Epiphany – Matthew 2:1-12
We three kings of orient are
One in a taxi, one in a car
One on a scooter tooting his hooter
Following yonder star.
Well that was the choir boys’ version. Whilst there are things to take issue with in the carol – as we can with many of the songs we sing – it actually is quite helpful in its theology and helping us think about the significance of following the star, the gifts that were brought and the ministry of Jesus. It also introduces the fact that they would have had quite a journey as they travelled west to seek this king – acting in faith and believing that they had interpreted the stars correctly. This leads to the first question I am going to ask this morning:
1. Who were these travellers? Well let’s deal with the easy bit: Matthew doesn’t say they were kings. An Old Testament connection has been made to kings coming and bowing before the Messiah (see Isaiah 60), but Matthew quite clearly calls them magi. It may be their gifts that caused people to think of them as kings; certainly only very wealthy people could afford these things – and afford to give them away! It is the gifts that have caused people to think there were three, but just as Matthew doesn’t refer to them as kings, neither does he say how many there were. Nor were they at the stable. When they pick up the sign they believe the birth has already taken place, and they meet Jesus in a house.
So who were the magi? Well they were followers of a different religion from Judaism and came from a different culture. Matthew says from the East and magi suggests the region of Persia. Magi were worshippers at a different altar and what is more, these people seem to have been astrologers who studied the stars for signs and direction. Don’t think astronomers; these were astrologers. This in itself is surprising. The Bible is not too keen on searching the stars and divining in order to get direction. The one we go to is God through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. What can be said is they were seekers and prepared to stake their reputations and risk a long and difficult journey in order to test their theory about this star. Possibly they placed themselves in danger: rich travellers could have been the target of robbers and gangs and they would have journeyed through lonely places.
There is significance in these magi having revealed to them the birth of the Christ Child.
a. They were foreigners coming into a seriously xenophobic nation and trespassing on their religion and prophecy. YHWH was the God of the Jews and no-one else. He revealed himself to the Jews, so what was he doing guiding these foreigners to the Messiah, using means that would not have been countenanced by strict Jewish obedience?
b. They were people who worshipped at a different altar. They didn’t know YHWH, and yet they have spotted the arrival of someone significant – something of which the so-called Jewish king Herod was unaware, just as he was unaware of the prophecy relating to Bethlehem.
c. This is an example of Matthew making the point that the gospel is for people of all nations and cultures; it crosses all boundaries, including the social boundaries we erect. Think back to the genealogy in which he clearly highlights the foreign women. Think of the Gadarene demoniacs, the centurion who had greater faith than all those in Israel, and the Canaanite woman.
The fact that God led the magi to the birth of Jesus points to the fact that he is the Saviour of all.
2. But who is it they were seeking?Did they know? Clearly they didn’t fully understand beyond the fact that a significant birth had taken place. When they saw Jesus they knew that here was someone significant and the prophecy of Micah is where they got some more information. This was a book they did not know – and neither did Herod by the sound of it. What do we learn from this extract from chapter 5 of Micah? Read Micah 5:1-5
a. The context is national crisis. Judgement is coming and the ruler is going to be publicly humiliated. He won’t be given a slap on the face, but probably clubbed. The invader will come and the nation will go through a period of abandonment and pain compared to childbirth. In this context is the promised ruler from ancient times, who will shepherd his people, to be born.
b. The place of birth is insignificant. In contrast to the rich, educated important visitors to Jesus, the place he is living in is an insignificant village – not even listed in the place names of Judah. It’s status as the home town of David has been forgotten, yet in God’s sight it is by no means insignificant because from here the Messiah will come.
c. This ruler will be the shepherd of the people. It is interesting that the ruler is given the designation of shepherd, a very lowly occupation. We have the two contrasting ends of society hearing about the birth of the Messiah. However, the important people whom we might think should have been in the know from the beginning, find out from foreign visitors.
The title shepherd is important, because the kings of Israel were supposed to be shepherds of the people, leading them in right paths, protecting them and guiding them under YHWH. As kings their role was not to lord it over the people, expect them to keep the king and his family in a luxurious life-style and fight wars to make them great. Samuel did warn them this would happen, when they clamoured for a king like the other nations, but they insisted.
We tend to have a romantic image of the shepherd, gently carrying a lamb over his shoulder and returning it to its mother. The shepherd needed compassion and needed to care about his sheep, but he also needed more. When Jesus said that he was the good shepherd, he said that the hired hands would disappear at any sign of trouble, whereas the true shepherd would stand his ground. The shepherd of Israel needed to be strong, discerning, prepared to lead, look out for the flock, provide for them, rescue and admonish them; even lay down his life for them. This was the shepherd Micah was talking about and it was in contrast to the rulers Israel had been experiencing. This is the one the magi came to seek, although I don’t think they would have fully understood who this child was, whom they were worshipping. They just knew he was significant and worthy of worship. Of course this ruler described in Micah was also a complete contrast to the puppet king the Jews had in Herod. His response was not to seek and worship, but to seek and kill – not caring about the collateral damage caused as he did so.
Whom were the magi seeking? The one born to be King of the Jews. They had limited knowledge and understanding and learned more when they arrived in Judah. Then they left and we hear no more of them. Do you think they will be in heaven? They stepped out in faith, but there is no traditional sign of conversion here. It is hard to think they won’t be, since they showed such great faith as they sought God and listened to him.
3.So which star were they following? Or perhaps more pertinently as we begin 2019, which star are you following? The word ‘Epiphany’ is a Greek word which means, ‘shining forth’. The star shone out not to give the magi light for their journey, but to lead them forward to encounter the one that God had sent as saviour. The concept of the star also leads to the conclusion that the light shining out was not for one particular nation or group, but for all the nations, because a star can be seen from a great distance and its light covers a large area. Presumably these magi had everything they needed, including status, but they saw something far more important.
Which star are you going to be following in 2019? Our society has rejected its foundations and relegated worship of Jesus Christ to something that is private and may be nice for you, but at the end of the day has no relevance for real life. However, as G K Chesterton commented, when people stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.
There are many altars at which people of 21st Century worship, and Christians get drawn to them as well. The one that is prominent is the altar of celebrity and it is so easy to be sucked in. Their lives are followed, we watch them in the jungle and dancing shows, we hang on their words and they have a disproportionate influence on society and its values. Is this the star we are following and are these the people we seek to emulate, because we have absorbed the culture around us? We do see this celebrity culture in the church and we need to remember it is Jesus we follow, not people.
The star of wealth, health and happiness is one that is prominent – perhaps epitomised in the various lotteries that promise life-changing sums of money. Well, we are not that greedy, but we want enough to be comfortable, health to live to a ripe old age and surely God wants us to be happy. These are not unreasonable aims and God has given us the world to enjoy, but this is not the star we follow. Jesus’ words come to mind:
‘So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’ Matthew 6:31-33
Let’s follow the right star, and other things take their rightful place – although don’t read this as life being a bed of roses! All our ambitions are subject to the will and authority of God our Father in the Lord Jesus Christ – the star we claim to follow.
Perhaps it is the star of self-fulfilment. There is only one life so live it. Again very easy to get absorbed into this philosophy. When there are athletic events on and we learn about the dedication and commitment of athletes to their sport, we are often supposed to sympathise with them over the sacrifices they have made: their family, their social life, their personal life, all put on hold for the greater glory of the sport or the nation. Great ideals, but at the end of the day it is the achievement of personal ambition for which the sacrifices have been made. However, we can learn a lot from the dedication and commitment of athletes for Christian discipleship. Too often we are flakey and would rather stay in bed than get down to the gym or pound the streets. However, we don’t follow the star of self fulfilment or personal ambition, but the star of Jesus Christ.
We are at the beginning of 2019 and none of us knows what is in store. The message of Christmas is that we follow the star of God to the Christ child and submit all our hopes, and ambitions; our weaknesses and failings; our success and triumph; our sin and shame, to him. He is the one who can bear it all and raise us up into the glory of his presence. The star we follow into 2019 is that of Jesus Christ, the shepherd of Israel, the risen saviour, the King over all.