Sermon: Feast of the Epiphany Year B
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
It’s not easy being a man these days… we take quite a bit of stick. I read recently that if the wise men had been women, things would have been different and much better.
Firstly, if the wise men had been women, they would not have arrived many months after Jesus’ birth because they would have stopped to ask for directions.
If the wise men had been women, they would have been there to clean up the mess so Jesus wouldn’t have had to be born in a barn.
And finally, had the wise men been women, they would have brought much more practical gifts including a stew so the family would have something to eat.
What do we really know about the wise men? Not much when you examine the scriptures. Where did they come from? “The east” you say. But where in the east? How far east? Pompey? Brighton? China? We know they came from the east and they came from a long way away, but we don’t really know where they came from.
How many of them were there and what kind of men were they? Again, we don’t know. In the second century, the church father Tertullian suggested that these men were kings because the Old Testament had predicted that kings would come to worship him: hence “We three Kings of Orient Are”. He also concluded that there were three kings based on the number of gifts mentioned, gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Bible doesn’t tell us who they were or how many of them came.
In the sixth century, someone decided that their names were Melchior, Balthazar and Kaspar. And so operas have been written ascribing these names to them. But no one really knows what their names were.
We don’t even really know that they were wise. In the original manuscripts they are called the “magi” from an ancient Iranian word, “magoi” which was used to describe people who acted in very strange ways, were captivated by astrology, spells and incantation and dressed in a very bizarre manner. The Latin word is “magi” from which we get words like “magician.”
So we don’t know who they were, where they came from or even how many of them there were. Why doesn’t Matthew the Evangelist tell us any of this information?
I would suggest that all of this detail is left out of the picture in order that the full emphasis may be placed on the one thing that is central to this story: their statement, “we have come to worship.”
The gifts of the wise men are not merely the forerunner of the large credit card bills which many have run up in the battle to deliver the biggest, the best, the most sought after present this year, but are part of the revelation of Jesus Christ to the world.
A good gift says “I thought of you as I bought this. It would be appropriate for you”. The gifts of the wise men show this consideration, and in their symbolism they predict the Messiahship of the Child Jesus.
Signifies Kingship. King Herod was threatened by Christ, not merely because he was a shallow, cruel and insecure tyrant, but because he feared the true authority of the rightful King of the Jews. Herod was a puppet ruler in power on behalf of the Romans, empowered to keep the peace and collect the taxes. Jesus Christ, of the House of David, the ruling house, had temporal claims to authority as well as Spiritual.
Too often we try to divorce our spiritual and our temporal lives: the life explored in the Mass split from the life lived in the workplace. The Gold presented the child represents his authority on earth as well as in heaven; his authority over us for the whole seven days, not just the Sunday morning.
Symbolises Christ’s Divinity. Incense is burned to signify prayer and holiness: altars, gospel books and statues are censed to set them apart. The psalmist in Psalm 141 says:
“Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice”
The Christ-child, both fully human and fully divine is recognised as being both of this earth, in his incarnation, and not of this earth. The media and the secular world it panders to wants to bring down Our God to earth and keep him there – they are only interested in the historical Jesus, whether his mother was all the Holy Church cracks her up to be, and whether in this scientific and reductionist age we should believe in the “supernatural”. God is supernatural, for he is above and beyond all creation, and in this sad little earth which has nothing left to cling to, I rejoice in the worship of an all-transcendant God who overcomes the boundaries of our trivial science and the limitations of our little minds. We should resist the temptation to bring God down to our level, when he belongs on our altar and in our hearts in worship.
The last gift,
Fortells Christ’s death, for Myrrh is the sweet spices and perfumes that a body is covered with after death. The same Myrrh that Mary Magdalene brought to the tomb that Easter morning to complete the burial rites of the crucified Lord.
Expensive and rare, certainly, and reserved for a special purpose, this gift is a prophecy of Christ’s death, and shows that none of these gifts, none of the birth narratives told in the Gospels of Luke or Matthew happen by accident. Certainly, there are discrepancies in the scriptural accounts, but Scripture is more than a newspaper account – it is a revelation by God, and each feature in this story is significant – nothing is wasted. For this reason, we should not be prepared to gloss over the bible, and especially the birth story of Christ: “Oh we‘ve heard that a thousand times”, I suggest that we should never take these scriptures for granted, return to them often and pore over the details, for they are rich in God’s revelation to us.
The wise men were significant to the birth narratives because they represent the wider revelation of the Christ to the world. The word was made flesh in an obscure backwater of a town, in a stable to a young girl of insignificant birth and her artisan husband. The Saviour of the World was revealed to the Jews not in the glory of the temple, although he would be known there at his presentation, witnessed by Simeon and Anna, or the splendour of the royal palace, but in a stable before working men from the hillsides rather than the great and the good of the Jewish state.
The Shepherds were considered to be less than worthy Jews because the task of looking after the sheep would require them to work on the Sabbath: they were perpetually ritually unclean, and yet they were the first Jews to whom the Lord was revealed.
Similarly, the fact that the wise men came at all is significant, for they were Gentiles; beyond even ritual uncleanliness; they were, for all their finery and precious gifts, just like us: the great unwashed. The Christ is revealed to be the Christ of both the Jews and the Gentiles, it is because of this revelation that we gather in this church this morning.
The wise men brought gifts, significant and expensive, but the gifts were for all their symbolism merely an extension of the traditions of middle-eastern hospitality: the real significance of the Epiphany was coming to worship the Christ-child – to acknowledge the Saviour of the World in human form, to keel before a tiny child and, as representatives of us all, to recognise Jesus as Lord.
It does not matter whether we can aspire to the income, the wisdom or the gift-giving capabilities of the wise men, we are all called to the crib, we are all called to come and worship.