Sermon - 8th January 2017
Learning from the wise men
Scripture - Matthew 2:1-21
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
[Reading 1: Matthew 2:1-8]
Today, we celebrate the Feast of The Epiphany, marking the end of the Christmas period. “Epiphany” is not a word we hear often, but it is essentially this: the day on which we celebrate the revelation of the Son of God, come to us as a human being in the person of Jesus. In Western Christianity, Epiphany is when we recall the Visit of the ‘Wise Men’ and their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, they recall the Baptism of Jesus at the Feast of Epiphany.
It would be easy to summarise today’s very familiar reading in just six words and then move on: star, wise-men, Herod, gold, frankincense and myrrh. Moreover, at Christmas, surrounded by good-will, gifts, food and drink, and the comfort of our friends and families, it is not easy to spend time thinking about the parts of the Nativity story which do not sit easily with us: Mary, a teenage mother, questions hanging over the paternity of her child; the supernatural nature of Mary’s pregnancy – the Virgin Birth; the homelessness of the Holy Family; giving birth in an animals’ stable; the fear of the shepherds when the angels appeared to them; the fury of Herod at the thought of a rival king and his subsequent slaughter of innocent children; and, Mary and Joseph with Jesus fleeing as refugees into Egypt.
So, who were the ‘wise-men’? Our pew-Bibles – the Good News Translation – calls them “men who studied the stars”. The Orthodox Jewish Bible, a translation made by Messianic Jews – that is Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah - calls them “chachamim”, meaning the wisest of the wise scholars whose knowledge and learning is held in the highest esteem. In Jewish tradition, a “chacham” (or ‘wise-man’) even has precedence over a king! Today, we would maybe consider Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking to be in this class. In other words, these ‘wise-men’ knew what they were talking about, which is probably what got Herod so “very upset”.
In our experience of Nativity plays, King Herod is the baddie. Let us expand on this: Herod, or Herod the Great, was not a Jew. He was from Idumea, south of Judea. His reign over his kingdom was brought about at the same time as the Roman conquest of Judea in 37 BCE. Secular historians of the time describe Herod as a king who never felt secure: he had a secret-police of sorts; he had many close to him killed: one wife, his mother, his brothers and several sons. He was a harsh king who imposed very heavy taxes on his people.
Biblical prophecy is a central point in our first reading. The chief priests confirmed to Herod that the Hebrew prophet Micah foresaw Bethlehem as the place of the Messiah’s birth. Even though Saint Matthew’s text does not mention it, Messianic Jewish commentators also point to an additional prophecy in fourth book of the Bible, Numbers, spoken by Balaam. (He was the one who had the talking donkey!) In Numbers 24:17, we read:
“I look into the future, and I see the nation of Israel. A king, like a bright star, will arise in that nation. Like a comet he will come from Israel.”
The wise-men, being very wise, when they left Herod, were probably of the opinion that Herod was not to be trusted. Herod was consumed by fear.
[Reading 2 – Matthew 9:15]
This section from Saint Matthew’s Gospel is perhaps the most familiar. We have already mentioned the significance of the gifts: gold for a king; frankincense for a priest; myrrh marking Jesus’ sacrificial death.
But a little bit more on the star. Because of the orbital nature of planets and comets, astronomers can calculate both forwards and backwards their positions and appearances. They have discovered two astronomical events which may explain the Star of Bethlehem. Jesus was not born in the year zero: St Clement of Alexandria got his sums a little wrong. Based on our modern calendar, Jesus was actually born some time between 7 and 4 BCE.
In 7 BCE something very unusual happened: the two largest planets in our solar system – Jupiter and Saturn – had a conjunction. This means that they will have appeared as a single brighter light in the sky, which due to the movement of the Earth and their own movements, this brighter light would have been seen three times.
Another explanation, was that a comet was visible. Comets are usually visible for several months. The chronicler of the Chinese Han dynasty recorded: “Second year of the Chien-p'ing reign period, second month, a [comet] appeared at Ch'ien-niu for over 70 days.” Those dates align with March-April of the year 5 BCE.
The end of our second reading is overshadowed by King Herod’s fear: it affects the homeward route for the wise-men and triggers the escape of the Holy Family from Judea to seek asylum in Egypt.
Yet before we leave the leave Bethlehem, let us pause to reflect on verse 10: “When [the wise men] saw [the star], how happy they were, what joy was theirs!” Despite the overshadowing fear of Herod: joy was still possible.
[Reading 3 – Matthew 2:16-21]
Into the mix of the joyous birth comes this terrible event we have just had read to us, in which innocent children under 2 years old are slaughtered.
We do not know how long the Holy Family stayed in Bethlehem, nor how long after the birth did the Magi visit Herod and then come to Bethlehem. Clearly, the 2 years have some significance. The Gospel is silent on the number of children who were killed; however, given the smaller population in the ancient world, and that Bethlehem was known to be a village, we are probably talking about tens of children; nevertheless, the act was indeed no less brutal.
God’s hand through Joseph’s dream was at work, and the Holy Family fled as refugees into Egypt, and we are told towards the end of the Gospel reading that only after Herod’s death – which historians tells us was in 4 BCE – did the Holy Family return home to Nazareth. There are parallels between the story of Moses in the book of Exodus and today’s reading from St Matthew’s Gospel.
In verse 18, we heard: “A sound is heard in Ramah, the sound of bitter weeping. Rachel is crying for her children; she refuses to be comforted, for they are dead.” Ramah is another name for that area of Judea. Rachel was Jacob’s second and most beloved wife and is said to be buried near Bethlehem. Her name represents the mothers of the massacred children.
We cannot imagine what it must have been like for those mothers, those parents and those families, into whose lives this massacre came and changed them forever. What must they have felt? They had done nothing wrong. Their children certainly had done nothing wrong, yet they were slaughtered by a brutal, paranoid, tyrannical king. History is full of accounts of the innocent falling victim to political struggles; and the news is filled with images of the innocent children of Syria.
What was God playing at, when, as it seems, he marked those Bethlehem children for death in a prophecy made through Jeremiah some 600 years previously? Why did God save his own Son, Jesus, and yet bring agony to many, many families, for what seems all the for the sake of making a theological point?
Whether we like to admit it or not, we all have sense against injustice within us, and from time to time in all us, that sense against injustice is brought to the fore, either through the seemingly inexplicable happenings of circumstance, or the plain horror of what could only be describe as “evil”.
Herod’s massacre – whether or not we accept Jeremiah’s prophecy – was an evil act, born out of the paranoia, fear and malevolence of a man who abused his power as a king. And similar can be said of “evil acts” on the receiving end of which we have found ourselves: homophobic or transgendered hatred; being forced out of families, churches, jobs and native countries just because we are LGB or T.
And then, there are the things in our lives, which are not born of evil or malevolence, but nevertheless cause us the same level of pain and despair: a loved one struck down with a certain disease… Why him? Why her? They are such a good and loving person and yet there are so many wicked people out there in good health! And inexplicable loss… of a job, of a friendship or relationship, or of property… why did I have to lose out? I am good person. And then there’s the pain of emptiness and despair, for those who strive and yet never seem to find… the couple longing to conceive and have children, those looking for asylum, looking for a relationship, looking for work… why is it that it seems so easy for others, yet impossible for me?
You might not feel comfortable right now, but yet we can take a step back from the personal and ask wider questions which evoke the same feelings within us… Why is there suffering in the world? Why is there evil in the world? Why doesn’t God ‘do something’?
I wish I could stand here and answer your questions, but I cannot.
And here is the great mystery: our God, the Creator, became the created. And that miracle happened at Christmas. Our Creator God became human in the baby Jesus. And just like we are angered by injustice, so was Jesus: He spoke out against the hypocritical authorities; He wept bitterly when his friend Lazarus died. Each of the four Gospels is filled with stories of how Jesus drew alongside individuals in their place and time of need.
I would like to think that as Jesus walked around Judea during his ministry, that he would have returned to Bethlehem, and he would have met the mothers whose children were massacred by Herod, and that by drawing alongside them for a time, that they experienced some comfort.
And so, in the depth of pain, in the face of fear, either our own or that of another, remember that Jesus understands: He became human; from the manger at Christmas to the Cross of Easter, He is one of us; He is in it with us. Jesus is in it with us. Let us reflect on that most profound mystery for a moment.
Jesus is in it with us… He is in it with us.