Home Sermons Sunday 3rd January
January 3rd, 2021
Readings: Isaiah 60: 1-6 Matthew 2: 1-12
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
To the people of Israel who had been in metaphorical darkness for a very long time,
these words from Isaiah must have seemed like a dream. Those who had returned
from exile had found a very poor and shabby Jerusalem with little to remind them of
its former glory, but now the prophet was assuring them that this would all be
changed. But it was not only prosperity and political and economic power that Isaiah
was meaning. His poem is also passionately theological. In Israel’s liturgical life,
God’s powerful return is often described as the coming of light and the word used for
that light is glory. God’s glory shines and when God’s glory shines Israel lives in the
glow and is itself a presence of light in the world. This light will attract others to it – not
only the rest of the scattered exiles but also the peoples of all nations. God was
preparing new blessings that would transform Israel once again.
But we also hear this reading in the season of Epiphany and see it in the context of
the salvation God offers us in the birth of Jesus. It reminds us that we too live in a
world where there is darkness, despair and hopelessness where light is desperately
needed. It raises for me the question of how can we be the light of God in the world
and more specifically in our communities. How can we help to being light into
people’s darkness? And what is the light that we would want to bring? The light of
joy, of compassion, of understanding; the light of simply being there in times of need;
the light of being able to listen without judgment; and the light of allowing people to
make their own decisions even when we believe another option is better than the one
they have chosen.
The story of the Magi coming from the East to bring gifts to the infant Jesus is for
most of us an intrinsic part of the Christmas story. Yet historically it was probably
about 2 years after Jesus’ birth that they arrived. The story does fit appropriately into
this season of Epiphany – the time when we celebrate the spreading of the news of
the Christ to the whole world. It is the opening of the gospel beyond Jewish
boundaries and a reminder of the worldwide mission of the church.
There are three main characters in this story. First are the Magi. The Greek word
magoi suggests that these men were priestly wise men from Persia who were experts
in astrology and the interpretation of dreams. There were many magoi, but what
distinguishes these ones, is their sincere and persistent search for the baby born King
of the Jews. While we assume these were educated, sophisticated travellers, what is
also striking is their candour and naivete. They seem to anticipate no difficulty or
danger in asking King Herod about the birth of a rival king. Their questions force a
troubled Herod to seek help from the chief priests and scribes, who although
supporters of Herod, ironically produce the clue which finally leads the Magi to
Through out their journeys, the Magi are very obviously guided by God. It is, first a
star in the East and then a text from Micah that lead them to their goal. When the
time comes for them to leave Bethlehem, they are warned in a dream to take a
different route home to avoid Herod. These strange outsiders do not stumble on to
the Messiah by accident. They search with purpose and are directed each step of the
way by a divine hand. Their stay in Bethlehem is marked by great joy, the worship of
the child Jesus and by the giving of gifts. They come prepared and know what to do
when they arrive. And the story is very specific about the gifts – gold, frankincense
and myrrh – expensive gifts usually reserved for royalty. These men made the proper
response to the King of Israel.
The other thing that is remarkable about this picture of the Magi – their searching,
their guidance, their worship – is its fulfilment of scripture. As we heard earlier in the
reading from Isaiah 60, the time of restoration will be when : “the wealth of the nations
shall come to you… they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the
praise of the Lord.” So the arrival of these gentiles at Bethlehem is now seen as part
of the divine plan – an accomplishment of the promises made long ago.
A second key figure in this story is Herod the king. Interestingly enough the
scheming of the troubled and cruel Herod is no match for the guileless and almost
naive Magi, guided by the hand of God. Herod’s plot to have the Magi search out
and identify his rival for him backfires when they are warned not to return to him. If
the Magi represent the presence of non-Jews who recognise Jesus as the Messiah
and worship him appropriately, the Herod represents the political powers, imposing
and threatening but ultimately frustrated.
The third character in the story is Jesus, who says and does nothing but is the focus
of the whole story. The entire plot revolves around the affirmation of Jesus as King of
Israel. The text from Micah that the chief priests and scribes uncover identifies him
as “a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” Again the Greek verb which
translates as shepherd, describes what shepherds do with their flocks – tend, protect,
guide and nurture. Jesus’ rule is distinguished from Herod’s by his gentle
guardianship and his compassionate care for his people. But it is this same
shepherd-king who is finally rejected and mocked by the same chief priests and
scribes who, at his crucifixion, say “He is the King of Israel; let him come down from
the cross now.”
The story of the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem and their worship of the King of the Jews is
a critical episode in the larger story of God’s plan for humankind. Salvation comes
through Jesus the Jew, the fulfilment of the prophetic dreams, but it reaches far
beyond to strangers from the East, to a Roman centurion and a Canaanite woman, to
name just a few. And it continues to reach out through generations of disciples.
Right from his birth it is now clear that Jesus would have trouble with the authorities
whom he came to challenge, but that the stars in the heavens confirmed that God’s
purpose was at work in him.
How often does it happen today that we who are close to something miss its
significance, while those who are not so close can recognise and appreciate it.
Artists and visionaries are often ignored or put down in their own time, but later
generations can clearly see their vision.
So the questions we are left with are ones like: do we sometimes miss God’s light or
misinterpret it, the way Herod’s chief priests and scribes did? Do we get so caught up
in the hows and whys that we miss the essence of the story? Or are we sometimes
just too close to an event to see it really clearly? Or are we over cautious about
taking risks? And of course, how do we respond to the wise ones from outside who
may see what we miss? Are we like the people in the story of the Emperor’s new
clothes who go along with the story until the obvious is stated by a child?
What is it that makes us wise in the ways of God? How can we become more like the
Magi who persisted in their search to find that special child? The Magi were single-
minded. In spite of all the obstacles and setbacks they must have encountered, they
followed the star to the end of the journey. May we too have that courage and the
persistence to follow where God is calling us. Let us be still.