Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
[ Give the king your judgements, O God, •
and your righteousness to the son of a king.
Then shall he judge your people righteously •
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains bring forth peace, •
and the little hills righteousness for the people.
May he defend the poor among the people, •
deliver the children of the needy and crush the oppressor.
May he live as long as the sun and moon endure, •
from one generation to another.
May he come down like rain upon the mown grass, •
like the showers that water the earth.
In his time shall righteousness flourish, •
and abundance of peace
till the moon shall be no more.
May his dominion extend from sea to sea •
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
May his foes kneel before him •
and his enemies lick the dust.]
The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute; •
the kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts.
All kings shall fall down before him; •
all nations shall do him service.
For he shall deliver the poor that cry out, •
the needy and those who have no helper.
He shall have pity on the weak and poor; •
he shall preserve the lives of the needy.
He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence, •
and dear shall their blood be in his sight.
Long may he live;
unto him may be given gold from Sheba; •
may prayer be made for him continually
and may they bless him all the day long.
This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given to me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Sermon for Epiphany
This is one of the iconic moments of the Christmass story – the visit of the magi. However, heart-warming as it is for us, let us consider whether it comforted the first people who heard the story.
However – let’s tell the story anew. There were some visitors from the east at the bedside of a very young child, a new-born. They were very different people – rather dangerous people so many thought, for they were of no fixed abode, wandering looking for signs of a new leader for the future. They wanted to give their heartiest best wishes to this new “king”. They had left their homes to search for “the one” who will save the world, the leader who would be insightful and powerful in these perilous times. They wanted a new home.
But there are people around who are dubious about someone being the new and effective leader, especially when the people looking for that leader are foreign, when they are threatening the country’s way of life, when those strangers seem to find a new home where they live. These frightened people want to keep things just as they are, and it seems they will do that in any way they can think of.
These immigrants are coming closer and closer. They are asking us hard questions about the way we live, excited that something is about to change for the better as they see it. They have found the promised land. They see a leader coming into the world and a messianic period about to unfold. Because of their persistent faith in this golden future, they pursue their claim. Unlike the rest of us unwilling to let go of the little we have in our grasp, like those monkeys which are captured by putting rice in coconuts – I hope you know the story.
The immigrants have nothing, just empty hands, hands willing to work, hands open to receive largess from their neighbours, hands held out to their neighbours in the hope of friendship at the very least.
And so the magi came to Bethlehem, offering gifts of their hope, symbolic gifts which we revere today for their prescience and piety. The magi don’t fit in Bethlehem, just as the immigrants don’t fit here in western europe. But they offer a new insight into the condition of human-kind, they offer hope because they have seen a star in the clear skies of so far away. The pollution of Bethlehem has brought darkness upon Israel, the population of the Jews who would look forward to a Messiah, that longed-for leader. The star right above their heads has not been observed, except by these strangers from afar, whom no one trusts about anything, but especially about the most prized event about to happen in the history of Israel.
The magi are strangers in a strange land. They don’t know the customs of the people who inhabit Bethlehem. They were awkward in dealing with the citizens. Just look at the way they dealt with Herod, the king who was so keen to know about the coming of a new king. They told him the good news straight out, didn’t they? It was only because of a night vision that they diverted themselves to safety and then the family they visited up and left to Egypt while Herod’s wrath burned itself out.
The magi are the men of science in their time. They held peculiar views of the world when compared with their contemporaries. They thought the universe was a single whole which revealed everything in some way. So when a new king was born, they knew this was announced in the heavens.
This story of the star has been confirmed in the historical record. It happened at the time of Jesus’ birth – and so there is a proof of Jesus here, outside of the bible’s narrative. But there is more than an historical proof, there is a symbolic proof, the fact that the tradition says strangers from far away have found Bethlehem. These wandering astronomers point to the significance of this birth – an importance for the whole world, not just this quiet corner of this small country, Israel.
This is the point of this story, that a young child could be the expected king, the messianic ruler of all. A young child whom no one expected, a babe in arms whose arrival was hidden away because no one had made room for his delivery – because no one had prepared for his promised deliverance.
The significance of those strangers searching for the child, finding the infant concealed in the stable and displayed in the manger, and reverencing the child-king, the infant messiah, with their prophetic gifts – the importance of this event was revealed by the star visible to those far off, but hidden to those nearby whose familiarity had bred a contempt of their own good fortune, hidden by the habit and custom of rules and regulation and disguised by the myopia of the crippling single-mindedness of a tradition, something which may be happening even today.
In our experience, there are many strangers amongst this population – and here I stand as one of them – the strangers who speak about the things you have missed round about you. As strangers all of us christians need to point out the joy of innate faith, the peace found in this realm, the leadership inherent in so many, if only we would open our eyes to see, or our minds to understand.
The magi’s visit is a call to our hearts and minds to attend to the message of God to each and every one of us, to see the reality of God amongst us. – Martin Luther described the bible as just like the manger – we see amongst a great deal of straw the infant. We, however, often get distracted by the straw, so that sometimes we miss the child of God laying there before our eyes. Too often we are blind to the significance of our experience of all around us. We do not see anything of import in our everyday lives. We are terrified by the strangers in our midst. These strangers stand in our lives as the magi stood in the lives of the Jews of Jesus’ own time. We need to see them as they are, perhaps as harbingers of new life amongst us, perhaps even as prophets of life in all its fullness. That, I think, is why we remember the magi, because we, too, have journeyed a long way to worship as prophets in our own land. We, I think, can be the visionary people amongst a blinded population, magi anew.