Matthew 2: 1-12
I suppose that many of us will have been on journeys over the last couple of weeks. Some of us have braved wind and rain to visit family and friends in far-flung corners of the British Isles. But I bet none of us had journeys which were as arduous as those of the Wise Men to Bethlehem. They would have crossed blazing deserts, and freezing mountain passes. They would have had to wash in streams, and eat food gathered or trapped along the way. Their journey was remarkable.
We don't know much about the Wise Men. The Bible calls them 'Magi', from which we get our word 'magician' - but that's not the full meaning of the word. The Magi were, as far as we can tell, learned men from another culture. They studied the stars, and no doubt studied the ancient texts of many religions too. They put that knowledge together came to the startling conclusion that a new King of the Jews was being born.
Actually, they were wrong. Jesus never was the King of Jews in any earthly sense...despite the ironic poster that Pontius Pilate had nailed over his Cross. In fact, according to John's Gospel, when Pilate asked him point blank whether he was the King of the Jews, Jesus replied "My Kingdom is not of this world". No, the Magi were wrong. The stars were not predicting the birth of the King of the Jews.
Another accident of the Magi was in their timing. According to Matthew’s account, they actually arrived something like two years late. (Matthew notes that Herod enquired of the wise men when they had seen the Star appear, and based on that information he slaughters all the boys in Bethlehem who are under two years old. It’s notable that Matthew also describes the wise men visiting Mary and the child in the house where they were staying, not in a stable.)
So, the Magi were perhaps not all that wise. They failed to correctly predict the timing of the birth of a new King of the Jews - and they were two years adrift even of Jesus birth. Wise men? Perhaps not.
So, to those who say that our future can be read in the stars, there is a warning here. The stars do not foretell our future, any more than they did for the Magi. We would be wise not to place our future in the hands of star-gazers too.
And yet...and yet... The Magi embarked on a journey of faith. They thought they knew where that journey would lead. They assumed it would lead them to a royal palace in Jerusalem. But God has a way of using the journeys we plan for ourselves, and turning them into something much different, much more profound. Instead of a new prince in a royal cot, the Magi's journey led them, mysteriously, to an unremarkable house in a rural back-water...and to a baby who had been born in a food trough.
And it was when they got there, that the Magi could truly be described as wise men. Recognising Jesus for who he was, much more than an earthly King of the Jews, they knelt in homage to him. When they met him, Jesus was nothing like they expected.
And that’s because, in Jesus-of-the-stable, God was declaring a new way of living, and a new way of thinking. Human beings had tended to think of the Universe as a ‘top-down’ place – with God in heaven, dispensing rules and justice from the sky. But that was a mistake. Through Jesus, especially the Jesus revealed at the Epiphany, God was re-forming our picture of where God is. Not in the sky, looking down…but here among us, one of us, part of us. No longer the ‘top-down’ God of our ancestors; this is the ‘bottom-up’ God. The Kingdom of God is an upside-down place – where the poor are the blessed, and the powerful are condemned – as the Magnificat has just reminded us again. It is the Kingdom in which by losing, we win; and by giving, we receive.
But we still fail to recognise this, don’t we? Even Christians are duped by the promises of power or celebrity. We find ourselves ‘looking upward’ in hope towards political dogmas, or individual politicians. We trust that the powerful of our nation know what they are doing – when in reality they are just as confused as the rest of us…stumbling in the darkness. Or we look upward to celebrities, modelling our life-choices, our fashions, our financial decisions on theirs. But we find no peace there either. Or we look to great church leaders, great Bishops, prominent Christian writers - or even our parish priests - to save us. But they turn out to have the same feet of clay as all of us.
The ‘bottom-up’ Kingdom of Epiphany teaches us to look for God in the simple and earthy things of life. The Sky-God is silent – and looking upwards to such a God, or to other powerful beings – will not help us to find ‘him’. As Moses discovered in front of the burning bush, it is the ground which is holy, not the sky.
When we look for God in a stable, we find ‘him’ in the love of his parents, and the care of a community of Shepherds and Wise Men. God is found in the love between neighbours and friends. God is found in the simple sharing of a meal. ‘He’ is found in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. ‘He’ is found in a simple act of charity.
The Wise Men had the wisdom to recognise him, and to worship him, in the dirt and squalor of a back-water town. Their pre-conceptions of palaces and earthly royalty fell away; and the new reality of Jesus took their place.
You see, really wise men and women are open to what the Journey will bring. Wise men and women embrace the possibilities for change and growth which arise whenever we put our journey in the hands of God.
I wonder what our journey this year will be like - our journey with God both as individuals, and yours as a parish. If we are able to listen to God’s voice, in the middle of peace and prosperity, as well as chaos and darkness, we will find God speaking into our situation. There is always something to be learned, always some new spiritual growth to take place even...perhaps especially...in the darkest times.
I imagine the Wise Men had some dark times along their road. But through it all, God was with them...guiding them, prompting them in new directions...so that at the end of their journey, they could encounter the God-child himself.
So, my encouragement to you this Epiphany is to be open to the journey. Make a new year’s resolution, right here, right now, that you will be more alert, more open to what God is doing in your life as a person, and in your life as a church. Make a pact with God that you will listen to ‘him’ more, searching the scriptures more, worshipping more, giving more, and receiving more.
If God can lead a bunch of mystics across deserts and mountains to a new Epiphany at the manger, then ‘he’ can do the same for us.
But we have to be ready to go. Amen.