The Festival of The Epiphany

January 6, 2013


What a crazy thing to do?!

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-12 ESV)

As I said on Facebook and in my email about this service, there might almost be an exasperation among many people – finally, the Wise Men turn up! Reading Matthew shatters such things as the number of them and the impression that there was a queue to get into the stable after the shepherds. Yet taken as Matthew has written the account rather than our cultural or embellished version, there is still a lot of strangeness going around about this little child in focus here. Our Christmas ‘theme’ of ‘this is a strange birth’ continues.

Wise Men from the East arrive to the place that is logical for their understanding and they would seem to be expecting everyone to know about it. They come to the capital city – rather the king’s city – Jerusalem – and in effect ask for directions to the palace. “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” We have no way of knowing the reactions or responses they receive but let’s assume that they’re confused because people don’t know! It would seem that Herod and the palace isn’t celebrating a royal birth.

Then Herod and all Jerusalem, it seems, are troubled. Change is coming. Now they want change – they want the Romans out – but we all prefer ourselves to have some control of change – to manage change as much as possible – none us, I think, like being changed!

So Herod – not a dumb politician – forever regarded ignobly because of this situation – but he lasted nearly 40 years from when he was basically appointed by the Romans and is also known by historians for his ability to stay on the good side of everyone – those bigger than him – while simply eliminating any opposition real or otherwise – but at the same time also known for maintaining a huge building programme – that’s why he’s known as Herod the Great (the Great Builder) – does his research.

However he’s not looking up kings and family trees – he knows the history of the Jewish people since their return from exile some 400 years ago – he knows how he came to the throne. If strangers are coming to Jerusalem looking for a new king … where would they have heard about Israel’s destiny? … so Herod researches not for a new king but for the Christ – the Messiah. The one long hoped for. A king for sure but also more – the Lord’s anointed – not Rome’s – not his successor – no, the Lord’s hand will be on him. You can’t separate the Messiah from God easily.
So now Herod – calling them in secretly – official business – did he mention national security? (If the Romans find out … let’s protect him together.) Of course we don’t know the details but Herod sends the Wise Men to Bethlehem – perhaps it’s a hunch – while he works out what to do. He doesn’t want to alarm them and says the words back to them that they’ve said ‘so I too can come and worship him’.

And now I can imagine some confused Wise Men leaving the Jerusalem precincts – but the star is there – they’re really happy – and so they continue on. I’ve no idea how a star ‘works’ – I mean how exactly does it direct – laser pointer on the ground only they see it? – or big search light and everyone’s looking up as they
go past? I have no idea how they found the house – note Mary and Joseph are not using the inn’s environment any more – but I can’t but help think of Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ here … but what happens, however it happens, is what is extraordinary.

The big issue here is Gentiles worshipping the child. The presents are no doubt valuable but also symbolic. King, priest, and – what? – not sure – myrrh certainly seems strange. We, today, interpret it as symbolic of sacrifice, of death, used as it is for embalming and anointing. Maybe the Wise Men don’t really understand – maybe they’re polytheists – but it happens – and God’s plan mentioned to Abraham has a moment of fulfilment – Gen 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’.

This makes Herod’s subsequent response even more scandalous – and killing babies and toddlers ranks pretty high on the scandalous scale! It’s not just I’m king and want to be king! No one gets in my way. Not even the Messiah. Not even God (‘cause that’s finally what I want to be!) because that is what we are being directed to – by the heavenly light – by the light of the Word of God (in this case Micah specifically – but you can think of all the Old Testament in time because it reveals that God is active, working on a plan, to rescue his people from the death and hell they’ve caused) and the people who should know better, it seems, react negatively, violently, expediently – rejecting what God has done.

We don’t know if Jesus was speaking when the Wise Men turned up. If he was around 2 years old, he would have been able to speak. We’ve no idea how Jesus reacted to them. We do know that Jesus would later say such things as:

‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Mark 2:17 ESV).
‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.’ (John 8:34-38 ESV)

The Apostle John would later write: The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:9-13 ESV)

These words come from and are about a man who was crucified precisely because all the pointers – words – his own and what others said – and deeds pointed to the truth that Jesus and God are linked – he even said ‘one’ – Father and Son linked – yet so close that if you’ve seen the Son you’ve seen the Father. He was executed by people who should have known better. Jewish or Roman – deep down they knew this wasn’t right – but they believed they had no choice. Him or the people – which is a grandiose way of saying ‘him or me’. They carried out Herod’s wish.

We wouldn’t be here now if they were right. But Jesus’ grave is empty. The Wise Men show us the way to respond – fall down and worship and learn and grow in relating to who this King is and what it means to follow him.
We need to be careful today and not turn the church into a club for good people. I hear from time to time of people in church really rocked and shocked by a circumstance or event – usually involving death – how did God let this happen? It’s really ‘how could God let this happen to me?’. When God doesn’t act as we want, some people can have their faith really shaken. Trauma is trauma and I don’t want to belittle it but I also wonder what is the basis of the faith when in essence a person is saying, ‘God, you can’t do this to me?’.

God does what he intends to do – not checking with us first. That has always been the case. His plan is for the whole world to be saved – all people – no matter who you are or what you’ve done – salvation is possible for all. God is not vindictive. God is good. Let that really sink in – and some people think God is bonkers. Maybe he is – rescuing sinners – people who by nature don’t want to be saved – does seem a crazy thing to do.

But that’s exactly what Jesus did! And thus he does change everything!





Bible References

  • Matthew 2:1 - 12