Bible Readings: Micah 5:2; Jeremiah 31:15-17 & Matthew 2:1-18
We are currently in the short church season of Epiphany. It begins after Christmas and goes into February. Epiphany literally means ‘revelation’ or ‘realisation’ and it is most associated with the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus.
Often the story gets told that there were three Magi because there are three gifts and it often gets rolled into the Christmas Day story without a great deal of justification.
For we know that Herod orders all boys – two years and under to be killed in the ‘murder of the innocents’ event – not just new-borns.
But what we do know from the scriptures and from knowledge of first century middle eastern culture is that the Magi or magicians were more than likely astronomers and astrologers and so were educated or ‘wise’ men most likely from a major civilisation centred around what is today Iraq. They travel from the east to the Holy City of Jerusalem where they meet up with Herod and inquired as to where the child was born.
As it turned out Jesus was born less than 15 kilometres from Jerusalem, then only a day’s ride. Herod has already enquired of his chief priests and teachers of the Law – so he actually gives the travellers a heads up to go to Bethlehem.
The Bible, as we know, always offers layers of meaning. Jesus is born to fulfil the scriptures that we heard in the Old Testament. But, Bethlehem also literally means ‘house of bread’ – the place we are called to, the place where we will be spiritually nourished, the place where our hungers will cease.
Even outsiders such as the Magi are seeking something that only Jesus can provide. Jesus acknowledges his geographical and missional heritage when he says in John 6:35,
“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
The wise men go to Bethlehem – they continue their search. They are wise, they have talents and they know how to read the signs. When they arrive at the inn, they are overwhelmed with joy.
Can you remember a time when you were overwhelmed with joy? For me, it was the birth of our daughter 25 years ago. Her birth is as vivid now as if it occurred yesterday. An incredible experience that was both filled with wonder and a sense that time was standing still, meant that for me it was the only place to be in the whole universe.
It was like an epiphany – a revelation and a realisation, a manifestation of the wonder of God.
And so it must have been for the Magi.
One of my favourite hymns, and beloved by many, is ‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus. The words remind me that Jesus has never moved from my sight, but I often move my gaze from him. The words are both simple and wonderful.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth
Will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace
The wise men have turned their eyes upon Jesus and the things of earth, including the Herods and the Tiberias Caesars of the world became strangely dim. They were overjoyed.
What do we do when we are overwhelmed with joy? We respond in some way – sometimes we respond with gifts and that’s what the wise men did.
Anyone who has read the story, seen a Christmas pageant or sung the song ‘We Three Kings” will know about their gifts. Gold – symbolising security and wealth and kingship – Frankincense – symbolising power – and myrrh – an ointment symbolising death.
These are both costly and meaningful gifts.
They have completed the outward leg of their journey, now they go back to their homes – back to their lives. But again, the scriptures always have layers of meaning. The magi go back a different way to avoid Herod. They know now that Jesus is a sign of God’s love for the world.
Herod is about the way to ‘hatred’. Jesus is about the way to ‘love’. So they go back a different way. Once they, like we, have met Jesus Christ, we go about our lives in a different way.
We have that opportunity at the beginning of the New Year.
Shortly I will invite you to the Lord’s Table, to receive the bread of life – Jesus Christ.
As you come forward, focus on Jesus – who he is for you and for our hurting world. Don’t forget to look full in his wonderful face – for you are coming to meet him.
As you come forward to receive the bread and juice of this sacrament – reflect on something that is an occasion of joy in your life – an experience, a person a moment. Let is overwhelm you, reveal itself to you anew, transform you, be an epiphany for you so that when you make this journey and when you return to your seats – you will return a different way..
The New Year and this season always offers us the opportunity ad possibility for our own transformation.
We refocus, we turn, we repent and we seek the face of God.
And then God’s intervention is God’s gift – meeting Jesus can change us.
Maybe you are a blow-in like me, maybe you’ve been in this congregation all of your life. Maybe you come from a secular space that seems far away – but God has given you some clues – some signs like a star – and you have found yourself here right now – and you so dearly want to ‘turn your eyes upon Jesus.’
Reflect, refocus and receive – and who knows – you too may be overwhelmed with joy. You will return to your world and enter the New Year in a different way. Brothers and sisters let us set out for the journey now.