Sermon - 5th January 2014
Scripture - Matthew 2:1-12
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
The Christmas celebrations come to an end today – or more properly tomorrow evening on 12th Night – as we mark Epiphany. In the popular imagination the Christmas story is all celebrated together – Jesus is born, angels sing, shepherds visit, wise men bring gifts. Yet we know from the story of the murder of the innocents that Herod had the boys under the age of two killed and so it's possible that the visit of the Magi happened some time after the birth of Jesus. St Matthew also says that the Magi “entered the house” where the Holy Family were staying so clearly our crib scene isn't overly accurate!
Things have moved on since the birth of Jesus. The story of the visit of the Magi is the part of the Christmas story where we often have the most questions – How many Magi were they? What was this star they followed? Where did they come from? - yet the important part of the story is what the Magi, the star, and the ancient prophecies all point to – Jesus. As we reflect on the Jesus that is pointed to in this story I am drawn to the outsiders who are part of this story and how they react.
The passage starts and ends with outsiders and has one huge outsider in the middle!
Clearly the Magi are outsiders. We know little about them other than they were “from the East” and studied, and found meaning in, the stars. People have mused about whether they were Zoroastrian priests; history often refers to them as three kings; their remains are supposed to be in Cologne Cathedral (though how they ended up there is a bit of a mystery to me). These outsiders know the purposes of God or at least they knew that something momentous was signified by the star and they knew they had to act. These outsiders didn't know much about the Jewish religion and didn't seem to have a copy of the Bible – they rely on Jewish teachers to find a prophecy – but despite being strangers to the Jewish faith they found the long-promised Messiah.
The other outsider in the story is Herod. From the distance of history we're used to thinking of Herod as the Jewish king of the time. (As Walt told us last week) This isn't strictly true. Herod was from a country just south of Israel called Idumea which the Bible referred to as Edom and is now subsumed into Egypt, Gaza and Jordan. The Idumeans had converted to Judaism and had intermarried with Jewish people but most Jews did not consider them to be really Jewish. Herod was a puppet king of the Romans which also meant he would be seen as an outsider to the Jewish people. Whilst Herod had rebuilt the Jewish Temple he was also a murderous tyrant who killed members of his own family, rabbis and others who opposed his rule.
Interestingly all the outsiders, even Herod, know the purposes of God. Herod knows he has to go and pay the infant king homage but has no intention of doing what he knows he should do. In this story various worlds collide – Jewish and Pagan worlds find meaning in the star and prophecy of old, the deviant king and the devout sages and Magi meet knowing that something threatening, and wonderful, is happening. All of them, oddly, needed each other. The Magi needed the Jewish understanding of the prophecy, Herod needed the Magi to lead him to the new-born king, the Jewish scholars needed to be prodded by outsiders to see the beauty and truth of their faith. But as these worlds collided the responses to God's sovereign act differed. The Magi know they have to go and worship the new-born king but the Jewish sages stay back. I wonder why. Maybe they were afraid to look too interested in this new king with the old one being rather more immediate. Maybe they didn't like to relate their knowledge and faith to action. Maybe they were unwilling to journey with the pagans. Herod's response, as we know, was devious, cunning and murderous. Three different responses to God's sovereign intervention in our world: rage, indifference and worship. Perhaps things aren't so different now.
It seems to me that there is a parallel between the Church and those Jewish sages of old. God was up to something but outside the Jewish faith and, whilst they saw within the Scriptures evidence of what God was about, they couldn't bring themselves to go and take part. It's clear that the churches in the West have declined massively over the last 50 years or so. In modern Britain Christianity is very much a minority religion – only about 8% of the population go to church regularly – and the position of privilege the that the Church had has gone as it is dismissed as, at best, irrelevant or, at worst, dangerous. Yet, at the same time, people aren't becoming atheist. There is a huge interest in spirituality. I see this in the funerals I conduct. The local undertakers, in the main, give me the funerals where the family say “I'm not religious but...” and as we plan the service it's clear that they want some sense of hope, some sense that this life isn't all there is, and some form of spiritual input. People are searching for spirituality and for meaning but, for whatever reason, think that the Church is the last place where it could be found.
The new atheists seem to react with rage at anything the Church does – and of course sometimes what the Church does is quite deserving of some decent rage. Most of society is indifferent to what the church does whilst a few are attracted by the truth we proclaim and come to worship.
Now this shouldn't surprise us if we know our Bibles well. God is always at work on the outside of the establishment – political and religious. Bethlehem was insignificant – kings should be born in palaces not stables. Nazareth was in the far north and, as we know the north, then and now, is often ignored by those who make policy. The first visitors to the infant messiah were shepherds – outsiders who routinely broke the Law by working on the sabbath. The next visitors were pagans. Throughout his life Jesus was always at work on the edge and seeing what God was doing with people who, well, weren't part of the mainstream religious scene. The woman at the well with all those husbands, the Roman centurion, prostitutes and tax collectors – all the people who wouldn’t be seen dead in a Synagogue but who connected with Jesus.
When presented with God's truth people react in different ways – they may rage, they may turn their backs or they may engage. The hardest thing for us as part of the Church is to know how to react, how to present the truth in ways which make sense to our people. The Jewish sages in the story were asked about their faith, they explained it but they wouldn't go with the Magi to see how it worked out. We may get asked about our faith but may feel it's difficult to accompany people as they start to make sense of it. We may forget how powerful our faith is; I remember a friend of mine who converted to Christianity from Islam asked what this sense of peace was that he felt every time he came to worship. At the time his life was in crisis but he found within Christianity a deep sense of peace as well as strength for his journey. If the Church is to flourish in the new circumstances it finds itself in – on the edge allowing it to be edgy, away from power allowing it to see the world as it really is, with the outsider allowing it to remember it's Lord who was also an outsider – then we need to become a little more bold in proclaiming what we believe and sharing our knowledge, our love our faith, and our insights and then going a step further to journey with people as they discern and discover.
The Wise Men found in their own culture something startling that they needed to investigate, the people who should have had all the answers either didn't understand the significance of it all or were threatened by it and so chose to protect their power and status. We need to be better than those sages of old and prepared to help people interpret their dreams, longings and spiritual experiences in the light of the Gospel.
Unlike those sages who stayed in their studies, we need to be ready and willing to journey with those who are spiritually seeking, who are exploring their experiences and who are seeking what God is doing in their lives. We also need to be open to the real possibility that God is at work in the hearts and lives of those outside of the Church just as God was at work in the lives, intellect and faith of the Magi. Through their gifts, as we saw earlier, they recognised God in Jesus as king, priest and sacrifice. They had a clearer understanding of the Messiah than did those who were at the heart of the Jewish faith.
So we have to take some risks, we have to risk sounding silly, we have to risk making fools of ourselves, we have to risk admitting that we don't have all the answers but show we're willing to journey, to explore and to recognise God at work on the outside of the Church and of our comfort zones – just as those Wise Men did so long ago.