Readings: Isaiah 60.1-6, Psalm 72.10-15, Matthew 2.1-12
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley
If you are tempted to believe the heresy that Christmas is just for kids, then the feast of Epiphany, into which Christmas flows, will put you straight. Childhood is at the heart of the story of the birth of Jesus, but here in the gospel reading come the very grown-up wise men – clever, confident enough on call on a king, and (if their gifts are anything to go by) with high disposable incomes; the kind of people who might put in a bid for the huge house that’s up for sale at the end of the vicarage garden, complete with subterranean swimming pool (should you be interested). And it’s certainly an adult world that Matthew sketches as the place into which Jesus is born, as Herod – that most dangerous animal, a frightened despot – glowers over the scene.
We have two sets of Christmas stories in our Bible, in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Though we jumble them together in nativity plays and in our crib, you may struggle to fit them together as pieces of historical reporting. For instance, Luke has Mary and Joseph travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, while Matthew has them in Bethlehem from the start, moves them to exile in Egypt and settles them in Nazareth as if for the first time. We needn’t worry, though, because that is not the job they do for us. Each story is telling the essential historical truth, that Jesus is born into our world, and that he enjoys no diplomatic protection within it. Luke’s Jesus is born vulnerable, in a borrowed room, a few steps from the street; Matthew’s Jesus is born vulnerable, a marked man while still a child.
The present-day inhabitants of that region will certainly recognise Matthew’s world, where many suffer because of frightened despots, as in Syria with its sixty thousand dead so far in the civil war. Matthew shows us what John’s gospel declares to us: ‘the word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14). But if his point is that Jesus did indeed come and dwell among us, what are we to make of his exotic visitors?
Who are these people? Isaiah and the Psalm talks about kings coming to do homage, our Gospel reading calls them wise men, and the Greek word Matthew actually uses – magoi, magi, ‘magic men’ – often means ‘astrologer’. So which are they, sheikhs, scholars or soothsayers? And do we need to choose? All three are people of power – astrologers have the power of foresight, wise people have power of insight, kings have power to change things – and between them they sum up many of our longings. Depending on what’s on your mind at the beginning of 2013 you may be especially drawn to one of the three. Perhaps you have worries about the future, perhaps it’s some present situation you yearn to understand better; or perhaps you just long for a thing to change, if ever that were possible.
Peter Selby, a former Bishop of Kingston, says that a lot of religion, is about what we do with our longings. So I hope you still have some. They are the sign that you still have a spiritual pulse. Any of us can long for bad things, and even good longings can breed bad things, but the thing to do is not to give up your longings and become a dry cynic, nor to pretend that you don’t have any, but to admit them and (whatever they are) offer them to God. If they are good, God can refine them and make them better; if they are bad, God can redirect them and make them good.
We shall do this now symbolically. As we placed the magi in the crib, offering their gifts, so now you and I will offer bread and wine – the stuff of our lives – and money – our ‘gold’. These will be the ‘gifts most rare’ we offer at the manger, and within them we shall offer the yearnings of our hearts, which, if they are to lead to good, must learn to flow with the longings of God, the God whose face smiles up from the manger, pitched in the middle of our world.
Peter Selby see his book Belonging – Challenge to a Tribal Church SPCK 1991.