Psalm 72 (1-9) 10-15
O God, we give you thanks because,
in the carnation of the Word,
a new light has dawned upon the world,
that all the nations and peoples may be brought out of darkness
to see the radiance of your glory. Amen.
We are shortly coming to the end of the Christmas season as we come to enter the season of Epiphany. Even though our Gospel reading this morning makes it still feel as though we are in the Christmas Season – at least in the church. I have heard rumours that Cadbury’s Easter Creme Egg displays are popping up in the shops already!
However, a new season begins with the arrival of the Wise Men. Over the next couple of weeks, if you pay attention to the Bible readings, we will see epiphany stories in the lives of Eli and Samuel and at the wedding in Cana.
For today, I thought it was fitting to go through a slow-read through the Epiphany story. It is only Matthew who includes the story of the Wise Men or Magi from the East in the Christmas story. Their epiphany was the sudden and great revelation of Jesus and their response is the story being told here.
What does Epiphany mean? In the everyday it means to have ‘a moment of great or sudden revelation or realisation.’ I am not sure if you have had an epiphany moment but they are quite extraordinary! Those moments when some new idea, knowledge or thought blows through your mind and you suddenly and sometimes drastically see the world, people, and a situation in a totally new way. Epiphany moments can cause a fundamental change in one’s life.
Epiphany moments aren’t always dramatic affairs. They can happen in a quiet moment when you know that something has changed in your mind or in your heart.
I grew up in the church: Sunday School every week, my parents were very involved in the church, I sang (badly) in the choir, and was in various youth groups. I knew about Jesus but I don’t think I knew Jesus.
My first epiphany moment came while I was eating lunch in a dry field on a very hot July day at Ephesus, in Turkey. A few hours before this I was struck by the understanding that St Paul had been at Ephesus – not just the Greeks and the Romans – and had written the letter to the Ephesians.
I was where the Bible was. I had always seen it as a book, a story; but to be where the Bible took place – blew me away! I began to think that if the Bible happened in a real place – then maybe God and Jesus were more real than I thought they were.
By lunchtime, with all these thoughts rolling around my head, I had this sudden wave of peace and a sense of relief from all the grief and anger that I had been carrying around from the previous year and a half. I walked out of Ephesus that day totally different from how I walked in. I have never been the same since.
Matthew begins the Epiphany story ‘in the time of King Herod.’ If you are a fan of the soaps like Corrie or East Enders – then you will love The Herod’s. This family played an important part in the political setting of Jesus’ ministry. Several of them are mentioned in the Gospels along with a group known as the Herodians.
The Herodians were from a region that was forcibly converted to Judaism about 127 BCE. The male Herod’s were a talented bunch; they were political power-players who won favour with the Romans. They were also gifted at military strategy; Herod’s father held the post equivalent to Chancellor of the Exchequer.
This Herod became the military governor of Galilee when he was 25, his skills and talents made him friends with the likes of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cleopatra and Caesar Augustus.
These relationships brought him more land and his kingdom grew. Herod’s reign (for part of it) was a time of stability, prosperity and splendour – he founded cities, buildings and most notably rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem.
When we meet Herod in Matthew chapter two, he is about 70 years old and roughly two years away from his death. Herod is in a state of emotional and psychological deterioration as he became increasingly paranoid and mistrusting; so much so that he had 3 of his 15 children executed.
These 15 children came from the 10 wives he had! Herod is said to have died a painful death from kidney disease and gangrene.
This is the Herod that the wise men from the East met when they arrived in Jerusalem. Where did they come from? Persia, Babylon or maybe Arabia. Not sure. They are presumed to be Gentiles (so not Jewish) and come to represent the best wisdom of the Gentile world – they are the spiritual elites.
Why is this important? Tom Wright explains ‘Matthew wants us to be clear about something from the start. If Jesus is in some sense king of the Jews, that doesn’t mean that his rule is limited to the Jewish people. At the heart of many prophecies about the coming king, the Messiah, there were predictions that his rule would bring God’s justice and peace to the whole world.’
Right from his birth, Jesus is meant to rule the world. All people. Every nation. Matthew wants us to know this. It makes sense then that people outside of the Jewish faith see and experience who he is too.
Herod is frightened by the arrival of the Wise Men. The news of a new ‘King of the Jews’ has rocked his world. Herod had had this inscribed on his coins and to claim this title was treason. The title ‘King of the Jews’ was also on the cross of Jesus at the crucifixion. Herod had the title on his money; Jesus on the cross.
Who do you think the real king is here? This is Herod’s epiphany moment – he is not the real King of the Jews! Herod sends the Wise Men to Bethlehem with his made-up story he wants to pay homage as well. Herod is making an attempt to destroy Israel’s true king by employing foreign magi (oh foreign workers forever causing problems!) – but they only bring honour to the king’s rival – Jesus.
The Wise Men were obedient – this was a new thought to me. They followed the star even though they didn’t know where it would take them or what it meant but they followed it anyway. It made me think about what and who I follow.
Am I fully obedient to what God is calling me to do – even if I am not sure where it will lead? How far out of my way do I go to meet Jesus? Would I follow a star?
We know that the star that went before the Wise Men and came to rest over the place where Jesus was born was not an ordinary star. Sometimes you need some imagination to help picture these things. This star does not stay still – but moves as a guide.
Finally, the epiphany moment comes, notice it starts to happen before they even lay eyes on Jesus – simply the promise of him seems to be enough. It is when the star stops moving, Matthew tells us the Wise Men ‘were overwhelmed with joy.’ When was the last time you were overwhelmed with joy?
Does the thought of Jesus bring you joy? If not – then why not? What is missing? Maybe at the start of this new year it is time to ask for your own epiphany?
The Wise Men entered the house, overwhelmed by joy and knelt down before Jesus. They opened their treasure-chests and offered him gifts.
Gold – to show He was a king.
Frankincense – to show He deserved to be worshipped.
Myrrh – this is a strange gift to give a baby. Myrrh was used at the time when someone died. Jesus was the baby who would grow up and rescue us by dying in our place.
These were gifts of substantial financial value and the Wise Men expected to find what they were looking for at a royal court, and perhaps win favour there, but they were not disappointed with what they received.
What do we bring to God this morning? The Wise Men brought the best of what they had. Do we present our best? The best of our time, the first of our money, the greatest of our love, the first of our thanks? This is not to point out any deficiencies – I often get the order wrong myself.
The whole of the Christmas story from Mary & Joseph, the birth of Jesus, the message of the angels to the shepherds and their arrival at the stable to King Herod and the Wise Men – is a story of Epiphany. Great moments of realisation that do not leave us the same.
When we present ourselves to God – this is the most valuable thing we have – this is the only thing that He wants. You are more precious to Him to gold, frankincense and myrrh. When we encounter God we are never the same again. Thank God for that!
Psalm 72 (1-9) 10-15