Sermon Sunday 7th Jan st. Andrew’s Ealing, Revd Sue McCoan
Isaiah 60: 1-6, Matthew 2:1-12
If you are a fan of watching football on TV, or if like me you live with somebody who is, then you will be familiar with the pattern of commentary. During the game it’s an animated description of play, ball by ball – who’s got it, where’s it going, and if there’s a run on goal you can hear the excitement in the commentator’s voice. And the disappointment if it misses.
After the match, there’s often a more reflective post-match analysis: the broader picture of the game, the run of play, whether tactics worked or didn’t, and what the results might mean for the club’s ongoing chances of success and, often, with that, for the manager’s position.
I say this, because we have just had Christmas – you may have noticed – and you may have found, as I did, that after all our Advent preparation, Christmas itself becomes a bit of a blur -all the business of laying in food, or making travel plans, and so on. And now, when it’s all over – Twelfth Night was yesterday, so we should all have put away our decorations and taken the cards down – it’s worth spending a bit of time on some post-Christmas analysis, before we plough in to the New Year. Twelfth Night is also Epiphany, the 6th of January, and though that will lead us into the adult Jesus starting his healing and preaching, it begins with the story that we often refer to as ‘the Three Wise Men’.
So we shall be using this story to reflect on what Christmas has meant, and on how that sets us up, not for success in the championship, but for being disciples in our unfolding journey of life.
It’s a strange little story, this. It’s only found in Matthew’s gospel – nobody else mentions it. And that might surprise us when we think back to Matthew Chapter 1, and the long table of the ancestry of Jesus, and Matthew’s concern to root Jesus firmly in the Jewish traditions. Why mention foreigners?
Probably because these foreigners are themselves the subject of prophecies. Matthew knew his prophets, and quotes extensively from them. And our first reading, from Isaiah, may well have been in his mind when he heard about the Magi. Isaiah offers hope and encouragement to the people of Israel returning from exile. They have suffered, but now they are to shine, shine like the sun: to be the light to the nations that God always intended for them. And when their beacon light is shining, Isaiah says, nations will journey towards their light, and kings will be drawn to their radiance.
These are wonderful words: ‘You will see it and be radiant with joy; your heart will thrill with gladness’. ‘Camels in droves will cover the land… from Midian, Ephah, Sheba… laden with gold and frankincense’. Matthew sees the visit of the Magi in the light of Isaiah’s prophecy; and sees Isaiah’s prophecy in the light of their visit. And I think it is from holding these two texts side by side that we have come to refer to the Magi sometimes as Kings – as in the carol, We Three Kings – and that we associated them with camels, as in the carol ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’: ‘the ox and ass and camel which adore’.
So here’s the first thing Matthew is telling us: that the birth of Jesus is of global significance – and that it represents, at least the beginning of God’s kingdom coming, of the new Jerusalem on earth.
Well, that’s exciting. How wonderful to think that these far-off people recognised the importance of Jesus! But that’s not the whole of the story.
The Three Kings are not the only Kings in this story. I know we’ve already said they aren’t really kings, and Matthew doesn’t tell us there are three, we just assume that from there being three gifts listed. But in addition to these however-many not-really kings, there are 2 real kings mentioned. One is Jesus, the new-born king of the Jews; the other is King Herod, who amongst other titles was also known as the King of the Jews. And if you look at the reading, this is as much Herod’s story as the Magi.
Just to be clear, because there’s more than one Herod mentioned in the gospels: this is Herod the Great, who died in 4BC. He was called ‘the Great’ not because everybody thought he was wonderful, but because he operated on a grand scale. He was appointed and to some extent protected by the Roman Empire, and he was ruthless. He killed many people, including members of his own family, to ensure he stayed in power. His big thing was building. He built an amphitheatre and a huge hippodrome or racecourse at Caesarea; he built himself a summer palace complete with swimming pool, and another palace in Jerusalem. He also rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple, complete with an extended Temple Mount. This is a man who knows what he wants and makes sure he gets it.
And yet, when the Magi appear and ask in all innocence to see the new-born King of the Jews, he is, this translation tells us, ‘greatly perturbed’. That’s a very polite expression – he was scared witless. We can tell that from the strength of his reaction.
He summons a crisis meeting of all the Chief Priests and the Jewish scribes – not his natural allies by any means, but he needs their expertise. He sends the foreign visitors off to Bethlehem to let them do the legwork and find out exactly where the child is, and when they tell him, he will “pay him homage”, ie have him killed. When the Magi get wise to this deceit and don’t come back, Herod gets tired of waiting and goes for the drastic option – never mind which child it is, let’s just kill them all. Collateral damage. Can’t afford to be sentimental if you’re a tyrant.
Herod, like the magi, recognises the global significance of Jesus, and the beginning of a new kingdom. Unlike the magi, he sees this as a complete threat to his own power and status; instead of gifts, he brings death and destruction.
The second thing Matthew shows us is that when the kingdom of God comes, it does not come unopposed. There are forces in the world who do not want peace and goodwill; they want to dominate and exploit.
We’ll pause there, before we see where we fit into the story, for the first part of our post-Christmas analysis.
Well, it’s a story of two halves. You’ve got the recognition, and the opposition… you take that, along with the global significance… and you’re a long way from any notion that Christmas is a private and personal matter; a warm glow of sentiment; or even a quiet interlude, a few days of peace in an otherwise chaotic world. There’s a lot at stake here. Matthew shows us that the birth of Christ is earth-shattering and life-changing, whether you are for it or against it.
And, a small point, but I think it’s fair to point this out. We learn from the Magi, not to be sniffy about people who come to church at Christmas but never turn up for the rest of the year. The Magi, as far as we know, didn’t become followers of Jesus. Somehow, they were drawn to a God they could not name, and believed an angel from outside their experience. Let us give thanks that there are still people who feel drawn to the child in the manger, maybe without knowing why. And who knows how the Spirit is already at work in their lives?
In the bigger picture, though, we might learn that the powers of the world do not have the last word. Despite the horror of Herod’s massacre, Jesus was kept safe through God’s interventions and warnings. Herod thought he had won; he thought it was all over; but God had other plans.
And this brings us to the last of the kings in this gospel story, who is really the first: Jesus the new-born king. Jesus is the person around whom the whole story revolves, and he is too little to have any idea what’s going on or play any active part in it. He is entirely dependent on his parents, and they in turn are dependent on the guidance of God to keep them safe. Set alongside the international experts and the powerful leader, is a little family overtaken by the wonder and goodness of God, receiving priceless treasures one moment, fleeing for their lives the next.
So, then, where are we in this story?
The world is as troubled as it ever was. We live in a time of disturbing events across the globe; we see both great generosity and ruthless tyranny. It is easy for us to feel we have no power, no control; it’s tempting to lose hope. Christmas tells us that our hope is not in worldly power. It is the hope of the little family of Mary and Joseph, trusting in God, carrying our treasure humbly, playing our part in showing the light that has come into the world.
This is the hope that will carry us through this new year, that will keep us faithful, and prayerful. Christmas is not over; it lives within us, and lives out through us. And as we live our Christmas lives, may we, in Isaiah’s words, be radiant with joy, and our hearts thrill with gladness.