4 January 2015
10.00 Communion Hadlow
My I speak this morning in the name of God + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Firstly, may I wish you all a very happy new year!
Although the church’s new year started on Advent Sunday we can hardly ignore the fact that we also follow the secular calendar and a new calendar year feels like an incredibly important time. It is a time of drawing a line under the year that is past and looking forward with optimism to a year that is fresh and unsullied. It is like throwing away an old shirt which has buttons missing and food stains down the front and putting on a brand new shirt from the packet, just hoping that there are no pins left in it.
And although there were plenty of good news stories in 2014, I am thinking of stories like the brave individuals who went to West Africa to treat Ebola victims despite the huge personal risk, I expect we can all agree that 2014 also felt like a challenging year for all sorts of reasons. I shan’t rehash all the news stories from the year, because there have been plenty of TV programs doing just that but I expect most of us will agree that it has been a difficult year in many ways. But the good news is that 2014 is now last year, and we are in a new year which a chance to make something new.
And what applies to the year as a whole also applies to ourselves. This is, of course, a time of trying to cast off the old us with all our bad habits and making new year’s resolutions to try and become a better version of ourselves. We promise ourselves that we will eat more healthily, take more regular exercise, drink less alcohol and caffeine, perhaps read our bibles more and try and be better Christians. You are welcome to fill in your own blanks here.
And although the season of Epiphany is not deliberately timed to coincide with the secular new year, and although it can feel a bit like a conclusion of the Christmas drama, properly understood it is also a story of brand new beginnings. In normal usage the very word Epiphany means to have a sudden understanding of something, a lightbulb moment if you will, and once the lightbulb has gone on, once the important something has been understood then we ourselves have fundamentally changed. Once you have seen the solution to the cross word then it is very hard to un-see it: one moment you are in darkness and ignorance and the next you have light and understanding.
And that is exactly what the season of Epiphany is about, both for the participants of the stories we shall be looking at over the next few weeks and, of course, for ourselves. Following the birth of a baby to an unmarried mother in highly unpromising and dangerous circumstances we now come to the epiphanies, the lightbulb moments, as those whom come into contact with him realise that this baby is the fulfilment of prophecy, that this person is the one promised by God to bring glory not just to Israel but to the whole world – but in new and unexpected ways. And once they and we recognise Jesus as the saviour of us and of the whole world then everything changes, the lightbulb goes on, and we move from darkness to light.
Today’s Gospel is, of course, is the story of the Magi visiting Jesus and Mary. The sharp eyed amongst you will have noticed their arrival in the nativity scene, although I shall say a little more about that in a moment.
So, who were these Magi, and when did they visit Jesus?
Firstly they were probably 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. The king imagery probably comes from the prophecy in Isaiah 60 that was read this morning, which does mention “kings coming to the brightness of your dawn” and also visitors from Sheba bearing gold and incense, but those people were not the same people in the text and Matthew himself does not call them Kings, but Magoi, which is the plural of Magi which gives us our own word magician. They were probably members of a priestly caste that held much power in Babylonia and Persia and they were probably Zoroastrians, who worshipped the Sun but who were also very familiar with the night sky.
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. Don’t forget there was a long history of the kings of Babylon conquering Isreal and carrying Jewish people into captivity there.
In any event the Magi would have been more than aware not only of the existence of Israel 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, and we have perpetuated that in our own nativity scene. However, 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.
However, today’s gospel from Matthew, 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 Mary and Joseph were no longer living in a stable.
Finally, how did the Magi know where to look for the new King of the Jews?
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. 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.
We can say this with some certainty because the Magi stopped and asked for directions: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? The Magi are given the direction to go onto Bethlehem not by the star itself but by Herod and his own wise men who are given the answer from scripture, in particular 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.”
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.”
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 myrrh. Interestingly the gifts of gold and incense are in the prophecy of Isaiah – gifts for a king and for a god, but the expected twist is the gift of myrrh – often used for embalming.
The goal of all our journeys towards God should be that epiphany moment when we fall to our knees without a word and offer him what we have. That beats all new year’s resolutions and represents a real break between the old and the new, a lightbulb moment to beat all lightbulb moments.
That does not mean that the way either towards our own epiphany or onwards in the journey of faith is either clear or trouble free. However, if we let him, 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.