St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Epiphany 2019, Overwhelmed with Joy

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.”

Philip Brad­ford