Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
The baby had been born, and the family had moved out of the stable and into a house. It was in an unprepossessing suburb of Jerusalem, occupied by the Romans, who had got one of those bursts of efficiency and determined to conduct an empire-wide census.
Things had calmed down and Joseph had evidently found work locally. And that was when the fun began, for out of the desert wastes came “wise men” with gifts.
Led by a star they had diverted from their course and entered Jerusalem, and almost caused a riot by asking of an Idumaean king, of a particularly ferocious disposition, where was the naturally-born Jewish king was to be found. So much for their wisdom.
Herod, flung into consternation, had demanded an answer to this question: no doubt spurring his advisors with promises of advantage if they came up with an answer and definitely something else, not advantageous to their health or wellbeing if they failed.
He then informed the “wise men” of where to look and asked them to report back – so that he too might worship. It was evidently common knowledge that Herod loved the Jews so much that he would defend them all, to the last Jew: not entirely unlike some modern political leaders.
This might be a somewhat ironic take on the Wise Men of the Epiphany, but it does point to something else, for while the first visitors to Jesus has been the shepherds, drawn by the visitation of heavenly angels, and given clear instructions by them this visitation was quite different.
Like the angels the wise men had also been drawn by signs in the heavens, which would have been apparent from about the time that the angels had visited the shepherds. Unlike the shepherds, the wise men were left to guess. Their astrological studies had led them into and across the desert, but had left them at a loss when they entered the land of Israel.
These men, whose wisdom may have consisted more in asking questions than answering them, had a big one to answer: what next?
And to so to Jerusalem, and Herod and the ensuing hysteria.
With so much floundering about, the wise men eventually found what they sought. They had probably expected to see a baby, and this they did. Whether they really expected to find him in a palace is questionable, but they determined that this was the right baby and they presented Him with their offerings.
For all their confusions however, the wise men did point to something far more significant that our rather sentimental treatment of Christmas. These were the first of the nations of the world to come to Jesus, and they came to worship and to offer their gifts. They had made a long and sacrificial journey, and at the end of it they offered not wisdom or power or position or magnificence but tokens pointing to the kind of person that this baby would grow into.
They also provide a prophetic foretelling of the way the world would interact with Israel generally and Jesus in particular. Often it would be laced with self-interest, and often it would be at the point of a sword or gun. Many would come in marching columns supported by great trains of supplies.
These wise men however had come in their caravan, in often appalling conditions, and with little comfort. Next, they had come to Jesus on their knees in worship and not on a warhorse or tank, to demand compliance. Finally what they presented to Jesus had been the best that they could offer, for this was not a cheap, idle or undemanding quest.
The wise men had also begun a fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel and in the fullness of time it would be brought to be. Some aspects are still unfulfilled, and so have to be seen.
The place of Israel in the world would eventually turn upon how both they and the world responded to Jesus, and if He was honoured by both, then the world would be led into new dimensions of peace and prosperity. And if both rejected Him then the outlook would be of violence and darkness.
The wise men who came were in this sense highly political because they involved the state in their quest and its aftermath and these men were people of substance and position.
But there was something else which is essential, for in finding Jesus and Mary, they also found an image of the church that had yet to be. In showing Jesus, Mary was showing forth the salvation of the world – and that above all is the task of the church which means both clergy and people.
Another Mary would be given a similar task – this time as she recovered from the shock of a meeting in a garden. She too would carry news and present a reality beyond the wildest hopes of her friends.
In the church today, we are all in the position of one Mary or another. We are all entrusted with a truth of a deeper kind, and we are charged with sharing it. It comes in what we say and do and are.
We may be asked to show Jesus to today’s equivalents of the shepherds of the countryside or the wise men from across the moral and spiritual and political and cultural deserts of our times.
It matters not who we are called to show Jesus to: it matters mightily that we do so faithfully.