Matthew 2 1-12
For most people, Christmas is a dim memory, only revisited as the credit card bills come in – some may have carried on celebrating till the New Year but even those parties are over – and we should have our decorations down by the 6th commonly known as 12th night. The 6th is the official day the Church celebrates the Epiphany or the visit of the Magi. Epiphany now a word often used in common speak, but loosely translated it means that ‘penny drop moment’; An awakening a, revelation or an enlightenment. So before we rush headlong into the New Year there is time to have one last look at the Christmas story. The visit of the Magi (which means wise ones) is an event both historians and theologians agree did happen. The facts as set out in Matthew’s account (the only account) are very brief, and the story has been embellished over time.
While we have a delightful, but certainly inaccurate story line nowadays it was an event foretold in Jewish history. So that is a good place to start. The birthplace of the Messiah Bethlehem was foretold by Micah in the Old Testament; as we have heard several times during Christmas.
But you O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, small though you are among the clans of Judah, from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.
Up to, and at the time of Jesus’ birth, men believed in astrology and destiny foretold in the stars. It may seem extraordinary to us that men should set out from the east to find a king, just because of a single star, but at the time Jesus was born there was in the eastern world a feeling of expectation of a coming king. Roman historians knew about this – Tacitus writes “there was a firm persuasion that a ruler was coming from Judea and he was going to be powerful”. When Jesus came people were waiting with eagerness and the desire for God was in many hearts –so this journey is exactly the kind of thing that could easily have happened in the ancient world.
Who were they?– We don’t know - probably Persian, certainly from the east. Legend has made them kings, astrologers, or wise men, but they were probably wealthy if we look at the gifts they brought.
How many were there ? - We don’t know that either. Legend has given us three, because of the three gifts, but men of wealth travelling a long way would have had servants with them, but for today we will leave them as three Magi, men of mystery who followed a Star. But let us be real about this star. Firstly just think how small a star is to the human eye. On our Christmas cards of the scene, we see a huge great blob of light that dominates the night sky and could not possibly be missed. But this star is tiny to see, as all stars are. The rising and movement across the sky is so inconspicuous that only the magi with trained eyes fixed upon the heavens, see it. Only they picked out its tiny point of light amongst the myriads of others and caught its movement. They saw it because they were looking for it. This was a time in history when people talked about a star brightening when a baby was born and dimming when a person died. We may not believe in such things but there are echoes of this still around, with stars being bought and named after people who have died.
Mathew’s account of the star and it’s following shows us that Jesus’ birth is an event of truly cosmic significance. These men saw the star, they followed the star, they found the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother and falling on their knees they worshipped him – then and only then did they offer their gifts. This is no half a day trip, but would have taken up to two years – it took determination and courage. It has been said that if the wise men had been women, things would have been very different. They would have used a map, arrived on time, and brought practical gifts, a baby grow, a teething ring and a bottle of wine for the parents. But they were wise men and they knew exactly what to bring.
Gold – the gift fit for a king.
Frankincense - the gift for a priest. The Latin word for priest is pontifex which means bridge builder. That is what Jesus did - he bridged the gap between mankind and God.
Myrrh – the gift for one who is to die. It was used to embalm the bodies of the dead. Jesus came into the world to live for mankind and in the end to die for them.
These were the gifts from the wise men, and even at the start of his life they foretold that he was to be the true king, the perfect High Priest and in the end the supreme Saviour.
This is also the story of Two Kings, and two kinds of sovereignty. The crafty Herod in his huge palace, wielding huge power, a tyrant and a liar.
The other King is Jesus, Emmanuel, the sovereignty of God with us. He had been born in an insignificant stable and his birth was to change things forever. No sooner was Jesus born than we see people grouping themselves into the three reactionary groups that are to be found in regard to Jesus Christ.
Firstly there is Herod’s reaction, one of hatred and hostility. This child was going to interfere with his life, his place, his power and his influence; therefore his first instinct was to destroy Jesus.
There is a strange parallel here, for Herod was 30 years old when he came to the throne and 33 when he died.
There are still those today who wish to destroy Jesus Christ. The extreme Moslem factions who persecute and kill Christians, the communist regimes which have been doing the same for decades still exist. And the person on the street who would not openly seem to want to kill Jesus, yet wants to do what he or she likes in life and has no use for the attributes of those who follow Jesus.
Then there is the reaction of the religious elite the Chief Priests and Scribes. Their attitude is amazing. They knew the scriptures and had a problem in answering Herod when he quizzed them about the birth of a king. Micah 5: as I have already quoted. Bethlehem of course was the place, and the visit of the Magi was also foretold as we heard in the reading from Isaiah just now. Even the gifts were itemised but did they go to greet him? Did they lift a sandal? Not at all, complete indifference. They were so engrossed in their temple rituals and legal discussions that they completely disregarded the reality that the long awaited Messiah had arrived. The prophesies they knew by heart had become a reality and they missed it.
Within 33 years their indifference would turn into hatred and instead of trying to ignore Jesus they would be baying for his blood.
Of course we are well aware of the fact that there are myriads of people today for whom Jesus means nothing. He is still being ignored.
Finally we have the reaction of the Magi. They fall to their knees and worship Jesus; they can do no other as they are on Holy ground. They lay at the feet of Jesus Christ the noblest gifts they could bring. When we truly realise the love of God in Jesus Christ we too should take off our shoes for we stand on holy ground. And what can we bring – the hymn writers try to give us clues: “if I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb“. But there is nothing that we can give, and there is nothing that Jesus wants, except our love. Our love for God which will spill over into our love for each other.
Epiphany begins with expectation and it ends with a warning. After the wise men have seen the child and given their gifts, God warns them in a dream not to return to King Herod and they go back to their own country by a different road. The visit to the Christ Child ends with a warning...Don't go back the way you came. This could well be one of the greatest truths in all of Scripture. Once God has been made manifest to you; once you have been inside the stable...once you have seen your water turned to wine...once you have seen the dove descend and recognized Jesus for who he is...you must not go back the way you came.
When we leave the stable, we leave with a warning from God...things must be different now. The same old way will not do. To meet Christ requires that we turn from our former way and go out by another road.
It is simple, and it is ignored time and time again. So many come to church, say the creeds, sing the hymns that declare the astounding news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. They hear the Bible that tells of the steadfast love of God, and go home the exact same way they came - unchanged.
And we do the same outside of church. If you're looking, the signs of God's presence are all around us. It's there in the trees and ocean and sky. It's in the face of the big issue seller. God is present in the wagging tail of my dog, and in the voice of a friend on the telephone. God is in all of those places and more, yet how seldom it is that we notice or allow the encounter to change us.
Don't go back the way you came. God is the one who transforms. God is the one who changes hearts and lives. God is the one who is willing to take pagan astrologers and use their gifts for the glory of God. Don't go back the way you came.
We all meet God in different ways and at different times and places in our lives. The message of Epiphany is that the revelation of God is not a once in a lifetime experience.
The message of Epiphany is the same as the message in the book of Revelation. That Jesus is the one who was, the one who is, and the one who is to come. The God who was made manifest in Jesus of Nazareth is the same God that was manifest somewhere, somehow in your home this morning--the same God that epiphed in the opening hymn, and the God that will be revealed in the breaking of bread at the table. The message of Epiphany is "keep watch...for you don't know the day or the hour when God will appear."
God is here to be encountered, beside you in the pews, in the sacrament, in the Scripture reading, in the offering. From the songs we sing to the prayers we pray to the sermons that are preached, the ultimate purpose of all of it is to provide a place where it is easier for people to experience the epiphany of God.
God is also outside the doors. You can find God on a walk through the woods; in your children, in your neighbour and in the stranger in front of you in the supermarket. God is all around you, waiting to be revealed to someone willing to look. Expect to see God; listen for His voice. Read your Bible expecting to hear God’ and come to Communion open to receive Him every time, but what ever you do, don't go back the way you came. Amen.