Every comedian has a particular style, a particular way of speaking, and often a set of catchphrases that define their comedy.

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Cheltenham United Methodist Church
January 5, 2020—Epiphany Sunday
Isaiah 60:1–6; Matthew 2:1–12

From Jack Benny’s “Now, cut that out!” to George Burns’ “Say goodnight, Gracie” to Steve Martin’s “Excuuuuuse me!” to Rodney Dangerfield’s “I get no respect” to Larry the Cable Guy’s “Git ’er done!” to Bill Engvald’s “Here’s your sign” to George Carlin’s, well, George Carlin doesn’t really have a catch phrase and even if he did, I don’t think I could say it in church.

But then there is Jerry Seinfeld’s “Who are these people?” It’s a phrase so associated with Jerry Seinfeld that it’s kind of come to define his comedy, even if it’s hard to find a clip of him actually saying it.

But the line is used something like this: “Have you ever seen these people who put on the Star Wars costumes and wait in line all night for a movie ticket? Who are these people?” Whether or not Jerry used this as much as we remember him doing so, the phrase has come to represent the kind of sarcastic observational humor that he is known for.

“Have you ever seen people who drink grape juice instead of wine for communion? Who are these people?”

But there is a reason that that particular line has been in my head this week; and it’s because of the Gospel text we heard earlier.


In today’s lesson, we read that “after Jesus was born” …“wise men from the East” come to Jerusalem asking for the child who has been born King of the Jews. They say that they have “observed his star at its rising” and have come to pay him homage. King Herod is terrified at this news and after consulting with the chief priests and the scribes as to the prophesied location of the messiah’s birth, sends the wise men to Bethlehem, asking them to report back to him once they have found the child, so that Herod may, ostensibly, pay homage, too.

Icon exhibited at the Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki, Greece

They find the child Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, and bring gifts. But, warned in a dream about Herod’s intentions, they return to their country by another road.

And I can’t help but think, yeah, but who are these people? “Wise men from the East”? That sounds kind of vague.

Now, this is one of those passages that we all think we know but then are stunned to discover it doesn’t quite say what we think it says. And the reason for that is centuries of Christian tradition, including all kinds of Christmas carols, that cloud our perception of the passage.

First, there is no manger in this telling of the Nativity. In Matthew’s account, there is no census, no travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, no “no room at the inn,” no stable, no animals, no shepherds. In fact, the text says that the wise men find the child Jesus and his mother after “entering the house.” There is likewise no mention of the Baby Jesus, only the “child,” and the text itself gives us a clue that this could be as many as two years after Jesus was born.

Second, there is no mention of kings. We sing “We Three Kings” (as we will in a little while), we celebrate “Three Kings Day” and use this language a lot, but there is no mention of kings in the Matthew text—other than King Herod, of course, and he’s definitely not a wise man.

Third, the wise men are not named. Even though one tradition tells us they’re named Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar. Nor is there any mention that there were only three wise men. In fact, it seems that the only reason we think so is that there were three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—ergo: three wise men. But some western Christians are surprised to learn that in the medieval church and in the Syrian churches to this day, there are twelve wise men.

Fourth, there is no mention of camels. Despite their ubiquitous appearance in practically every Christmas card and nativity scene, the Gospel of Matthew’s nativity is stunningly camel-free.

So, why do we think all these things? It has to do with the fact that Christians have long drawn a connection between the story of the wise men with the passage from Isaiah 60 that we read earlier. That passage begins

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

And in Matthew we read of the wise men following a star—a light. The Book of Isaiah continues:

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

And our wise men become Kings. The Book of Isaiah continues:

Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

And there we have our camels, right near our gold and frankincense.

Now Christians have had a long history of reinterpreting prophetic passages in scripture in light of their experience of Christ. And here is no exception. This passage from the Book of Isaiah likely dates to the end of or just after the Babylonian Exile, when returning exiles and those who had remained in the land are struggling to see a vision of a restored Israel. And here, the prophet’s vision of a land to which all the nations shall stream and bring with them those sons and daughters from exile far away, attains a special resonance with the early Christian community who saw in Jesus the fulfillment of their hopes for restoration. They read the account of Matthew through the lens of Isaiah.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. The author of Matthew’s gospel makes frequent use of the prophets for similar purposes.

But none of that changes the fact that Matthew presents us a story of wise men from the East that is not at all like the ways that we have interpreted the story over the ensuing centuries.

So, if these are not three kings named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, if they did not ride on camels to visit the Christ Child in the middle of a nativity scene, then an important question remains:

Who are these people?


The term that is usually translated as “wise men” is the Greek μαγοι magoi “magi.” The word magi and its singular magus refer to members of a Persian priestly caste of the Zoroastrian religion. They paid particular attention to the stars and had a reputation throughout the ancient world as astrologers. Which, given that they’re following a star in Matthew’s story, makes a fair amount of sense. And because of their associations with astrology and the occult, their name magi serves as the origin for our word magic. But this raises another interesting question:

What are Iranian astrologers doing in our Christmas story? [1]

Perhaps one of the reasons we’re inclined to think of them as Three Kings is that there is a little more respectability in having kings come to visit your newborn messiah than there is in having astrologers from some Iranian cult show up. Because, while astrologers had some esteem in certain parts of the ancient Near East, they were not respected by the Jews. In fact, the Jews took a dim view of astrology and other occultish behaviors like fortune-telling and divination. Getting visited by Iranian astrologers would hardly have been as prestigious as getting foreign dignitaries to arrive.

So, what are Iranian astrologers doing in our Christmas story?


Well, before we can answer that, it’s important to look at who else shows up in our Gospel story. In the genealogies, there are the foreign women Tamar, Rahab, and the Moabite Ruth, great-grandmother of King David.

There is the pagan Roman Centurion who demonstrates his faithfulness in Jesus’ authority when his own disciples and countrymen cannot.

Word cloud of sermon text
Image courtesy Wordle

There is the demon-possessed man of Gerasa, who identifies who Jesus is immediately, while those closest to him struggle to figure out who he is.

They are the despised tax-collectors, considered quislings of the Roman occupation, brought into the fold.

There is the Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician woman who comes to Jesus begging him to heal her daughter, convinced of his power, while his family and friends from his own home town reject him.

There is the centurion at the foot of the cross who testifies that Jesus is the Son of God, even as his disciples have fled and are nowhere to be found.

And this is just in the Gospel of Matthew. If we look at the other Gospels, we find other surprising outsiders: shepherds, Samaritans, more Greeks and Romans.

It’s a theme we find throughout the Gospel, but also throughout the scriptures. It is the work of a God whose call and whose people are wider than we are inclined to imagine. The work that calls Melchizedek to bless Abraham. The work that sends Jonah to the pagan city of Nineveh. The work that lifts up the non-Israelite Job as the model of faithful endurance. The work that identifies the Persian King Cyrus as God’s anointed (i.e., messiah).

It is the work that announces the birth of the Messiah to the disreputable working classes like shepherds abiding in the fields

It is the work that heralds the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah of Israel with the pilgrimage and homage of Iranian astrologers.

It is the work that declares to us that it is not we alone who are the people of God.


It can get so easy to identify the people of God with those who are already on the inside. We can often look at the Church and imagine that it is contiguous with the People of God. But God keeps reminding us otherwise.

St. Augustine realized as much. He realized that the Church was full of bad people, and that outside the church were very many good people. He concluded that there must be an invisible church, known only to God that was greater than any earthly church that we could see.

Who are these people?

They are the ones like Ruth, a Moabite whose faithfulness outmatches that of her Israelites mother-in-law.

They are the outsiders who heard the call of God when the people who are supposed to did not. King Herod didn’t even know where the messiah was to be born. When the chief priests and the scribes responded to the nativity of Christ with fear and violence, the foreign astrologers responded with adoration and praise.

Who are these people? They are the ones that God uses to remind us that God’s story is greater than our story.

When we assume that our story is synonymous with the entirety of God’s story, we run the risk of missing out on so much of that story. We neglect the experiences of others that might shed light on an experience of God that we have not before considered.

God’s story involves so many of the people we are inclined to think have something to learn from us. I imagine the scribes and chief priests in Herod’s Jerusalem felt that way about the magi, but in the end, it was they who needed to learn something from these visitors from the East.

It’s worth noting that no one in Jerusalem seemed to notice the star that was pointing them to Bethlehem six miles away; instead, it was astrologers from far off Persia who from a distance could tell that God was up to something in that little backwater province of the Roman Empire.

Who are these people?

They are the ones whom we find strange, alien, outside, and other. And yet, they are the ones who point us toward the light of Christ and bid us to follow in adoration and praise.


Isaiah 60:1–6

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

Matthew 2:1–12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, 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 wise men 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 at its rising, 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.


[1] I am indebted to Rev. Dean Snyder for this observation

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