Sunday, 13 January 2019

The Coming of the Wise Men - An Epiphany Sermon

"A Cold Coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of year
For a journey, and such a long journey
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of Winter"

That’s how T.S.Eliot imagined the Wise Men beginning to look back and describing their journey. I feel those words describe a few journeys I've all been on as well. Perhaps some Christmas journeys, or winter  commutes, when the car is iced over and then the engine won’t start.

The Wise Men, or Magi, who we sometimes call Kings, came from the East. There's not much to the east of Jerusalem once you leave the Holy Land itself. Not until you cross the Arabian desert and come to what we now call Iraq. That's almost certainly where the Magi came from. In those days Babylon, and its other cities, were still great centres of civilisation, with many astronomers who paid close attention to the stars. They were probably Zoroastrian scholars, that was the religion of Iraq, Iran and Armenia in those days, a religion worshipping one God whose rituals were centred around fire burning, and studying the stars.

It's 700 miles from the rivers of Iraq to Jerusalem, on foot and on camel. In this modern day I know that because I looked it up on Google Maps. Google gives an option for journeys on foot, but sadly not yet camel. But I assume it was the same length. That's a long journey though, on foot or camel, and mostly through desert, in a land with no good roads, no police force, across a hostile border. But still they came. We don't know how many magi, wise men, there were, though they are recorded bringing three gifts - Gold, Frankincence, and Myrrh. Pretty strange gifts, I imagine they didn't know exactly what they would find when they came. But rich gifts to be sure. Gifts worthy of a King: Gold and rare perfumes and incenses. Generous gifts, to haul 700 miles, for someone they'd never met. But still they came.

And the first thing the Wise Men did was make their way to Jerusalem, the capital of Judea, to the Palace of the King, and ask to see the New King of the Jews. We can only presume they thought it would be Herod's son, in some nursery in the Palace, whose star they had seen rising. They asked for "the King of the Jews" but they were clearly expecting more than a King, for they said they had come to worship him. In other words, they knew they were looking for the Messiah, God's anointed, who is both King and God. They must have made quite an entrance when they reached the Gates of Herod's Palace - exotic foreigners, who many Jews would have considered Pagan wizards, fresh with dust from the road, arrive in a caravan demanding to see God's messiah. And nobody at Herod's court or in the Priests of the Temple could tell them anything! 

When I think about this I almost laugh. You have to imagine the chaos and confusion this would have caused Herod and his court. The advisers running around like headless chickens and Herod screaming for answers. You have to the shock passing over their faces.These wise men from the East turned up at the centre of political power in the Holy Land to say not only that there is another King, which would make him a threat to Herod's authority, but that he is God's Messiah, meaning he would totally outranks Herod's authority, and if is widely recognised Jews will flock to him. Well that's one thing, and it's not a reassuring message in the middle of winter if you're Herod. But worse than that, some foreigners had come 700 miles and they knew all about it, but not one person in Jerusalem, the Capital, knew anything. Not in the Temple, not in the Palace. This is a failure of government intelligence on a massive scale. Herod's government would've had contacts with soldiers, bureaucrats, local leaders, with other governments, and with their own spies and informers, and not one of them knew a thing.

The old King James Version of the Bible says Herod was "troubled", and the NIV says he was "disturbed". I bet he was! In fact, I imagine both of those are quite polite ways of putting it. No wonder they scrambled around dragging in Chief Priests and scribes, trying to work out if anyone knew anything about this. Well no, they didn't specifically know anything, but they did know that Centuries before one of God's prophets had said the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. So they sent the Magi to Bethlehem with instructions to find this new-born King, and come back to report.

Now this was Herod trying to be subtle. Once he’d got over the shock, he must've realised that if nobody knew about this new King, this Messiah, then either not many supported him yet, or the Magi had got it wrong and he wasn’t there. I mean, people don't usually travel several hundred miles on foot, unless they're pretty certain, but still, it was possible. Bethlehem was a small place, a village, and Herod was obviously prepared to send soldiers to kill everyone who looked suspicious, because we know that's what he did in the end. But it would be a lot neater and quieter for Herod, if he could find exactly where this King was, if the Magi found anything, and kill him quietly.

The Wise Men knew none of this though. I'm sure Herod kept his scheming from them completely. They must have just been baffled by the whole thing. The Wise men had travelled all that way to see the King of the Jews, predicted by the prophets Centuries before, and these people had failed to notice the birth of their own Messiah. Pretty careless. But still, having been redirected on they went, and they came those last few miles, onward to Bethlehem. It can't have been what they were expecting, they had clearly imagined something like Herod's Palace. They were expecting a King. And what they got was a small, ordinary child, living with his Mother, and his apparent Father, in an ordinary house in a small village. But still when they saw the place "they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy", and when they saw Jesus with Mary "they fell down and worshipped him", and gave their gifts of "gold, frankincence and myrhh".

But why did they come all that way? Seven hundred miles from Babylon to Bethlehem. A long, hard journey, in "the very dead of winter". They weren't Jews. It wasn't the King of their people, it wasn't the Messiah promised to their people, they weren't suffering under Roman occupation. It wasn't even the God of their people, the God their fathers worshipped. But still they came, and they were filled with joy, and worship, and gave generous, royal gifts. Why? Because God had touched their hearts. They lived in a distant land, among a different people, but still when the time came for Jesus Christ to be born their hearts were moved. Moved enough to travel a long way in the middle of winter to find another people's King. It's not certain how they even knew about the coming of the Messiah.

The Jews had spent 80 years in exile in Babylon after Jerusalem was destroyed in around 600BC. And there were still many Jews who lived in what is now Iraq. Maybe these Magi had got to know some of the Jewish community there, maybe they had read their Prophets there and had heard about the Messiah that way. Second or Third hand, so to speak. Well for these few people that was enough. It was enough to move them to make a great journey, in the faith that it would lead to God's Messiah, to Saving grace.

And not just Saving grace, but grace that included them. God's saving grace that extends to anyone who is willing to turn to God. Nobody was expecting the Magi when they turned up. Not Herod, not Mary, nobody, only God. They came from God only knows for certain where, because something had happened, that meant when God reached out with a sign, the Star, they were able to see it for what it truly was, what it truly meant, and to respond. With hearts that still rejoiced even when God took them to an unexpected place and a simple, common home.

May our hearts be the same. The Wise Men remind us of the eternal lesson that it doesn’t matter who you are, what matters is how you respond. God sends joy and wonders in the most unexpected people and the most unexpected places, if only we are open to go and to appreciate them. But the Magi would never have come, if they hadn’t already had some contact with God's people before they saw the Star. They can't have been the only ones who saw it, but they were the only ones who knew it was a sign of God's grace. They must have already been waiting for this King of the Jews, for them to risk the journey. And have known with more than just book knowledge, something must have moved their hearts.

Maybe it was somebody they had known, perhaps a wise Jew living in Babylon, who had opened the scriptures for them. It is often a specific relationship with someone, sometimes for long time, sometimes just a chance encounter, that can put people on the road to God and a better life. Or maybe someone had just given them a copy of the scriptures to read and discover for themselves, and they had found God written plain on the pages of the Prophets and the heroes of Old. Sometimes left alone with God's words, people can find inspiration all by themselves, but still someone must've taken the step to have given them a copy of the Scriptures, and that was a lot more difficult in those days when they had to be copied out by hand. We never know how our kinds deeds and words may affect other people. We never know how taking an opportunity to speak to people about God, and the faith we have, might nudge them on the right path, to one day reach his loving arms. We also never know who God might call, or who might have their heart open to his presence.

That can be a challenge to us, because we must have no preconceptions about what God's people might look like. They can be familiar, or they can be strange. We can have no prejudices about who is worth speaking to about God, because it could be anyone whose heart is already open, just needing kind, truthful words to fall on their fertile ground.

The Wise Men were the first gentiles, Non-Jews to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, but they were not the last. One of the remarkable things about the New Testament is just how open it is to anyone. Jesus in his ministry made a point of including all the peoples in the immediate vicinity around Israel, as well as Jews of every sex, and rank and wealth. We are speaking today about the Magi, who probably came from Babylon. The Gospels also talk about Jesus being recognised by and blessing a Samaritan man, a Phoenician woman, a Samaritan woman, a Gedarene man (the one whose demons went into a herd of pigs), and a Roman Centurion. Do let me know if you can think of any I have missed.

In each of these cases Jesus preached to these Gentiles, healed these gentiles, praised the faith and commitment of these gentiles. And the early Apostles followed and built on this multi-national nature of Jesus' own ministry. From the first day of Pentecost when God made the disciples speak in many tongues, God began to gather many peoples into his Kingdom. The Ethiopian Philip met on the road, the Roman Centurion who, with his family, was the first Gentile to receive the Holy Spirit! At that point God was going ahead, even of the Apostles, shocking them with the reality that the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, had come on Gentiles. The Apostles could only try to keep up! Within 20 years there were Christian communities all the way from Rome to Jerusalem. In 300 years there were Christians from India in the East to Britain in the West, and in 600 years there were Christians in every country from China to Ireland.

In all these countries there were people whose hearts were open in Faith, Hope and Love, to the Good News of Jesus, and received the Holy Spirit, despite all the incredible differences in language, culture, and nationality. Today there are Christians in every country in the world, even ones like North Korea and Saudi Arabia, where Christian faith is completely illegal and so Christians are in terrible danger. And what an amazing thing that is. Still these days despite the many advances we have made in science and technology, our world seems as divided and fearful as ever. But our God has no tribe or nation, and the Good News of Jesus Christ, has no culture or race or language or colour. It touches the hearts of people in every time and place, because all people are God's children, who he seeks to gather into his Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God is a community open to all who wish to belong. And for all of us who are not Jews, but are part of God's Kingdom, we should look back on those Wise Men with great respect and admiration. For they were the first.

Amen.