Isaiah 60.1-6; Matthew 2.1-12
Matthew’s is the most obviously Jewish of all the gospels. Scholarly opinion suggests it was written using some of the documents and traditions known to Mark and Luke as well as using local traditions in a Christian community, perhaps in Alexandria, towards the end of the first century AD. But when I refer to it as a very Jewish document – and that is quite easy to demonstrate – I mean it mostly in the sense that the Jewish author or editor had quite obvious Jewish beliefs. He believed that the religious hopes and promises of the Jewish people down the centuries since they had been exiled to Iraq in the seventh century BC had recently been fulfilled in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jeshua bar Youssef, the person we call Jesus, giving him the Greek name by which he is now known throughout the world.
Matthew’s gospel, you will have noticed, gives a different birth narrative to the one we heard on Christmas Day, the one from Luke’s gospel that features shepherds. In Matthew’s account, it is not Jewish shepherds who witness the birth in Bethlehem, but foreigners, astrologers and soothsayers from unnamed eastern countries who come to pay homage to a baby whom Matthew describes as descended from the ancient kings of Judaea.
We read Matthew’s account of the birth because today we are observing what has come to be called the feast of the Epiphany (it actually occurs next Tuesday, the 6th of January, or Twelfth Night). Epiphany is a Greek word (epifaneia), which means an appearance or a manifestation. We celebrate at Epiphany God’s manifesting God’s self, not to Jews, but to gentiles, to all the non-Jews of the world. The self that God manifests is the mashiach or Messiah, God’s Anointed One. Many Christian preachers – and I am among them – are ready to credit St Paul with translating a Jewish religious revolution into a worldwide one: but in doing so, we are in danger of forgetting that, when Paul was nearing the end of his life in Rome, Christians elsewhere – today’s gospel author among them – were also telling anyone who would listen that Jesus the mashiach is not only the fulfilment of Jewish hopes, but is God’s gift to the whole world, regardless of their religion or culture.
Last Sunday, we observed the feast of the Holy Innocents, the slaughter of children by violent men acting on the orders of a violent and frightened puppet ruler who feared losing power and control, who felt impelled to pre-empt threats to his power by using the weapon of murder. What was the threat? Today we have the answer to that question: Herod was frightened that God might take power, that God’s rule might be established in place of his own. Like the author of our gospel, Herod recognised the signs. They had been suggested by the prophets down the ages. The clincher for Herod was that, as the prophets had put it, foreign nations would turn to Judah or to its capital city, Jerusalem, the city where God was believed to be especially present on earth. The fulfilment of God’s promise is that his rule will be established on earth, and that people the world over will recognise its validity and its demand on their acceptance, and will make their way to this seat of God’s power on earth. No wonder Herod asked his advisers the key question: where is this mashiach to be born? I need to know (brackets, so that I can put a stop to him).
Matthew gives us a rescue story telling how God’s messengers communicate with Youssef / Joseph in dreams, warning him to get out fast and to disappear into Egypt. (It would have to be Egypt, of course: that’s where Joseph’s patriarchal ancestor Joseph went into slavery and eventual triumph. That’s the country from which, according to ancient tradition, the people of Israel had emerged before pushing into Palestine more than a thousand years earlier, and Egypt is probably where Matthew and his readers were living when this gospel was compiled).
I think that’s all very interesting and some of you have been kind enough to remark that my sermons give you a sense of the history of our sacred texts and of our religion. But history is not what draws us together of a cold Sunday morning, nor do I believe that we meet simply because it’s part of our personal tradition. Moreover I do not believe that just because Matthew’s gospel account sounds so much like a series of rabbis’ legends that it does not have a striking relevance for us gentiles now in our twenty-first century gentile lives.
The Epiphany of Jesus - of the Son of God - to the world is of far greater significance than mere history or legend. Put at its simplest, Matthew’s birth narrative records that God has presented the whole world – regardless of race, creed or any other distinction – with God’s own self in the person of an infant, whose destiny is to change our history. And history here is not just human history with its power struggles, its politics and economics and struggles for recognition or fulfilment. By entering our world in a human person who is also divine, God has announced that our humanity and God’s divinity are henceforth indissolubly linked. God has become human so that we can become divine. God has joined that divine nature to our human nature, so that we can now ourselves take on divine nature.
Each of us is called to accept God’s invitation to become part of the divine self, to allow our ordinary flesh and blood to be joined to God’s divinity. The Christian teachers of the Eastern Church today, as in Matthew’s day, speak of this process as theosis – we could translate that, rather clumsily – as divinising or Godifying. The glory that was manifested to those wise men was the glory of God seen in a child, and it was also the glory that is offered to us in our flesh and blood lives now. There is no need to wait until we have died and entered into some unknowable other life beyond physical death. We are to allow ourselves to become part of God now, here and now.
That is and has been for at least two millennia God’s offer to us humans. I think it is quite impossible to grasp the enormity of that generous love and that divine destiny for more than a fleeting moment. It is more than a human mind and heart can grasp except for a moment. But we also have to face the fact that this becoming-God seems like foolishness to many people who prefer to dismiss it as superstition, fairy tales for the inadequate who cannot quite grow up. For yet others, however, it is a threat so terrible that they set out to destroy that vision and to harm those who hold it dear. Herod was one such and there are others today. You have only to consider the so-called religious extremists of our own day to understand what I mean – people who, in the name of God, seek to stamp the world with their own image, and to kill, rape and enslave others. For our part, we have to hold on to our vision and, more than that, never cease to reach out to others to share with them the hope we have in God’s Anointed, the mashiach.