2 January 2011

10.30 Communion Woodchurch

Matthew 2:1-12

 May the words of my lips reflect something of your written word and so lead us closer to your living word, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Do you ever wish that God worked a bit more like Google?

If you have a question you need answering or simply need a bit of guidance then wouldn’t it be great if you could just fire up the computer, open the Goddle search engine, type in your question:  “Dear God, is it really your will that I should wear a trilby on Thursdays or did I just eat too much blue cheese that time?” and back would come the answer.  “Trilbys are profane headwear, you should wear a flat cap, but only on Tuesdays.”

We may not always understand such answers or the reasons for them but at least we would know that they were the right answer.

However, God does not actually work like that and, sometimes, that can make life uncomfortable.  Just speaking from my own experience, which is the only experience I really have, when I was going forward for ordination selection, when I started thinking about whether to undertake full time or part time ministry and when it came to looking for the right place to do my curacy there were months of simply not knowing what the right answer was.  Did God want me to be a priest?  If so should I also stay working as a lawyer?  Where does God want me to train for ministry and where does God want me to be a curate?  How great would it have been to have simply typed those questions into Goddle – “Yes, God does want you to be a full time priest in the Church of England and you are going to serve your curacy in Woodchurch.  Now stop worrying and go and do something more useful.”

Of course, from this perspective looking back the answers are obvious and as I said to Archdeacon Philip a few months ago I have no doubt that I am doing exactly the right thing at the right time in my life and in the right place – which is a huge blessing to be able to say.  But as we enter 2011 so the end of my curacy is beginning to enter more fully onto my radar.  My curacy could come to an end anytime between July this year and July 2012 – which means that we could be leaving Woodchurch anytime after the next 6 or 7 months and, at the moment, we simply have no idea where in the country we shall end up.  As you might expect that causes many of the same uncertainties, as before and, sometimes, it would be great to have a simple epiphany moment in which it all became clear – or perhaps if God could just put a star in the sky and lead us into the future life would be so much easier.  Or would it?

Today’s Gospel is the story of the Magi visiting Jesus and Mary.  Even as I wrote that line I was tempted to write ‘the three wise men’ but, of course, contrary to popular belief we don’t actually know that there were three of them and nor do we know their names.  We know that there were three gifts of gold, frankincence and myrhh and that gave rise to the belief that there must have been three magi but some traditions have up to 12 magi, in some ways looking like the first 12 disciples, and some classic paintings of the scene show only two.  The only thing we know for certain from the gospel is that there was more than one, because they are referred to in the plural.

Who were these Magi, and when did they visit Jesus?

Firstly they were not kings – so, I am sorry to say that, “We three kings of orient are” may be fun to sing but should not be taken as gospel.  They were probably members of a priestly caste that held much power in Babylonia and Persia (now known as Iraq and Iran respectively) and they were probably Zoroastrians, who worshipped the Sun but who were also very familiar with the night sky.  The Zoroastrians believed that the stars and the constellations reflected and influenced the events on earth and that each person on earth was represented by one star in heaven.  Therefore when a new and bright star appeared in the sky to them it was clear that an incredibly important person, a king, was about to be born on earth.

Although Babylon and Persia were over a thousand miles across country from Israel the Magi were probably familiar with Jewish prophecies concerning the coming Messiah and would probably have had access to Jewish scriptures and, actually, the route from Babylon to Isreal was well known and well trodden.

How do I know that?  Well, don’t forget that a mere 600 years before the nativity King Nechbuchednezzer, King of Babylon, had conquered Jerusalem and carried off many of the Jewish people, including the chief priests, into captivity.  Have a look at 2 Kings 25 when you get home.  It was not until King Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians and allowed captives to return home that Jerusalem was rebuilt, and the book of Ezra deals with that part of the story.  But between captivity and freedom many Jewish people lived in the East and even assumed positions of great responsibility – think of Daniel who was a good and faithful Jew who kept the food laws even in captivity and became a great ruler under King Nechbuchadnezzar.  In fact it is quite possible that the astrologers of the King Nechbuchadnezzar’s court mentioned in the book of Daniel who failed to interpret the kings dreams may well have been forerunners of the Magi in today’s gospel.

In any event the Magi would have been more than aware not only of the existence of Isreal but also of the Jewish expectation of a coming Messiah and when they saw his star rising in the East they set out for Jerusalem.

But when did the Magi get to Jerusalem?  Well, popular images of the nativity would sometimes have us believe that they were there at the time of the birth and that they rubbed shoulders with the shepherds and the animals as they gave their gifts.  Whilst that may be an attractive image that can feed all sorts of lessons about the powerful and the poor worshipping Jesus together unfortunately that is not a picture that the gospel accounts paint.  In fact the gospel of Matthew does not mention the shepherds at all and the gospel of Luke, which has the shepherds and the angels, does not mention the Magi at all.  This only becomes a conundrum for us because we have sought to conflate the two gospel accounts into a single story and we become concerned when the gospels do not seem to support the story that we imagine.

In fact, if one looks at the texts they speak for themselves.  In Luke chapter 2 the angels spoke the shepherds on the hillside on the night of the birth and when they went into Bethlehem they found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in the manger.

In today’s gospel from Matthew, which deals with the visit of the Magi, it does not talk about it being the night of the nativity or even being within a few days.  It simply says: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem” and when the Magi find the right place there is no mention of a manger – in fact in v.11 it mentions the magi coming to a house, which suggests that it is not the same place that the birth took place in, and there is also no mention of Joseph being present during their visit – it talks merely about Mary being present with the child, not the baby.  Finally, of course, when word gets back to Herod and he decides to try and protect his throne by slaughtering anyone who might be the new king of the Jews he orders the death of all boys who were two years old and younger, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.  So in all likelihood the visit of the Magi took place some considerable time after the nativity, possibly a year or two later, and fortunately Mary and Joseph were no longer living in a stable at that point.

How did the Magi know where to look for the new King of the Jews?  How did the Magi get their guidance from God, which lead to their epiphany of recognising and worshipping the Christ child?

Again popular religious culture presents us with images of men on camels following a star across the desert and following the star continuously until it arrives over the appropriate place in Bethlehem – in fact I have probably helped to perpetuate exactly that imagery with the picture at the top of Pew News.  But the gospel of Matthew does not actually tell us that the Magi followed the star continuously from where they started to where they found Jesus.

If we look at the gospel what is the very first thing that we hear the Magi saying when they arrived in Jerusalem?  The very first word that passes the lips of the Magi is the word:  “Where”.  “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?  We saw his star in the East [or we saw his star when it rose in the East] and we have come to worship him.”  Bearing in mind that men hate asking for directions, in fact Sat Navs have been invented for the sole purpose of stopping us having to ask for directions, and bearing in mind that these were learned men who have travelled a long way on the faith of seeing a star, it must have taken a lot for them to admit that having come so far they were not sure of the way ahead – “Where is the one…”

The Magi are given the direction to go onto Bethlehem not by the star itself but by Herod who calls together the chief priests and teachers of the law and who consult the prophecies and is given the answer from Micah 5:2:

But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for our of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.”

Herod then sent the Magi on their way and asked them to report back to him when they had found the child in Bethlehem – it was only after the Magi went on their way towards Bethlehem that they see the star again:

“…the star that they had seen in the East went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star they were overjoyed.”

Why would they be overjoyed if they had been following the star for hundreds of miles every night, surely they would just be used to it?  This story says to me that the star they saw rising in the East told them to go to Jerusalem but that they did not see the star again until after they had asked for directions, which were provided by words of scripture, and the star then gave them the final guidance to the exact house – after all Micah did not give an address.

And, of course, when they get to the house without another reported word, they bow down to worship Jesus and present him with the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrhh.   And of course the goal of all our journeys towards God should be the moment when we fall to our knees without a word and offer him what we have.

But how do we know which way to go and what to do with our lives in order to find God’s will for us in our pilgrimage?  Well, I am heartened by the fact that the Magi did not simply follow a star from start to finish.  They were prompted to start their journey by the rising of the star but they also had to stop and ask directions.  They had to seek the counsel of others, and of the bible, and God confirmed that they had taken the right course as they drew close.  The process for selection, training and ordination was not a solo pilgrimage following a star – it was certainly prompted by a call but was only confirmed over time by the counsel of others and through time spent in prayer and study of God’s word.  And the same goes for the next stage of my own journey – where I see a star I shall follow it but I shall also be working with many others to help discern the right path.

And what is true for the Magi and for me in our different pilgrimages towards God is also true for each of you and for this church as a whole.  The way ahead is not always clear and, unfortunately, God does not give us answers like Google.  However God does guide us to our own epiphanies through signs, through his word, through one another and, of course, through the indwelling of his Holy Spirit which directs us always towards God the Son.

Each of us has been called and guided and prompted to be here this morning and I believe that our journey this morning, for all that it may have been less than 1000 miles, is no less profound and no less holy than the journey of the Magi.  Our purpose for being here this morning is to recognise Jesus as our lord and saviour and to bow down and worship our God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


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