Matthew 2 (1-12)
For most people, Christmas is a dim memory, only revisited as the credit card bills come in, but not so for us. Today the Church celebrates the Epiphany or the visit of the Magi. So before we rush into the New Year, time for one last look at the Christmas story. The facts as set out in Matthews account are very brief, and have been padded out and added to over time.
The visit of the Magi is an event both historians and theologians agree did happen and 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 for us to start. The birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem was foretold by the prophet Micah in the Old Testament:
‘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 strange feeling of expectation of a coming king, and the desire for God was in many hearts – The Roman historian Tacitus wrote “there was a firm persuasion that a ruler was coming from Judea and was going to be powerful” so this journey is exactly the kind of thing that could easily have happened in the ancient world.
Who were the Magi? – We don’t know – they were possibly Persian.
Legend has made them kings, but that is unlikely they would not have left their kingdoms, but they were probably wealthy if we look at the gifts they chose.
How many of them were there? – we don’t know that either; legend has designated three because of the three gifts, but men of wealth travelling a long distance would have had servants with them as well, but for this morning we will leave them as men of mystery who followed a Star. But let us look at this star. Think just how small a star is to our sight. On our Christmas cards of the scene, we usually have a huge star that dominates the night sky and could not possibly be missed. But I suspect this star was as all stars are. The rising and movement across the sky was so inconspicuous that only the Magi with trained eyes fixed upon the heavens, saw it. Only they saw its tiny point of light moving amongst the myriads of others and catch its movement. They saw it because they were looking for it. Mathew’s account reminds us that Jesus’ birth was an event of truly cosmic significance.
They 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. It has been said that if the wise men had been women. Things would have been very different. They would have used a SatNav arrived on time, and brought practical gifts, a baby grow, a teething ring, a bottle of wine and a casserole for the parents. But they were wise men and they knew exactly what to bring.
Gold – the gift for a king, for Jesus was the man born to be king
Frankincense - the gift for a priest. The Latin word for priest is pontifex which means bridge builder, which is what Jesus did, he bridged the gap between God and man.
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 all people and in the end to die for all people.
These gifts from wise men, given to Jesus, foretold the true king, the perfect High Priest and in the end the supreme Saviour.
This is also the story of Two Kings with two kinds of sovereignty. There was crafty Herod in his huge palace, wielding huge power with troops who will obey his every command, even if they are horrific, and he was a liar, he told the Magi he wanted to go and worship the baby. He asked all the chief priests and scribes around him, not just one or two, what was going on. He has great honour to preserve and hated to be made too look like a fool.
On the other hand we have a new born King, Jesus and the sovereignty of God with us - Emmanuel. He was found in an insignificant house in an insignificant village, and there are Magi giving Jesus the gifts that Herod would have expected, even demanded to have, they were giving what was rightfully his to a baby
Herod’s reaction was hatred and hostility.
This child was going to interfere with his life, his place, his power, his influence; therefore his first instinct was to destroy him.
Interesting to note that Herod was 30 when he came to his 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 and the communist regimes which have been doing the same for decades still exist – just look at Somalia, China and North Korea. Of course the reaction of the average person on the street would not openly want to kill Jesus, yet they want to do what they like in life and have no time for Him or those who follow Jesus.
The reaction Chief Priests and Scribes is amazing. They knew the scriptures and told Herod about the prophesy in Micah 5 I have already quoted. Bethlehem of course was mentioned in the prophesy - but did they go to greet Jesus? Did they lift a sandal? Not at all, they were completely indifferent. They were so engrossed with their temple ritual and legal discussions that they completely missed the reality that the long awaited Messiah had arrived, and was on their doorstep.
With hindsight we know that within 33 years they would turn indifference into hatred and be baying for his blood.
And indifference is alive and well today, there are myriads of people to whom Jesus means nothing.
Finally we have the reaction of the Magi - they lay at the feet of Jesus Christ the noblest gifts they could bring.
The magi fall to their knees they can do no other as they are on Holy ground – surely when we realise the love of God in Jesus Christ we should take off our shoes for we stand on holy ground.
As we come to the end of our Christmas season with our nativity scene complete, we move into the next phase of our life.
Globally we face the increasing problem of terrorism, refugees, Trump in the White House and much more. Nationally we have the anxiety over Brexit, illegal immigrants and much more. Spiritually we face uncertainty with Karen and me being out of action and the increased responsibility resting on each church warden. Personally we have, or will have different situations to face, joys, and celebrations and doubtless some disappointments for that is what life is made up of. Now more than ever it is the time to look up, not scanning the skies for a star for that event has happened. But to look up to the King of Kings, to Jesus who came, Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus present in all things, Jesus here in the breaking of bread and Jesus who will leave with each one of us as we go from this place. Whatever we face in this coming year, the joys, the celebrations, and the unknown, we are not alone, we will never be alone,
for Jesus came and by the power of His Holy Spirit – He stayed.