We don’t get that much info in Matthew 2 about the three kings. Legend has it there were three of them, bearing gifts, and that their names were Gaspar (meaning treasure), Melchior (meaning king and also the name of a now deceased pet fish our family welcomed one Epiphany RIP), and Balshazzar. That third name is a tell. It means Baal saves the King, Baal being the name of a pagan God.
So, what’s clear from both the Bible and the legends about these visiting kings is that they are Gentiles. Pagans. Not Jews, and not from around here.
Did you know the Bible has another story about a visiting king bearing treasure?
Remember Abraham and Sarah, that old barren couple in Genesis? We’re told in Genesis 12 that they began their journey of faith based on a divine promise. God promised to make of them a family, a huge family, despite their barrenness.
God spoke to Abraham saying “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families, all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”Genesis 12
And so they began their journey in faith, but just two chapters later it’s clear that Abraham’s is a human, imperfect faith. It ebbs and flows, and needs grace and constant assurance. That’s why in chapter fourteen Abraham is visited by a king. Not three kings, just one. His name is Melchizedek
King Melchizedek of Salem came out to meet Abraham. With him he brought out bread and wine. He was both a king and a priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,Genesis 14
maker of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”
And Abram, moved by this, gave him one-tenth of everything.
It’s a short story in a chapter with not much for interpreters to comment on, but after Christmas, even more so after the Resurrection, the first Jewish Christians started to read stories like this in Genesis 14 in a new Light. When they did, they had epiphany after epiphany, noticing this and other places in the story of their people where the Spirit of Christ was made manifest, centuries before his birth at Bethlehem.
It wasn’t lost on those first Christians that this visiting king’s name, Melchizedek, means King of Righteousness (in fact Melchizedek and Melchior have the same regal root). Christians also noticed he comes from Salem, later known as Jerusalem, the city of Peace. And they can’t help but observe that he is a priest there, a king, and priest, mediating between the people and the Most High God, coming out to meet an old man along the way bearing gifts of bread and wine.
Re-reading Genesis in the light of Christ the first Christians exclaim like Buddy the Elf, “We know him! We know that king! ”
The story ends as Abraham receives bread, and wine, and a blessing for his journey. Abraham then lays a gift at the feet of this king.
One more story…
I read a Christmas Story by Nikolai Lesskov about a guy name Timothy who was exiled in Siberia for shooting his uncle in a domestic skirmish. Timothy shot his uncle because, although he had taken Timothy in when his father died, his uncle ultimately squandered Timothy’s inheritance and indirectly caused Timothy’s mother’s death. After their fight, Timothy’s uncle is left wounded, and Timothy is exiled to Siberia as both a felon and an orphan.
There he is taken in by a Christian family and, in time, he comes to make a living, buy a house, and get married. He becomes a student of the scriptures, and a believer in Christ, but his journey of faith is imperfect. It ebbs and flows. He cannot find freedom from his rage, hate, and resentment of his uncle. Until…
Until one day in prayer he begs Christ to be made known to him, to visit him along the way. Suddenly he hears the words “I am coming. Coming soon.”
Immediately Timothy begins to set a place at his dinner table for the Lord. Months go by and no one shows up. But as Christmas approaches Timothys faith only grows. He knows it will happen on Christmas Day.
Because he’s a good student of scripture, he invites people to join him at his house Christmas night. The poor, the destitute, the newly exiled with no place to be for Christmas. Together they huddle around the table and await the feast. They pray the Lord’s Prayer to which Timothy adds the words “Christ is born today! Let us praise the Lord our God. The God Most High has visited us, and is even now in our midst.”
No sooner had he finished these words than there was a knock at the door. The guests all startle as the door bursts open. Light and snow flood the house. There in the doorway is this man dressed in rags. He stumbles to the open chair at the table.
“Christ is among us!” shouts one of the guests. “Amen” the other guests reply.
But Timothy gets close enough to hear the man’s voice. That’s when he knows, this is not the Lord. It’s his uncle.
“My life had fallen to pieces,” the uncle said. “I stole and squandered away all I had and left behind me a trail of pain and death. I was left with nothing but the hope that I could somehow find you, Timothy, my nephew, and ask for your forgiveness.
“I got here days ago and had to wander in the cold until just this morning a stranger found me along the way. I told him everything. He took me by the hand and led me to this street. He pointed to this house and told me to follow the light from your window. He said, ‘Go to that house and knock on the door. There you will find a feast prepared. When you get inside, you can have my seat and eat from my plate.’”
Timothy understood what the Lord had done, and so they feasted, that night and every night afterward. They were reconciled in the breaking of bread, and together they began to live in peace.
And so, my friends, our Epiphany is before us. In Genesis, God’s promise to bless all nations through Abraham and Sarah is blessed by a visiting king, in the sharing of bread and cup. Then, in the fullness of time, come more visiting kings, Gentiles guided by Hebrew scriptures to Bethlehem, to be blessed by the newborn king, and to lay gifts at his feet.
This Epiphany we come too. We come with the faith of Abraham and Sarah, with the wonder of the kings, with the hope of exiles, with the repentance of sinners. We come, staggering through the bleak midwinter, hoping to claim again this promise of God, made manifest in the scriptures, born in Jesus Christ, sealed by his cross, and offered again today in bread and wine, in an open chair, at an open table.
Thanks be to God. Happy Epiphany.