6 January 2019
Readings: Isaiah , Matthew 2:1-12
May I speak in the name of God whom we know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Although it may be a few days late, if this is the first time I have seen you then please let me wish you a Happy New Year!
Despite being in the New Year, and despite the retailers already having Easter eggs on the shelves, we should not forget that for the church, Easter lies two seasons away: not only on the other side of Lent but also on the other side of this season of Epiphany, a season in which we are invited into a new realisation, an awakening, a Eureka moment of recognising who Jesus is and what he means for us and for the world.
On Christmas Eve at Midnight I spoke about the shepherds on the hills above Bethlehem responding to the words of the angel by searching for and finding Jesus in the stable and how, that night, there were no wise men present – as I said: different gospel, different night.
Although I didn’t elaborate at Midnight I think that it does no harm to remind ourselves that the traditional nativity scene of wise men and shepherds together in Bethlehem is actually a conflation of the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of Matthew, which we are looking at today, has the visit of the Magi and contains no shepherds and the gospel of Luke, which we had at Midnight, has the Shepherds but no wise men. That doesn’t mean either that one gospel writer got it right and the other got it wrong or that it is wrong to put the stories together in dramatic or artistic form, but from the perspective of our own biblical literacy it is good to remember that the accounts of the nativity written by Matthew and Luke are written from different angles for the purpose of shedding different light on the scene and the purpose of Christ’s birth.
The shepherds were Israelites, they were Jewish, they were poor and uneducated, and it took an angel, indeed a choir of angels to appear before them and tell them to go and find that special child. And when they did find him they reacted with joy and by telling everyone about what they had seen.
The Magi were quite different, but they did have two things in common with the shepherds. 1 – They were men. Of course that doesn’t mean that only men can have epiphany moments about Jesus as we have seen recently in the story of Mary and Elizabeth and we shall encounter again soon with the prophetess Anna in the Temple. But, as it happens, they were men. And 2 – They spent a lot of their time looking up at the stars. The shepherds whilst they were out on the hills but the Magi, it seems, studied the heavens looking for signs spoken of in the prophecies of the surrounding cultures.
But other than those two things the Magi could not have been more different from the shepherds:
They were not Jewish – although we are not told expressly it is likely that they were Zoroastrians from Persia. Whether that is correct or not it is certain that they were outsiders in a culture obsessed with genealogies and being God’s chosen people.
They were well educated – they were able to study the Hebrew scriptures and prophecies, which meant they had access to books and languages other than their own.
They were rich – not only were their gifts expensive but they had the freedom to travel for months, or possibly years, following the star. These men were not wage slaves.
Having mentioned the gifts brought by the Magi of course each tell us something about who Jesus is: gold as a gift suitable for a king, frankincense as an offering to God and myrrh as an embalming fluid in recognition that the road he was to follow would involve passing through death. In the reading from Isaiah both gold and frankincense are mentioned but not myrrh: This says to me that the Gospel account of the magi was not written in order to simply fulfil that prophecy but also to transform and exceed it.
It is also interesting that the response of the Magi to meeting Jesus was to honour him with those gifts before returning home but there does not seem to be the exuberant joy of the shepherds on display. An apt reminder that God not only calls very different people into relationship and knowledge of Jesus but that there is more than one way of reacting to that encounter – never let anyone tell you that your encounter with Jesus is less real just because it is different from theirs.
And talking of the call of God today also tells us about some of the different ways that God can call and speak to very different people. He called the shepherds by a host of angels but he spoke to the Magi through their learning and interpretation of a star. This should give us the humility to recognise that God is not constrained by any cultural boundaries; if he wants someone to come to Christ, he can call them wherever they are using whatever method he chooses.
In this passage God does not speak solely through sending the star. When the Magi visit Herod in his palace Herod also wants to know about the birthplace of the King of the Jews, albeit for very different reasons, and he asks his own wise men to find out where it is to be. They do not look at the star but, rather, they consult the Hebrew scriptures which tell them clearly that the King of the Jews is to be born in Bethlehem.
Finally there is one other method of divine communication mentioned in this short passage. After the magi had paid their respects to Jesus God warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod. In fact God speaks through dreams a number of times in the nativity drama – when he tells Joseph about his plan for Mary and, again, when he tells Joseph that Herod has died and it is safe to come back from Egypt.
We live in a highly rational culture that perhaps feels somewhat embarrassed or worried about anything that is not either clearly written down or understood or explainable but there is plenty of biblical writ to tell us time and time again that God communicates in a myriad of ways. Certainly thinking back on my own life and especially my own journey of faith I can recall encountering God not only in the scriptures, but in the signs and portents of my life and, yes, even in dreams. We should never be afraid to be attentive to God and his call in every aspect of our conscious and sub-conscious life.
The Epiphany is not just about wise men and their gifts. It is about the fact that God wants each and every one of us to come into a relationship with him by encountering Jesus – that he calls us all, whether rich or poor, wise or naïve, local or foreign. That he calls us all differently, using whatever means possible, but it is still up to us to respond. Whether it is by an angel, a star, the scriptures or a dream it is still up to us to put one foot in front of the other and go searching for the promised Jesus.