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Magi & Mystery

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.

Philip Brad­ford