Updated: Apr 7, 2019
Lessons: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Later this afternoon, we’ll be taking down the Christmas tree at our house. We usually wait until today, Epiphany, the traditional Twelfth Day of Christmas or Twelfth Night. We’ll also put away the three nativity sets we put out every Advent. The three sets include different characters. All three sets have Mary and Joseph, of course, and the baby Jesus in the manger. We don’t have the shepherds for one set. Only the Playmobil set, the one our kids could touch and play with, has an angel, a donkey and a camel. All three sets have three kings carrying gifts, just as they do in every Christmas pageant I’ve ever seen, including ours here on Christmas Eve.
Our traditional notion of who belongs in the nativity scene comes from a blending of two different Christmas stories. In Luke’s Christmas story – the foundation for Christmas pageants everywhere – you’ll find Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem, no room at the inn, the stable, the sky filled with angels, the amazed shepherds – but no kings. Not one king. You have to go to Matthew’s gospel for the kings – well, except, as I told the kids, they aren’t kings, after all – they are magi – Persian astrologers from the east – and it doesn’t tell us there are three of them; only that they brought three gifts. And they don’t find Jesus in a stable; they find him in a house. Matthew doesn’t mention shepherds or angels or the crowded inn.
Part of Matthew’s inspiration for his Christmas story is our Isaiah text this morning. Walter Brueggemann writes that Isaiah 60 is a poem recited to Jews who had been in exile for a couple of generations, and returned to find the city of Jerusalem in ruins. In the middle of this mess, the poet Isaiah invites his discouraged community to look up, to hope, and to expect everything to change. Yes, he says, darkness will cover the earth. But there will be a shaft of light breaking through the gloom: “Rise, shine, for your light has come.” The poet anticipates that Jerusalem will prosper again. “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” So – that is where we get the kings.
Matthew’s magi have seen a special star, and read it as a sign that a new king has been born. They know about Isaiah 60, so they go to Jerusalem and take rare spices, gold and frankincense and myrrh, appropriate gifts to give to a king. But when the current king in Jerusalem, Herod the Great, hears about this, he’s not at all happy. Herod, a vassal of Rome, built his kingdom on political tribute and bloodshed. A new king would be a political rival, and as with his other rivals, including his own family members, Herod makes plans to eliminate him.