This Sunday (8th January) is the closest to the Feast of the Epiphany – the day we celebrate the
visit of the Wise Men to the Infant Jesus as is told in Matthew 2:1-12. It often gets overlooked as
everyone has tended to rush away from Christmas, having celebrated it already in Advent, and, in
many Methodist churches, is supplanted by the Covenant Service – the time when we renew our
commitment to Christ – and the Magi are a great example of making that commitment.
The Wise Men, Magi, arrive in Jerusalem saying they have come to pay homage to the child born
to be King of the Jews and when they finally get to the house where the child is, they get down on
their knees and do exactly that – pay homage but in an unexpected place and with an unexpected
child – i.e not on born in a palace. I want to think about a few aspects of their behaviour that make
them into true worshippers that we can emulate in our way in our day.
Firstly, they were listeners. They were more attuned than anyone else in the story to what God
was saying and doing which is interesting because they are the least likely candidates for that –
they are pagans, they are Gentiles, they are astrologers – followers of a practice condemned in the
Old Testament in the prophecies of Isaiah. They come to the land of God’s chosen people, yet
they are the ones who are keen to know the purposes of God and act on them. You might think
that Herod, as a Jew, would know the Scriptures but he hasn’t a clue and he has to call in the
experts. You might think that those experts, the chief priests and scribes of the people would
know their own Scriptures too – and they do – and they quote them – but they don’t interpret them
or understand them as being relevant to their own time. It’s sad to say that many Christians can
be like either Herod or the experts – either we don’t know our Scriptures very well, or we know
them but don’t interpret them for our time.There are certainly people around who profess not to
believe in Jesus who have more knowledge of our scriptures than many of us do.
My experience of asking people to choose favourite bible passages is that those choices are very
often passages about light and hope and love – I think that the Magi are a group of people who
responded to messages of light and hope and love from God and set out to find the source. Their
quest starts with following the star, continues with them going to Bethlehem when they hear about
Micah’s prophecy and it ends with their obedience to the dream that leads to them avoiding
Herod on their way home. Now if that’s the case, what excuse do we have for not interpreting the
scriptures for our time? I often hear said – “I don’t do theology” as if its a complex science – a bit
like saying “I don’t do quantum physics” Theology literally means – talk of God – so what’s so
hard about that? Maybe as well as listening the wise men can teach us to seek and find and act.
Christian teaching and learning is not simply about filling our heads with knowledge, it’s about
assimilating what God wants us to do and then getting on with it.
That leads to the second element I want us to consider about the Magi – that they were pilgrims.
In other words, they went on a journey, a spiritual journey. Based on what light they had received
from observing the star, they left their homeland. Based on what light they received when they
heard Micah’s ancient prophecy, they travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Based on what light
they received in their dream, they took a different route home. We would never have heard of
them unless they had been willing to travel on a journey – to leave their comfort zone – to do
things differently – that is, to be pilgrims.
I think the point about a pilgrim is that you travel somewhere with spiritual intentions, but in doing
so you leave behind the familiarity of your home in order to arrive at somewhere unknown and in
the process – encounter God. To go further in the spiritual life as a pilgrim requires getting away
from our familiar home territory and ideas to go to new places with different thinking – and that’s
the challenge. How many of us are willing to move away from the places where we feel safe and
comfortable in order to draw closer to Jesus? One of the problems with the church is the fact that
too many of us just want to keep everything familiar and cosy and Jesus calls us to an adventure.
There are so many areas where our unwillingness to be pilgrims into new, uncharted ground
means that the church withers. That withering can be in the area of evangelism, where any small
efforts we make are all based on the assumption that people want to come to where we feel
comfortable, in a church service, rather than us being willing to go to where they feel safe. More
generally, our unwillingness to get away from the safe and the predictable affects any possibility
whatsoever that the church might be innovate in a creative way. Perhaps you’ve been told before
what the seven last words of a dying church are? ‘But we’ve always done it this way.’
Real disciples of Jesus are willing to go on pilgrimage. They will leave home territory behind to
venture somewhere new as part of their longer journey to the heart of God. It goes right back in
our heritage to Abram when he was called to leave his homeland and go to a place that God
would show him. It is there in the incarnation of Jesus who left the glory of heaven. We see it here
in the account of the Magi. I wonder what the idea of being pilgrims says to us?
Thirdly and finally, the Magi were givers. I think some of us have trouble with the gifts of the
Magi. They are so expensive and extravagant and, quite frankly, impractical. Surely they are
beyond us? Or maybe we don’t want to be challenged. So we resort to ancient explanations that
the gold symbolises Jesus’ kingship, the frankincense his priestly role and the myrrh his death
and we do this despite Matthew never claiming that meaning in the text – but perhaps the key to
understanding this example of devotion is not about the contents but the container, not the gifts
but the treasure box. The Magi ‘opened their treasure-chests’ – and I think that is the call to us.
What are our treasure chests? What are the things we treasure both personally and as a church –
which might be money, possessions, talents or a whole lot of other things? Our treasures may
well not be gold, frankincense or myrrh, but there are aspects of our lives that are inordinately
precious to us, and the Christian disciple lays them down before Jesus as an act of worship and
Our treasures may not be just money, talents or possessions – they may be people, ambitions or
dreams we have had for our lives. All these we bring to the feet of Christ and say, “Here is all that
is most precious to me. I offer it to you. Use it as you will.” That was what made the Magi
different. Herod was desperate to clutch tightly onto what he considered to be rightly his. The
chief priests and scribes had great intellectual gifts, but those talents were not offered to the true
King of the Jews. The Magi left their precious gifts with an ordinary family in an ordinary home not
knowing what would become of them.
There may be ways in which we are all mixtures of mini-Herods, priests and scribes and Magi.
Little Herods as we secretly find Jesus a threat to our preferred way of life; priests and scribes
with lots of religious knowledge but not interpreting it for today – but we also have tendencies like
the Magi – not the most likely suspects to change the world but who in our commitment to the
way of Jesus we do the best we can. This means that whilst we must truly face the state of the
world to which Jesus came, we can – we must – be equally realistic about the difference he
makes. Jesus did not come for one day. Jesus changed things for ever. But in reality that can only
happen if we embrace that change.
What an extraordinary God this is who makes all the difference in the world. Don’t we all long for
his reality rather than our make believe? The question is whether we will have open hands and
ears, hearts and lives to receive him, not just at Christmas, but each day of our lives.
Ruth Parry 8 January 2023