Sunday 8 January 2012

The Wise Men's Quest

Epiphany sermon preached at Templederry & Killodiernan on Sunday 8th January 2012.

At Epiphany, in our Western Church tradition, we remember the Wise Men from the East.
As Matthew tells us in the reading we’ve just heard (Matthew 2:1-12), they follow a star which leads them to find and adore the baby Jesus. But the tradition in the Eastern Church is different - they remember a different Epiphany - the Baptism of Christ, when the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice from heaven says 'This is my beloved Son in whom I well pleased'. That's nice to recall on this joyful day when we baptise Hollie Linda Clarke.

The story of the Wise Men is so familiar to us, ever since we first heard it as children. Over the centuries it has grown with the telling, as the best stories always do. Story-tellers and artists have embellished it from their imaginations. Matthew’s unspecified number of Wise Men became three kings, riding on camels and bearing expensive gifts for the Christ-child. And the kings acquired names unknown to Matthew along the way - Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior - beautiful, exotic names.

It happened this way, I suppose. Matthew’s Wise Men were foreigners bringing gifts. People remembered OT texts referring to foreign kings who bring gifts. We have heard some today. Psalm 72 says: ‘The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute; the kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts’. Today’s reading from Isaiah (60:1-6) says: ‘Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba - Sheba again - shall come. They – the kings that is - shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord’. At first people must have thought Matthew’s Wise Men were rather like these OT kings. Later they came to the conclusion they were just the same. The number of the gifts the Wise Men brought no doubt explains why there are three of them. I’ve no idea where the names came from, though.

Leaving aside these embellishments, it’s not easy to see Matthew’s simple tale as plain history. The idea of a star which moves and then stands still seems absurd to us today. So is it any more than just a pretty story for children? Let’s examine it a little more closely to find out.

Matthew’s Wise Men are on a quest.
A quest is a kind of story in which heroes follow a long, hard and dangerous journey to find an object of great value before returning home. Such stories have been told since time immemorial. An ancient example is Homer’s Odyssey; Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a more modern one.

The object of great value the Wise Men are looking for is a rather special human child: ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’ they ask in Jerusalem, ‘For we observed his star at its rising, and we have come to pay him homage’. We are not told why they associated this star with a king of the Jews, but no doubt as learned astrologers they were led to do so by their sacred scriptures

The learned people in Jerusalem, the chief priests and scribes of the people, similarly draw on their ancient scriptures, from the prophecy of Micah, to answer the Wise Men’s question. They suggest the Wise Men look in Bethlehem for ‘a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel’. But it's strange, isn't it, the chief priests and scribes are strangely indifferent to the Wise Men's quest – they don’t even bother to send someone with them to report back what if anything they find.

King Herod, however, ominously asks the Wise Men to let him know when they have found the child, ‘so that I may also go and pay him homage’.

The light of the star is what leads the Wise Men on their quest.
This light leads them to the Christ-child with Mary his mother. There, at the culmination of their quest, they are overwhelmed with joy. They kneel in homage and present their gifts, signifying that the royal king they seek is in fact - this baby. Now that’s amazing, isn’t it? They have travelled so far, suffered such hardships, to find what? A tiny, vulnerable, human child, just like so many they could have found without stirring from home!

One great truth buried in Matthew’s mystical story is this, I believe - the Wise Men’s quest is our quest too. If we have the tenacity they had to follow the light of their star, like them we will find that baby, who is, as St John puts it, ‘the true light, which enlightens everyone’.

Light represents all that is good and true and beautiful, all that is worthy of God. This, surely, is what light means to Isaiah, when he addresses God’s people the Israelites, saying, ‘Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you’. I believe that Isaiah’s words are addressed to us just as much as to the Israelites - we too are God’s people. Our light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon us. We too should be overwhelmed by joy, like the Wise Men!

After finding what they seek, the Wise Men return home – the proper end of any quest.
No doubt they were changed by all that had happened to them, perhaps unsettled by it. They would surely be better able to appreciate what was good in their homelands, but be less tolerant of the bad.

But notice this dark note: Matthew tells us that ‘having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road’.

They had good reason - Herod had form. He had already executed a wife and several sons he suspected of disloyalty. Now Matthew goes on to tell us he orders the massacre of every child under 2 years old in Bethlehem, because he fears that the child found by the Wise Men might usurp his throne. Jesus only escapes their fate because Joseph was also warned in a dream to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt.

The characters in Matthew’s story illustrate three ways in which people respond to the good news of Jesus Christ.

  • First there is Herod. He reacts with hatred and murderous hostility – just as some people do to this day.

  • Then there are the chief priests and scribes of Jerusalem. There reaction is one of complete indifference. They are so engrossed in their own affairs that they completely ignore the good news. How like so many people today!

  • But the Wise Men respond with adoring worship, seeking to lay at the feet of the Christ-child the finest gifts they can bring.

The story of the Wise Men is surely much more than just a pretty tale for children
It is an adult fable which shows us how to respond to the good news of Jesus Christ.

To ‘follow your star’ has entered our very language as a description of single-minded determination to be the very best we can be.

Let us pray that, through God’s grace, we may follow the same star that led the Wise Men to the Christ-child - to be the very best that we can be - for him!