I always feel as though I am amongst friends when I worship with the congregations at Warradale and Marion Uniting Churches. Preparing the sermon for yesterday, I enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with a favourite story and consider it in some depth.
Marion & Warradale – 4 Jan 2009
Responding to the light of Christ
In these days of Christmas, we are thankful for the gift of Christ. On this Sunday of Epiphany, we have heard the story of the magi, or wise ones, who saw an extraordinary star and followed it to find their Lord.
The story of the wise ones who journey from a far off land, following a star to the place in Bethlehem where Christ was born is a familiar and well loved story. Did it really happen? Many respected scholars of the Bible say it probably didn’t. That is not to say, however, that they don’t believe it isn’t true. As part of the tradition surrounding the life of Christ, this story was told in order to express true things people knew about Jesus Christ. We continue to tell it today because there are things in this story that remain true for us in our time and place.
So let’s explore this story of the magi who followed a star and worshipped the light of the world.
2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘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.’
Who are the ‘wise men’? These people were Gentiles, foreigners, from the East; leading astronomers with access to centres of power like courts and palaces, they were threatening to those in power, with a reputation for destabilising power with their predictions drawn from studying the stars. They are, in this story, outsiders.
The wise ones are the ones who recognise this unusual star as a sign of the birth of a great leader, who will be king of the Jews. They not only recognise this sign, they travel an arduous journey in order to pay homage to this new born king, though they themselves are not Jews.
So they travel to Jerusalem, the centre of Israel, to inquire of the current king where the new-born king is to be found. Who is the current king?
King Herod, self-proclaimed king of the Jews, was the man Rome recognised as their represented leader in Israel. He instigated much building of infrastructure, including the Temple, but he was not a king of the line of David, and therefore not the leader the people were waiting for. Herod was a violent and increasingly paranoid man by the time of Jesus’ birth and this story – he killed a wife and a son and later had John the Baptist beheaded. He was a dangerous man for these wise ones to be approaching for information on a baby he could only surmise was a threat to his rule.
3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6“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.” ’
Herod asks the religious leaders of Israel if they know anything about this new king of the Jews. The scribes and priests quote scripture, a prophecy of a messiah who will be born in Bethlehem. They do not seem to recognise this as the time that God is acting. They have knowledge, but do not see as the Gentile outsiders see.
So we have, in this story, a contrast of insiders and outsiders. The wise ones from the east are the outsiders, not being of the land or people of Israel. But the leaders of the people of Israel, the insiders, are not those who act on the sign from God of the coming of the new king of their people. It is the outsiders, and this is a theme throughout the gospel narratives, that often it is gentiles who demonstrate more understanding of the action of God through Jesus Christ, bringing about this new kingdom of God, and the leaders and many of the people of Israel, to this point the chosen people of God, do not understand.
We also have therefore a contrast of kingdoms, and this is a theme particularly central in this, Matthew’s gospel. Jesus represents and brings about the new reign of God on earth, an expected kingdom action that the people of Israel were looking for at the end of this age. But through the incarnation of God in Jesus, the kingdom of God begins in this age, welcoming the nations to participate in the relationship with God that is described in the Hebrew Scriptures as quite unique to the people of Israel. We’ll come back to this idea in a moment. Let’s continue with the story, though.
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then 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.’ 9When 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.
The reader who has knowledge of king Herod and his violent nature, and sees his fear at the mention of a rival king for the Jewish people, would understand that the wise ones are in a dangerous position. Though they do get the information they need in order to find the child, they and the child are a threat to Herod, who has a tendency to eliminate threats with violence.
The wise ones continue to be the ones who respond to God in this story, however, taking the information they have gathered and following the star sign from God.
10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On 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.
Their response is of joy, of worship, of giving their allegiance to this king. The paying homage to a leader is a sign of your allegiance, and in this way the wise ones are rejecting the authority of Herod, his kingship, his orders. These outsiders are giving their allegiance to the new born king of the Jews, and their allegiance will lead to one more courageous and defiant action.
12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Again the wise ones are open to signs of God in the night, and this dream is to be understood as God’s intervention. The wise ones not only correctly interpret this dream sign, but they obey, and their defiance of Herod protects the life of the king they have chosen.
As we have seen contrasts in this story between the insiders and outsiders, between King Herod and Jesus Christ, so we also see a juxtaposition of darkness and light, centred around the star.
When do we see stars? At night. Studying the stars, these wise ones are people of the night. This further highlights their position in the story as outsiders. However, their study of the stars is a yearning, a searching for light, which could be a metaphor for knowledge, understanding, direction.
This is very much the human condition. We are all seeking a light for the path, many of us seeking hope in the midst of despair.
But when we discover a light, a new star of hope rising, how do we respond?
Are we like the scribes who have knowledge of a future coming of hope, but cannot recognise the light?
Or are we like the wise ones, yearning, searching, open to recognise an unexpected sign and get up to follow it. Do we hear God’s voice in the darkness of night and obey?
There is another light in this story, that of Jesus Christ, who is the light of the world. He, and the kingdom of God he has come to announce, is light in the darkness of the oppressive reign of the Roman Empire and King Herod. He is a light of hope, offering a radically renewed relationship with God to free us from enslavement to earthly rules.
I think, as there is a message for individuals in the light of God calling us out of darkness as it did the wise ones in this story, there is a message for the church in this contrast of kingdoms.
The church is another people of God, as is Israel in this story. We certainly live under earthly rules that are oppressive in different ways.
God has sent us a star light to guide us to the living light of Jesus Christ. God has called to us in the night asking us to keep that light alive.
Does the people of God, does the church, follow and obey as the wise ones did? Do we respond with joy, with allegiance to Christ and not the world? Are we following God’s path, not that of the Herods, and protecting and nurturing the light, the hope of Jesus Christ?
These are questions we as a church, as the people of God, should continue to address, so that we do not fall into the complacent darkness of night, of fear, of despair.
And this is why we continue to tell ancient stories that carry truths throughout the years, so that we might continue to discover truths for every time and place – for this time, and this place.