The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles
Sermon at All Saints Coddington for Epiphany 2016
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Consider this: a newly married couple, married for less than nine months – they had to get married, and, through circumstances beyond their control, they’re a long way from home. Now she’s in labour, and there’s nowhere for them to go except an outbuilding. But it’s better than nothing, and there the baby is born.
It’s an event, the like of which must have happened many times through the centuries. But for Mary and Joseph it was an event full of surprises – angels making announcements, dreams likewise, heavenly choirs, guiding stars and so on. If you take a literal view of the Bible, they’re all things that actually happened. But otherwise, you’ll think that they’re embellishments added to the story between the event taking place and the recording of it in the gospels not in order to tell us what historically happened, but to convey to us its significance.
Amongst all the surprises, the two biggest must have been, first, the pregnancy itself, and second, the arrival of the wise men. Just imagine, a knock on the door. Who’s there? And in come a party of very well-to-do strangers from foreign parts who actually kneel down in front of your baby and shower him with expensive presents. It doesn’t get much more surprising than that.
I sometimes wish we’d never heard of Jesus before, so that we could come absolutely open-minded and unprepared to read the gospels. What an amazing story! I’m sure we’d be bowled over by it, surprised again and again. The birth of Jesus - and the circumstances surrounding it; his teaching – love your enemies; his cruel death - to which he deliberately went forward; and of course his becoming alive again – all quite staggering.
I must have told you before, but let me tell you again my story of the traditional meaning of those gifts. I was discussing them with the year-six children in the junior school where we were. Gold was for crowns and such like: it was a symbol of royalty; so it was to show that this child would be a king. Frankincense was incense used in worship, and so it was given to Jesus as a sign that he would be a priest, someone representing God to people and people to God. And what about myrrh? We saw that it was a sort of perfumed spice which was put on people when they’d died and before they were buried – a nice thing to do for them. So what could this tell us about Jesus? One boy put his hand up: “Please Sir, it was to show that he was going to be an undertaker.”
Well, in one way you could say he was right. Jesus came to ease our way from this world into the next. But of course really, as we know, it was to foretell his death.
But what are we to make of this whole episode? Is it merely a legend based on passages like that from Psalm 72 which tells of the kings of Tharsis and Arabia and Saba bringing gifts, and of course like that from our first reading mentioning gold and frankincense and camels? Or has it some basis in historical fact? It’s an extraordinary story, and yet it’s just the sort of extraordinary thing that could have happened in the ancient world.
These wise men who came from the east, Persia probably, were astrologers. That’s what the New English Bible calls them - astrologers. They studied the stars in order to interpret events on earth. Well, there are of course still many people today who believe that you can foretell the future by looking at the stars. But it was an even stronger belief back in those days, and it’s easy to understand why. Normally the stars pursue their unvarying courses; so if there appeared something unusual, say a brilliant new star, then it looked as though God was breaking into the established order to announce some special new thing.
Astronomers, that is the scientists rather than the speculators, have discovered that at the time of Jesus’ birth there were several unusual stars or conjunction of stars around in the heavens, which astrologers from the east might well have seen.
Also around that time there was a strange general buzz of expectation – a bit like a few years ago shortly before the millennium. People were waiting for the coming of something or someone special - a king, a saviour maybe, inaugurating a new golden age. It’s a feeling recorded in contemporary Roman writings.
So it could have happened. And other aspects fit in too. Wealthy, significant visitors from abroad would naturally have presented themselves at court. Also King Herod, Herod the Great, was an insanely suspicious and jealous man: any apparent rival had to be eliminated. Amongst others, he’d had bumped off his wife, his mother-in-law and three of his sons. The Emperor Augustus once said it was safer to be Herod’s sow than Herod’s son – and, with a gender change, it’s a pun that works in Greek as well.
It is all plausible, but what’s its significance - in the gospels, and today for us? It’s only St Matthew who tells us the story of the coming of the wise men some days after Jesus was born, and it’s only St Luke who records the visit of the shepherds on the very night of his birth. And what a contrast there is between these two sets of visitors! The shepherds were poor and uneducated, and in spite of the fact that David was called the Shepherd King and that later Jesus himself would be described as the Good Shepherd, shepherds in general were despised: they were pretty near the bottom of the pile. And one reason for this was that their job made it impossible for them to keep all the religious observances that the Jews were supposed to follow. Yet it was they, such people as them, whom God invited to be the very first to come and see his new-born Son, the King of all, the Saviour of the world.
In his subsequent ministry Jesus also gave pre-eminence to the lowly, the poor, the down-and-outs, those whom the well-to-do and religious officials considered to be nobodies.
But the baby’s second visitors were rich: they could afford the cost and the time of a long expedition as well as expensive presents. They were sophisticated and clever: they had a great knowledge of the stars. They were well-respected: even King Herod gave them an audience. And of course they were not Jews: they were representatives of the rest of the world. Remember the alternative title given to the Epiphany in the Prayer Book: the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.
So taken together these two events show that right from the start of his life on earth God declared Jesus to be for all sorts and conditions of men - and women - for all people everywhere, rich and poor, clever and not clever, respectable and despised, Jew and gentile. The name Jesus means Saviour: he is the Saviour of us all, of the whole world. Thanks be to God.
In the gospels it is, so to speak, a draw between the shepherds and the wise men, but on Christmas cards the wise men always win hands down. On the cards we received this year it was Shepherds 7, Wise Men 14. Of course depicted as kings they’re so much more colourful – exotic robes, bejewelled crowns, caskets for their gifts and camels.
One card showed the three kings in a kitchen; they were wearing paper crowns like those you get in crackers, and they were obviously preparing a meal. Through the kitchen window you could see a couple walking towards the house with their young child, and one of the kings was saying: We went to them last year; so this year it’s their turn to come to us.
Well, that’s what Christmas is about. God does invite us, like the shepherds and the wise men, to come to him, but first and foremost it’s about God coming to us, coming to us in Jesus, the Saviour of all the world.
I expect that we all welcomed him, in our minds and in our hearts, on Christmas Day, but of course we can welcome him every day – Jesus the baby, the growing child, the carpenter, the preacher, the healer, our dying and rising Saviour, our Lord and our Friend – we can welcome him every day of 2016. To do that would be a good and achievable new year’s resolution.