BIBLE READINGS: Ephesians 3: 1-12 Matthew 2: 1-12
The story of the wise men from the East has sort of gone overboard in the flights of fancy of people through the ages. Many people imagine that they were kings, and that there were three of them. Stories abound about them. The claims that surround them are pretty sensational. When you dig into the stories about them you find their names - Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. You find they came from Greece, India and Egypt.
Sadly, it is all fictional - as are the stories about their journey to worship the Christ-child; their retinue and the stories about their later life; and of their baptism by Thomas. It is even said that their bones were discovered in the 4th Century by St. Helena, and were brought to Constantinople and placed in the church of St. Sophia; later they were moved to Milan and then finally brought by Frederick Barbarossa to Cologne, where the three skulls are guarded today in a golden shrine in the great Cathedral there.
Really nothing is known about the wise men except for the few brief statements we have about them in the Gospel of Matthew. Yet the part played by them is not insignificant. For these wise men are heralds of the new age that dawned in the birth of Jesus. They are the beginning of the Epiphany. Epiphany, according to the dictionary is defined as the revelation of the divine to humanity. God makes himself known to us human beings. What makes the revelation of God special in this instance is that it is to gentiles (people who were not of the chosen race - the Jews). So it is that at Epiphany we celebrate the good news that God loved the whole world so much, not just some special people in it, but the whole world, that he sent his only son o live among us, to die for us, and so offer us the chance of new life, in a new create order.
So these wise men were, in a way, symbols of how God was going to be seen to work in the world. In fact, King Herod and the religious leaders of the Jews were disturbed to discover from the wise men that the Messiah promised in their scriptures had been born. None of these rulers or priests made any attempt to go and worship the new-born king - and in fact, Herod planned to murder the baby Jesus.
The wise men are symbols not only of how God is now working in the world - revealing himself to Gentiles as well as Jews; but also as symbols of humanity seeking a king to worship, a God to rule over them and give them purpose and identity. Dorothy Sayers in the her play sequence “The Man Born to be King.” has one of the wise men say…
“I speak for the sorrowful people. We rise up to labour and lie down to sleep, and the night is only a pause between one burden and another. Fear is our daily companion, fear of want, the fear of war, the fear f a cruel death, and the fear of still more cruel life… But all this we could bear if we knew that we did not suffer in vain; that God was beside us in the struggle, sharing the miseries of His own world. For the riddle that torments the world is this, shall sorrow and love be reconciled at last?
This is the Epiphany, that God has revealed Himself to us in his son Jesus. That sorrow and love have been reconciled in him, who died a cruel death on a cross so that we might be given strength to face our fears, to cope with our griefs and love to transcend the confusion of our world. The wise men are symbols for all who search for truth and meaning in this darkened world. When they discover a light shining in the east, they realise that this is their chance to worship the new-born King.
This is their story, but what of ours? Through our lives God’s light will shine on us from time to time. Times when we glimpse something of the greatness and awesome majesty of God. Times when in the midst of great joy or great despair, God’s light will shine. At times when we are busy with other important things. At times when we are not sure what light means for us.
Over the years, I have asked people about times when they have felt driven to pray to God. As people have shared, it has been obvious to me that God reveals himself to us in many different ways. From crisis to threat of death, to confusion, and our own need to be a peace.
himself to everyone - this is the promise and good news of epiphany. The
challenge comes in what we decide to do when we see God’s light.
We can respond in one of three ways. We can be like the residents of Jerusalem - troubled and disturbed by the actions of God, but ultimately indifferent, taking no action and settling back into the routines of life once the event has passed. We can be like King Herod, threatened by God’s revelation and seek to destroy the cause of the threat, whose attempts to stamp out Jesus leave him with a legacy of guilt and burden of many deaths. Or we can be like the wise men, who seeing the new light rising in the east, follow it to the Christ-child and there at his feet offer to him their most precious gifts - and greater than this, they fall to the ground and worship him.
When you see the light of God, be prepared to follow it wherever it may lead you - be prepared to meet up with others who have also seen the light, but be prepared also for opposition and indifference. But persist, and come, sooner, or later, face to face with Jesus the light of the world. For once you have met with him, you will never again be the same. And you will turn to your home rejoicing. Amen.