God’s Revelation in Great Joy and Generosity: A sermon on Matthew 2

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By the Rev. Anna Doherty

Growing up, my family used to move daily the wise men crèche figurines a little further across the mantelpiece,

…bringing them closer and closer to baby Jesus, as we got closer and closer to the Epiphany.

The feast of the magi’s adoration of Jesus, which we celebrate today.

The wise men are a part of our imagination of the Christmas story, they are in every pageant, every crèche scene.

Never mind that the wise men appear only in Matthew’s gospel;

there is no mention in today’s gospel of shepherds or angels, there’s one brief mention of Mary…

In today’s gospel there is just the baby, the wise men, and the star that hovers overhead.

What is the significance of it all?

Traditionally, and in keeping with the theme of Epiphany, the wise men symbolize the revelation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.

The showing forth of Jesus the Messiah to those who are not Jewish, who are not the people of Israel.

It’s the idea that Christ can be revealed to and on behalf of all people, to anyone who chooses to open their hearts and minds to his coming.

And this is a key theme in today’s gospel story.

That Christ is revealed to all people.

But the story is actually a little more complicated than that;

the wise men and their coming invites us to go a little deeper into the nature of this newborn Messiah.

And what his coming actually means for us and for the world.

The term that is translated in today’s gospel as “wise men” is actually the Greek word magoi, or Magi.

It means “wise ones” but it can also mean “astrologers.”

Nowhere in Matthew’s gospel does it actually say that there were three of these wise ones,

we tend to think there were three wise ones, because there were three gifts.

There might have been two or there might have been twenty, although three is certainly a scripturally symbolic number.

and I say “wise ones” because there is no way to know from the Greek grammar whether they were actually all men, although the Greek is often translated in the masculine.

The Magi almost certainly weren’t kings, as is often supposed, although ancient astrologers often worked for royalty, living among the royal courts of the ancient world.

In fact, in the ancient world, the word Magi most often refers to court astrologers, advisers and practitioners of Zoroastrianism,

…an ancient Persian religion based on observing the stars and other astrological phenomenon.

There are still practicing Zoroastrians today, concentrated largely in India, Iran and Pakistan or where there are pockets of immigrants from those regions.

In Jesus’ day, the Magi were considered to be learned scientists, respected by well-educated Gentiles in the Roman-influenced courts and cities.

To the people of Israel, however, the Magi were thought to be pagans who practiced hocus pocus, in league with oppressive Roman authority.

At worst, to the people of Israel, the Magi were considered to be malignant magicians.

At the very least, Magi were considered silly and not to be taken seriously.

The long and short of it was that, in the ancient world, the Magi were scientists who practiced another religion.

That, as we know even in our own day, is a pretty loaded combination, particularly when we are dealing with matters of faith.

First, there’s the issue of science versus faith: how and if the two can work together in this world.

Then there’s the issue of practitioners of another religion being some of the first people to greet the newborn Jesus.

We tend to imagine the Magi being somehow drawn to Bethlehem by curiosity or by devotion or by the magnetic power of the divine star hovering overhead.

It is different, somehow, to think that the Magi observed and followed the star out of basic scientific inquiry,

or more difficult yet, out of devotion to their own Zoroastrian faith.

For many of us, the moment when God is revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ is a profound moment of faith.

It is often a moment that is difficult to explain rationally or logically, let alone scientifically.

Maybe it happens in Sunday School, or in prayer, or in a beautiful view, but however it happens, it can sometimes defy description.

It can be a mysterious, unfathomable thing.

But seeing God in the world can also be a perfectly rational, one might even say scientific thing too.

For some people, charting the movement of the stars, or other scientific study, is one way of seeing how vast and marvelous God’s universe really is.

My first real concrete sense of the awesomeness of God came not in Sunday School, but in my middle school astronomy class.

When I learned, much to my amazement, that the universe was actually expanding—it was growing

—a phenomenon that I could only attribute to a power infinitely greater than anything else in the universe.

I attributed it to God.

God is made manifest to people in rational and logical ways, as well as in mysterious and profound ways.

It is no less God, no less of a way to see God revealed in this world.

Something that the visit of the Magi to Jesus can help us to better understand and appreciate.

But more difficult, even, than thinking of the Magi as scientists, is the idea of thinking of them as followers of another faith.

Nowhere does it say that the Magi become disciples of Jesus after visiting Bethlehem.

All it says in today’s gospel was that they were overwhelmed with great joy and that they knelt and paid homage to the child and gave him gifts.

The child had an affect on the Magi certainly, it moved them to joy and to generous giving, but we have no way of knowing what it meant to them in their future life of faith.

The question this poses for us, as Christians, is whether we believe that God can and is revealed to people through Jesus Christ

in ways that don’t always result in a conversation of faith?

Is a conversion of life or of hope enough? Or is that ultimately the most important thing?

Is God still revealed through an experience of great joy, or of great generosity, as it was for the Magi?

Rather than only through religious practice and devotion?

The truth is, sometimes our lives or our way of thinking and being in the world, are transformed by God, before we are even aware of it.

That moment of joy when we are sad, or the feeling of belonging when we are lonely, or of giving when we have plenty or of having a full stomach when we are hungry,

…sometimes that reveals God to the world, before or apart from whatever we do religiously.

And while regular worship and prayer are integral to the life of faith, that’s also why soup kitchens, gift giving, and visiting the sick, to use only a few examples,

are all ways that God is also revealed to the world, before or after we even set foot in a church.

In one profound sense, that’s what Jesus coming into the world as the Messiah means.

It means that God is seen and made known to all people, in ways that defy our own human expectations of what God can do.

No one thought that God would come into the world to live and breathe as a human being, let alone in a baby boy born in backwater Bethlehem.

No one thought that the Messiah would come to bring peace and prosperity to God’s people, to raise up the lowly, and to usher in God’s kingdom here one earth.

God does all of that in the birth of Jesus Christ.

God is revealed, shown forth, made known in this world through Jesus Christ, often in ways that we do not expect.

The Magi, whether scientists and Zoroastrians, whether faithful devotees, or simply generous, curious people…

The Magi are the first of many, whose lives are touched in many different ways, like our lives, by Jesus Christ.