Sunday, 2 January 2011
Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
Today we celebrate the Epiphany. After months of watching the signs and following the star, the Magi saw and recognised the truth about Jesus Christ. If you watched The Nativity series on the BBC just before Christmas, you may have noticed a little error they made in telling the story – the Magi didn’t arrive in time to see the Christ child on the same night that he was born, as the programme portrayed– they probably didn’t even arrive on the 12th day of Christmas – it’s more likely they arrived months afterwards, because they came from such a long distance. But at least the programme didn’t dress the Magi up as kings.
Matthew’s gospel is the only gospel to refer to the Magi, and ‘three kings’ aren’t mentioned at all. The identification of the Magi as ‘kings’ is linked to our OT reading from Isaiah & in psalms that say the Messiah will be worshipped by kings. Early readers interpreted Matthew in light of these prophecies and by 500 AD, the tradition of the three kings was adopted by all commentators, and this carried on up until the Protestant Reformation, after which the idea of the wise men as ‘kings’ was out, and they returned to their original status of Magi.
The word Magi probably refers to priestly astrologers from Persia. As part of the Zoroastrian religion, these priests paid a lot of attention to the stars; they had an international reputation for astrology, which was highly regarded as a science.
The same Greek word that translates as ‘wise men’ in the King James Version of the bible is translated as sorcerer in the Acts of the Apostles, with the sorcerers Elymas and Simon. But in spite of that negative use of the term, here in Matthew’s gospel, the Magi play a positive role. They don’t need conversion from their godless arts because they’ve recognised who Jesus is and have acted appropriately by worshipping him. The Nativity programme paid a lot of attention to the process the Magi went through, discovering the meaning of the bright star and acting upon this by following where it led. They knew that the infant born in Bethlehem was immensely important and brought him gifts that reflected their insight. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were the usual offerings given to a king at that time; gold, being valuable, was a symbol of kingship, frankincense is a perfume and was a symbol of priesthood, and myrrh was used as anointing and embalming oil.
By contrast to the epiphany of the Magi, the negative figures in the text are, of course, King Herod, and also ‘all Jerusalem with him’. Herod sees the Messiah as a rival to his kingship and he asks the Magi to come back and tell him the location of the newborn king so that he can destroy his competition. But surprisingly, all of Jerusalem, too, is disturbed at the coming of the Messiah. The ‘people’s chief priests’ and the ‘teachers of the law’, help Herod plan his evil assaults because of their wrong interpretation of Scripture. And so the Magi, the foreign elite, stand on the side of Jesus and act in keeping with biblical prophecies, while the religious elite of Israel stand on the opposite side with Herod and plot against Jesus.
Through the story of the Magi, the extent of the coming Kingdom of God is made clear, and this point was elaborated by Paul in our reading from Ephesians. Jesus came into the world to save all nations, not just the Jewish nation, and Jesus accepts all people, regardless of their status. The incarnation was first revealed to local shepherds and foreign Magi. God’s justice and peace is for the whole world, sharers together in the promise in Jesus Christ.
Later in Matthew chapter 27, as Jesus faces his inevitable suffering, Pilate’s gentile soldiers are the first since the Magi to call Jesus the ‘king of the Jews’, but the crown they give him is a crown of thorns, and his throne is on the cross. At that moment, instead of a bright star, darkness came over all the land. And we hear the voice of the Roman Centurion: ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’ Finally, Matthew ends his gospel with the resurrected Jesus commissioning his followers to go and make disciples of all nations.
The Magi’s attention had been fixed by the bright star that revealed Jesus to them as the true king of the Jews, through which all creation would be saved - and it was an event of astronomical proportions. The Magi dropped everything, travelling far from the East because the magnitude of this event that had been revealed to them. The story of the Magi speaks to us today not only about the extent of God’s kingdom over all peoples and all creation, but also about the importance of awareness and recognition of who God is in Jesus Christ and what he wants from us in terms of response.
Do we pay much attention to what God reveals to us in our own life? Are we aware of what God is doing in the life of other people in our communities and in our world? Think about what it would take for God to get our fixed attention. And then come to him by whatever route you can, with the best gift you can give: yourself.
O God, who by the leading of a star revealed your Son to the nations of the world; lead us to a clearer vision of your presence, and the nations into the ways of unity and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.