Who is wisest at Epiphany


Matthew 2:1-12

At Christmas we heard that beautiful passage from the beginning of John’s Gospel that says ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it’.

Sometimes, in some really dark times, it can appear that darkness has triumphed. Sometimes a glimpse of the news, an advert for a film or a TV programme may be enough to begin feelings of despair at what the world is coming to. Is the light really still there shining in the darkness?

I guess that the wise men may have had feelings like that as they followed the star. It must surely have gone cloudy and dark sometimes in their epic journey. We don’t know, we can’t even imagine what their journey was like as it would have been something so very alien to us in these days of instant information and instant travel not to mention Sat Navs and Google Maps – with or without the latest iPhone OS!

Yet it would serve us well to dwell upon their journey, their encounters on the way and their reaction to all that they experienced. We know that the shepherds were the first to visit Jesus. They must have been surprised in the extreme at their experience which was just about as different from that of the wise men as it could possibly be. The shepherds were Jews; the wise men were most certainly not!

But the shepherds were not your religious and socially accepted sort of a Jew, they would have been barred from regular Jewish worship due to their lack of cleanliness, lack of education about the faith and lack of time to devout to their faith.

The wise men were probably superstitious rather than religious but what they really had going for them was that they were educated and rich. Very socially acceptable indeed. All the more notable then that the shepherds were instantly invited to come and see the infant Jesus and, not just invited, but summoned by a heavenly host.

The wise men saw a star appearing. A star that meant something to a group of men accustomed to studying the heavens.

The poor, uneducated shepherds needed a gloriously visual spectacular to realise that God thought they were important enough to be invited. The rich and educated just needed the hint of information that allowed them use their skills.

God meets us where we are and gives us what we need on our journey to Christ. Sometimes we need a mighty jolt, sometimes a glimmer of information. What matters is what we do with His promptings? This morning’s reading shows three types of response.

Firstly that of the wise men. Brilliant and highly educated scholars trained in medicine, history, religion, prophecy and astronomy they originated from what we now call Iraq. ‘Magistrate’ comes from the word magi and, since they thought deeply about life, it’s sensible to call them “Wise men.”

They were also trained in what we’d call astrology and was connected with people’s search for God. The ancients studied the skies in order to find answers to the great questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? These highly influential men served as advisors to the king. They were not kings but could be called ‘kingmakers’.

What motivated them to make a treacherous 1,000-mile desert journey? They came to see a baby King. They knew he’d been born but didn’t know where or even His name.

Intriguingly they take a wrong turn near the end of their trip and instead of following the star to Bethlehem, stop 5/6 miles away in Jerusalem to ask Herod for directions (it’s been suggested this is why they’re famous ­ the only men in history to stop and ask for directions). Wanting to welcome the “King of the Jews.” perhaps they assumed everyone in the capital would know about this baby. They finally find Jesus, looking like a peasant child born in dire poverty rather than a king. But in deep faith, they worship Him somehow knowing this child would one day rule the world.

They were not ashamed to fall on their faces before Him and then offered gifts fit for this King. Did they understand this? Probably not. God arranged it so that their gifts, gold pointing to kingly majesty, frankincense pointing to his deity, myrrh pointing to his humanity . . . for he was destined to suffer and die. They show who Jesus really is and why He came.

Why did God reveal Himself to these people who practised magic (expressly forbidden in the OT). Firstly the Gospel that Jesus’ birth heralded is for everyone, not just the Jews. Secondly we don’t have to wait until we’re living a “morally good life” before God seeks us out. If moral perfection was God’s criteria, none of us would be here today.

What can we learn from these wise men? They met God in the midst of their work. God meets us where we are. These astrologers were doing their jobs when God ambushed them. God can do the same to us.

They started out following the star but when they got sidetracked in Jerusalem, they went to the Word of God to find out where the Messiah was to be born. Instead of trying to figure everything out ourselves we should look to God’s Word for direction.

Before giving their gifts, they first gave their hearts in worship to Jesus. They were prepared to cross many barriers to get to Him. Culture, distance, language, racial and religious barriers, not to speak of a hostile king and indifferent religious leaders. When they got the sign, they acted and made a long journey that forever changed their lives. They didn’t just sit there staring out into the heavens they put commitment to their conviction. So that’s one way of reacting. The Wise Men were eager to seek the Messiah, doing whatever it took to find Him.

The second way of reacting is typified by Herod. The Magi would have swept into Jerusalem with pomp and circumstance. They would have had full military escort along with their servants, possibly more than 300 people. Jerusalem was buzzing and the Magi had no trouble gaining an audience with King Herod.

The Jews hated the half-Jew king Herod, appointed by Rome. He was a good architect and his rebuilding of the Temple was the only thing they liked.

When he finds they’ve come to worship a new King, he needs to know where this threat to his throne is. Hostile to the whole idea of Christmas he tries to prevent it from happening by telling them to come back and tell him where the infant is so he can worship too. In reality wanting to extinguish this light of God. So that’s another way of reacting.

And the third way was that of the religious leaders that Herod turned to for advice about where this king would be born. They didn’t have to look it up. They already know the answer. 700 years earlier the prophet Micah had predicted the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem. If you add what the scribes knew to what the Wise men figured out, the signs of Jesus’ coming were clear enough for anyone to see.

The Wise men heard and did something; the religious scholars had all of the information written in the Old Testament at their finger-tips. They knew exactly where Jesus was to be born, but their apathy prevented them making the 5-mile journey to Bethlehem. The Wise men travelled 1,000 miles. Those who should’ve been there first because they lived nearby, and knew the most, never made it.

God is creative in the ways He breaks through to people who appear far from Him. In this passage He uses a star, a book and a conversation. Today it could equally be a television show, a song, a chance comment. What sort of guide or prompt has God put in your life? More importantly what’s your response?

Hopefully not with hostility! Are you an eager seeker? Or the apathetic, don’t really care approach? No matter where we’re at, God loves us more than we know and the most amazing thing is – He is the real seeker in the Christmas story.

He puts prompts and guides everywhere to help us come to His Son. A fitting new year challenge is for us to become more responsive to those that God has probably already placed in our lives.

This year, as always, we’re invited to return to Bethlehem. A baby lies there who is King and God and Sacrifice. The King in the cradle. Before long, He will arise to do his work and we will see Him as He really is. For the moment, the baby rests in Bethlehem surrounded by gifts fit for a King as He waits to see how we respond. Amen.