Sunday, January 12, 2014

May We Come In?

(The study is a bit of a mess, but it really engendered a good discussion. People were interested in the wise men and all the extra layers we have put on top of the story of the first Epiphany.)

Epiphany is Greek for Revelation, and is usually taken to refer to the arrival of the wise men to worship Jesus. As a Church feast day, it is the celebration of Jesus coming to the gentiles as well as the Jews.

Long before Christ, Jewish prophecy held that the Messiah was not going to be for the Chosen people alone.  Read Psalm 68:28-35, a psalm of David.
1)    Suddenly David shifts in this psalm from describing what God will do to addressing ‘you’. Who is you? Why do you think so?

2)    Is there anything here to make this be the Lord is for those other nations instead of just dominating or conquering them?

3)    This psalm is probably partly responsible for people describing the Magi as three kings.  Do you think of the Magi as kings? Does it make a difference in understanding the story if they aren’t?

Psalm 72 is commonly included in Epiphany liturgies. Tradition holds that king and king’s son refer to the Messiah. Let’s read it now.
4)    The psalm clearly says by Solomon, but also by David.  What do you think might be the case?

5)    What characteristics do you see that we usually associate with Jesus?

6)    Are there any characteristics that are different from how we usually see Jesus?

7)    With this as one of the main messianic texts, what would you have been expecting in the Messiah?

A lot of messianic prophecy is found in Isaiah. Isaiah’s prophecy begins during the reign of King Uzziah, around 750 BC. Uzziah (along with Jehosophat) was one of the two most successful kings after Solomon. The first mention of other countries worshipping the Lord is in Isaiah 19. Read vv 18-25.
8)    What makes this sound like Egypt joining in instead of being ruled over? What else do you notice?

Isaiah 60 is another passage strongly associated with Epiphany liturgies. Let’s read the whole chapter.
9)    What connections do you see between this and Epiphany?

10)    What makes this sound like a prophecy about the messiah to you? What do we learn about the messiah from it?

Image: Jones_04 @ Flickr

The story of the magi only appears in the gospel of Matthew. There are only 6 other unique passages of Matthew, including three parables (vineyard workers, ten virgins and the sheep and goats) and the Roman guards reporting the empty tomb. Let’s read Matthew 2:1-18.
11)    One thing to notice is what’s not in this story. What has been added to it in the way we usually imagine it?

The word used for Jesus in v. 8 and 9 here is not used for an infant, but for a weaned child.
12)    If it was a significant time after the shepherds, what might that have meant to Mary? (Is it significant that Joseph is not mentioned here?)

The word used for the Magi is, well, magi. At that time, it seems like it was used in Greek to describe priests of Zorastrianism. That’s a Persian religion that worships a good god who is in opposition to an evil god; they were very involved in astrology. 
13)    Whether Zoroastrians or not, what does it mean for acolytes of another religion to come worship the Jewish messiah?

Balaam (of donkey fame) prophesies in Numbers 24:17
“I see someone who is not here now. I look at someone who is not nearby. A star will come from Jacob. A scepter will rise from Israel. He will crush the heads of the Moabites and destroy all the people of Sheth.” 
Early church fathers believed that was a reference to the Star of Bethlehem. Interestingly Balaam was a rarity – a gentile prophet.  Was the star mystical? It rises (v.2) – normal star behavior – but then points them to a specific location (v.9) – that’s unusual.
14)    Is there anything for us to learn from this stellar detail?

The three gifts are probably responsible for thinking of three magi.  Gold you know about. Frankincense is a tree resin that is used in perfumes, incense (including use in both the 1st and 2nd temples), and a medicine. Myrrh is the odd duck here – though it is also a tree resin, used in perfume, incense and medicine and quite valuable. (At times worth more than gold!) But it has strong connotation with embalming rituals. One reflection on this passage reminds us of the fourth gift: worship.
15)    What meaning do the gifts have for you? Can we use this as a model for what we can give to Jesus?

For me personally, some of these details take me away from what I love about the story of the Magi. God coming for those we wouldn’t expect, and surprising people coming to Christ.
16)    Who has surprised you in your faith walk?

Overtime: if we have more time, it would be worth looking at the “apostle to the gentiles.” Paul wrote powerfully about Jesus coming for the whole world.
17)    Read Ephesians 3:1-12. What do you notice? What connections can you make with the magi?

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