The wise men come to Bethlehem

Sermon at St James Colwall – Epiphany – 3 January 2021

It is a dramatic and mysterious story, but we forget how dramatic and how mysterious because we know it so well.  The visit of the wise men to Bethlehem to find the child born to become King of the Jews is baffling and yet hugely significant.  As Christians who believe in the grace of God, we can accept that God has drawn these men to Bethlehem.  We understand that some people do have a call from God and are guided by him and pulled towards him.  That is something in itself to wonder at, but we still want to ask questions like how they could use a star as a satnav and where had they come from and did they spend their nights on the way camping or in lodging houses – no Premier Inn for them, I guess, and what drove them to ask King Herod the way.

When I hear the story of the wise men, I think of two things.  First, I remember T S Eliot’s poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’.  Many of you will know it, I’m sure.

‘A cold coming we had of it Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

And Eliot goes on to write of palaces and terraces on the way, dirty villages and hostile cities, travelling at night, sleeping in snatches and the camel men cursing and grumbling. ‘A hard time we had of it’.

We can only imagine the inner determination and perseverance these men must have had, driven by something beyond them and deep inside them to find the place of this birth.  This was the process they had to undergo to find the open door of the tavern.

The second thought I have when I hear this story is of the multitude of paintings of this event and one image in particular, the one painted by Peter Paul Rubens that hangs over the altar in the chapel of Kings College, Cambridge.  It is a sumptuous painting probably miles away from the actual details with no sign of dirty walking boots or travel stained cloaks and even Mary’s bed is a fourposter, but it symbolises the awe and wonder we feel about the Word becoming flesh, about God breaking through into our existence in the form of a defenceless baby.  Mary holds Jesus out at arms’ length to show him to the visitors and they kneel and worship.  Their journey has been rewarded and rewarded handsomely.

But that is not the only journey that has been rewarded.  There is another one and that one is the spiritual journey of the Scriptures.  Some of the psalmists and prophets had pointed towards a future saviour hundreds of years before and in today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah we heard this:

“Arise, shine; for your light has come,
And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you………
Nations shall come to your light
And kings to the brightness of your dawn”

This Biblical journey culminates in the events at Bethlehem – the baby Messiah, king and saviour for the Jews and for all nations – the one through whom men and women can find their way to the love of God.  Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, the mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

In order to arrive you have to travel.  There has to be a journey, a process. In the case of the astrologers from the east it was probably a hard, cold journey requiring lots of determination, but it had a wonderful revelation as its climax which becomes an inspiring model for each of us.  We are all travellers like those magi following a star because life is a kind of pilgrimage.  We can never afford to rest on our laurels.  We must keep going to search and look and nourish our faith and the Epiphany should be an inspiration to us.

The Epiphany is the full unveiling of a mystery and the mystery is that Jesus is for everyone - for all nations, strangers and outsiders.  So we say In Dulci Jubilo which means in Sweet Rejoicing. Oh that we were there, Oh that we were there.