A sermon on Matthew 2: 1-12 by Nathan Nettleton, 8 January 1995
God's love unconditionally seeks all people.
The Apostle Paul once described our understanding of God as being like seeing through dark or frosted glass. If someone was standing outside that window, we'd know they were there but we'd have trouble working out who it was. Its the same with seeing in the dark. We can pick up the broad outline but we can't make out much detail.
As we seek God, and seek to understand God's ways, we often feel as though we are entering a dark cloud of mystery, in which we can pick up some generals shapes but the detail we crave is shrouded in the unknown.
The word Epiphany is a strange sounding word which comes from Greek and means appearance or revelation. It's used to speak of either an appearance of a divine being, or of the revelation of the basic nature of something or some essential truth. That is how it gets its association with light. Something is suddenly illuminated and made clear. Something comes to light, becomes apparent to all who look. The Christian celebration of Epiphany then, is the celebration of the revelation of God's nature and purpose in the appearance of Christ. Today we come to God seeking an epiphany. We come asking God to draw back the clouds and step into the light, so that, even if only for a short while, we can see clearly the love that God has for us and the purposes for which God is preparing us. We come seeking an epiphany.
The story of the visit of the magi, or the wise men as they are usually called, is traditionally associated with Epiphany because of its images of the revelation of Christ to the nations. Matthew tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the land of Judea during the time of King Herod the Great but he doesn't tell us why Mary and Joseph were so far from home. However, I'm sure that only two weeks after Christmas we all remember Luke's account of the compulsory census. There was another Bethlehem up in Galilee just near Nazareth, and Matthew wants to make sure that we know that Jesus was born in the Judean Bethlehem. Because for Matthew's mainly Jewish readership that was important. They knew their Scriptures and so they knew that the Messiah was to come from the line and the city of David and Matthew makes sure his readers can't miss the fact that Jesus came from exactly where the Messiah was expected to come from. Matthew is like that. He likes to give his readers something comfortable to hang on to before he hits them with any threatening stuff. He gets them feeling all secure with their cherished Hebrew presuppositions and then when they least expect it he rips the rug right out from under them.
This time he wastes no time at all. He starts sticking the needles in straight away. To us the statement probably seems innocent enough. Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked,Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star rise in the east and we have come to worship him. Innocent enough? Not to a proudly righteous Jew in the first century, it's not. This would have the hackles up on the backs of their necks already.
Who came to Jerusalem? Magi? The description of people as Magi could have had a number of slightly different meanings, but none of them would endear them to a devout Jew. At its most innocent it referred to a possessor and user of supernatural knowledge and ability. The wise man, whose special knowledge comes from reading the stars or from other mystical means of divination inaccessible to ordinary people.
Now try for a moment to get a feel for the impact Matthew is having here. I'll try and do a Prahran equivalent of Matthew's story here and you tell me how it makes you feel. Here we go -
Once upon a time God decided to become human and be born as a baby on earth. He was born, on a Saturday night, to a couple of street kids called Mary and Joe who were camping out in the garage behind the Prahran Community Baptist Church. The next morning all the regulars turned up for Sunday worship, completely unaware of the tiny family out in the garage. Half way through the service, there was a knock at the door and three strangers came in. They looked something like a cross between yuppies and gypsies, sort of smartly dressed but with lots of jewellery and strings of crystals round their necks and stuff. Excuse us, they said, but we're the staff from the Mythic Reality New Age Enlightenment Centre in Chapel Street, and we're looking for the manifestation of the divine that has appeared just around here.
What are you talking about? replied the startled regulars at the church.
Well, we're not sure of the exact details, but Sasha here was reading the Tarot Cards this morning, and the cards clearly said that an omnipotent divine presence had just appeared as a baby at 12 Surrey Road, South Yarra. We were a bit surprised at first, but then our brother Moonlight here spent half an hour calculating the astrological chart for today, and sure enough, there was an unusual conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter last night, and that occurring under the sign of Capricorn confirms what the cards had said. So we've come with a good supply of healing and empowering crystals as a gift for the baby.
At that moment a baby's cry was heard from out the back and on investigation a baby named Jesus was discovered with his frightened parents in the back garage.
Now, I've finished being Matthew. How are you, the sincere Christian people of Prahran Community Baptist Church feeling? What has Matthew done to you? what is he implying??????
The use of any form of divination, astrological or otherwise had long been forbidden to the Israelites, as a thing abhorrent to the Lord. This more specific meaning of the word magi referred to a priest of the distinctive religions of Babylon. They were the speakers of the sacred words at the pagan sacrifices. At worst, the term referred to a magician or sorcerer, or even a deceiver. Magi were people whose activities were repeatedly condemned and prohibited throughout the scriptures and were completely anathema to the people of Israel.
But Matthew openly writes that Magi from the east came to Jerusalem. Magi from where? From the East. Probably from modern day Iraq or somewhere close by. Not exactly a popular Jewish holiday destination. They probably wouldn't have aroused quite the fear that a modern day Iraqi arriving a Jerusalem asking for directions to the local maternity hospital would, but they still wouldn't have been especially welcome in the first century.
Matthew's point - don't get your theology of who's in and who's out to carefully worked out - God will cross the barriers. God's love is not withheld from anyone in favour of anyone else. God's love respects none of our boundaries.
Good news and bad news for us as sincere and conscientious Christians.
Bad news - if God is going to reveal something special to Prahran it could be through Mystic Reality instead of us. We expect rewards. Only reason we might experience any more love is because of openness, not because of focus.
Good news - should be clear by hearing the same message from another standpoint. What is the good news for us as Christians????
It doesn't matter if we've got it wrong - if our theology is embarrassingly wrong - if we've misunderstood the meaning of Christ - if God is made dizzy by our circular seating - if God wants orange robes, vegetarians, and bells in the street - even if we are bitter, twisted, hateful, destructive - we are still loved passionately. Love may want to free us from some things but the things don't prevent the love.
That's what we celebrate at Epiphany. The revelation of God's universal love. That's what Paul got so excited about - the mystery hidden for ages, the truth that God's love respects no boundaries.
Whoever you are, whatever you have done, wherever you come from, God loves you and longs to make that love known to you.
Revolutionary message - brings trouble. This story leads to the dispatch of death squads. Give me some modern examples of how that message causes trouble????
Tell a Nazi God loves Jews, tell a Serb that God loves Bosnian Muslims, tell an American fundamentalist Christian that God loves the abortionists, and you might still find the death squads dispatched. It is still one of the most revolutionary things you can say. God loves all without conditions. Even write to the Baptist Witness and say God loves homosexual people and see what happens!
God never promised that the good news wouldn't cause trouble. But Jesus died to get that message through to you and me. God loves you and will stop at nothing to get that message to sink in and transform your life. God wants us to become an epiphany, a revelation of God's love and transforming power in the world.