Sermon: Sunday 3 January 2016 – Three wise men?
The Reverend Pete Hobson, Acting Canon Missioner
You can see our three wise men getting ever nearer to the crib – and after the service we’ll be putting chalk-marks on the cathedral door representing the year, and their ‘arrival’. It’s all part of the rich tradition, both Christian and wider, that surrounds this season of the year. But what do we actually know of the events it portrays? And what, when all’s said and done, does it mean?
As you know, I like to go back to the sources in scripture – and today we have read Matthew’s account of these events. So leaving aside all the nativity plays you may have witnessed or been part of, what does Matthew actually tell us about what happened?
Matthew has already recorded that Jesus was born in Bethlehem – but there’s no mention in his gospel of shepherds or angels, let alone a stable with oxen and asses (notably absent from Luke as well as it happens). But rather, sometime after the birth, the arrival in Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel, of an unspecified number of ‘magi’ – usually translated ‘wise men’, though the word itself really means more ‘astrologer/astronomers’. What do we know about these people?
‘Magi’ had earlier been a title used of one group of Persian priests, but had come to be applied more widely to anyone who looked for wisdom about contemporary events from a study of the stars – something widely believed to be true, but not the province of every peasant! So really – a combination of what today we’d call scientists and political commentators! Sort of science journalists, really… In today’s terms, the press have arrived knocking at the door of King Herod, looking for a story.
And Herod, sort-of King of the Jews (courtesy of the Roman emperor, that is) found all of that very disturbing. Because they were asking about another ’King of the Jews’ that their star studies had indicated they might find. What had they seen that led them to this conclusion? We don’t know – but we do know that in 7BC, about the time we now believe Jesus was born, as best we can tell, there was what would have been a very visible conjunction of the two planets Jupiter, the royal planet, and Saturn, which stood for Israel, in the part of the skies known as Pisces – an area understood to mark the end of the sun’s old course, and the beginning of a new one. This happened three times in that year – on May 29, Oct 3 and Dec 4 – giving time for it to be observed, for a journey to take place, and for the final event to coincide with arrival in Bethlehem.
Whatever took them there, they arrived on Herod’s doorstep asking for a new-born king, and what followed was a classic politician’s sleight-of-hand. They didn’t know where this baby was, and wanted to find him for their own purposes – to pay homage. Herod didn’t know, but wanted to find out for quite other reasons – to destroy any possible threat to his already uncertain grasp on power. His own researches suggested they try Bethlehem, and he sent them off that way, with an instruction to report back – so he, too, could pay a visit of sorts. And off they went.
It was the right place. They found a baby, born at the right time. They went into the house (note, not stable!), knelt and paid homage. And then brought out the gifts: gold, incense and myrrh. All the sort of offerings you’d present both to a king and also to a god. (Which by the way is why the more embroidered stories tell of ‘three kings’: because there were three categories of gift. The ‘king’ bit, however, is pure invention!)
But having developed their own low journalistic cunning, the visitors twigged that Herod might not have been entirely straight with them and decided to head off home not via Jerusalem – which is the last we hear of them. And, incidentally, no-one in Matthew’s gospel calls Jesus ‘King of the Jews’ again until Pilate interrogates him on that title, as he’s brought before him by another set of political/religious leaders, challenged by his very presence.
And as a PS, not in today’s reading, Herod, on finding himself without the low-down he’d anticipated that would enable him to remove this threat to his power, plays what he’d call safe and kills off every male baby in Bethlehem under a certain age. Only what he doesn’t know is that Joseph has also thought better of it, tipped off by God, and taken his family a long way away to relative safety, in Egypt. And so the refugee theme emerges, as an integral part of the Christmas story, as Archbishop Justin’s New Year’s message has recently reminded us.
So there’s the story, as we actually have it – as opposed to the soft-focus, carol-intincted backdrop to the mid-winter festival the world has just celebrated would have it. But what does it mean?
The traditional heading for this tale is of ‘three wise men’. I’d like to pause for a moment on that word ‘wise’ – not actually a fully accurate translation of their description, mas we’ve seen. What we do see in this story is the juxtaposition of three things often conflated together, but in fact quite different – wisdom, knowledge and power.
Power is the ability to make people do things they don’t want to, but you do – whether that’s a good idea or not.
Knowledge is the acquiring of information that could help you make good decisions about whatever does lie in your power.
Wisdom is making those decisions well.
Herod had power, but not enough knowledge, and little wisdom.
The Magi had no real power, but some knowledge, and then had a chance to act wisely – which they took.
Joseph, as Jesus’ father, displayed real wisdom, as he gathered knowledge, in the face of his own utter powerlessness.
Jesus, however, as a baby would have lacked all three – wisdom, knowledge and power. And there’s the heart of it – the incarnation of God among us as a letting go of all those qualities which traditionally we ascribe to divinity – all-powerful, all-knowing and all-wise. Leaving him vulnerable to anything… and yet somehow preserved by a greater purpose than that known to Herod, or Joseph, or the Magi.
That purpose was the salvation of not only Israel, but of the world. And as so often is the case in the gospel accounts, it was the outsiders, the visitors from afar, who best discerned those greater truths. A truth foretold in Isaiah, and described by Paul in Ephesians as “a mystery now revealed by the Spirit, that the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs in the promise”. It is good news, not for insiders, but for those at the fringe and beyond the edge of acceptability, outside of the commonly understood circles of power.
In any and every situation that will face you and me in this coming year, we can discern those three elements – power, knowledge and wisdom. Where does the power truly lie here? What is the knowledge I need to decide and act? How can I act wisely?
It will be for you – and me – to answer those questions as best we can. But the gospel of Epiphany tells us that in doing so, true wisdom will consist in looking beyond the conventional answers, to a God who lets go of earthly power, knowledge and wisdom in order to offer us something better than all three. An invitation into the love that lies at the heart of the universe. A love that lets go, in order both to give and to receive.