Epiphany, January 5, 2020 by Mac Watts
Text: Matthew 2: 1 – 11
We have already heard the Gospel text for today read more than once during the recent Christmas services. But here it is again today in its proper place, for Epiphany. And in a few moments we will be looking at it.
But it occurred to me that we might take some time today on both of the two nativity accounts, the one in Luke and the one here in Matthew. The Christmas services don’t always allow time to explore the stories.
So let’s begin with Luke. When we start to read his Gospel we find it contains not one but two nativity stories. And they are intertwined, rather than one simply following the other. They both involve an angelic appearance regarding the birth of somebody who will be important. In the first case we find a priest named Zechariah, whom we are told served in the Temple in the time of Herod the King. That’s the only reference we have to Herod in Luke’s narrative, while we know he plays an important role in Matthew’s. Anyway, Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, to their sorrow, have no children and they are getting on in years. Zechariah receives a surprise visit by an angel, who tells him their prayers have been answered and his wife after all will conceive. The son to be born of them is to be called John, and he will be an important servant of God. From a little later in Luke’s Gospel we find this boy grows up to be John the Baptist.
But then, before that nativity story is finished, there begins a second one. It starts with the words “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the House of David. The virgin’s name was Mary…” Well, how often have we heard those words read! But rarely have we been reminded by the reader that the 6th month referred to here is the 6th month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Anyway, in this case the angel comes to the prospective mother rather than to the prospective father. Indeed that’s where Luke’s account differs from Matthew’s.
No, here the angel is with Mary, and the language about the boy who is to be born of her is far more extravagant than what is used about John. First of all Mary is told that he will be named Jesus, and then the angel goes on with the words we have all heard so many times: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David… and of his kingdom there be no end.” Mary protests that she hasn’t been with a man but the angel tells her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and overshadow her and she will indeed conceive a son. It doesn’t say here that Mary took any time to think about it, though it’s not beyond reason to believe she wondered for a while about such an improbable eventuality. Anyway we are told that Mary accepts the message. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Now this response of Mary came to be seen in the church as the world-changing moment. For Christians realized that when she speaks her words of acceptance the incarnation begins. God the Son becomes a fertilized egg in Mary’s womb. So important was this moment considered to be that in the history of Christian art we find more representations of this encounter, known as the Annunciation, than of any other parts of the Jesus story, even more than of the nativity!
Anyway, the next step in the narrative takes us back toward Elizabeth, who it turns out is an older relative of Mary’s. Shortly after the exchange with Gabriel, Mary leaves home to walk up into the hills to visit her pregnant cousin. And Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary was with words that came in time to be used in the devotions of millions of Christians. When she sees Mary, Elizabeth cries out “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” A moment later she says “And blessed is she (meaning Mary) who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” By the time Luke wrote his Gospel these are the words that stood out in the minds of the early Christians, that Mary was blessed among women and that her trust in what the angel said to her was the most important act of faith in human history, for without it the Son of God, who was also God the Son, would not have been born.
So these early chapters in Luke provided an amazing amount of material that was picked up in the church’s worship. For following Elizabeth’s words Mary breaks into song, a song that begins “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour….”
And then Luke’s narrative goes back to complete the story of John’s birth, and following that birth his father breaks into song, one that starts “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, who has visited and redeemed his people”. Both Mary’s song and Zechariah’s song have provided liturgical material for centuries, known by their Latin names, Magnificat and Benedictus.
But we musn’t forget the shepherds. Matthew tells us of wise men and Luke tells us about shepherds. The latter are watching their flocks by night and are visited by an angel who passes a message to them. It’s interesting that they are the ones who are chosen for such an important message, since shepherds were pretty low on the social scale. In all probability the owners of the sheep in the field that night were sleeping soundly in their beds. The shepherds were likely hired for the job. But it’s to these unlikely folk that God sends a message through the angels, telling them a Saviour, Christ the Lord, has just been born in Bethlehem. And the angel concludes by saying, “And this will be a sign for you….” I’m not sure I have ever heard this passage read where I was confident the reader recognized that the angel wanted to prevent the shepherds fruitlessly running round Bethlehem looking for the right baby. So let me give you my vulgar interpretation of what the angel told them. “Look, boys, if you go to Bethlehem don’t waste your time looking in the best clinics, the fancy hotels, or the biggest houses. No, no, no. Check the stables. When you come to one that has a new-born baby lying in a manger you’ll know you’re in the right place. Fall on your knees because you’ll be looking at the Saviour of the world.”
But now let’s move over to Matthew’s nativity story. And before we come to the part we read today, of the visit of the wise men, we have the birth, or rather the pre-birth story, and here it’s all about Joseph, and the visitation of an angel to him in a dream. Before that visitation Joseph finds out that his fiancée, Mary, is pregnant, so he naturally wasn’t going to go ahead with the marriage. Because he was a good man he wasn’t going to make a big fuss about it, but the marriage certainly would not take place. And then in a dream an angel tells him that Mary has not been unfaithful, but is expecting a baby because of what the Holy Spirit has done. Now in talking about the accounts in Luke I have spoken about the importance of Mary’s faith, her trust, in what she is told by the angelic messenger. Here we must note Joseph’s faith and trust. He is given what, by all normal standards, must be considered a preposterous reassurance about Mary’s condition. But somehow he accepts it. In a document that has James’ name on it, that came out around the middle of the 2nd century, we are told that Joseph wrestled for quite awhile over the credibility of the story that Mary hadn’t been promiscuous, which would be an entirely understandable thing for him to do. Perhaps we can guess that part of his ultimate readiness to accept what he is told can be put down to what he already knows about Mary’s character. In any case he acts on trust in the angelic message and the marriage goes ahead. And the name the baby is given is the one the angel had ordered: “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Then the narrative moves on to today’s story, that of the wise men. I really wish the translators had rendered the Greek word “Magi” with the English word “astrologers” rather than the term we have long been familiar with: “wise men”. And in a footnote the translators of the NRSV indicate that was indeed the optional alternative. Maybe they felt the word astrologers has too many negative connotations in our time, giving images of astrological charts, and that kind of thing. But in this story we are dealing with people whose business it was to study the night skies. And in those times astronomers and astrologers were often the same people. It’s easy in our day to assume that astronomy came into existence only after telescopes were invented. But that’s not the case. Consider the annual observance of Passover, that had been going on for centuries before Jesus’ birth. The timing of that was based on calculations related to both the sun and the moon, which couldn’t have been worked out except through some basic astronomy. But it’s true that those who watched the night skies in those days often connected what they saw in the heavens with current events. So the foreigners who turned up in Herod’s court had seen something recently in the heavens that was sufficiently unusual to set off alarm bells. We know that the epiphany they experienced over what they had seen led them, incredibly, to come looking for a newly-born who would become king of the Jews.
But here I want us to attend carefully to what we find in the narrative when the astrologers announce in Jerusalem the reason for their coming. “When King Herod heard this he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him….” I’m old enough to have listened to a lot of sermons about this story, but I can’t remember one which noted that everybody in Jerusalem was upset over the news, and not just Herod. And they were troubled for the same reasons he was. A rival king meant conflict that would affect everybody, indeed could bring wrack and ruin on everybody.
It’s easy for us, with our perspective on how Jesus’ life unfolded, to say there was no need for them to worry. But let’s try to place ourselves for a moment in their shoes, in particular in Herod’s shoes. I should mention that in history books he is known as Herod The Great. He was a builder on an impressive scale: fortresses, aqueducts, Roman-style theatres, and even the huge project of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. The country prospered under his rule. At the time of Jesus’ birth he was an old man, but still very much in control, and the threat to the stability of the country with the possibility of a rival king was obvious to him. So after the scribes inform everybody that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem, Herod takes the astrologers aside. We can visualize him looking around to be sure no one else is listening. In a conspiratorial whisper he says, “Go, and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” We know they didn’t bring him word. In a dream — here’s another dream — they are warned to go home by another route, and they do so.
And when Herod finds that he has been outwitted by them he sends soldiers to Bethlehem to kill all the boys in that area under two years of age. It’s a terrible slaughter. But taking the comfortable high moral ground in relation to Herod, as is done in so many sermons, is dangerous for us spiritually. Those of us who are proud of our British ancestry, for instance, have to acknowledge there are atrocities to be found in our history just as bad as Herod’s.
Anyway, back to the story. When the astrologers get to Bethlehem there is no mention of a stable. Our first hymn this morning, “As With Gladness Men Of Old” has the wise men going to a stable, but in the Matthew story it’s a house they go to where Mary is to be found with her baby son. We all know about the gifts they brought with them, and throughout Christian history there has been speculation about what happened to those gifts. They are never mentioned again in Matthew’s Gospel, or anywhere else. And if there was gold, there is no indication that Mary and Joseph became people of wealth. Joseph, and Jesus after him, practised as carpenters.
Anyway, Jesus survived Herod’s slaughter because once again a dream leads Joseph hastily to get his family safely into Egypt. And there they stay until another dream indicates that Herod is dead and it’s safe for them to come home. And where is home? In Luke’s account home from beginning to end is Nazareth. But in Matthew’s, curiously, it’s a kind of last choice in Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to settle when they get back from Egypt. But Matthew assures us that it fulfils the prophecy, “He will be known as a Nazarene.”
So we have these two accounts of the birth of Christ, two treasures, offering different aspects of the story of the coming of a special king. And one thing we know. This king didn’t grow up to look for his rivals so he could kill them. No, he grew up to give his life for them, as he did for all of us. There is no story like the story of Jesus Christ. It says of Mary that she treasured all these things in her heart. What a good model for us she is!