Overwhelmed with joy
Sermon preached at Enmore, Epiphany Sunday, 6th. January 2019
Reading: Matthew 2.1–12.
Matthew’s story of the visit of the Wise men or Magi, as he calls them, has inspired countless artists and poets throughout the centuries. Although some modern scholars like to dismiss it as a pious legend it remains a powerful narrative which teaches some important truths which we do well to hear again. Furthermore there are parts of this story which, to my mind, simply have a ring of truth.
Matthew begins by telling us that it happened in the time of King Herod. Herod the great as he was known died around 4 B.C. The exact date of Jesus’ birth is unknown but is generally thought to be around 5 B.C. (The reason for this anomaly goes back to 525 AD when the Pope asked a young monk named Dionysius to prepare a standard calendar for the Western Church that would be reckoned from the birthdate of Christ. Unfortunately Dionysius made some mistakes in dating the birth of Christ and we have lived with his miscalculations ever since). Both Luke and Matthew in their birth narratives wish to anchor the coming of Jesus at a particular point in history: the birth of Jesus was not ‘once upon a time’. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” we rightly affirm at every Eucharist but we should not forget the other important truth that “Christ was born.” Jesus was born a vulnerable baby needing the care and nurture of a mother, born into the Kingdom of Herod. Herod was a Roman appointee and worked hard to consolidate his power by currying favour with his Jewish constituency. He was a prolific builder and his greatest architectural achievement was the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Work began in 19 BC and the greater part was completed by 9 BC but construction continued until AD 64.- just 6 years before the Romans would tear it down. It was larger than Solomon’s temple but built to the same overall design. One Jewish writer at the time declared that “he who has not seen the temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building.”
Herod had other less attractive qualities. In the latter stage of his reign, suffering the last stages of a disease that would claim his life, he became increasingly paranoid about his rivals. Anyone who could pose any threat to his throne was ruthlessly eliminated; this included at least one of his wives, and several of his sons. The Emperor Augustus was on record declaring that ‘It is better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.’ Matthew’s account of the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem is not recorded anywhere else in ancient literature but is entirely in keeping with Herod’s actions in the final stages of his reign. No wonder all Jerusalem is filled with fear when foreign visitors arrive seeking ‘the child born king of the Jews’. Those close to the throne know that this will lead to a new outbreak of violence. Fortunately, the Magi have met Herod’s kind before and guided by a dream they are able to outwit the wily king. Not so fortunate are the people of Bethlehem who have Herod’s cruelty visited on them as he orders the death of all the infant boys in the town in the hope of removing potential aspirants to his throne. Herod represents the worst aspects of many earthly kingdoms — reliant on force, violence and deception to maintain power and showing little regard for his ordinary subjects.
The second key figures in the story are the Magi themselves. The Greek term magoi suggests that they were learned sages from a country like Persia and were students of astronomy and astrology. The ancient world took particular interest in the night sky: dazzled by countless street lights we rarely notice it. The ancient scholars studied the stars and the movements of the planets with meticulous care and believed that there were connections between heavenly and earthly events. Modern scholars have wasted a lot of time trying to discover what Matthew’s star might have been and various explanations have been attempted. But for Matthew this is a supernatural event connected with the most significant birth in the history of the world so no further explanation is required.
The really surprising thing is that Matthew the most Jewish of our four Gospels has foreign Magi as the first visitors to the infant king Jesus. If you read your Hebrew Scriptures carefully you will notice that there are a number of Wise Men described in these pages but almost always in a negative light. Wise Men, astrologers were a part of every Eastern court and acted as advisors to the kings. So we read of Moses standing before Egypt’s Pharaoh and to demonstrate Yahweh’s great power, he throws a stick on the ground which turns into a snake. Pharaoh immediately summons his wise men and magicians who are able to replicate this action. (Admittedly their snakes are eaten by Yahweh’s snake but still it’s impressive). Then in the Book of Daniel, Daniel, the Hebrew slave in the Kingdom of Babylon is called in by King Nebuchadnezzar to interpret his dream only because his own wise men and diviners have been unable to do this successfully. It is just possible that Matthew’s Magi may have become aware of the promise of a new King in Israel from reading Hebrew Scriptures introduced into their court by Israelite exiles.
Prior to Matthew, Wise Men in the scriptures represent knowledge which is based on rather suspect foundations and is often in opposition to the wisdom that comes from God. In the history of the Christian Church a similar attitude has often been taken to human wisdom and philosophy. The late 2nd century Theologian, Tertullian famously declared: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem!”, expressing his distrust of all earthly philosophy. I remember the grave concern my parents displayed when I came home from my enrolment at University and told them I was taking Philosophy as one of my subjects. They thought my Christian faith would be threatened. (I hid from them for some time the fact that my main lecturer was a very convinced atheist who often liked to stir the Christians. However, his best student who obtained a High Distinction in the subject was a young Salvation Army Officer who proudly wore his uniform to every class!) At its best Christianity has always welcomed and encouraged scientific and philosophical enquiry as a way of understanding more of God’s remarkable creation. God’s spirit can be at work in all kinds of unexpected places; truth and knowledge may sometimes be found where we least expected it. Paul himself and many of the early Church fathers read deeply in the philosophies and writings of their age and were not afraid to look for knowledge outside the safe and comfortable areas.
Matthew sees the arrival of these eastern sages as fulfillment of the ancient prophecies that one day Israel will be a light to all nations. Isaiah 60.5,6 “the wealth of the nations will come to you, …they shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the name of the Lord.” The Magi not only represent non Jews they represent a world previously believed to be without God and without hope. Paul says that those who were far off have been brought near. In Matthew’s Gospel these foreigners who dabble in mysterious arts and knowledge become the first disciples of the infant King. They are gifted with insight not granted to the rich and powerful in Jerusalem. They represent the first signs of the alternative Kingdom that Jesus has come to create; a kingdom without the old barriers of race and caste and culture. The wise Men are warned in a dream not to return to Herod but to return home by another road. They return home, becoming, in the words of one writer, “an outpost, a witness, to the joy they have experienced. The journey they undertake becomes for us part of the story that brings us joy. That journey might well be called “another road” that we too must take. The kingdom is a journey, another road whereby followers of Jesus may well find that they are strangers even when they are at home.” (S. Hauerwas: Matthew Commentary).
Finally we turn to the figure of Jesus who in this narrative does nothing and says nothing. He is a helpless infant oblivious to the strange events going on around him yet he is nevertheless the chief protagonist. If he is not the true King of Israel then the story loses all significance. The text from Micah that the chief priests quote to Herod identifies him as “a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Jesus’ rule is in sharp contrast to Herod’s for it will be characterised by his gentle care of his people and at the end he will give his life for the sheep. He will suffer the worst that the powers of this world can do to him, execution by crucifixion. But his resurrection will expose the limits of human power. The Gospel offers an alternative understanding of the world and of human relationships centered on the God revealed in Jesus. When we understand that truth, then we, with the wise men of old are “overwhelmed with joy.”