God is a Sticky Toddler, Presented with Gifts (an Epiphany Sermon)

Preacher: Jenn Hosler

Date: January 8, 2023

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12

What exactly do I know about Epiphany? I’ve been preaching for more than 10 years and somehow, some way, I have never been scheduled to preach on Epiphany. So, this sermon’s preparation was an opportunity to think about Epiphany knowledge and the misconceptions our culture often brings to this holiday, compared to the biblical account.  

Did you grow up celebrating Epiphany in some way? In my nominally Catholic French-Canadian household growing up, we marked the end of the Christmas season on Epiphany with a Kings’ Cake. Whoever got a slice with a wax paper-wrapped coin would be “king” for the day. We would also open crackers, little poppers that would make a bang! When you unwrapped them, they would have a paper crown and maybe a trinket inside.  

As I thought about Epiphany, I wanted to sing one of my favorite Christmas songs, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by the Barenaked Ladies, a band from Canada. As we all sang and saw earlier, this song is a mishmash of We Three Kings and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. For a secular band, their recorded version of this song has always struck me as beautiful and worshipful, particularly with Sarah McLachlan’s haunting vocals. This beautiful song mentions the star of wonder, star of bright, mentions a gift of gold and worshipping a King, but not much else about our passage in Matthew. 

I suppose the We Three Kings original first verse gives a bit more info, but that was omitted from the mix we sang today. “We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar, field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star.” Three Kings, traveling a far, bearing gifts, following a star. This pretty much sums up the common and popular understanding of Epiphany is of three royal figures. Sometimes they’re called “wise men,” sometimes they are “three kings,” and probably called “Magi” the least often (at least from what I can tell). These three figures often show up where infant baby Jesus is, depicted next to the shepherds, Mary, Joseph, and the donkey in the manger scene. Yet this depiction doesn’t follow the gospel storyline we see in our Matthew passage. Commentator Diane Chen highlights several misconceptions that a popular understanding of the so-called “Wise Men” gets wrong. 

First despite my childhood Kings’ Cake or the We Three Kings, Jesus’ visitors were not “kings.” The Greek word magoi (the plural is magi) was used to represent astrologers, and some commentators think this meant Zoroastrian priests. Clearly from the text, the magi have been observing the stars and found world-changing theological meaning in the appearance of the Christmas star. Second, we do not really know how many people arrived bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh—or that the people we call “Wise Men” were even all men. The King James Version translated it “Wise Men” – but the King James Version made a lot of unique and not always the most linguistically or culturally accurate translation choices. Theologian Wil Gafney prefers the translation “sages” and notes that “Grammatically speaking, not all of the magoi need be male, only one; note: no number of sages is specified” (p. 35). We do not know how big the retinue was. Eventually in church history, people began to refer to 3 specific people with names, from different regions of the known world in that era: history calls them Melchior of Persia/Babylonia, Gaspar of India, and Balthazar of Arabia/Syria. Diane Chen writes that, “In ancient times, it was customary to send a delegate to honor a new ruler in a neighboring regime. Could these stargazing astrologers be court officials too? In Persia, members of the [Zoroastrian] priestly caste were called magi. Perhaps this could be their point of origin.”

Another misconception is when the Magi arrived. The bible story we read for Children’s Time today intentionally shows it separately from the shepherds. We do not see infant Jesus in Mary’s arms; we see toddler Jesus standing at the door with his bewildered parents. Especially in light of Herod’s murderous rage against all boy children under 2 years of age, Jesus was likely a toddler less than 2. Matthew also writes that the Magi enter a “house,” not a stable scene with a manger, so Mary and Joseph likely found more comfortable lodging in the greater Bethlehem region. Finally, though our passage mentions the importance of the guiding star, it does not say that they followed a star the whole way. Perhaps the Magi witness the star on Jesus’ birth and set out on their journey, knowing that it was related to the followers of Yahweh in Judea. A Jewish King would be in Jerusalem, so the Magi went there. After finding out from the Jewish scribes and scholars that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the star appeared again and led the Magi to the precise spot. 

I’d like us to re-read our gospel scripture again to refresh our theological imagination, with some of these misconceptions or pop culture Epiphany out of the way. Follow along and think about what words or images stand out to you. What surprises you? 

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the east came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Judeans? For we observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him, and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen in the east, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

What stood out to you, what surprised you, or what did you notice about the text? 

I have a few varied thoughts and observations that were meaningful to me: 

The Outsiders are the Stars Here: The Magi assumed that people in Jerusalem would know about this king of the Judeans. Sometimes people of faith are not in tune with what God is doing; outsiders pointed out what the revelation of God in Jesus looks like. These outsiders did not worship the same way, came from different countries, spoke different languages, may have been different shades of brown. We see the Christ child proclaimed, made manifest, and revealed through these theological, geographic, ethnic, and linguistic outsiders. These Gentile Brown folks were theological stargazers: they crossed borders, proclaimed and worshipped a Jewish toddler like a King, recognizing him to be Immanuel, God with us. We see time and again in Scripture that God either urges God’s people to welcome foreigners or that foreigners are a crucial part of God’s story and revelation. 

Stargazing and Jesus: I don’t have any ideas for how to learn about God from stars like the Magi or dreams like Joseph in Genesis – but I do think it is helpful to point out how God worked outside of our modernist, rationalist expectations. The Magi acted in faith, using theological reasoning that was perhaps atypical but also accurate. Seems important to note.

They rejoiced with exceeding great joy: the text says the Magi were overwhelmed with joy. Commentator Diane Chen says, “The text says that ‘they were overwhelmed with joy’ (2:10), which is an understatement. The wording in the Greek is emphatically redundant: ‘They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.’” The Magi had traveled what it is probably an inconceivable journey for us. As the crow flies, the shortest distance between Jerusalem and Iran is about a thousand miles. The Magi knew that something important had happened, something cosmically crucial, and they needed to pay homage to this new King. The star reappears and the Magi have cosmic assurance that they are on the right track. The Magi are giddy, gratified, and glowing in gratitude, awe, and overwhelming joy. They are ecstatic, eager, and grateful – and their mission is finally reaching its fulfillment.

Juxtapositions abound: We start our scripture with pompous royalty, in a scene with rulers and scholars. This stands in contrast to the visit in Bethlehem, what is likely an encounter with a poor family. Elsewhere in Scripture, we see that Mary and Joseph did not have a lot of money (their offering to present baby Jesus in the Temple was the poor person’s offering). We can also assume they were socially outcast somewhat due to the questionable circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy during their betrothal. This entourage of sages bearing royal gifts first goes to the King and scholars, then heads to what is likely a very humble home. These magi or sages are bearing gifts worth a fortune. They prostrate themselves before a toddler in a poor family. 

The word Epiphany means manifestation or revelation. Considering that meaning, this passage also highlights the ultimate juxtaposition: the incarnate Creator of the universe, manifesting first as baby Jesus, now as toddler Jesus. This King of the Universe is drooly, graceful as toddlers are graceful, full of toothy grins and big emotions. The One who made the stars is probably sticking something in his mouth that he shouldn’t be (watch out for the myrrh). 

Juxtapositions abound. Immanuel: God with us, in the poverty, in the threats from a tyrant, in the toddler giggles and stickiness, in the wonder of a guiding star, in the faith of foreigners. May we be encouraged by the faith and testimony of the Magi and ponder anew how we too can pay homage to the toddler King, whose star appeared in the East. AMEN. 

O, star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy perfect light. AMEN. 


Chen, D.G. (2023, January 6). Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12. Retrieved from 

Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12

Gafney, W. (2021). A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A. New York: Church Publishing.

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