Looking backwards, looking forwards

This is the sermon I preached today (3rd January, 2021) on Epiphany Sunday at Putney Methodist Church. The text was Matthew 2:1-12.

Introduction

A belated happy new year to you all! As we finally say goodbye to a wretched 2020 and contemplate the new year, it is appropriate for us to consider those who journeyed with both hope and trepidation to visit the infant Christ so long ago. Our reading today is the well-known account of the visit of the Magi (or Wise Men) from Matthew’s gospel. We studied this text recently in our Sunday night Bible studies and it was fascinating to discover what was and what was not in the text – notably any explicit references to kings! We shall be particularly thinking today about how the passage both looks backwards into the Old Testament and forwards to the life of Jesus, and what that might mean for us.

Matthew 2:1-12 (The Visit of the Wise Men)

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for from you shall come a ruler

   who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Sermon

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Like most of us at this time of year, our story today looks both backwards and forwards in time. It comes at the very beginning of Matthew’s account of the ‘good news’ of Jesus Christ and he chose it over the stories of Mary and the shepherds that Luke chose. Like his fellow evangelist, though, Matthew wanted his readers to see clearly that the life of Jesus is not a new story; rather, it is the continuation of an ancient one. Often, we may miss all these connections, so let us consider a few of them now.

The first reference that takes us back to the world of the Old Testament is the famous ‘Star of Bethlehem’. It features in so carols and on so many Christmas cards but I must confess that until very recently I had missed the allusion to a verse near the beginning of the Old Testament in Numbers 24:17:

a star shall come out of Jacob,

   and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel

In its original context, it seemingly referred to events during the life of King David but by the time of Jesus it had come to be seen as a text that spoke about the coming Messiah. This Hebrew term, meaning ‘anointed one’, is translated into Greek as Christos, and has entered our language as ‘Christ’. We find another reference to this figure in Daniel (9:25-26) and by the time of Jesus’ birth, the term had come to encompass a whole range of hopes and beliefs about someone chosen by God who would come to liberate Israel. The star, therefore, was not just a handy substitute for a Satnav! It pointed back to the depths of the Hebrew scriptures, reminding everyone of the promise that God would never abandon his people and would send someone to save them.

At first, the star seems to lead the Magi astray, though, and takes them to Jerusalem. This was an understandable mistake on the Wise Men’s part, as the city held such a central place in the identity, history and religion of the Jewish people. But, once again, our text points us back to the past, as the Magi are set on the right road. Herod’s advisers conflate two passages from scripture, both indicating that Bethlehem is the birth place for which they are actually seeking. First, from Micah (5:2):

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,

   who are one of the little clans of Judah,

from you shall come forth for me

   one who is to rule in Israel,

whose origin is from of old,

   from ancient days.

Second, from the book of Samuel (2 Sam. 5:2), referring to King David:

The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.’

‘Shepherd’, as here, was a term often used for the kings of Israel. It was an apt description for one who was called to guide and protect his people but more often it was used to describe the failures of useless kings who had led their people astray (e.g. Jeremiah 23:1 / Ezekiel 34:2). The town of Bethlehem, though, was clearly associated with the greatest shepherd-king, David (1 Samuel 16:1-13):

Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Are all your sons here?’ And he said, ‘There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.’ And Samuel said to Jesse, ‘Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.’ He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward...

The gifts that the wise men brought (and please note it only states that there were three gifts, not three people) also bring to mind several verses from the Old Testament, especially the psalms. Psalm 72 states (72:15):

Long may he live!

   May gold of Sheba be given to him.

May prayer be made for him continually,

   and blessings invoked for him all day long.

Or Psalm 72 (72:10-11):

May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles

   render him tribute,

may the kings of Sheba and Seba

   bring gifts.

May all kings fall down before him,

   all nations give him service.

And finally, Isaiah 60:6:

A multitude of camels shall cover you,

   the young camels of Midian and Ephah;

   all those from Sheba shall come.

They shall bring gold and frankincense,

   and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

This is, in fact, how the confusion seems to have arisen around the identity of the visitors. Because the psalms and prophets indicated that kings would come to pay homage to the Messiah and bring gifts, it seems to have been assumed that these people were indeed kings. However, the text does not say that. Rather it indicates they were Magi – the same root from which we get the words ‘magic’ and ‘magician’. They were simply seekers after wisdom, probably from Persia, who had seen the star and wished to understand what it meant. They still fulfilled the promise that, though, that travellers would bring treasures rich and rare to honour God’s chosen one.

So, in these ways and others – and indeed throughout his gospel – Matthew wants us to see how the story of Jesus is firmly anchored in the story of God and God’s people, especially the promise of a Messiah. However, the story also gives us lots of hints about what life will be like for this little child – for better and for worse.

The first is the strange title that the Magi use to describe the Christ child at his birth: ‘King of the Jews’ (Matt. 2:2). It is exactly this title, which will hang over Jesus’ head at the seeming end of his life, as he dies on the cross (Matt. 27:37):

Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’

Jesus himself will never seek such a royal title, although John’s gospel intriguingly tells us that others wished to force it on him (John 6:15). The encounter with the Magi, though, foreshadows a crucial conflict that stands at the heart of the gospel and Jesus’ ministry. That is the clash between the kingdoms and powers of this world and the Kingdom of God – or Kingdom of Heaven as Matthew describes it. In the Magi’s encounter with King Herod, we see a story that will be repeated time and again. Jesus’ true authority being recognised at the expense of the corrupt and vain rulers of his age. Herod ‘the Great’ was a truly evil man, who had maintained his grip on power only by the use of relentless cruelty and violence, not least the murder of three of his own sons. No wonder he was “frightened and all Jerusalem with him” (2:3) by this heavenly sign of a new threat to his power. Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem (2:16-18) was a foretaste of the threatening atmosphere that would dominate so much of Jesus’ ministry as he refused to be silenced by those in authority. Jesus would prove to be the true shepherd of God’s people, outshining even his illustrious ancestor David.

In a similar way, the famous gifts that the Magi offered prefigured key aspects of Jesus’ future life and ministry, as several carols make clear. Gold to symbolise his kingship, (frank)incense his priestly ministry, and myrhh to signify that he would only be able to fulfil his mission through his own death (John 19:39-40):

Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.

Then, finally, there is the Wise Men’s response to finding the object of their journey at last: “they knelt down and paid him homage” (2:11). In other words, they worshipped him. (Worship in Greek, proskuneo, literally means to fall down on one’s knees and/or prostrate oneself.) This is the first time that Jesus is recognised and worshipped as the Christ but it will not be the last. At key moments, his disciples will do exactly the same. After he stills the storm on the Sea of Galilee, for example (14:33):

And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

Or, even more importantly, after his resurrection (28:19):

Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.

The worship of these gentile wise men seems strange given that Matthew is often considered the most Jewish of the gospels. It prefigures, though, Jesus’ famous final commandment to his disciples, which appears at the very end of the gospel (28:19):

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

All shall hear the good news that Jesus brings, and his gospel will travel far and wide. The Magi foretell the wonderful events of the first Pentecost, recorded by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, when all nations truly worship Jesus (Acts 2:1-13):

…  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.

So, this seemingly simple story of the visit of the Wise Men, celebrated on so many Christmas cards, is actually a complex narrative that weaves together elements of both the Old and New Testaments; of Jesus’s past and his future. In a single narrative, we see how Jesus was the fulfilment of so many of God’s promises and yet at the same time he was ushering in a truly new and revolutionary age.

As we stand here today, at the end of one year and the beginning of the next, we are invited to do something similar. We are called to look back and see God at work. Looking back at 2020, that seems exceptionally hard to do and many of us would like to do anything we could to forget that annus horribilis. A year filled with disease, death and isolation. All of us will have been touched in different ways by the pandemic that has swept our globe, through our own stories and those of our friends and families. Loss of life, of jobs, of homes, of freedom. As we know only too well, that pain has not abated just because of an arbitrary change in the calendar. Indeed, I fear things may get worse before they get better.

Yet, perhaps if we look hard enough, we may be able to see God at work even then. In those acts of loving-kindness by friends and neighbours. In the self-sacrifice, devotion and professionalism of those working in our health and care services, and among so many key workers. In the countless small acts of care and compassion in our own churches and neighbourhoods.

Even more importantly, though, the story of the Magi calls us to look back further than simply the last few months. It is invitation to ground ourselves on the history of our salvation and the promises of God. To look back to the very beginnings of human history – as John does at the start of his gospel – and see the saving hand of God at work then and ever since. To remember that God has never forgotten his people, how God has continually reached out in a desperate desire for a loving relationship. It is there in the very dawning of creation. It is there in the words of the prophets and the scriptures. And, most of all. it is there in the gift of Jesus Christ, his Son, our Saviour.

Thankfully, the future is not ours to see. If I could have seen the future a year ago, when I was standing here for our Covenant Service, I wonder if it would have been a blessing. The hints of what is to come for Jesus in the story of the Magi are a reminder that we may not like the future laid out for us. The example of Christ also shows us unequivocally that faith in God does not guarantee an easy ride. None of us know what the future year will hold, and at present we are all – even the mightiest in our land – barely able to make plans a few days ahead, let alone for twelve months hence. But what looking back to the past allows us to do is to look forward with confidence that God will never desert or abandon us. That as we pass through even the Valley of Death itself, God, in the person of Jesus Christ, will walk with us every step of the way.

For me, that is the importance of the story of the Wise Men at this time. Those travellers who set off on a long and dangerous journey, not really knowing who or what awaited them, but who nevertheless stepped out with faith, and whose faith was not in vain. For they encountered the true good news that gives hope to all God’s world, now just as then. That God sent his only son into the world not to condemn it but to save it, and to show us all how important each one of us is in the eyes of our Creator God. That is the unshakeable rock upon which our hope, our faith and our lives are ultimately built.

I am going to close my reflection today unashamedly using words that I have regularly used before at this time of year. They are words familiar to many of us from the poem written by Minnie Louise Haskins usually known as ‘The Gate of the Year’. It was, of course, made popular after a young Princess Elizabeth gave it to her father, King George VI, for use in his speech at Christmas, 1939. As we look backwards to the promises of God, and forward with hope for the future, I pray that they may bring us all some comfort:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied:

“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.

Amen.

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