Lectionary Commentaries for January 6, 2021
Epiphany of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12

James Howell

Christmas as sweetness and light? There is no eluding Herod, though. 

Nearing his own death, Herod inflicts death on so many innocents. The magi were lucky to survive after cheekily saying to his face, “Where is the king of the Jews? We have come to worship him” (verse 2).

I get tickled over the magi, and I wonder if Matthew somewhere in the back of his mind saw a comic element here. You have the hilarious scene in The Life of Brian when the magi show up at the wrong house; and Owen Meany’s moaning over “We Three Kings”: “Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying doesn’t sound very Christmasy to me.” Christmas pageants can be funny, the wise men wearing cardboard crowns, trying to muster a wise face.

They were magi—astrologers! What bawdy humor: non-Jews who practice illegitimate arts find the Christ child, while the Bible people missed it. God is so very determined to be found. A Libra, a Pisces, and a Taurus worshipping Jesus—a Capricorn? What are Capricorns like? Can the preacher name the irony without sarcastically slamming the Bible believers in the pews?—that God might just be found outside the church, at night, in the arts, or in non-sacred music or literature, even within other religions?

Sometimes Bible readers get mixed up about which Herod was which. Herod the Great ruled when Jesus was born. But it was Herod Antipas, his son, who reigned when Jesus was crucified. There also was Herod Archaelaus, Herod Philip, and not one but two Herod Agrippas in the Bible! But really, Herod, Herod, and Herod are the same guy. All were egotistical, insecure, petty potentates, in bed with the Romans, and clueless about God.

Typically around Christmas I fume about the commercialization of the holiday. Can we blame the magi for kickstarting this with their gifts? A child sees himself as the Baby Jesus, to whom others bring great gifts! Yet it is a season to “traverse afar” and give to those we love. Notice the magi brought gifts of immense value, what was precious to themselves. If the Christ child is the one we love, can we give Jesus, and those who are marginalized who bear his image, not our leftovers but what is especially valuable to us?

They brought gifts of immense value; they brought what was precious to themselves. They parted with what they adored to adore the Lord. We are not so wise in our giving. I traverse not far at all when I shop, as I do it online. Why? It is “easier,” more “convenient” for me. Or convenient for the recipient—hence the bane of gift cards, which say a lot about the giver (who has not bothered to be creative or to think through the other person’s life and snoop around to find something meaningful), and even more about our vapid culture. We give cards … why? “They should be able to get what they want.” Is life about what I want? What if I cannot get what I want, or if I get something I did not want? A friend ruefully told me about Christmas day with his grandchildren, who already owned much stuff before Christmas, unwrapping gift cards, swapping them like trading cards with cousins, and rushing over to the mall to purchase yet more unnecessary items. What do we give one another? What do we give to God?

Epiphany, a season I learned once upon a time to be the quintessential mission season, the light to the nations, the green growth of the gospel. Do Christian people believe that any more? What would it mean for Christians to evangelize Afghanistan, or Belarus, or Turkey, or the formerly Christian but now utterly secular nations of Europe? Not tracts, or even compelling stories will have the slightest impact. Maybe it would be the Church being the Church, showing that love, listening, compassion, and not being so stridently angry or terribly afraid? What if our calling, our witness today is to model reconciliation, togetherness, not being right but humbly loving—so compellingly that other people down the street notice and want in on it? And then to have that spread all over the place? With social media, you never know…

And I can never neglect the tantalizing ending: “They left for their own country by another road” (verse 12). Frightened by Herod? Of course they did. But there is some mystery here—that once you have met the Christ child, you do not keep plodding along the same old pathways. It is a new day, a new road. T.S. Eliot ended his poem about the magi with “We returned to our places … but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.” Jesus does not make my life easier or more comfortable. The closer we are to Jesus, the more we sense our dis-ease in this place.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 60:1-6

Charles L. Aaron, Jr.

We often call it “the bridge.” We look at the gap, or chasm, between the text and the contemporary situation, while wondering how we can leap from the inspiring words of scripture to the present reality.1

How do we treat the differences in customs, language, political situation, scientific knowledge between the biblical writers and the situation now? How do we maintain the hopeful expectancy after so many centuries? If we look at the distance between today’s reading and the contemporary situation, we will see a wide chasm, but one worth making the leap, or building the bridge. The chasm exists in the details and the emotions of the text. Yet the prophet gives us a word for today.

The prophet of this part of Isaiah fills his page with stirring, glorious promises. He combines imperatives with affirmations. He exhorts the readers to “arise, shine.” These words almost certainly came to dispirited readers. The problems of returning from the Babylonian exile had worn them down. They felt insignificant against the world powers. They seemed at the mercy of Persian bureaucracy. They couldn’t get along with each other. Into that mix, the prophet (known as III Isaiah) calls on the people to “arise.” From their despair, they should lift themselves up.

Next come the astonishing affirmations. The world and its people live in darkness. Even though the NRSV has darkness twice, the second term (“thick darkness,” NRSV) connotes a cloud over the people. The darkness and the cloud represent the separation of the nations from Judah’s God. The glory of the Lord will rise (different root than the imperative in verse 1) upon the people. If the Lord has seemed distant and unresponsive, the people will experience the Lord’s glory. God’s presence will be available to them. Then, the nations that have seemed to have the upper hand will come to the Judean people for light.

The second stanza also begins with an imperative, to lift up the eyes and look around. God will bring back the exiles, both sons and daughters. Although this passage likely was written after the Judeans had begun to return, this verse reminds the people of God’s act to restore the community. It promises that God will continue to build the community and bring it together, even if it seems in conflict now. This experience will cause such joy that the people will feel a glow from within. (If you have a chance to check the Tanak, the Jewish Publication Society translation, it renders verse 5a in a memorable way.)

The nations will then bring their wealth to the people of Judah. From both land and sea, the nations will bring their treasures. The nations will bring a multitude of animals as well as precious metals and spices. One suspects that the lectionary committee chose this passage for this Sunday because of verse 6, which promises “gold and frankincense,” the gifts of the magi to the young (but almost certainly not the new-born) Jesus. The committee left off verse 7, which adds the element of worship. The animals brought by the nations will become part of worship for the Lord. The temple, once destroyed, shall again offer worship to the Lord.

What can the twenty-first century preacher do with this passage? The grand promises the prophet made to the people never actually happened in history. The nations did not bring the treasure of the sea and all of their animals, along with gold and frankincense to Judea. We can’t promise our churches that the nations will bring their wealth today. The list of animals would not resonate with people today.

The passage sounds out of touch and unrealistic. It sounds terribly out of date. If we try to preach the surface meaning of the text, we would more likely elicit scoffs instead of deeper faith. The people know perfectly well that the world will not bring its wealth to the church. We are lucky to scrape up enough money to pay our bills and help a few people.

We have more here to work with than just “background” to the visit of the magi to baby Jesus, however. To get at that, we might notice that the poem reverses the movement we have come to expect. Usually sermons exhort the congregation to take the light to the world. This passage promises that the nations will come to God’s people for light because they find their darkness so oppressive. We can proclaim from this stirring poem that God remains at work in the world. If we lift up our eyes, if we arise and do our ministry, we will find the ways that God acts to dispel the darkness of the world. God works among the people of the world before the church begins its ministry. We have grace and hope that the world needs.

After Christmas, in the new year, the church arises to its mission and looks out at the world to see where God has been at work among the nations. However strong the darkness, we take heart. However powerful the rest of the world seems, God has chosen to work through the church. When we recognize the need of the world, the glory of God, we can arise out of any stupor and engage in our ministry.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 6, 2019.


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

Beth L. Tanner

The Greek meaning of “epiphany” means to reveal or uncover.1

Yet every season, Jesus is “uncovered” or “revealed” twice.  Luke “reveals” the identity of the Baby in the songs of the angels, so we celebrated Jesus as Lord twelve days ago. Then, Luke moved on quickly and last week Jesus was twelve and visiting the Temple with his parents. It seems a step back to join the Wise Men this morning for the celebration of Epiphany or the “revealing” of the Baby as the King of the Jews.

Is there a difference between LORD of All and King? We could easily dismiss this as semantics, but there is an important distinction.  As Lord, Jesus is understood as apart from us, something different, with only God and the celestial beings. The title of King moves into the realm of humans. It is about politics and power and communities and individuals. Remember it was not Jesus as Lord which threatened Herod and the Romans and the Jewish Leaders. It was the declaration of Jesus as King that ultimately led to the cross.

So, if today is about the politics of Jesus as King, there is no better psalm than that of Psalm 72. This psalm is understood by most scholars to be a coronation hymn for the King of Judah.  It speaks of the prayers of all of the people for the king and the importance of understanding the king’s role in relationship to his God and the people.

The psalm opens with a plea “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son (verse 1).” The king is to administer God’s justice and God’s righteousness, not his own. This defines the relationship between God and the king. The king is to be God’s representative or conduit on earth. The ruler is a servant of the Lord, not a political God unto himself.

The psalm continues with wishes for the king’s reign, but these are not about political treaties or great infrastructure or law and order. The wishes are for the king to judge in righteousness and with justice for the poor. The psalm is concerned with how the king governs the people with the same words used in verse one “justice” and “righteousness.” The wishes are not action items or a political platform, but a view of the world and one’s people. In other words, it is about the king’s heart from which springs action. Verse 3 connects the righteous reign of the king with “mountains yielding prosperity and the hills, in righteousness.” This is a view of all of God’s creation living in harmony and both the land and the people prosper. God is in control and the king manages the kingdom as God’s agent.

Verse 4 is the heart of the job description of the human ruler. “May he [or she] defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” The king’s job is to assure the poor and needy are given care and concern and that he defends them with force if necessary. He is not to wage war for booty or territory but only against those who threated the weak. Pearl Buck wrote in The Good Earth, “the test of a civilization is the way it cares for its helpless members.” Quotes like it have been attributed to others. Did the idea come from the Bible or is this simply the measure of a responsible society regardless of nationality or religion? Either way these words in Psalm 72 make it the responsibility of the king, and since he is the ruler to care for the helpless, by extension it also becomes the responsibility of all the people to do the same.

Verses 3-7 provides wishes for the long life of this king and that he be like the rain falling on the grass. In the arid regions of Judah and Israel, the winter rains bring life and are necessary for the land and the people to prosper. The rain is a blessing from God.  The king is to be the same, God’s blessing to the people.

In verses 10-11, kings of other nations come to Jerusalem to pay homage to the king. The usual reason for a king to bow down to another king is as an acknowledgement of the first king’s power and privilege.  A king bows to another king because he has been defeated or is a vassal. But Psalm 72: 11-12 states “May all the kings fall down before him, all nations give him service FOR he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and needy and saves the lives of the needy.” The kings bow before him not because of power, or military strength, or wealth. They bow before the king because of his justice ways. Note that most English Bibles separate the adoration of the kings from the cause of their adoration. Verse 11 is a dependent clause of verse 10. It is the reason the king is honored.

Each leader of Judah failed to live up to this job description. Human self-interest and power often cloud our vision. Eventually, Jesus was the only one who could fulfill these words. But the intent of the psalm does not end with King Jesus but stands as a call to all of God’s people. Ours is not a religion focused only in the spiritual realm, but in the flesh and blood world. It is political because it is our duty to help the weakest among us and to assure a just society and nation.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 6, 2019.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 3:1-12

Sarah Henrich

The writing style of the author of Ephesians seems at first glance more sing-able than preach-able.1

Set it to music and let the organist have at it! One subordinate clause follows another. One image piles upon another, just as we saw in Ephesians 1:3-14. Yet, as in the opening cadences of this letter, we find themes made powerful by the repetition of certain words and by the very grammar of the passage. This passage lays before us opportunities for exploration of less familiar concepts that may be of great value to contemporary Christians. There is an open-endedness implied, a process in which God’s revelation is precisely that, God’s to grant as God will. At the same time, that revelation is in accord with God’s creative activity and promises. One hears the conviction that although time may pass at nearly interminable length for us, God is neither deterred nor distracted from being known by all God’s creatures (see “all things”, for instance, in v. 9), not least the Gentiles who had not known God. It is only through the gift of revelation (unveiling) that reliable and surprising new insight comes (insight which profoundly affects social relationships). Why would insight from God prove surprising? Perhaps because it seemed unpredictable. Perhaps also because God’s wisdom is both multi-faceted and inscrutable. Because God is patient, persevering, and powerful in working out God’s will (cf. energeian, v. 7), it is important that these mysteries of God are reliably good news.

For contemporary believers all these claims so confidently made and given now for us through the wisdom of Christ embodied in the church, are indeed good news. Ephesians puts before us a God whose fullness is rich and calls for our best learning, discernment, and engagement. Ephesians puts us in a world, that reign of God although the author does not use that language, in which we may expect to be surprised, not only by C. S. Lewis’ “joy,” but also by new insight (sunesin), understanding, knowledge, all of which may create for us new neighbors whom God has from the dawn of time intended for us.

Let me begin with a little attention to the structure of the passage. Over and over again in these verses the writer points to the purpose of God in two distinct ways. One way is by the use of Greek indications of the purpose of event. In a second and connected method, the author underlines explicitly and implicitly God’s agency in these events.

As to purpose, check out verses 1, 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, and 10. The author moves from the purpose for which he has stewardship (oikonomian) of God’s grace for the sake of the Gentiles to whom he writes. This stewardship has a purpose, namely that of revealing to the Gentiles a mystery that they had previously not known. The purpose of the revelation was to enable Gentiles to trust the insight of the writer and become as a people (v. 6) co-inheritors, one body, sharers in the promises of the gospel. This great gift, emphasized by the repetitions of the preposition syn attached to three consecutive nouns, was not the end of the story, however. One thinks of Isaiah reminding Israel that their own covenant relationship with God was a great and unmerited gift the sharing of which was their calling (Isaiah 49:6).

Not least because God is the creator of all things (v. 9), it is the calling of the churches/assemblies (who, we recall from v. 6, are “one body”) to make known to leaders and authorities (v. 10) the “many-faceted wisdom of God.” The high calling of Christians together is the sharing of God’s very wisdom which, for this author, is many-faceted. The word polypoikilos shows up only here in the New Testament. Because God is creator of all, God’s wisdom concerns even the leaders and powers of heaven. Because God’s wisdom (sophia) is many-sided or varied and inscrutable (anexichniaston, v. 8: see also apokekrummenou from apokrupto, v. 9), making known this wisdom requires the very boldness and freedom (parrhesia, v. 12) which we already have (exomen, a present tense verb, v. 12).

At the same time that churches are challenged by the good news and gift of receiving revelation of God’s mystery in order to share it as a call to the highest powers, they/we are humbled and encouraged by the constant reminder that we are given this insight, given this revelation, granted lives as co-inheritors of God’s promise. Passive verbs with God as an implied subject abound. Such verbs are used to describe the writer’s own calling (vv. 2, 3, 7, 8). Such verbs describe also the calling of the churches (vv. 2, 5, 10). The source of gift and calling is made explicit as well, lest we attribute them to any of those lesser, but still strong, powers and authorities on high (v. 10). In v. 2 it is the stewardship of God’s grace which was given. In v. 4 it is the mystery of Christ the understanding of which is to be shared. In v. 5 revelation happens by the spirit, as in v. 7 the grace of God was given by the working of God’s own power. Christ Jesus as agent appears in 11 and 12 (by his faithfulness, dia tes pisteos autou).

Thus does the author reassure his hearers of the validity of promises of their inclusion as children of God who share in the very body of God’s people. Likewise, he assures them of the high seriousness of a calling that speaks to boldly to power through discernment of the very mysteries planted in creation and brought to light (see v. 9.) Thus also does the author establish God’s great fidelity even in the midst of sudden turn to include Gentiles as part of God’s people. It is, of course, through Christ that all this has come to pass, from the concrete circumstances of the writer (v. 1) to the confidence and boldness of grace bestowed on all believers (v. 12). Christ is mentioned five times by name and/or title and understood as the antecedent of autou (v. 12). It is the mystery, the promises, the riches, and the faith of Christ that are shared for the empowerment and inclusion of a people who once were no people.

For preaching? My goodness, there is so much. The trustworthiness of God over time, experienced and enacted in ways that could not be predicted or anticipated. The generosity of God in giving, giving, giving for enlightenment, discernment, hope, confidence. The commitment of God to create reliable leaders and re-create us as bold speakers of the truth. The call of God’s people to find a way to utter those promises of inclusion, belonging, and the ongoing passion of the creator for the creation. The presence of Christ and the reality of a savior crucified and raised (note those passive verbs), who with the spirit shapes and empowers life throughout the cosmos. The reality that even our call to speak truth to power is a humble calling, for all is not yet clear or settled in such a way that any of us can know for certain. That what makes us who we are as believers, our glory, our visible reputation (doxa, v. 13) is to abide in confidence of God’s calling and our own, in the faithfulness of Christ.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 6, 2015.