Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12
Let us pray: God today and every day we seek openness, challenge and promise as we hear your word for us. Amen.
How many of us were, even slightly, on edge on 21st December? The end of the world as predicted by the Mayans and made large in our thoughts by the media frenzy. The fact that the Mayan prophecy was about the end of their 5000+ years calendar cycle rather than the world necessarily imploding upon itself was fairly conveniently overlooked by many. We these days mostly have a fairly light hearted approach to prophecies, predictions for the future – especially of this style (around 10% according to a Reuters poll were uneasy about the date) – they sit alongside horoscopes as bit of a laugh but you never know – actually I read on Friday on the top of my gmail page, where they flash up little ads, that if I went to a particular site I could access my horoscope for the year and know everything that was going to happen. Whew, that’s a relief. Oh and then I found out that ads are selected for my particular login based on the perceived content of the emails. Scary and not sure of the connection there really! Maybe I like to talk about hope for the future a bit?
Seriously though, in the time that Matthew was writing, prophecy based on astronomical events was a much more widespread and valued art (or science you might say). Those who came from the east to visit the Christ child were thought to be skilled astronomers, scientists, probably of another faith - scholars who would have used all their predictive skills to determine the time and place of this coming great event – the birth of a King to the Jews, a shepherd for the people of Israel. It was not unusual – many of the important old world events were said to be accompanied by particular astral phenomena – including the births of Abraham, Alexander the Great and Mithras.
As we turn to the Gospel reading today -it is interesting that the Christmas story we enact each year is a coming together of the two Gospel stories of the early years of Jesus. We have Matthew who tells of the ‘men from the east’ and the ensuring horror of Herod’s directive to kill all the young children, and Luke who tells us of the coming to the inn, the birth and the shepherds and Simeon and Anna at the temple. The Magi are generally agreed to have arrived at some time after the birth, not with the shepherds and not at the manger. I read of a minister in the States who, each Christmas, in his home and in church, moves the Magi of the Nativity scene from windowsill to windowsill, and only brings them alongside the infant Jesus with his mother on Epiphany.
So does it matter that, in some ways like our simplistic interpretation of the Mayan prophecy, we have created a Christmas story that is not an accurate depiction of the time and the facts known to us? Well actually yes it does, not because it’s false or wrong or particularly misleading, but because, by doing so, we can often miss the fullness of God’s message to us in the incarnation. If we leave the drama of the Christmas story as a standalone event, as a cute baby in a manger surrounded by the rough shepherds and the wise visitors from the east, we risk treating Christmas as an isolated one off event which is over on the 26th December and only to be engaged with again next Advent. We also miss the outrageousness of these visitors from other lands if we allow them only miraculous timing and extravagant gift giving. They can bring much more to our understanding of God’s purpose for us and the world if we allow the Magi to come in Epiphany and give them some time and thought there.
The word itself – Epiphany – means manifestation or appearance – and, for the church over the centuries, the revelation of Christ in connection with the visit of the Magi.
In the early church Epiphany, the revealing of Jesus Christ to the world was a much more important part of the liturgical year, more so than Christmas, and joined Easter and Pentecost as one of the three major feasts of the faith communities. Why? Dirk Lange, a Lutheran theologian suggests that it was because the time of Epiphany was seen as God’s self revelation to the world, the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. And that, whilst the birth was obviously important, it was the beginning only and this visit by the Magi held greater significance in the sense of revealing Christ to the whole of the world.
The story of the Magi actually speaks out of the prophetic stream of Hebrew Scriptures - which tells of peoples coming together in peace, beating their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning hooks, of all sharing in the great feast as one people. Those who stand in Israel’s tradition are to kneel alongside the others, the Gentile Magi, in acknowledgment that something recognisably divine is met in the Christ - and that it is meant for all people to share and to be part of. The peoples coming together in peace was to be born in the Christ and revealed in this moment of the Magi.
It was a powerful moment for me - to see myself as part of that kneeling throng, to be one with so many different peoples in the presence of Christ – it somehow made more real for me those words that we use each communion service
“So now, in gratitude, we join our voices with those from all times and all places who love you, have loved you and will love you.
Holy, holy, holy God,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.”
This story of the revelation of the Christ to both the shepherds and the Magi is a celebration of the inclusiveness of God’s world, and that is why it is helpful to look at them separately, – of rich and poor, wise and foolish, confident and scared – and perhaps above all of all peoples no matter their race, their culture and yes even their faith. This is big picture stuff, this is God telling us in no uncertain terms that Christ is not to be contained, not to be owned by a particular group, even when the prophecies of the coming Messiah have been steeped in that peoples holy scriptures for all time. Christ is taken firmly out from just the Jewish world and into the beyond, into a place where there are different world views, alternative approaches to life. God will do whatever it takes to reach out and embrace all people - in Christ Jesus, no one is beyond God’s embrace – this realisation can, for us, be a little overwhelming and perhaps frightening – when we realise what that means. It means we have to expand our understanding of the ways God reaches out to people to announce good news in and through Christ. It means we have to expand our understanding on what it means for individuals to have faith and for gatherings of the faithful to be church. There is no one right way, no formulae that is appropriate to all, no human mind that can anticipate how God in Christ works in this world. This is totally illustrated by the Christmas story - God announces the birth of the Messiah not in the temple and through its priests but to shepherds through angels on Christmas, to Magi via a star on Epiphany, and to the political and religious authorities of God’s own people in and through foreigners, visitors from the East.
Who could have predicted that? It was so outside the authorities views of coming of the Messiah that at best it was fanciful and at worst a threat to all that was sacred. Do we too reject ways of coming to faith that are outside our formulaic approach, or as Craig Satterlee writes, “feel jealous when visitors show up seeking Christ due to experiences outside of our understanding.” Or when they express their faith in ways outside our experiences and traditions?
How might we shake our thinking to genuinely embrace the Magi, the strangers, the different whom we might encounter and how might we meet Christ in unexpected ways in and through them? Where is our containment of the mystery and unknown ways of God blinding us to the amazingly diverse company that we join at table with, and from whom we are continually opened to the glory and mystery of a God that gifted to us Jesus Christ in such an unpredictable, unexpected way?
It’s a fitting start to this new year, I believe to consider this:
From a manger, where a child lies wrapped in bands of cloth, God’s reach, God’s embrace in Christ Jesus, gets bigger and bolder and broader. Jesus hosts lowly shepherds and high status magi, eats with outcasts and sinners, chats with the forsaken and the unknown, and through the cross reaches out to all humanity over all time and all space.
How is it that we can live this ever expanding embrace in our lives and our community of faith today? Amen.