Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem – Matthew 2:1
Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany here on the first Sunday of the new year, the new decade. Even as all around us Christmas decorations have been taken down and store shelves are now stuffed with Valentines Day paraphernalia, trees put away or put out to the curb, Boxing Day sales have wrapped up, yet our celebration of Christmas continues all the way until today (or really tomorrow if you are a total church nerd) as we celebrate the visitation of the magi to Jesus and his family that we heard this morning.
Often when we think of Epiphany we think of the three Kings – in fact some people call today the Feast of the Three Kings or Three Kings’ Day, in Western Europe mythical stories developed during the Middle Ages giving the Kings names: Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior and origins and even martyrdom stories developed over time as well.
I remember as a child when I lived in France we would eat King’s Cake and whoever found the coin or token in their piece of cake, would get to wear a golden crown for the rest of the day. A favourite Christmas carol for some (one we will sing later) might be We Three Kings and I remember one of my favourite post Christmas activities as a child was the daily ritual of moving the three kings closer and closer to our nativity scene, sometimes creatively if the space was limited.
All the myths and pageantry are lovely, but we shouldn’t let it distract us from the story which Matthew tells us this morning. The story is indeed about kings and wise men, but not the ones you are likely thinking about. The kings in Matthew 2 are Herod and Jesus – two wildly different kings if ever there were.
Herod represents the kind of King the world acclaims, the kind of King Jesus will go on to denounce later in the gospel, the kind of King that would do anything to keep hold of his tenuous grasp on the throne – including (but not limited to) conspiring with the Roman oppressors and killing any potential rivals even if they were lowly infants.
By contrast Jesus, the infant king, is helpless and vulnerable, a ruler whose power is hidden in humility, who’s rule is exercised through love and service of all. It will take all of Matthew’s Gospel to tell the story which reveals the true heavenly kingship of Jesus, but even here at the beginning we have glimpse of how Jesus overturns all of our expectations and ideas of what a king should be.
The wise men of our story, are not the magi as the translation we read this morning or our tradition would suggest, but rather the ‘wise men’ are the chief priests and scribes who Herod seeks guidance from, for they are the ones who now the scriptures, they are the ones who know the ancient prophecies about the coming of the Messiah. The chief priests and scribes, ready and willing to conspire with Herod concerning the death of his rivals, are full of the wisdom of the world – they know how the world works and have done a phenomenal job of rising through the ranks to be where they were needed. They knew full well a new king (whoever that might be) would mean the end of their place of privilege.
All this considered, it seems that in fact the wise men or kings we are accustomed to celebrating on Epiphany are neither particularly wise nor do they act very much like kings. They do not seem to have any worldly wisdom or knowledge: after all they have to seek the help of Herod and his scribes to find out where they need to go; and they seem more accustomed to following rather than giving orders like a good worldly king would, and to top it off at the end of our story this morning they take the quintessential posture of a servant, kneeling before a lowly peasant woman and her child and offering their precious gifts seeking nothing in return.
If we get right back to the text, our conceptions of the feast of the Epiphany, should be completely shattered, and that is probably for the best. Because if we celebrate the magi as great wise men or kings we completely miss the point, and in fact make the completely opposite point to the one that Matthew makes in our passage, and throughout the whole of his Gospel: that God reveals himself to the ‘little ones’ of the world, to those considered poor and lowly, to those on the margins of society, to those who are considered foolish by the World’s standards, to those who are more accustomed to positions of service than of power and wealth.
In fact the most remarkable thing about the identity of the magi, is not whether they are kings or wise men, but that they come from outside the people of Israel. These men, however many of them, were Gentiles through and through. They were not part of God’s people; they were not long lost Israelites finding their way home. They were people from the East, people that were not part of God’s covenant with Israel, people whose very presence brought ritual defilement to righteous Jews – and yet these were the very people that God revealed himself to first, these were the very first visitors to worship and praise the newborn King (Matthew’s account does not include a manger scene with shepherds being the first visitors).
These were the very first people to welcome Israel’s long-promised Messiah, signalling that the Messiah was not going to just bring salvation to the people of Israel, but that God’s plan was far wider in scope than the people could ask or imagine. Matthew will expound on this point throughout the remainder of his Gospel, but it is significant that the very first time we meet Jesus, as a child, he is already bursting our pre-conceived notions of who God’s Kingdom is for, and who it isn’t for.
This is a common theme throughout all of our readings this morning, the idea that God manifests himself to people outside the traditional boundaries of the religious community. In our reading from Isaiah we heard Isaiah’s call for the nation of Israel to be a light to all nations and not to keep the Good News to themselves; in our reading from Ephesians we heard how God’s ultimate purpose was the unification of humanity in Christ and tearing down of all the distinctions which divide us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; finally, in our reading from Matthew as we have been exploring, we see just how these barriers were being eroded even when Christ first came, as Jesus was paradoxically revealed to people on the outside and rejected by the very people who were thought to be on the inside.
Today on the feast of the Epiphany, we are not called to be wise, for as Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians ‘the wisdom of the world is foolishness in God’s sight (1 Corinthians 3:19)’; nor are called to be like kings for as Jesus reminds us later in Matthew “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26); we are not called celebrate our special status as a people or a church that has seen the light of Christ and bask in it, but rather we are called to let God’s light shine into the world and to stand in awe and wonder at the God who continually reveals himself in places and to people that we would lease expect it.
On Epiphany we are encouraged like the magi before us, not to set ourselves up as kings or people of privilege, but rather to walk humbly with our God, following in the footsteps of Jesus, our Morningstar, just as the magi followed the star so many years ago: always ready to serve rather than be served; always ready to glorify and praise God rather than seek our own glory; always ready to be surprised where we find God out in the world rather than seeking to keep God to ourselves here in the walls of our church building; always ready to receive the grace of God from the most unexpected people; always ready to share the good news we have received as widely as possible rather than keeping it to ourselves.
May God surprise you with his presence this Epiphany season in the most unexpected places and may his love and light so fill your lives so that others might come to know him through your words and deeds.
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