Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

January 6, 2013, 2:39 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday January 6, 2013

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the King, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.” According to one of my offspring, archaeologists have recently found evidence for the existence of a fourth Wise Man. After the first three had presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, the fourth Wise Man presented his gift of Brussels sprouts. That, it is said, is why when we prepare our sprouts for Christmas dinner, we always make a small cross in the base of each one. It is also why no-one ever celebrates the fourth Wise Man.

Well, whether you love or hate sprouts, the idea of gifts is part and parcel of the Epiphany story. “Solemn gifts of mystic meaning,” gold for a king, incense for God, myrrh for suffering and death.

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah gives a beautiful picture of the sun rising over Jerusalem. There is still darkness in the valleys round about, but the Holy City, built on the mountain top, catches the first light of the new day. The foreign merchants who have been camped outside the walls overnight, begin to make their way towards the city gates. This familiar picture, says Isaiah, is an image of the coming of the Messiah to Israel. He will be like the sun at the dawn of a new day for the world, and at his coming the nations who have been in darkness will take their place among the Holy People of God.

It is this prophecy that Matthew has in mind as he tells the story of the wise men. He does not, in fact, tell us much about them. He does not say that there were three of them, only that they brought three gifts. He does not call them kings. The word “Magi” in the ancient world covered what we would now call astrologers, as well as those who dabbled in what was called “magic”, but may have been an early form of science. In actual fact, they may not have been a very impressive group. But Matthew sees in them a fulfilment of prophecy, and the representatives of a much greater fulfilment that was to come. They have come “from the East” (the word is the same as “from the sunrise”), from the nations outside Israel, who have not formed part of God’s chosen people. In the past, these nations- Assyria, Babylon, Persia- have been conquerors and oppressors. Now their unofficial ambassadors come bearing gifts for the Messiah, acknowledging that he has come with good news for them as well.

Matthew’s is the most Jewish of the Gospels. It is thought that it was written in the first instance for Jewish Christian communities in Galilee, sometime in the sixties or seventies of the first century, probably just after the Roman-Jewish War that resulted in the destruction of the Temple. It is all the more significant that Matthew emphasises at the beginning of his gospel and at the end, that the Messiah has come not just for the Jews, but for all the nations. “Go out into all the world,” says the Lord at the end, “and make disciples of all the nations. And I am with you always.” Emmanuel, the title Matthew gives him at the beginning, meaning “God with us”, returns by implication at the end. “I am with you.” Not just with the Twelve, but with all the disciples, from all the nations, who will be called into the People of God, the greater Israel.

At Christmas we think about the shepherds, ordinary people, not wealthy or learned or powerful, who not only heard the good news that the Saviour was born, but hastened to verify it, and to pass on to others what they had been told. Today, we remember the kings- perhaps wealthy, certainly learned, maybe powerful in their own lands- but still outsiders. They followed the best light they had, they were ready to leave their comfortable homes and travel in search of truth. The religious establishment of Israel, the priests and scribes, knew more than they did about Divine Revelation, but they did not travel the few miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to discover what God was doing. Their failure was not that they were ignorant of God’s promises, but that they did not see them as a challenge and invitation to themselves.

Epiphany suggests to me that we need to combine the simplicity of the shepherds with the open-mindedness of the wise men. We must not neglect the Scriptures, but we must be ready to act on what God is saying to us in them. And we must trust in the Holy Spirit of God, who never deserts the Church. This will be a difficult year for our parish. God will have new challenges and fresh invitations for us. If he does, we must be ready to follow where he leads us.



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