Audio transcript here: http://youtu.be/yGJA660Vd88
Well in this post-Christmas Let me ask you what you really think about this story of the Magi, or wise men, coming to Herod? It is a story so familiar to us from Christmas cards and the carol, “We three kings”that we accept it as part of the tradition whether or not it seems to be very likely or to fit very well with the birth narratives. And then there is the sequel, the flight into Egypt, which is mentioned here in Matthew but nowhere else. And how do the two infancy narratives, this one of Matthew’s and Luke’s familiar shepherds, angels, stable and manger fit together. The short answer is that they don’t. The idea of the three kings arriving on their camels to worship the baby lying in the manger is something that we have created for the sake of popular culture. A lot of our traditions are born from the human desire for tidiness and continuity. When Paul, if it were Paul, which it probably wasn’t, wrote these wonderful words about the mystery of God’s grace, these gospel narratives had not yet been written down, though he may have had access to oral traditions of this story, but it doesn’t matter, because the writer, as he tells us, has had a personal revelation of God. This epiphany, has changed the writer’s life, as it does for us all. It is a revelation that changes lives not the accounts written here. The account is written so that we might understand that transformation. We have struggled as readers raised in the western tradition to syntheise these accounts, and that struggle has become an obsession since the work of Charles Darwin in the C19th Century, when science burst into the consciousness of the average person. Suddenly, with the ‘’Origin of the Species”science and religion became polarized and we Christians felt duty bound to declare the inerrancy of the bible. From that day on the battle has been with people who try to read the narratives of the bible as though they were newspaper reports, purporting to give an accurate account of the facts, although a student of literature will tell you that even a newspaper report is a construction and the lenses through which the story is viewed depend very heavily on the culture into which it is written- there is no such thing as a completely objective report. These narratives are much more like novels, in their character, in so far as they want to tell us something about God and something about the human condition and about where the two intersect, rather than being a report of events. Novels can tell us the truth in a very special way, as do these narratives. The happenings, like the coming of the wise men are important not for the facts that they tell us about the journey, but because they made the journey, not because they followed a moving star, but because the star or light led them to God who was king. We also learn about human nature in one who might have been king- Herod was threatened, and reacted violently and the way he behaved gives us window into the psyche of the powerful leader, which we can see played out again and again throughout history. So let me try to unpack these events to find the meaning that the gospel writer wants us to see and hear. The first important point is that these are wise men from the east- in other words they are not Jews, but Gentiles. This is very important because the Jewish nation is called to be a priestly nation, acting to bring the rest of the world to God. And here is the rest of the world, traditionally from three different racial groups (and that tradition started a very long time ago) symbolising the whole of the world coming to worship Israel’s new King. The baby is going to be the light to the nations, and the mystery of his coming is announced by a star, a light in the heavens for all to see. But of course you had to know the meaning of the star in order to be drawn by it, towards the child in Bethlehem. Jews were not encouraged to practice astronomy, which just goes to show that God moves in mysterious ways, and that people can be drawn to God in ways that might not seem to be right to us. We can want to control how people approach God- there are right ways and wrong ways, but here the wise men, wise in their own cultures, come to God through an unauthorised means. The question for us is, what draws us to come and see the revelation of God, what draws us to the light? And can we cope when others are drawn to God in ways that we don’t understand? Because that is what this visit from the wise men is about- it is the Epiphany- or revelation of God to human beings. In the birth story, God becomes flesh to live with us, here the child is revealed as the King and God for the whole world. Jew’s and Gentiles, or for us Christians and non-Christians are equally able to see and receive the gift of this child. This revelation of God is a mystery, it is outside the cognitive realm. How do we experience that mystery? What is it that makes you know that God has revealed God’s-self to you? The magi saw a star and were prepared to follow, they were prepared to interpret what they saw, and also to listen to the revelation they received in a dream. How is it that you have come to worship at the feet of the King of Creation? What have you seen and heard and trusted that has brought you to this place? The writer of the letter to the Ephesians, tells us that the mystery, which is God’s grace, was made known to him by revelation. Well, yes! That is how it is made known to each of us, none of us can know or believe unless we have it revealed to us. The writer sees the great mystery as being that God is available to everyone, Gentiles are made fellow heirs, he says, members of the same body and together we share in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. And in order to accept this truth, this mysterious truth, it has to be revealed to us, just as it was to the wise men from the east who brought their gifts to the child Jesus. But there is more to it than that. We are called to become servants to this gospel, or good news “and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”We are to be stars shining that others can see and be drawn to the light. We are to be beacons that announce the safe arms of God in our presence. The writer says that we have access to God in boldness and confidence because of this revelation. This story of the Magi, is here to help us to understand the mystery that Jesus came not just for the Jews, even though born a Jew in his earthly life, but that all of us, everyone who comes from whatever corner of the earth, can have God revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. And the greatest mystery is that of God’s grace- God, creator of the world, creator of the stars, king of kings, wants to be in relationship with us, God wants to show God’s love for us in a way that we can understand, and through us, to reveal God’s-self to others. We are invited to be part of God’s plan of revelation. We are invited to be the epiphany for others. Albert Schweitzer said, “At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”And as we think of those who have done this for us- lighted a flame within us, so we are called too, to be sparks of mysterious fire, to show glimmers of God’s glory so that God can be revealed to others.