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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Epiphany 01/06/2019

There’s a Bible trivia game we sometimes play in confirmation, kind of like Trivial Pursuit, you know, cards with questions on one side, answers on the other. The kids don’t do very well although they do about as well as the adults in Bible study; I’ve asked them some of the questions too. To be fair, some of the questions are pretty obscure, for example, there’s one that asks, “In what Bible story is there a talking donkey?” The kids suggested Shrek, a good answer but of course it’s not in the Bible. Any takers?

It’s the story of Balak and Balaam from the book of Numbers, a story that isn’t real well known as it’s not part of any Sunday School curriculum I know of and Numbers doesn’t show up very often in the Sunday lectionary; even when I’ve taught Lay School classes on the Pentateuch…Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy…either we never get around to Numbers or I gloss over it pretty quickly. Even at seminary, Numbers was glossed over pretty quickly. There are parts of it though, that are worthy of attention as along with not very interesting descriptions of various rituals along with lists of laws and census reports, in Numbers there are also somewhat different versions of some of the Moses stories we usually hear from the book of Exodus.

I bring this up though because there’s a connection between the story about Balak and Balaam and today’s Epiphany story of the Wise Men, a connection that I must say I wasn’t aware of. (That’s the beauty of studying the Bible though; there are always new things to learn.) Before that though, while we are in a year when most of the gospel readings are from Luke, today’s reading comes from Matthew. The thinking about Matthew is that it was originally intended for an audience that was primarily Jewish. Because of that, in telling his story of Jesus, Matthew draws quite extensively from Old Testament stories and images, stories and images that Jewish people would have been familiar with.

For example, in his birth narrative, Matthew portrays Joseph along the lines of Old Testament Joseph. Old Testament Joseph was dreamer and New Testament Joseph receives revelations in dreams. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ escape from Herod following the visit of the Wise Men is very much like the Old Testament story of Moses escaping Pharaoh as both Moses and Jesus go to Egypt but eventually return as savior figures, so there is a Jesus/ Moses connection. You also might have noticed mention of kings bearing gifts in today’s Psalm and the first reading from Isaiah, more imagery that Matthew made use of. Again though, it makes sense that if you’re trying to share the good news of Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, you want to share that good news in ways that people will connect with stories they already know about their God, stories that take them into the realm of the divine. That’s what Matthew did, portraying Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament scripture.

David is another name that would have resonated with Jewish people and the story of Balak and Balaam, while part of the Numbers Moses narrative, also has a David connection. When Moses was leading the people to the Promised Land, he encountered Balak, the king of Moab, another wicked king who, like Pharaoh of Egypt, wanted to destroy Moses. As part of his plan, KIng Balak summoned Balaam, a wise man from the East, to use his skills against Moses and the people of Israel. Balaam was a non-Israelite, a visionary, a practicer of magic or enchantment, someone who in Jesus’ time would have been called a magus, the plural of which is magi; I trust that you’re starting to see a connection.

Balaam set out with two of his servants and a donkey to do as Balak commanded. This is where the talking donkey comes in. Balaam was riding on the donkey as they travelled on a narrow path with a wall on either side. But then the donkey saw an angel of the Lord blocking the way. Balaam didn’t see the angel, but the donkey did. The donkey lay down, refusing to go any farther, making Balaam angry. He started to beat the donkey with his staff at which point the Lord gave the donkey the ability to speak and it said, “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?” That just made Balaam more angry until finally the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam so he too could see the angel who then told him to go on but to only speak words that the angel gave him to speak.

That’s what Balaam did. Rather than doing the bidding of Balak and cursing Moses and the people of Israel, Balaam had a favorable vision of the future: “A star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel. One out of Jacob shall rule.” A star shall come out of Jacob. As the story is interpreted, David is understood to be the star that Balaam had foreseen. In later interpretation, the passage about a star is understood as a reference to the Messiah, the anointed king from the house and family of David. So, to further connect the dots for you, just as Balaam, the wise man from the east saw the star of David rise, the Wise Men of Matthew’s account, the magi, also from the east, saw the star that announced to them a newborn king of the Jews.

So that’s a little Bible Study for you; perhaps it will help you do better the next time you play Bible Trivia. Today is the day we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord though. This January 6th observance is actually an older celebration than Christmas and in some countries and traditions it is a bigger deal than the December 25th observance. Not here though; unless it falls on a Sunday as it does this year, Epiphany can pass with little notice or the story of the Wise Men from Matthew just gets blended in with Luke’s account that we hear on Christmas Eve, most manger scenes have the shepherds and Wise Men all there at the same time. That’s all OK, but the story of the Wise Men is worthy of consideration on its own.

The usual interpretation of the story has to do with the fact that the Wise Men are outsiders, Gentiles rather than Jews. It’s interesting though that in a gospel intended as proclamation to Jewish people concerning the Messiah, the first ones to come and honor Jesus are Gentiles, not Jews. In Luke, the first ones to worship Jesus were lowly shepherds so in both Matthew and Luke expectations concerning the identity of the people this Messiah has come to save are upset. This new born king is not just for the rich and powerful and while he is part of Jewish tradition, he’s not just for Jewish people. As today’s Ephesians text says, “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Jesus Christ, through the gospel.”

The biblical account doesn’t say where the Wise Men came from other than they were from the east. Actually it doesn’t even say that there were three of them, only that there were three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. The tradition around this story intervenes though and fills in some of the details, giving us names for the three visitors, Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, said to be from different parts of Asia, Africa and Europe which was the known world of that time.

These additional details allow for additional interpretation. Coming from different parts of the world, the Wise Men can be seen as offering a hopeful vision of people from different places coming together to offer gifts in recognition of what was most important. Despite differences, they were able to see what they had in common and what they had in common was the different future made possible by this birth. The Wise Men coming together to worship Jesus does represent a vision of hope.

However, it’s not exactly a “they lived happily ever after” story. There is a hopeful vision, but the reality of those out to crush those hopes is also part of things so, “Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” The Herods of the world are always out there, the hope crushers, the dream crushers. But…other roads are always out there too. Like the Wise Men, we are called to follow those roads.

In the child they came to worship there was and is a timeless vision of hope and grace and forgiveness; there is a vision of joy in God’s presence. There is a vision of light shining in darkness. The Epiphany story tells us that despite the threats of those who want to destroy the image by their cynicism or by making us afraid, or by their indifference, we can’t let that happen. Instead, like the Wise Men, we follow roads that allow us not just to hold on to the vision of the Christ child, but to proclaim it and live it. Along with the Wise Men, we still follow the star.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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