Matthew 2 1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Today the Church celebrates the Epiphany The word Epiphany means moment of awakening, sudden realisation. In the context of this morning’s reading the Epiphany is brought to us by the visit of the Magi to Jesus. The facts as set out in Matthew’s account are very brief, and have been redacted or added to over time. Longing and fear are the bookends of this Epiphany story. At one end we have wise men from the East following the star. They have left their own country, the familiar, the usual, and the known in search of something new and unknown. They don’t know where this journey will take them, only that they have to take this journey. It is as if there is a call on their lives that cannot be left unanswered.
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 but we can speculate. They were possibly Persian. Legend has made them kings, but that is unlikely as 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 almost certainly have had servants with them as well. This morning we will leave them as men of mystery who followed a star. We sing lustily (when we are allowed!) about the wise men following a star, but just think 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, and the 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. They saw it because they were looking for it. Matthew'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-gro, a teething ring and 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, that all might have eternal life.
These gifts from wise men, given to Jesus, foretold the true king, the perfect High Priest and in the end the supreme Saviour. They had set out on their journey with longing in their hearts and they received their Epiphany when they found the Christ child.
We tend to think of the Epiphany story as relating to just the wise men, but Herod also had an Epiphany. When he heard that the wise men were searching for a king, his reaction was not joy but fear. He was a man with great honour to preserve and hated to be made to look like a fool with another king threatening his reign, and especially a baby. On top of that insult here are Magi who will be giving Jesus the gifts that Herod would have expected, even demanded to have, they were giving what was rightfully his to a baby. This child was going to interfere with his life, his power, his influence; therefore his first instinct was to destroy him, and we know the outcome of his anger was to order the slaughter of the innocents.
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.
The priests and scribes also had an Epiphany that day. They knew the scriptures and told Herod about the prophesy in Micah 5 that I have already quoted. Bethlehem was mentioned in this 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 that indifference would turn into hatred and they would be baying for his blood. Sadly indifference is alive and well today, there are myriads of people to whom Jesus means nothing. 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.
This is the story of two kings, one destined to bring salvation the other destruction. (Interesting to note that Herod was 30 when he came to his throne and 33 when he died, just as Jesus was 30 when he began his ministry and 33 when we died.)
Finally we have the reaction of the Magi. As they realise their Epiphany they lay at the feet of Jesus Christ the noblest gifts they could bring. They fall to their knees, they can do no other as they are on Holy ground. As we realise afresh this morning the love of God in Jesus Christ, surely we should bend the knee and take off our shoes for we also stand on holy ground.
As we near the end of our Christmas season with our nativity scene complete, we are ready to move into the next phase of our lives. I am sure there is much of 2020 that we wish to forget and much that we can give thanks for.
As we look out into another year there are huge challenges for us. Globally we face the increasing problem of terrorism, refugees, global warming, and the presence of Covid 19 to name but a few! Nationally we have to adapt to life outside of the EU and all the challenges that will bring. Spiritually we will have some decisions to make. Do we slip back into the old pattern of worship, pick up where we left off prior to ‘lockdown’ or do we embrace all we have learned with social media and embrace new technology? On a personal level we will have different situations to face, joys, and celebrations and doubtless some disappointments for that is how life is made up.
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 in the breaking of bread and Jesus who is with each one of us, wherever you are reading this. 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 - this is our Epiphany.
May I take this opportunity of wishing you a very safe, peaceful and Christ-filled year ahead.