Sunday January 6, 2019
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Bp Andrew St John
Isaiah 60: 1-6
Psalms 72: 1-7,10-14
A Sermon for Epiphany, 2019
From the domestic scene of the Nativity with its Holy Family, angels, animals and shepherds, today’s gospel brings with it a much broader canvas with references to both the national political context as well as to astrological and cosmological phenomena. In other words this local event, this modest and humble birth in a farm building, admittedly heralded by angels from on high, becomes with the arrival of the Magi something even more significant. The canvas depicting this event takes on much larger dimensions. The political context is the first to be mentioned: “at the time of King Herod”. King Herod had a great reputation for building (impressive Herodian buildings are much in evidence in the Holy Land today including the great Temple Mount itself in Jerusalem as well as the huge palace complexes both outside Bethlehem and on the heights of Massada in the south overlooking the Jordan Valley). But Herod also had a fearsome reputation for cruelty. He was a jealous ruler who would brook no opposition. His infamy included the slaying of three of his sons as well as the slaughter of the infant boys of Bethlehem according to Matthew in the passage following today’s gospel, the incident we remember on the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December the 28th. The fact that the wise men from the East, presumably from lands beyond Herod’s territory, made contact with him is worth noting. They must have known of Herod’s fearsome reputation but perhaps they were simply being good diplomats as well as ensuring their own safety. But what these several political references and their consequences remind us is that the political context is always there framing and infusing the spiritual narrative. That context is ignored at our peril. Somehow the saving work of God goes on alongside but also in and through the political. The Hebrew Scriptures have a strong sense of this in the prophetic insight that God can use a Persian King Cyrus or some other foreign invader to carry out his work of judgment or redemption. As in all the references to the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke with their careful location in which reign and which governorship and which town and region we are reminded that the Incarnation of God in Christ is located in real political contexts; in real places; at particular times; and associated with real events and real people. God’s saving work has about it a particularity: it is not the stuff of fairy tales but of salvation history. So we may well ask, where does Epiphany fit in with Christmas? We are so used to Christmas cards and Christmas pageants where shepherds, angels, Holy Family and kings are all mixed up together that we can easily fall into thinking that it all happened at the same time, it was all one big event. Just before Christmas I took a visiting Australian friend to see the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular with its memorable, totally “over-the-top”, Nativity scene which comes at the end of the show. John D Rockefeller insisted that the Nativity scene was always included in the annual show. The shepherds, angels and Holy Family complete with a few sheep and a donkey are all there but the show stealer is the arrival of the kings decked in lavish costumes with a vast array of attendants plus camels. From a biblical point of view it takes a good deal of license!
But who are these “wise men from the East” as the text says, these Magi, who become by tradition the Three Kings, the Tres Reyes of the Latino celebration? The songs and carols we sing at this season locate them in “Persian lands afar” and other exotic locations. Traditionally the three kings represent three continents: Asia, Europe and Africa and are given names, Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar. The text remains silent on the matter except to say they came from “the East”, that is east of the lands of the Bible (perhaps modern day Syria or Jordan, Iraq or maybe Iran). An Oxford University history professor, Peter Frankopan, wrote a best-selling book several years back, “The Silk Roads: a New History of the World”, in which he provided a much larger context to world history from the more familiar Eurocentric one we know by investigating the civilizations and trade routes East of the Mediterranean. He argued that both religiously and culturally we too easily overlook the many Eastern influences on both our religion and culture. I was reminded of that fact by that startling exhibition several years back at the Metropolitan Museum called “Afghanistan” which highlighted items from the National Museum in Kabul which had miraculously survived the years of invasion and civil war in that poor benighted country. The exhibition was revelatory in that it reminded you that for centuries Afghanistan was at the crossroads of Eastern and Western civilization. So these “Wise men from the East” are an important corrective to the way we may see God’s saving activity as somehow arising out of the world of the Enlightenment. An important aspect of their identity was that they were foreign: they were not locals but outsiders. What this says to us is that this birth in Bethlehem, in a very Jewish context, suddenly takes on an international or universal dimension. No longer is it a discreet, local event, but something with much larger and greater relevance and resonance. It hints at God working on a much broader canvas. This is the story of the birth not simply of the longed for Jewish Messiah but of the Savior of the World. It is a foretaste of what will become the mission to the Gentile world, of the Catholic vision of a gospel for “all people, everywhere”.
But these Magi, who became the three Kings (perhaps influenced by the references in the Psalms), were wise men practiced in the magical arts, including astrology and numerology. They were on a journey following a star. They knew how to read and interpret the heavens and had risked much in order to pursue their insights. How did they know the connection between the one born king of the Jews and the star? Had they also had some sort of angelic visitation? Of that we are not told. But given their knowledge gained through their practiced arts and maybe some divine intervention they journeyed forth in pursuit of their goal. They remind us of journeyers of every generation beginning with Abraham and Sarah who set out on a journey in response to the call of God.
But thinking of these magical arts, astrology, numerology and the like; arts which have often been treated with great suspicion in orthodox Christian circles; these very arts are also brought into the divine plan. God is able to use all human arts and insights and processes in the unfolding of his Saving Work, the unfolding narrative of the divine/human relationship.
That star also brings to mind that the very heavens themselves, the whole cosmos if you like, is involved in this humble birth. We have already witnessed that in the gospels for Christmas Eve with the angels and the whole heavenly host and for Christmas Day and for the First Sunday After Christmas when we heard the Prologue to St John’s Gospel read: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God;” And “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” John gave Jesus the Word made flesh not just a local context but one that is cosmological, present from the Creation itself. Indeed we are familiar with the Pauline reference to Jesus Christ as being like a “new Creation.” There is a deep interconnectedness of this birth at Bethlehem with processes human and divine, terrestrial and cosmological, local and international.
And last but by no means least these Magi reached their destination and recognized it as such. We are told “they knelt down and paid him homage.” And then they “opened their treasure chests and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” These gifts were at one and the same time the best money could buy and the most inappropriate. They were completely out of proportion to the humble circumstances of the birth. And yet we know through the eyes of faith that they were totally appropriate because the one they honored was none other than the Lord and Savior of the whole world. It is him whom we worship and whose praises we sing this day. Amen