The Magi Journeying James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Scripture Readings: Ephesians 3:1-6

Matthew 2:1-18

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

They have haunted our Christmas imagination for centuries. They still haunt our Christmas cards, our carols (of course), our crib scenes. As if first century Bethlehem were not exotic enough for us, they turn up in their rich robes, their fancy camels, with the fragrance of another sort of East about them:

We three kings of Orient are

Bearing gifts we traverse afar

Field and fountain, moor and mountain

Following yonder star.[1]

Not the dusty east of poor Palestinian peasants under Roman occupation, but the spice-laden Persian east, the Aladdin east of our Western imagination- turbans, colourful robes, vast palaces, sultans, minarets and genies, astrology and magic and smoke and mirrors. We do not even know, really, if there were three of them, or even if they were all male, or whether or not they travelled on camels. They are unlikely to be kings, though they were probably advisors to kings. The Bible calls them wise men- magi (we get the English word magic from that word). Much of what we think we know about them comes is, simply, the accumulated imagination of two millennia.

They arrive late in the Bethlehem story: in fact, some say they shouldn’t be part of the Christmas story at all, for they may have arrived weeks after the birth; and so the church of old gave them this special festival to themselves after Christmas, the Epiphany. They arrive now because they have come a long way, and took a detour to consult with a tyrant:

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.”’

They wander into our Christmas dreams, but, as Matthew tells it, when they wander into the story, they wander into trouble. As they are men of high social standing, they seek the new king first in a royal palace. There they meet Herod, the local king, a pantomime villain if ever there was one. Herod had not been expecting a new king, not least one announced by a star. He is worried, and calls in his own advisors. Instead of consulting the stars, they consult their old books, and by accident stumble on the old prophecy that a special ruler will one day come from Bethlehem.

They may have been wise men, these Persian mystics, but surprisingly Herod manages to pull the wool over their eyes. It’s funny how stupid intelligent people can be sometimes:

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.’

Herod tries to use the magi. He knows it’s in Bethlehem the danger lies- but where exactly, he’s not sure. So he pretends to be a potential worshipper (when in fact he has far more nefarious intentions), and sends them off to do the finding for him. And so the naive wise men toddle off to Bethlehem:

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.

Entrance to the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
Federico Busonero
Copyright: © UNESCO
Permanent URL: whc.unesco.org/en/documents/117541

The supposed site of the birth of Christ, in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, is apparently quite hard to get into- and not just because of the crowds. It’s a tiny cave, now under the high altar of the church, and it has a low entrance so that you have to stoop to get into it. For there’s a good chance that the stable was, in fact, a cave where the animals were kept. There is, of course, something incongruous about these richly dressed (as we like to imagine them) wise men stooping to get into a tiny cave to worship a baby. And so I’m told that even today, that if you want to visit the scene, you must bow down to get in. The son of a carpenter and a peasant-girl, worshipped by magi, worthy still of worship: here is, indeed, the mystery and magic of the story of Jesus’ birth.

The wise men worship, offer their mysterious gifts, and then fade out of our story, but not before they manage to put one over on Herod:

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

It would have come naturally to the magi to obey King Herod (just as it was natural for them to have originally sought their new king in the royal palace of Jerusalem). For the Wise Men were members of the establishment. They were accustomed to royalty, used to honouring power, comfortable with kings telling them what to do. But this time, they go back by another road, because they had had a dream (people put a lot of store in dreams back then as well).

Sometimes the most conservative and establishment and conformist of us find that we cannot just do as the powerful want us to do. Sometimes even respectable people find it necessary to break the law of the land. Rosa Parks, in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, was required to give up her to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger, because that’s what the law of the city said. She refused to, and so set in action the civil rights movement. God sometimes calls us to take another road. Especially when the powerful have evil intent:

Now after [the Wise Men] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

‘A voice was heard in Ramah,

wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

The Wise Men, inadvertently, caused a massacre of children, though it is Herod who is guilty: a man ordering slaughter because he needs to preserve his own power. And that is why this story is so powerful- for we know who today’s Herod’s are, and who their victims.

In Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, children are still being killed because powerful people have ordered it. And they give political or strategic reasons why the children have to be killed- but it is revolting that it still happens today. At the Mexican border, children who are part of families trying to enter the United States are held in detention in conditions so bad, some of them have died recently. Children are still dying as their parents try to bring them into Europe across the Mediterranean in flimsy boats (who can forget the image of the three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body was photographed, not in a war zone, but on a Turkish tourist beach?). Just across the English Channel, there are still children waiting in limbo to be reunited with their parents in this United Kingdom. Children suffer when politics becomes more important than compassion.

We who claim to be inspired by the story of Christ cannot forget that he, too, was once a refugee, fleeing a violent, child-killing tyrant:

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.

God’s gift to the world is Jesus Christ. Christ is God’s way of reconciling the world to himself. Yet to undertake that plan, a plan in which the entire future of creation was at stake, God stoops into a cave in Bethlehem to be born, and very nearly doesn’t make it out of the manger. Which is what makes all of this more than just a nice story. I find it a sobering story- for it is a story about how God is in our turbulent world. Around the crib- that familiar scene of a holy family, with a child in the manger- there’s power politics, misunderstandings, terrific evil around the crib- Rachel weeping for her children. And all because of a child born to a peasant woman and a carpenter in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, who was a threat to the power of an evil king.

We often speak of welcoming Christ at Christmas. And so we should. The Letter to the Ephesians reminds us that the birth of Jesus was part of plan, through which God would make his blessings available to all people. The Jewish people are already the special people of God; now, says Ephesians ‘by means of the Gospel the Gentiles have a part with the Jews in God’s blessings; they are members of the same body and share in the promise made through Christ Jesus’. The wise men, the magi, represent the Gentiles, the non-Jews, to whom the blessings of God are now also offered. They represent the wisdom of non-Jewish culture. They are, as we said, exotic. They remind us that the good news of Jesus Christ is for all people, regardless of their nationality- they remind us that the Gospel transcends nations and cultures. Everyone, of whatever race and nationality, is invited to worship the child in the manger.

But Epiphany also reminds us that for some, the good news of the Gospel is unwelcome news. Not everyone welcomes the disruption which Christ will bring into the world. Herod think the child is a threat to him, and he responds with violence; and there are still Herods who cannot see beyond keeping their own power in place, to whom the message of God’s love in Christ is a threat. For the adult Christ will preach against violence, and against the pretension of the powerful, and against the oppression of the weak and the poor for any reason. He survived the cradle, because the Wise Men took another road to avoid Jerusalem. But as an adult, he will himself go to Jerusalem, where the powerful will find him so threatening, they finally put him to death.

And yet: in Christ, God offers all his people blessing. In Christ, the light has come which shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never put it out. Thanks be to our God, who is involved in the darkest places in our world, and in our lives.

Ascription of Praise

To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2018 Peter W Nimmo

After sermon: Hymn: We three kings of Orient are

NOTES

[1] Carol by John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891)