Sermon for Mirepoix Epiphany 2020
Matthew chapter 2 verses 1-12; Isaiah chapter 11, verses 6-16
We know tantalisingly little about the magi, these wise men. They came from the east – but that is just standard literary short-hand for ‘an exotic location’. They were obviously astrologers, who read the stars. And they were probably well-versed in prophetic literature, interpreting what they saw in the night sky in accordance with what their learned tomes anticipated. But one thing we do know for certain is that they were not Jews. With the magi, therefore, we therefore have an irrefutable indication that God’s influence was active beyond God’s chosen race. For centuries, the children of Israel, inhabiting a thin strip of land on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, had been the crucible in which humankind’s knowledge of God had been slowly refined. Now, with the coming of the magi, it is time for God to reveal himself to all mankind. This is an ‘epiphany moment’ of huge significance
It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that these wise men were familiar with the prophetic writing that we know as the book of Isaiah. It had been around for centuries and was the accumulated writing of at least two Isaiahs and their loyal disciples who developing and glossed the material emanating from their masters. The first Isaiah was active for forty years or so in the kingdom of Judah, during the reigns of Kings Ahaz and Hezekiah, until 700 BC. This was a period of intense political turmoil with the two Jewish kingdoms of Judah and Israel under threat from the stronger nations of Syria, Egypt and Assyria. Isaiah One’s prophecies are inextricably bound up with this political situation and its wider significance. Then, around two hundred years later, the man we call Isaiah Two, continued this same literary tradition, while writing in very different circumstances, as spokesperson for a defeated nation now in captivity in Babylon.
The reading which we heard earlier, ascribed to Isaiah One fits into what scholars call the Immanuel section of the book. This section includes other classic Christmas passages we’re familiar with:
“a young woman is with child and will give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel”, and
“the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light…for a son has been born to us, a son has been given to us, and dominion has been laid upon his shoulders.”
This morning’s passage starts by looking forward to deliverance. Interestingly, the image of peace which it gives us, where the wolf and the panther live with the lamb and the kid, and there is no hurt or harm, reminds us of an Eden before the Fall, before there was anything predatory or destructive. It is easy to see why this passage has been seized upon, over the millennia since Christ, as a metaphor for a harmonious world where humankind is obedient to God’s word. It is what the Christian faithful pray for.
But it is also interesting to read on and hear the rest of this chapter. Here, Isaiah’s prophecy is focussed on the troubles of his day. He talks of peace being established between the two Jewish kingdoms of Israel (otherwise referred to as Ephraim) and Judah. The outcasts of Israel will be assembled and together the two kingdoms will take revenge on the Philistines, the peoples of Edom and Moab and the Ammonites. And Egypt, the old foe, will get its come-uppance too.
This, for Isaiah, was the desired political solution to the difficulties the kingdom of Judah found itself in. He wanted to turn back the clock back on the destruction of the kingdom of Israel, the forcible deportation of its inhabitants and the colonisation of Samaria.
For us, the juxtaposition of the first image of complete harmony on God’s holy mountain with the catalogue of horrors meted out to the enemies of God’s chosen people, jars badly. The political solution Isaiah prophesises sits uncomfortably with the Christmas virtues of peace and goodwill. But he lived in a world where the threat of military defeat and the brutal consequences that followed was what one lived with.
What we can see here, though, is Isaiah speaking as a man of his time, commenting on the troubles of the day almost as a metaphor in an attempt to get a sharper perspective on God’s purposes. If he was an influential political commentator he was also a visionary, looking out for ways the here and now can shed light on deeper truths: in this case, deliverance and restoration.
Two hundred years after this prophetic passage, following the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar and the forced exile of the remaining Jews into Babylon, the Second Isaiah picks up the idea of deliverance by a mighty saviour. For him, however, the identity of the saviour was merged with that of Cyrus, King of Persia, who decreed in 538 BC that the Jews could return to their Promised Land and rebuild their temple.
For the magi, five hundred years later still, and certainly for us, another two thousand years further on from, these writings have additional significance, working on other levels both historical and spiritual. For the magi they anticipated a political resurgence for the Jews, saved from Roman domination by a new King, for Jesus’ contemporaries they had a similar messianic significnance; for us they prefigure the dawn of the Christian era, or indeed look ahead to a new age altogether when Christ will return.
Whatever the interpretation, a clear pattern emerges through much of the Book of Isaiah: there is trouble – often caused by a falling away from the code of morality decreed by God; this is followed by a threat of punishment, sometimes averted by timely contrition, but more often than not realised; suffering then ensues bringing a sense of dislocation, spiritual and physical; but, during this dark time, there is a change of heart with the emergence of a saviour, heralding forgiveness, redemption and the establishment of a better society where righteousness and justice flourish…until things start going downhill again.
Through this pattern, we can see how the prophets, while certainly speaking to their own time, use the actual political situation, which they are living through, as a lense through which to see and then describe a point of mightier significance when the ultimate salvation occurs.
The gospel writers were aware of the many layers of prophecy. They understood how their own history could be peeled back like the layers of an onion, getting ever closer to the core. For example, enslavement in Egypt, prefigured exile in Babylon; rescue by Moses and freedom granted by Cyrus, prefigured salvation by Jesus. Matthew makes this clear when, following the passage we heard just now, he tells of the massacre of the Innocents by Herod. He explicitly links this to a passage in Jeremiah which imagines Rachel weeping for her children, the northern tribes of Israel being carried into exile. He also points out how Mary and Joseph’s return from Egypt, where they fled to escape Herod, echoes that earlier exodus when the children of Israel were called out of Egypt.
It is as if history moves in a spiral, passing through similar episodes but getting ever closer to the heart of things. And prophecies help reveal the significance of this spiralling course, sharpening the way we look at what is happening in the world.
We can therefore picture the Magi, studying their texts, gathered from a range of cultures including that of the Jews, in order to distil from those significant to the past and the present, writings with a future relevance.
A new king of the Jews would had current interest. Though what was a puppet king in Jerusalem compared to the mighty emperor of Rome? I suspect they were equally interested in obtaining proof that their reading of the stars had been accurate. They may well have noticed the conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars, in 6 BC, in that sector of the sky associated with the Hebrew people. Perhaps their trip west started off as little more than a working holiday, in the way that a modern scholar might visit a library in a foreign country during the summer vacation to track down an obscure manuscript and prove a theory. But they packed some presents, in case they had some success in their quest.
Something quite unexpected then happened.
Instead of making the acquaintance of a minor royal, they were re-directed to a lowly dwelling in a small town six miles south of the capital. The family they met there – father, mother, toddler – must have been profoundly ordinary and yet astoundingly exceptional. So exceptional, in fact, that the magi were prepared to leave their expensive presents behind, knowing they had been in the company of the one they sought. And, we are told, they ‘did him homage’.
This meeting also disturbed them to such an extent they changed their travel plans and slipped out of the country incognito. Nor did they keep their experience to themselves. Risking being called gullible for handing over treasure to a jobbing carpenter they must have told enough people about their adventure for the account to find its way, decades later, to Matthew, who took it down as gospel.
It was recognised at the time as a remarkable story.
I think the journey of the magi is particularly significant for us today.
The world we inhabit is changing faster than ever, particularly with innovation in communication technology. Political stability has gone. Old certainties have evaporated. Our very planet seems vulnerable. Eighty years ago, the world was similarly in turmoil although then it was open warfare that rocked the planet. Perhaps this is another of those re-occurring spirals.
We could so worse than follow the magi’s example. When complacency gives way to uncertainty, fill the vacuum with conscientious searching, questing, and challenging. And, like the prophets, look for those significant pointers.
Like us today, the magi were not living within the security of a closed philosophical environment nor even in an established moral structure; their horizons were as limitless as the universe they peered into, each cloudless night.
They did not know what they might find but they went looking, keeping an open mind.
They were prepared to change direction when the evidence pointed elsewhere.
I think the magi must have been fundamentally honest. It was surely honesty which led them to set aside their preconceived expectations and recognise – in a poor, working class family in Bethlehem – values that were as precious as the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh they left with them.
They must have talked openly and honestly to each other about the disturbed night they had before leaving Bethlehem. They shared their anxieties and reached a decision.
Their honesty united them.
The magi were intellectuals but they were also men of the heart. They trusted their instincts. And crucially, therefore, they were open to God’s influence despite not having been brought up in the Faith.
Theirs was not a happy-ever-after story, of course. We know that the magi’s actions had a fatal consequence. Herod, with the brutal jealousy of a megalomaniac, ordered a massacre of baby boys. The magi may have revealed something wonderful but the society they spoke to was ruled by predatory and malign forces.
Isaiah One was adamant that destruction would follow if King Ahaz lived in opposition to God. Similarly, if our political class tolerates deceit or Machiavellian intrigue, healthy government may be difficult to sustain. If we peddle fake news or spread lies and propaganda through a scurrilous use of social media, we may find ourselves unable to recognise truth. If we deny the science and fail to heed the indicators of climate change, our very planet may become inhospitable. If we pollute sexual attraction with pornography or celebrate egotistical desire over generous affection, we may struggle to experience love.
Steering our way through the complexities of modern life becomes easier if, I suggest, if we adopt the magi’s virtues: a questing perspective, clarity of vision and an honest response to what we see. Like the magi, we need to seek out epiphanies: those moments where the pattern of God’s purpose suddenly stands out clearly.
The Old Testament prophets shone a light on the spiralling pattern of waywardness, punishment and restoration. Christ illuminated new patterns for us to look out for: the majesty that radiates from humility; the healing that flows from forgiveness; the dynamic properties of self-sacrifice and generosity; the redemptive quality of love.
We have to keep our eyes wide open and roaming.
Gerard Manley Hopkins saw Christ in the hover and swoop of the kestrel, in the way that a furrow of damp earth, turned by the plough catches the evening sun, in the smooth, brown jewel of a horse-chestnut hiding within a prickly case. And there are, of course, countless acts of human generosity, the simple kindnesses and courtesies which so many people live by, to note. To perceive these metaphors of Christ’s behaviour, is to recognise, as Hopkins puts it, the way the world is charged with the grandeur of God.
We have to keep our sight sharp and penetrating.
Each glimpsed epiphany helps align us more closely to God’s spirit. And the more we notice, the more we ourselves become charged, carrying that energising current further and further afield until, one day, even the dingiest corner will crackle and sparkle: the whole world a glorious, shimmering manifestation of God’s electric love.