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The Feast of the Epiphany
Matthew 2:1-12, Ephesians 3:1-12, Isaiah 60:1-6
January 4, 2004

Of all the figures in the nativity story, the wise men are the most exotic and favored characters. Over the years old masters specialized in painting their exotic features; wood carvers have painted their crèche figures with silver gilt, and illustrators of Christmas cards return again and again to those stately camels, those swaying palm trees and that resplendent star gleaming in the night air of the Arabian desert. So often, the nativity story has been decorated with so many fanciful details that it is hard to recover the simplicity and restraint of the original narrative.

When we read the story of the Magi in Matthew’s Gospel, it does not mention how many Magi there were or give their names. It doesn’t say anything about shepherds, mangers, camels or that the Magi were Kings. Where did these ideas come from? The early Church likely imported information to the story from Old Testament passages – such as Psalm 72:10-11 and Isaiah 60:3, 6 that speak of kings accompanied by camels. But, Matthew himself never says that the Magi are kings or that camels accompanied them in their travels. All that Matthew tells us is, “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem … to pay him homage.”

So, who were these Magi? Matthew does not tell us because his original audience was familiar with the term. Originally they were a caste of Zoroastrian priests. But by Jesus’ time they were a respected class of scholars who devoted themselves to the study of natural science, medicine, mathematics, astronomy and astrology. All Matthew tells us of their origin is that they were from the “East”. They may have come from modern day Iraq, Iran, Arabia or even India – we simply don’t know.

All we know is that these Magi – whether they numbered 3 or 33 – have no Scripture, covenant, special revelation – they don’t even know the name of the God whose manifestation they seek – but they have nevertheless undertaken a long, treacherous journey under the guidance of a star to pay homage to the “King of the Jews”. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Magi represent the power and wealth of heathen nations who come to bow down before the King of Israel. In the story of the Magi, a very bold claim is made: that all the nations shall bow down before Jesus as their King. This is what Isaiah tells us as well: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you … Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

These are bold claims and politically incorrect for our times. The mood in Canada is hostile to the views of Matthew and Isaiah. It is widely believed nowadays that for those who insist on being religious, one religion is as good as another, and that the missionary zeal of Christianity is an embarrassment. That is why Dorothy Sayers – well known for her mystery writings but also a theologian in her own right – once said that the particularly of Jesus as the one true God and Lord of all is scandalous. Indeed, we do find this claim scandalous and embarrassing. Just mention the word “Evangelism” in Anglican circles and we quickly develop an uneasy feeling.

Yet, I don’t see anyway out of this dilemma. As Paul tells us in Ephesians, “grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ … so that through the church – that is you and me by the way - the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” We Christians believe in the unique divinity of Christ and his Lordship and it is to this one we owe our allegiance.

I spent some time in the Indigo bookstore this past week shopping for some books with my ACW gift. I was struck by the proliferation of books on ‘Spirituality’. What particularly held my attention was the generality of these books. Their content did not refer to a specific God or religion. On the most part, these books represent a generalized spirituality that exists in our culture. These books teach the commonly accepted Canadian “whatever works for you” principle. This principle is embedded in our Canadian psyche. No one religion or God is true for everyone. No nation or group should be expected to give allegiance to a god. Questions of religion is an individual decision that must not conflict with the “whatever works for you principle”. But, the Magi teach us something different. They recognized Jesus Christ as the one whom they - and all the nations they represent - owed their ultimate allegiance. Matthew is telling us that the homage paid to the Christ child by the Magi prefigures a time when, as Paul tells us in Ephesians, “all things will be put under his feet who is the head of all things for the church”.

But, it sure does not seem that way now. We live in a time when Christianity is paid mere lip service and scorned by others. I know of such people: family members, friends and acquaintances. As some of you know, I play hockey on Sunday nights. Many of the guys I play with do not know that I am an Anglican priest. Two weeks ago, just before we went onto the ice, the guys were talking about parent rage at hockey games. One told of how a mother, who he knew was a Sunday school teacher, would scream, in a let’s say, colorful way at her son during his hockey games. Another said in a scornful tone, “I guess that’s why she needs to go to church on Sundays.” The rest of the guys started to laugh. I just hung my head.

It takes intellectual and moral courage to be a confessing, practicing Christian. We are all going to have to take our stand before the Herods of this world who scorn or simply dismiss Christianity. The Magi should be a comfort to us. They brought all they had to the Lord – not just their expensive gifts – but their very lives. We, too, have our journeys – you and I. We must come across our own desserts and mountains. We must follow whatever star is given to us. But, as Disciples of Christ, let us be sure that our stars point to Christ. Let us not be ashamed to let people know that we go to church and why we go to church. Let us not be embarrassed to invite friends and family to come to church with us. Let us not hesitate to say why we think this Jesus is important to us. These words are as much for me as they are for you.

I am convinced that if we do not shy away from the star that Christ has given each of us, others will join our community and pay homage to the same Christ. There will always be some who will scorn and laugh at us. This is normal. Did they not scorn and laugh at Jesus when he died on the Cross? They sure did. Yet, when faced by the most shameful, embarrassing death, Jesus was not ashamed, nor embarrassed. He freely died a sinner’s death, although He Himself was not a sinner, so that you and I and all the nations may be released from the guilt and condemnation of our self-serving ways to live a life of freedom under Christ. Let the Magi comfort us and join them in paying homage to the Christ child.