Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 8 January 2023.
• First Reading: Isaiah 60: 1–6 (Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord rises upon you)
• Epistle: Ephesians 3: 1–12 (Paul’s mission to the Gentiles – through the gospel they are heirs together with Israel)
• Gospel: Matthew 2: 1–12 (The Magi visit Jesus)
I still remember how, as a very recently convinced Christian, puzzling over what was the position of Israel in the purposes of God. Had God got it wrong with the law and the Jews – in which case, was He God at all?
Or, have they still an honoured and beloved place in His plans and one which would be worked out in the fulness of time? And as I pondered I concluded that this latter possibility was most probably the truth. As a church we still honour the scriptures of the Old Testament, we still sing the psalms and we still include lessons from the Old Testament in our worship.
So, no, God has not abandoned the Jews but still has a central place for them in His plan of the salvation of the world.
It is strange to ask this question as we celebrate the Epiphany – the disclosure of Jesus to the nations of the world.
The three wise men, the Magi, might have crossed the deserts, probably following a trade route, and they headed for Jerusalem, looking for a royal baby. One to be Lord and King, a wise ruler and the Prince of Peace. They started with Herod’s palace but had to be redirected to a lowly suburb some five miles away.
And eventually they found the place – the Holy Family, now living in a house, and sure enough they found the baby, now a toddler.
They might have travelled with learning but they went home with insight. They might have brought their gifts but they left with a vision of something far greater. They might have set out with the conventions of thought of their time but they came back with a genuine dawn of a new era.
But there was something more, for the life and ministry of Jesus, leading to His atonement and resurrection, were all firmly founded on the law and the prophets of Israel.
Jesus was not born and did not live outside the Jewish nation – His whole life was firmly within it, and to receive and understand this means that He was and remains a Jew.
In this sense our understanding of His ministry and teaching, the atoning death on the cross can only be received and understood from within a Jewish culture and not from outside it.
Not only was He born the King of the Jews, but this was the superscription under which He died as well.
Yet the paradox is that Jesus came, within the Jewish culture but for the sins of the whole world. The message of His gospel was and is for the whole of the world, and every race, culture and language within it. There are no exceptions, and no people or philosophy is to be excluded from its promises.
But if Jesus was the fulfilment of the law and the prophets, as shown when He was transfigured on that mountain in Galilee and spoke with Moses and Elijah, then the gifts of the Magi pointed to the ministry of His gospel among the nations of the world.
First, there was the gold. Money. Wealth. Power. Not only as decoration and jewellery, but the lubricant for most forms of trade. In time the world would have only a few global currencies in which its trading relations would be conducted, and arising from this relationships of power and control.
Jesus would not only accept the power of Caesar to issue currency and to regulate it, but to collect taxes in it as well.
But gold was for a king – a mark of royalty. It puts to us the question: what is highest in our values and loyalties? Is it politics or science or social justice? Is it the freedom to determine our own values and priorities, free of all other interference?
For a Christian, it is Jesus who is first and foremost in our lives and all else – including the proper conduct of politics and science and the proper pursuit of justice in all its forms, flow from it.
But then there is the frankincense. An offering to a god. An act of worship. While gold may turn the wheels of commerce and government, it is the spiritual identity that directs and regulates our values and aspirations. It reflects who and where we really are and where we are really going.
To make a god of something that is not God is to distort our own vision and perception. To make a god of that which is part of creation is to abuse creation itself and to strip it of its proper place in the purposes of God.
It is only when we clearly understand the difference between Creator and creation that we can honour and serve both without abusing either.
But it is the myrrh that is the most challenging. It points to suffering and rejection. It points to the cross, on which the Romans crucified Jesus at the instigation of His own religious leaders.
But atonement is a profoundly Jewish concept. Take away the law of Moses and there is no atonement. It is the centre to which the life and ministry of Jesus were directed and to which we must always refer back.
Without the atonement, the resurrection of Jesus is meaningless. Without it then the journey of the Magi is also meaningless – even futile, a form of existential self-expression but nothing more.
But when we put together the law and the prophets with the gold, and the frankincense and the myrrh then they give each other life and meaning.
And this is the life we are intended to live and the meaning we are intended to understand.