Ooh!!! Sermon 7th Jan 2018 by Rev Peta Evans
Matthew 2: 1-12
I really like the story of the Magi, wise men, three kings, whatever you want to call them. Probably weren’t three, or kings, but never mind.
I like it because I liked it when I was a small child and we got to dress up and carry little wrapped up presents in the nativity plays, and I like it because in these magi, these wise people, we’ve got visitors who’ve come a long way. They’re not from Israel, they’re probably not even Jewish, they’ve got no particular reason to be connected to this Jewish Messiah, but they’ve come all this way.
And I like it because of the number of sermons I heard when I was a teenager and in my early twenties, trying to explain away the fact that these are astrologers, following a star. Which these churches just couldn’t handle. You know, these were the sort of churches who thought you went to Hell for reading your horoscope. But, you know, these three were OK. Their star was the one special star, but they need to make it clear it’s not OK normally, and so on, trying to explain away these magi. It was hilarious.
But let’s face it, Jesus’ story is full of things that my church teachers didn’t really approve of. Starting with unmarried teenage mothers and just carrying on from there. And I did think at the time, I thought, let me get this right – stars, (which, you know, God made) showing the way, that’s a problem to be explained, but virgin birth, that’s cool, you’ve got no conceptual issues there? Yeah. They had a lot of hard work to try and explain away quite a lot of the Bible sometimes, those preachers.
Then on the other hand, I had some other preachers explaining that there’s not really any such thing as miracles, and you know, dream interpretation not really a thing, God doesn’t really speak to people in their dreams, you know, on the one side, and then I’ve got these people trying to explain that yes, God does speak in dreams and cause virgin births but is just not OK with stars. And the whole lot, I felt, really rather missing the point.
The point is ‘epiphany’, it’s enlightenment, revelation, realisation, the ‘oh, I get it!’ moments. And there’s more than one epiphany to be found in all this. The story had one meaning for the early Jewish believers for whom it was vital that Jesus was the messiah of prophecy, the fulfilment of the old texts and prophecies about who and what the Messiah was going to be. And that’s all very interesting and quite important, but not necessarily earth-shaking for us, here. It’s not necessarily going to make a big difference to the way we live our lives, that Jesus fulfils a particular prophecy in the Torah. Except to remind us that we do in fact owe our entire faith and heritage to the Jewish people, our Messiah was a Jew, and we’ve got absolutely no excuse to go around dismissing or excluding that vitally important faith that is part of the journey that God has for us. Which is an important message in itself.
Then there’s the meaning that many of us as Western Christians could do with reminding at times – that truth-seekers from the East don’t have to become Western Christians to have an encounter with Jesus. These guys, they came as astrologers from the East, and they left as astrologers and dream-interpreters from the East. Very much themselves, but having encountered Jesus.
And that’s the point really. The point about epiphanies, about revelations. It’s not so much the shape of the message, and it’s not so much the understanding you have, or how much understanding you have about it – it’s what you do about it that counts. Because we all have revelations, realisations, ‘oh!’ moments, in our way, in our own time, about whatever’s important for where we’re going with God.
Look at Herod and his advisers, and compare them to these magi. They’ve both received more or less the same epiphany: he who will be king of the Jews has been born in Bethlehem. And the magi respond and bring gifts, valuable things, and they came and worshipped a small peasant child. And even though they had expected to find the baby king in a palace in Jerusalem, they kept faith with what their star had told them: this baby was worth their homage and their treasures.
Herod, on the other hand: ‘King of the Jews? I’m king of the Jews!’ He’s thrown into fear. It’s a threat, an enemy! Quick! Manipulate, lie, kill! Protect himself. They both knew that the Messiah had been born. It’s what they did about it that mattered.
My epiphanies won’t be the same as yours. I haven’t had the same experiences, we’re not all being sent on the same journeys, we don’t necessarily have the same beliefs. My ‘oh!’ moments tend to be very quiet and very slow, and I tend to subject them to minute examination before I go anywhere with them. I’m not one of life’s ‘grab it and run with it’ kind of people.
But it doesn’t really matter. Whether for you Jesus is the Incarnate God in the manger, or the teacher of difficult and subversive truths, or the Lamb who was crucified, or an inspirational symbol, or the friend you sit and chat with of an evening – it’s what we do about it that counts.
Faced with a threat to my privileges, what do I offer? Open hands or a closed fist? Herod, or the Magi? Faced with what we don’t understand, how will we react? Fear, or curiosity? Willingness, or wilful ignorance?
This new year is in front of us – 2018. Slowly, it’s going to reveal itself to us. We’re going to find out what God’s got in store. There may well be threats, real and imagined. There will be things we don’t understand. There will be calls to action. There will be changes. We may be asked to accept things that we hadn’t expected, and don’t want. Some, we will need to resist. Many, I suspect. Some we will need to welcome and defend. Many, I suspect! But in the end it will not be how much we understood, but how much we did that will make a difference.
It will matter whether we reached out, or struck out. It will matter what we gave, or kept, or took. And I have to be honest, after 2016 and 2017, I am tempted to go into 2018 with my fists up! You know, I’ve been sucker-punched by two new years in succession, I’m not much inclined to give 2018 the benefit of the doubt. But, God’s call on me is to be active. Not reactive, not aggressive. It’s going to be faith, not fear that will make this year different. That will make this year different. Not our fear. Our faith.
Faith, hope and love, which have survived, which will survive – abideth, all three – when we’re taking this new step into a new year, no matter what’s been, faith, hope and love will make this one a good year.