A sermon preached by Hilary Pearson at St Mary’s, Iffley on 8th January 2023
I suspect that for most of us our image of the Nativity fundamentally derives from the primary school and Sunday school nativity plays of our youth or those of our children and grandchildren. We have Mary and Joseph and the baby and a grumpy Bethlehem innkeeper. We have shepherds with their mothers’ tea towels wrapped round their heads, summoned by angels wearing white nighties with cardboard wings and tinsel haloes. And we have three kings, wearing Christmas cracker paper crowns and carrying gift wrapped empty boxes, summoned by a star.
Is that a problem? Well, although all those elements are found in the New Testament, they are not all found in one place. They are an amalgam of stories from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Mark and John say nothing about Jesus’ birth; they both start the story with the preaching of John the Baptist). Matthew gives us just the wise men, also the flight into Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents. Everything else comes from Luke’s account.
Today we are celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany. You may have noted that the Gospel reading we heard did not refer to kings. The word used in the Greek is μαγοι (magoi). This is given different translations into English. The King James Version uses ‘wise men’, as does the New Jerusalem Bible. The New International Version calls them ‘Magi’ (which is an anglicised version of the Greek), the Revised English Bible calls them ‘astrologers’.
For today’s nativity story we are looking at Matthew’s Gospel. It is important to understand that the four Gospels are not biographies of Jesus as we understand that term today. Each of the four writers has a particular theological message to convey, most probably directed to the circumstances of the Christian community they were originally addressing. Of course, that does not mean that they do not address us in our current circumstances, because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit who still speaks to us today through their words. Three of the Gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke have a lot in common, and most New Testament scholars believe that Mark’s Gospel was the first to be written, and that Luke and Matthew used Mark in writing their own Gospels. John’s Gospel is very different from the others, both in its content and its theological message.
If you read through Matthew’s Gospel, you will probably be struck by the number of times he quotes verses from the Old Testament, which he relates to the event he has just described. Indeed, the Gospel starts with a long genealogy, tracing the descent of Joseph from Abraham, including King David. This introduction, which would only have been of interest to a Jewish audience (but of enormous significance to them), is one of the many clues that Matthew’s Gospel was primarily written for Jewish Christians, including recent converts, who were coming under increasing persecution by the Jewish religious establishment. It has many more explicit references to the Old Testament than any of the other Gospels. These are directed to showing that the life and teachings of Jesus were the express fulfilment of prophecies in the Jewish scriptures.
So why does Matthew give us the story of the exotic Eastern visitors? The only Old Testament prophecy explicitly quoted, from Micah, relates to the place where an expected Jewish ruler will be born. However, these Jewish Christians would have known of references in the Jewish scriptures to foreign rulers bringing tribute to the Jewish king. Today’s psalm, Psalm 72 which is addressed to Solomon, says in verses 10-11: “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute; the kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts.
All kings shall fall down before him; all nations shall do him service.” Verse 13 adds: “unto him may be given gold from Sheba.” Isiah, prophesying during the Babylonian exile, says in the passage we have just heard read that “nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” and that “A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord”. These verses correspond to details of the nativity given by Matthew. It seems likely that the transformation in Christian art and nativity stories of the visitors from wise men to kings came from these prophecies. You may also have noted that Matthew does not give a number of wise men; that belief that there were three of them seems to arise from the listing of three types of gifts.
The story of Eastern wise men coming to worship Jesus as king of the Jews fits with a theme found throughout Matthew’s Gospel; that God’s kingdom is not limited to Jews, it includes Gentiles. We know that the Jews of Jesus’ time regarded themselves as God’s chosen people, strictly following a detailed set of laws governing every aspect of life. These laws included prohibition of many activities with Gentiles, including eating with them or even entering their houses. The Book of Acts tells us of disputes among the first Christians as to whether it was possible for Gentiles to become Christians, and how Peter was criticised for going to the house of the Roman centurion, Cornelius, until he recounted his vision and how the Holy Spirit had fallen on these Gentiles as he preached to them. Even after that, we know from Paul’s writings that some Jewish believers still thought that they should not eat with Gentiles. It was important for Matthew, addressing a largely Jewish group of believers, to ensure that they ate with Gentile believers because the main Christian activity was centred around a meal, the Eucharist.
The passage from Matthew we have heard today is immediately followed by Joseph being warned in a dream to take his family to Egypt to escape Herod’s intention to remove this threat to his throne by finding and killing the child the wise men were looking for. Herod then goes on to order the slaughter of all boys who could possibly be that child. This vivid contrast between the approach to Jesus by the Gentile wise men and by the Jewish Herod foreshadows another theme of Matthew’s Gospel: criticism of the Jewish religious establishment. There is severe criticism of Pharisees and others at the beginning of Matthew; John the Baptist calls them “you brood of vipers”. There is more criticism, this time by Jesus himself, throughout Matthew’s account of his ministry, including warning his disciples: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” by which he meant their teachings. Matthew has almost five chapters devoted to Jesus’ teaching after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Much of this is either direct criticism of the Jewish religious establishment or parables such as the vineyard tenants and the wedding banquet which showed that rejection by the Jews would lead to replacement by Gentiles who accepted Jesus and his teachings.
To understand why Matthew includes so many of these harsh criticisms, we need to know the circumstances of those he is writing for. At the very beginning, those who were followers of Jesus were practising Jews, who believed that Jesus was the longed-for Messiah and who could see no conflict between their Jewish faith and following Jesus. The fact that increasing numbers of Gentiles were also coming to faith in Jesus although not also accepting all the tenets of the Jewish religion at first caused concern, but the clear evidence that they also received the gift of the Holy Spirit removed this concern for most. So the decision by leading rabbis in 80 AD to ban belief in Jesus for Jews and exclude his followers from the synagogues must have caused great grief and confusion for Jewish Christians. By showing that the life and teaching of Jesus was in fulfilment of prophecies in the Jewish Scriptures, Matthew demonstrated to Jewish Christians that this ban was not God’s will and that they were still within God’s covenant with Israel. They would be reassured by the knowledge that the prophets were also rejected and persecuted by the Jewish establishment.
But what can we learn from this? First, why do we call this the Feast of the Epiphany? The word ‘epiphany’ derives from the Greek word meaning ‘manifestation, striking appearance’. Wikipedia describes it as ‘an experience of a sudden and striking realization’, and says that ‘generally the term is used to describe a scientific breakthrough or a religious or philosophical discovery, but it can apply in any situation in which an enlightening realization allows a problem or situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective.’ In simpler language, it is an ‘aha’ moment.
So, what could be an enlightening realisation for us at the threshold of a new year? Perhaps it is that new and fruitful ideas can come from an unexpected source. Looking back over these last three, strange years, we can see that in change and challenge God was with us and we grew spiritually. In March 2020 we were faced with an abrupt shutting of all churches. We didn’t want to just give up and wait for the pandemic to be over, we valued our fellowship too much. How could we stay together and continue to worship? Along came wise men bearing a gift – Zoom. It is interesting that this software was authored by an ethnic Chinese, and developed in Silicon Valley, California, so it came to us from afar. God had also provided wise men in our own congregation who had the technical skills to set up and operate our Zoom services. After some initial hiccups as we got used to using the program, I think for most of us it became a lifeline, in our life as a congregation as well as keeping in touch with family and friends.
Some of us may face major challenges in the coming year: loss of a loved one, serious illness, moving house, retirement, changing jobs. We know that we face a major change as a congregation because Andrew and Sarah will be leaving us sometime during the year. Like those early Jewish Christians, we can be reassured that God is with us through these changes, however challenging, because that is the unchanging message throughout the Bible. It is confirmed by what Jesus says in the very last verse of Matthew’s Gospel: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
There is another, deeper and more difficult lesson to be found. The visit of the wise men to worship Jesus is immediately followed by suffering and death. Suffering of Jesus and his parents who become asylum seekers in Egypt. Death of the baby boys and suffering of their parents. In his poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’, T.S. Eliot speaks in the voice of one of the wise men, looking back many years later. After recounting the difficulties of the journey, he says:
“All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it all again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our place, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here…”
It is a fact of biology and genetics that change is necessary for physical growth and evolution. For living beings to grow, cells must die and be replaced with new cells. It is never easy to accept death and loss, whether of people or things important to us. But it may be essential to let go so something new can grow. Letting go does not mean forgetting, but memories should not stop us turning to look for and welcome the new.
We need to believe that God is with us in the changes and, if we accept them, he is bringing growth and development. We will miss Andrew and Sarah very much, but we must look forward to what God will do through this change. Let us look forward to this coming change with confidence. God will call some of us to new roles and responsibilities; already three of us have accepted a call to preach. May all of us, like Mary to whom this church is dedicated, be ready to say “yes” to God’s call.