Coming to Light
A sermon on Matthew 2: 1-12 by Nathan Nettleton, 6 January 2004
It is always a shock to realise just who Jesus is and what hes on about.
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.
The story of the visit of the magi is traditionally associated with Epiphany, because it speaks of the truth about who Jesus is and will become coming to light for the whole world. And it does it in a rather provocative way. 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. 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.
God's love respects none of our boundaries. Not only is it suspicious strangers who come seeking Gods anointed one, when, as the story makes clear, the local religious experts have got no idea that hes arrived, but the story goes on to make it clear that these suspicious strangers have got a pretty clear idea who Jesus is and how he should be honoured. The gifts that they bring are both a fulfilment of the words of the prophet Isaiah about the gifts to be brought from foreign places to honour Gods chosen King, but they are also rich symbols about who he is and what lies ahead of him. Gold is always the gift for kings. Frankincense is the gift offered to God, a fragrant marker of the presence of God in our midst. And myrrh is a spice that is added to the oil used for anointing priests, and it is also used as a pain killer and an embalming spice. So Matthews description of their gift giving is a clear announcement: this is Gods anointed one, the messiah. This is the supreme ruler of the world, God with us, and also Gods suffering servant who will face pain and death in bringing the light of Gods love into the world.
Lukes story of the shepherds tells us that the good news is more likely to be recognised by the poor and outcast than the respectable and religious. Matthew wants to make sure that we know that the good news has broken the bounds of Israel too. Now suspicious pagans are just as likely as religious Jews to recognise the light and come to worship. Your social, religious and ethnic pedigrees no longer give you the inside running with God. And if your hold power in this world, and continue to exercise it in ways which lack justice, humility and compassion for the outsiders, then look out. No wonder Herod was thrown into a spin.
God never promised that the good news wouldn't cause trouble, and when the lights begin to go on and people begin to comprehend who this baby is and what his arrival is going to mean for the world, all hell can break loose. But Jesus died to get that light and that promise of Gods all inclusive love through to you and me. God loves you and will stop at nothing to get that message to sink in and begin lighting up your life. And now, as people who constantly affirm that Jesus Christ is the light of the world, the challenge to us is to become bearers of that light too. God is calling us to become an epiphany, to become a revelation of God's love and transforming power in the world. It is this message and this challenge this epiphany that we gather to celebrate this night.