The Magi

Sermon preached by Fr Tom Hurcombe
on Sunday 5th January 2020 (The Epiphany)
Isaiah 60.1–6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3.1–12; Matthew 2.1–12

Today we celebrate the Epiphany, the revealing of Christ to the Gentiles.  The Gentiles to whom the Christ-child is revealed are the Magi, visitors from the East, who are the most unusual people in the good news about Jesus.  They are enigmatic, from the very margins of first-century life.  We have domesticated them, turned them into kings, which they were not.  We’ll come back to them.

At the beginning Christians were all Jews, but joined by an increasing number of Gentiles. They didn’t have the same Bible as us; they did have a Bible, which they shared with their fellow-Jews. What we call the Old Testament. There was no New Testament, because it was still being written, and then collected together.

When they read the Old Testament they weren’t just reading about the Old Testament characters we may (or may not) be familiar with, they were reading about Jesus, which may seem strange to us. This is not just about ‘fulfilling prophecy’.

So when, in the early 80s of the first century, Matthew was composing his gospel, he shapes it like an Old Testament story, even though he is passing on the stories about Jesus’ life and ministry, and even his birth, that we just read in his gospel.  The two things, the Old Testament shape and the traditions about Jesus’ birth, are so closely woven together that we might now find it difficult to tell which is which.

The visit of the Magi is told in such a way that we can’t help thinking about Pharaoh’s fear of the Hebrew people at the time of Moses’ birth in the book of Exodus.  Jesus is seen by Matthew as the new Moses, who will lead his people to freedom; as his name also connects him to Joshua (they’re the same name – Heb/Gk), Because, says Matthew, ‘he will save his people from their sins.’  Which is what Joshua/Jesus means.  There are also overtones of the story of the non-Jewish prophet, Balaam, whom the king of Moab wanted to curse the Israelites who were passing by on their way to Canaan.

Matthew speaks of Mary’s surprise pregnancy and its fulfilment of a prophecy, about a young woman (Hebrew) or virgin (Greek).  The important thing is that Jesus is ‘Immanuel’, ‘God with us’, not that the virgin birth is not important.  ‘Immanuel’ is a very powerful statement about just who Jesus is!

Bear with me a moment as I take us back to the very first verse of Matthew’s gospel where every single word seems to be loaded with meaning:

‘An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’

But it could also be translated: The book of the ‘genealogy’, or ‘origin’, or ‘birth’, or ‘history’, or ‘genesis’ of Jesus.  The end of the first creation story, which some of us were looking at in our Advent course, uses the same phrase in the Greek Old Testament (LXX). (Genesis 2:4a):

‘The book of the generations of the heavens and the earth’

This is not just an introduction to the list of the ancestors of Jesus which follows, or even the birth of Jesus, but of the whole book of Matthew’s gospel.  Matthew is saying that this event, Jesus’ birth, is the beginning of a New Creation.

We’ve seen that Jesus was like Joshua, his namesake; but Jesus – like Joshua, would lead Israel to freedom from all their oppression.

Christ – the Messiah, anointed one, God’s agent to free his people from their oppression.  As in the Magnificat, this would turn the world upside-down, and the poor and oppressed would be the ones who would not be turned away.  They would challenge Rome’s imperial claims.

Son of David – it is this title that Matthew uses for Jesus in his healing stories.  5 of the 9.  About kingship and rule.

Vespasian and Titus and Domitian were each titled the ‘Son of Augustus’.

Joseph, Jesus father, is called a son of David too.  God chose David the shepherd boy to be the king instead of Saul.  And his kingdom would be eternal!  And everlasting line of descent/kingship.

In the Psalms of Solomon (1st century BCE) speaks of a king who will remove Rome and purify Jerusalem, redistribute land, establish God’s just, peaceful and compassionate rule over Israel and the nations.

Jesus will enact God’s rule.

But another king rules the world, the Emperor Vespasian (who is called a king).  And Herod, a second generation convert to Judaism, was as much a Roman as a Jew.

Finally, son of Abraham, particularly that all nations, not just the Jews, would be blessed in Abraham’s offspring (Gen 12:1-3).  For us, of course, in Jesus.

The Roman Empire was a deeply divided society, Roman/non-Roman, elite/non-elite, urban Rome/provincial, country elite/urban poor.

The 5% and the rest.  The gods have chosen Rome to rule through the Pax Romana.  But disease, poverty there would be a future reversal.  Stark.

There’s a real possibility that Matthew came from the Syrian capital of Antioch, where there was a large Jewish minority; but his church was at odds with the other, non-Christian, synagogues; as well as the wider, Gentile, community.  He has been seen as a Jewish scribe, who may have led a ‘school’, or even a Christian ‘Yeshiva’, a place where Jewish men could study the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament; as well as the other books.

Antioch was an important provincial Roman city, which was the capital of the Roman province of Syria, which included Palestine; and ten years before Matthew wrote his gospel was the staging point for Vespasian’s army that went to Jerusalem in the Jewish War, that ended in his son and successor, Titus, destroying what was left of the Temple there.

Things were difficult for Matthew’s people, as I said.  The so-called Pax Romana was part of the ideology of the Roman Empire, and clearly not so peaceful, and the differences of wealth between the ruling 5% and the rest were even worse than today. Life was hard.

As far as the Romans were concerned Rome’s victories proved that Jupiter, their own god was more powerful than any Jewish gods.  After sorting out the Jews in Jerusalem Rome could look forward to a new Golden Age.  A source of a radical dis-ease for the Christians in Antioch.

For Matthew, Jews and Gentiles were both to be included (as they are in his genealogy).

The Magi are neither Jews nor Romans, (perhaps why they are here?) were priests in Zoroastrianism in Persia, who were not kings, but had access to the king, were noted for their sophisticated knowledge of astronomy/astrology (which were not distinguishable in the ancient world). Their skills were frowned on by most Jews, and others.  The term was used increasingly loosely of all fortune tellers / dream interpreters.  So they were seen both as ‘wise men’ and as quacks, depending on whom you asked.  In Acts the two occasions where we come across ‘magi’ they are both negative, especially Simon Magus, who tried to ‘buy the Holy Spirit’.

In Matthew they seem neutral; but they have figured out where the king was to be born – more or less.  But the Jewish  religious leaders know where the Messiah is to be born, but do nothing about it.

In spite of their unorthodox ways, they had found their way to the new King.  And we celebrate today their discovery.  And the hope invested in Jesus to free us.

So today we too come before the Christ-child with our gifts, indeed our very selves, and worship him.

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