Epiphany – Matthew 2:1-12
Apologies to my husband who is reading this but – why are the wise men are considered wise?
They are the only men – ever recorded – who have stopped and asked for directions!
They are called ‘magi’ in Matthew. A word from which we get magic and magician. In antiquity this word could describe those who were magicians, astrologers or interpreters of dreams (or a bit all three).
‘Wise men’ is a fairly safe, fairly neutral-sounding descriptor for some very strange characters in a strange story in the Christian canon, read around the world on the 6th January – The Feast of the Epiphany.
What does ‘epiphany’ mean? An epiphany is a moment of sudden and great revelation or realisation. Like a light suddenly shining in the darkness. Like a star lighting up the sky.
Among the early Christian believers there was an epiphany – a sudden revelation – that the gospel – the good news of grace and salvation – was also for the Gentiles. As Paul says in Ephesians 3 (referring 4 times in 6 verses to it as ‘mystery’) “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs and sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus throughout the gospel”
And so, the writer of Matthew includes Gentiles in his nativity story. But not the usual suspects! God-fearing Romans for example! He brings magicians – those who inhabited the fringes of respectable society – from the East to seek the child.
And just as these magi are not the worshippers that you would expect – so the location of the child is in a place that you would not expect.
They go to Jerusalem, thinking a king would be born in a capital, that a capital is the heart of a nation’s cultural, intellectual, economic, and spiritual life. (This is true of Canberra isn’t it?)
And they find such a place. Under Herod, Jerusalem was filled with theatres and amphitheatres, monuments and fortresses and the greatest work of all, the rebuilding of the temple. Under Herod, stability was maintained – ruthlessly. (This is a king who murdered a wife, three sons, a mother-in-law, a brother-in-law, and uncle and, as we know, there were more to come.) And under Herod, as is the case with proximity to power, when he became frightened and disturbed, “all Jerusalem was frightened with him.” With this phrase the writer of Matthew indicts Jerusalem for aligning itself with Roman power.
But the magi are true worshippers. When they hear the scriptures they obey them – unlike the chief priests and scribes, and they go and seek the new king in a small and insignificant place, a Bungendore or Braidwood or Bethlehem. There they find the new king who will rule – not as a Herod rules – but as a shepherd.
Walter Brueggemann writes: This is the voice of a peasant hope for the future, a voice that is not impressed with high towers and great arenas, banks and urban achievements…. [The prophet] Micah anticipates a leader who will bring well-being to his people, not by great political ambition, but by attentiveness to the folks on the ground….
The narrative of Epiphany is the story of these two human communities; Jerusalem, with its great pretentions, and Bethlehem, with its modest promises. We can choose…a life of self-sufficiency that contains with it its own seeds of destruction. Or…an alternative that comes in innocence and a hope that confounds our usual pretentions….
We can choose a life of self-sufficiency that contains with it its own seeds of destruction.
Is that the kind of life we will choose to live as we move into this year? To seek the pretentions of a Jerusalem? To align ourselves with those who appear most powerful?
Or will we choose an alternative – a hope that confounds our usual pretentions?
A king who rules not as other rulers’ rule, but as a shepherd. A king who brings salvation to the places in our world and in the situations in our lives where we least expect to find salvation. A king who invites – who welcomes to his table – worshippers from magi to very ordinary people, men and women, young and old, those who been hurt and those who have hurt others… All who need God’s grace are invited to come.
(Optional – before we sing the next hymn let me read to you this poem from John Bell)
I sought him dressed in finest clothes,
where money talks and status grows;
but power and wealth he never chose:
It seemed he lived in poverty.
I sought him in the safest place,
remote from crime or cheap disgrace;
but safety never knew his face:
It seems he lived in jeopardy.
I sought him where the spotlights glare,
where crowds collect and critics stare;
but no one knew his presence there:
It seemed he lived in obscurity.
Then, in the streets, we heard the word
that seemed, for all the world, absurd:
that those who could no gifts afford
were entertaining Christ the Lord.
And so, distinct from all we’d planned,
among the poorest of the land,
we did what few might understand:
We touched God in a baby’s hand.
Hymn – we are singing together ‘For everyone born, a place at the table…’
Hymn – Sing final verse of ‘For everyone born, a place at the table…’
Prayers of Intercession (words with responses are on PP slides)
We come like the magi,
as wise and as foolish men and women,
to kneel before the Christ child.We bring our regrets from the past year, our shame, our guilt,
acknowledging our failures and ready to begin afresh
Forgive us, Lord, and help us also to forgive ourselves.
We come like the shepherds,
from the rough hills of life,
bringing our memories of danger, of suffering, of grief,
bearing our own hurts and the pain of others like lost lambs in our arms.
Sing to us, Lord, your peace, and help us to share it with others.
We come like Mary and Joseph,
excited by new life, promises of hope,
joys remembered, and progress made,
achievements that light up our year.
We give you glory and thanks for these things.
And we come like the baby wrapped in cloth,
laying in an animals’ feeding trough,
looking at the faces of children everywhere
who still suffer the effects of poverty and disaster.
Speak to us through the cries of the baby Jesus
and the cries of all children.
And now we must go to our Bethlehem,
our Canberra, our local communities, our workplaces and homes,
into our New Year.
You will announce good news to the poor and we want to be there.
You will reach out to the marginalised and those from afarand we want to be there.
You will meet us at your cradle and your cross and in your risen life.
~ adapted from prayer for the New Year by William Loader.