Sermon: Epiphany, 8 January 2017, St John the Divine

Readings  Isaiah 60.1-6, Ephesians 3.1-12, Matthew 2.1-12

Preacher  Revd Neil Summers

When he was Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams caused quite a bit of controversy for reportedly dismissing the story of the three wise men as ‘legend’. Speaking live on BBC Radio, he was quoted as saying, ‘Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t tell us there were three of them, doesn’t tell us they were kings, doesn’t tell us they where they came from. It says they are astrologers, wise men, from somewhere outside the Roman Empire; that’s all we’re really told.’ Anything else was legend, although the Archbishop did concede that ‘It works quite well as legend.’ Alongside this, he also called into question a literal approach to certain other aspects of the traditional Christmas story. It was, of course, in true journalistic style, presented as ‘Archbishop calls Bible into question’, and it opened the email floodgates, firstly to the literalists defending the literal accuracy of the Scriptures and, secondly, to the secularists to whom religious belief is merely legend in any case. It also provided yet another brickbat to hurl at the then spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans who, apparently, didn’t believe what he should. Needless to say, as we have sadly come to expect, the reporting of the story was incomplete, sensationalist and, to a large extent, disingenuous. The subtleties of the Archbishop’s responses were lost in the rush to create a good headline.

Rowan Williams’ remark that the story of the wise men ‘…works quite well as legend’ seemed incomprehensible to many. Now, we know that in society generally there is widespread ignorance of the Bible, including – dare I say it – among some churchgoers. I suppose a new course of scriptural teaching could address this problem, though I’m not sure how many takers there would be for it. But it would only address the problem in part in any event, because many people have no conception of the vital reality that Christians bring faith into the reading of scripture. Consequently, the one question that has come to obsess people is: Did it really happen? And, of course, that question could be asked of all biblical stories: the Garden of Eden; Abraham; Moses, the Exodus and the journey towards the Promised Land; the birth of Jesus, the shepherds and the angels, and so on. The question that fails to get asked, far too often, is: What contexts gave rise to these stories, and what might they have meant for the people and communities who wrote them, and what might the stories mean for us in our own contexts? How do these stories relate to the faith journey and the spiritual exploration of our ancestors, and our own? For it seems there is no better way of communicating profound truths than through a good story.

So what of today’s Gospel and the wise men? The Bible may well have the status of sacred text, but it is not wrong to encourage readers to encounter the Gospels with the same analytical rigour that is applied routinely to secular texts. Indeed, I would argue this is essential if faith is not to become fossilized, domesticated and sentimentalized, as so often happens with the entire biblical story of Christmas. The questions we surely need to ask are: what does Matthew intend to communicate through this story, and what does it bring to Christians’ spiritual searching?

Now, I know we habitually sing ‘We three kings of Orient are’ at this time of year. (We will do so again later in this service.) But they weren’t really kings. In today’s jargon, they might be called consultants. Their expertise was in astrology; they knew the secrets of the stars. Because they could supposedly predict the future, those in power listened to them: just look at Herod’s worried interrogation of them. Notoriously, astrologers are still sometimes found close to government. Some of you may recall that Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff, Donald Regan, told us in his memoirs that he kept a colour-coded calendar on his desk, highlighted in green for good days, red for bad days, and yellow for ‘iffy’ days, as an aid to remembering when it was propitious or not to move the President from one place to another, or for him to speak in public, or to start negotiations with a foreign power. Apparently, this schedule was fed to him down the phone by none other than Nancy Reagan, whose authority was her very own personal astrologer.

But the intellectuals of the ancient world, represented in today’s story by the Magi, dismissed such stuff as superstitious nonsense. For them, astrology was the closest thing they had to science, and they accused those who peddled superstition of exploiting the credulity of people – even if they were monarchs or emperors! We – who, of course, never glance at what the papers say our stars foretell – may well say the same about modern day astrologers.

The Magi of Matthew’s Gospel remain essentially mysterious people. It seems they are far more equivocal and unsettling characters than those regal figures riding their camels across our Christmas cards. There are so many layers of meaning to this story, so many symbols, that it is impossible to do it justice in one ten-minute sermon. But let me leave you with just two thoughts about it. One is related to something I said in my sermon here on Christmas morning, about staring in to the night sky. Magi are those who, looking at the stars, wonder what it all means. I found myself doing exactly that just the other day, during a post-Christmas break in Iceland, looking up at the star-studded black velvet sky, and also fortunate enough to see the dancing colours of the Northern Lights. It is such a pity that where most of us live, the night skies are obscured by the light we humans create ourselves. Most of us don’t spend much of our time looking up into the sky: perhaps foolishly, we suppose there are better things to do. But, if we did, we, too, surely would ask what is being said to us from the vast universe. The second thought is about what this story says about Jesus’s significance for the Gospel writer and the community he wrote for. The three gifts symbolize some central things about Jesus: gold for a king; incense for a god; myrrh to foreshadow the anointing of a body for burial, which will, of course, take on such great significance in the Easter Scriptures we will hear again this coming spring.

The Magi bring their questions, as well as their gifts, to the crib. One of their questions is answered; they find the child they were looking for. But in his poem, ‘The Journey of the Magi’ (which I still think is the best commentary I have ever read on this story), T.S. Eliot suggests they return home with as many questions as they brought with them. Above all, they ask, ‘Were we led all that way for birth or death?’ Their spiritual journey, it seems, is not over. Nor is ours.

Did this story really happen? I don’t know; none of us does. But that is not really the point. What we are told is that the Magi returned to their own lands by another route. Well, after the Christmas encounter with the Christ child, nothing – not even the way home – could ever be quite the same again. Going back to normal? There is no normal anymore: things are different now.

 

About Revd Neil Summers

Revd Neil Summers served as a non-stipendiary minister in the Team between 2000 and 2014, whilst continuing his work as a lecturer in further and adult education. In October 2014, he was licensed as full-time Team Vicar of St John the Divine. He has particular interests in the literary and poetic aspects of scripture and theology, the rational case for faith and belief in an increasingly secular culture and the strengthening of links between the local church and the community in which is it set. Among his spare time pursuits are travel, literature, theatre, dance (only as a spectator!) cycling, singing in a local community choir, and gardening.
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