Magi & Mystery
Sermon preached at Enmore, Epiphany, Sunday 7th January 2018
Readings: Matthew 2.1–12; Ephesians 3.1–12.
The story of the visit of the magi or wise men has inspired countless artists, poets and preachers through the centuries. Artists like Rembrandt and Rubens portrayed them as regal figures arrayed in fine robes and looking rather out of place in the humble surroundings of a Bethlehem barn. Matthew’s story is sparse but wonderfully suggestive and invites imaginative reading but it also has a serious purpose which can easily be overlooked.
In fact this is a story that we would not expect to find in Matthew for this is the most Jewish of the gospels and wise men don’t get good press in the Hebrew Scriptures. Magi were part of every Eastern court: unlike the astrologers of today’s tabloids and magazines they were serious scholars who studied the movement of the stars and planets believing that they could read signs and portents for the future. They were often employed to give advice to the King on a range of issues. But Israel did not have magi. When we think of wise men, we think of the magicians in Pharoah’s court in Egypt who tried to outwit Moses or we think of the magicians of a later Pharoah who were unable to interpret the King’s dreams and were humbled by the young Hebrew prisoner, Joseph; who not only interpreted the dreams but was rewarded by the best job in the land. Later in the Old Testament we read about the magicians/wise men of Nebuchadnezzar’s court who represented a wisdom that was shown to be no match for the wisdom of Yahweh’s representative, Daniel. Obviously, Matthew knew that in Israel, Magi were treated with suspicion, involved in dubious arts and sciences not practiced among God’s people. This gives his story a radical edge, for he is saying that these pagan philosophers have recognized what many in Israel have failed to see. He is suggesting that God’s revelation of himself extends beyond Israel’s boundaries and outside of Israel’s sacred stories. Like the ancient Israelites Christians sometimes have adopted a very negative view of secular scholarship but if we believe that this is God’s world then all serious scientific study is to be welcomed because it reveals more about the remarkable world God has entrusted to us. Perhaps if the theologians at the time of the 16th & 17th Centuries had read Matthew’s text with more care they might have been more accepting of the discoveries of scientists such as Copernicus and Galileo.
That God can reveal the truth about himself and the truth about his world to all kinds of unlikely people and in unexpected ways is part of what Matthew is teaching in this story but he has an even more radical intent. This is also a story about kingship. The Eastern visitors come to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?” They come to the nation’s capital expecting to find a great celebration and excitement surrounding a royal birth. Instead they find a troubled city led by the aging, ruthless and increasingly paranoid tyrant King Herod: a man with the blood of three of his own children on his hands. Disturbed by the Magi’s question, Herod summons his own wise men, Israel’s chief priests and scribes to ascertain if there are any ancient prophecies about the birth of a new king. They refer him to Micah’s prophesy about the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem, a little town about eight miles from Jerusalem. The duplicitous Herod then calls the Eastern guests and sends them off with strict instructions to go and find the child and immediately return with the news of his whereabouts.
The Magi are no fools and have seen greater courts than Herod’s so they recognize a kingdom in decline. They follow the star to Bethlehem and pay homage to the new king but keep this information to themselves. The outsiders, the eastern astrologers recognize and worship the new king, Jesus, with great joy and celebration. Meanwhile the insiders, Israel’s religious and secular rulers tremble in fear at what this birth means. Matthew’s epiphany is clear: the one born in Bethlehem is the promised Messiah, great David’s greater son and the one spoken of by the prophets who will draw all nations, all people to himself. To drive the point home Matthew fills his story with Old Testament allusions, like the verses from Isaiah 60 read as our O.T. lesson today. But in any kingdom there can only be one king so if Jesus is King, Matthew is saying, Herod cannot also be king. There is a choice to be made, will we worship Herod or Jesus? Perhaps the question of which king we worship seems irrelevant in 21st century democratic Australia. Yet, if Jesus came to be worshipped the question remains who or what is the object of our worship today? Luther’s commentary on the first commandment, ‘You shall have no other God’s before me’ is still meaningful. He wrote:
The simple meaning of this commandment is, you shall worship me alone as your God. What do these words mean and how are they to be understood? What is it to have a god, or what is God? Answer: A God is that to which we look for all good and where we resort for help in every time of need; to have a god is simply to trust and believe in one with our whole heart…Now I say whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God.
The good news of Epiphany is this that the long expected and hoped for king has come, not just for a chosen few but for all people. That is the good news that Paul also proclaims in Ephesians when he talks about ‘the mystery of Christ.’ Paul’s use of mystery is different from our normal usage. We refer to murder mysteries where there is a secret or puzzle to be unraveled. We also use it to describe things which are just too baffling to understand: things like quantum mechanics or the derivation of e=mc. But that is not Paul’s usage. G.K. Chesterton once remarked that ‘the modern mind always mixes up two different ideas: mystery in the sense of what is marvelous and mystery in the sense of what is complicated.’ Paul uses mystery in the first sense. He wants us to understand the wonderful truth that in Christ, both Jew and non Jew, outsider and insider have been brought into one family, and made members of the same body. If we don’t think that is marvelous then perhaps we haven’t reflected long enough on its implications. Paul spells it out on several occasions but perhaps most eloquently in Galations 3.28.
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
If any of you have read about space travel you will know that for many astronauts going into space was a profoundly religious experience. One of the life changing things for some of them was to see for the first time the earth as a small, vulnerable planet but also to see it as one world without borders or barriers of any kind. We are great barrier builders, we love to classify and divide, to make distinctions. Both Matthew and Paul want us to catch the vision of a new order where the old divisions are no longer relevant. They want us to understand the mystery not formerly known to humankind but now made manifest in the child worshipped by those ancient magi and worshipped by us today.