God, but only in the last days has God made it evident and begun its fulfillment. When God brings these groups together — Jew and Gentile — the church displays the creative diversity of his wisdom. It is not just Paul, the other apostles, or even the Ephesians who now can see this mystery, but also the authorities and rulers (3:10).

Paul might have in mind those Jewish leaders who instigated his imprisonment, but also the heavenly authorities, the spiritual forces whom ancients believed wielded control over the functions of the visible world. The Ephesians now have boldness and confident access to God, an amazing statement for those who would have had no access to the presence of God as manifest in the Jewish temple. Now that the mystery has been revealed, those who were excluded are now included. As they trust Jesus’ faithful actions, which display the faithfulness of God to his ancient plan, they can participate as full members of the people of God.

The great celebration of the Incarnation, according to Paul, flows into the great celebration of the church. As we exhibit unity — of different races, classes, and genders (as Paul says in Galatians 3:28) — we display the mystery of God who brings all his creation together in the unity of the God-man, the Jewish baby worshipped by the Gentile kings from the East.


1Thomas K. Carroll and Thomas Halton, Liturgical Practices in the Fathers (Message of the Fathers of the Church 21; Wilimington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1988), 172.