The Journey of the Magi

Sermon 6th January 2013, Epiphany, Matthew 2:1–12

In the Nativity story there are four long journeys as well as numerous shorter ones such as the shepherds coming to Bethlehem or Zachariah going to and from Jerusalem.

Two of these are in Luke: Mary’s journey to see Elizabeth during Elizabeth’s confinement immediately after Jesus’ conception and Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem when Mary herself is near term.

The other two journeys are in Matthew’s gospel: the journey of the Magi, the topic of these notes, and the flight of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus to Egypt.

Luke’s gospel is usually seen as written for the gentiles, Roman/Greek, although there is some debate about this.

Matthew, it is usually assumed, is directed at Jews, given it is full of Old Testament references, although maybe the Jewish Christians of the Diaspora.

However, while Matthew’s account may be expecting a Jewish audience, it is hardly a comfortable message for them.  The gospel writers cannot be easily typecast and constantly defy our expectations of them.  Luke’s gospel is often seen as the ‘women’s’ gospel, yet it is Matthew whose genealogy of Joseph, opening the gospel, includes four women. They are all ancestors of Solomon, so cannot be simply dismissed as Joseph’s bad blood, yet none of them, none of them Jewish, all gentiles and including a harlot and an adulteress to boot … and that’s just the first chapter!

Things hardly get more comfortable for the reader.  In Luke’s gospel our expectations are upturned as the first person to recognise Jesus is the unborn John the Baptist; but all those who greet the coming Messiah: John, Elizabeth, the shepherds, Zachariah are Jewish.  In Matthew in contrast, the conception and birth of Jesus are rushed through and the first people who greet, honour and worship the Christ child are the three Magi: gentiles and astrologers, men of another religion.

This is no less uncomfortable to Christian ears today.  Astrology is seen by some as ‘just a bit of fun’, but by others as close to the demonic.  However, the distinctions we now take for granted between science and superstition are recent.  Indeed Newton studied alchemy as well as founding modern physics.  Maybe instead of Mystic Meg we should think Brian Cox or Richard Dawkins.  However, the wise men were seeking guidance from the stars, so not simply ‘scientific’, but definitely men of another religion. More of this later.

Although there are four journeys, we are only looking at one of them, the journey of the wise men, but we will work through this first coming and first journey of the New Testament in four phases: they came, they asked, they worshipped, and they returned.

THEY CAME

Matthew 2:1–2:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Note these words: We saw his star … and have come to worship

… and a hard time they had of it …

When I first said I was going to speak about Epiphany, Fiona instantly quoted the first few lines of T. S. Elliot’s “Journey of the Magi“:

A cold coming we had of it.
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.

When Fiona then looked this on the internet, she found that Elliot’s poem is in fact quoting a sermon preached by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes in front of James I in 1622 1:

A cold coming they had of it, at this time of the year; just the worst time of the year, to take a journey, and specially a long journey, in.

Elliot’s poem and Andrewes’ sermon go on to describe the privations of winter on the journey. Now in fact, while Christmas is celebrated in mid-winter we do not know from the New Testament accounts what time of year it was, and certainly not the images of Northern European winters evoked by Elliot’s words.  However, whether winter or heat of summer it will not have been an easy journey.

In Bear Grylls “Living Wild“, he relates the story of a group of special forces dropped behind enemy lines in Iraq — exactly the desert the Wise Men are likely to have crossed.  They had been dropped in the wrong place and had many miles to travel in the bitter cold of a dessert night.  One became separated from his colleagues and succumbed to hypothermia.

… the chief priests and scribes, heard …

The wise men saw and came, but when they arrived in Jerusalem everyone heard about the star they had seen

Matthew 2:3–5:

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

Later on Herod talks to the Wise Men privately.  We might imagine the Wise Men coming just to Herod as Head of State, and Herod then saying to the chief priests and scribes “just theoretically speaking, if there the Messiah were to be born, where would it be?”  But this is not what we are told.  Maybe “all Jerusalem” meant the court, the palace, not necessarily the gossip down every back alley, but certainly the implication is clear, the chief priests and scribes knew why they being asked and what the Wise Men had seen, and they took it seriously enough to be ‘disturbed’.

Bethlehem is just five miles from Jerusalem, a couple of hours walk, compared to the journey of the Wise Men nothing.

And yet the chief priests and scribes, the religious, heard … and stayed.

Maybe they thought “we’ll see how this works out”, maybe they were aware it was politically dangerous territory, but for whatever reason they did nothing.

The wise men saw and came.

Just like the first disciples, 30 years later:

Matthew 4:22:

Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Andrews, somewhat scathingly, wonders what it would have been like if the Wise Men had come in his day, and his words ring as true today nearly 400 years later:

Our fashion is to see and see again before we stir a foot, specially if it be to the worship of Christ. Come such a journey at such a time? No; but fairly have put it off to the spring of the year, till the days longer, and the ways fairer, and the weather warmer, till better travelling to Christ. Our Epiphany would sure have fallen in Easter week at the soonest.

Any yet these wise men, the Magi, men of another faith; they saw and came.

Paul reminds us that God speaks through many means

Romans 1:20:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

All Heaven declares the handiwork of the Lord!

I recall, many years ago, reading “God’s Smuggler“, the auto-biographical story of Brother Andrew who smuggled Bibles into the old Iron Curtain countries.  One day a guard found a stash of Bibles secreted in Brother Andrew’s car and yet allowed him through the checkpoint.  Later he learnt the guard’s story.  One cold night (Russian winters definitely cold!), he was standing guard beneath one of those giant Soviet-era statures, looked up and became aware of the vast hand above him.  He was struck suddenly by the wonder of the opposable thumb, without which we would be able to hold neither sentry-duty rifle nor water glass.  He had been taught atheism since he was a child and yet, without knowing anything about religion, was struck by the glory of that opposable thumb and the realisation that there was something more and beyond.

While referring to the Old Testament prophets, the ‘divers manners‘ (King James Version), are surely also true of those outside faith.

Hebrews 1:1–2a  (KJV):

God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,  2  Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son

There is a bigger better story to hear, for the border guard and wise man “he has spoken through his Son“, but God speaks also in so many ways.

Note finally that when Herod plotted to kill the infant Messiah, he did not do so openly in front of the chief priests and scribes; they were not so much in his thrall that he could do anything.  They will have differed in the depth of their faith as opposed to the politics of their position, just as in any religious organisation, but clearly there were amongst them men of true faith, as is plain in Luke’s account of Zachariah.

These chief priests and scribes – knew the right things, and believed the right things.

Yet it was the wise men, the men of another faith –  they saw, they came

THEY ASKED

Matthew 2:1–8

… Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? ….

4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Andrewes is wonderfully scathing in a way that seems particularly relevant today in the age of YouTube, and Wikipedia, “The cult of the amateur“, when, with the internet to hand, we are all experts on anything and

For they in the East were nothing so wise, or well seen, as we in the West are now grown. We need call no Scribes together, and get them tell us, “where.” Every artisan hath a whole Synod of Scribes in his brain, and can tell where Christ is better than any learned man of them all. Yet these were wise men; best learn where they did.

These Wise Men were not mere ‘artisans’, they were … I guess … like a modern professor, and yet were not afraid, not too proud to ask …
…   and the answers came from scripture

The chief priests and scribes quoted from Micah 5:2:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.

Finally, note that (like A. A. MIlne’s King John) Herod was not a good man.  While there is no corroboration of the slaughter of the innocents in other sources, it seems consonant with other aspects of his reign.  Although Herod may not have been known in the land they journeyed from, it seems unlikely that this did not become apparent as the Wise Men approached Jerusalem.

Matthew 2:1–8

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

I noted that this secrecy is a sign that there were clearly men of faith among the chief priests and scribes, but also if Herod was corrupt it would be likely his court would not be entirely trustworthy either.

And yet the Wise Men still asked, they knew that, however perfidious, this was the place to find the way to the one they sought.

With politicians, a single mistake, particularly in their private lives, and they may be condemned to the sidelines for many years.    Yet it can be that someone may be flawed and failing in many aspects of their lives, and yet be reliable in other ways.

The Wise Men (note wise!) sought guidance, and guidance of a spiritual nature, from someone they knew was not just flawed, but in many ways evil.  It is not that they followed blindly everything they were told, and indeed ignored Herod’s injunction to return to him,.  But they did use the advice they had when at his court.

Spiritual leaders are not perfect … and as I write on these matters I know that when I preach I am certainly not perfect … but God speaks through us however fallen and broken we are.

THEY WORSHIPPED

Matthew 2:9–11

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

I turn to Andrewes again.  He notes that the Wise Men worshipped by doing two things:

They fell down

They offered

Quoting again from Andrewes’ sermon of 1622:

I must put you over to the eleventh verse, where it is set down what they did when they worshipped. It is set down in two acts … “falling down,” and “offering.” Thus did they, thus we to do; we to do the like when we will worship. These two are all and more than these we find not.

We can worship God but three ways: we have but three things to worship Him withal. 1. The soul He hath inspired; 2. the body He hath ordained us; 3. and the worldly goods He hath vouchsafed to bless us withal. We to worship Him with all, seeing there is but one reason for all.

If He breathed into us our soul, but framed not our body, but some other did that, neither bow your knee nor uncover your head, but keep on your hats, and sit even as you do hardly. But if He hath framed that body of yours and every member of it, let Him have the honour both of head and knee, and every member else.

The glorious satire of Andrewes’ words – if someone else made your body then by all means stay in your seats with your hats on, but if not, if that body is the creation and gift of the God Almighty then fall down on your knees and worship him with your whole body.  I recall a popular church song some years ago; at one point it said, “we raise our hands in worship” – everyone raised their hands, but when later it said, “we fall down on our knees” rarely did anyone as much as bend a knee2

We are not used to bending the knee.  When people meet the Queen they nod their head in a vestigial bow to a constitutional monarch.  However, this does remind me of the musical the “The King and I“.  Anna (played by Deborah Kerr) comes as governess to the children of the King of Siam, and is told that everyone, including her, must always keep their head below the King.  She meets the King (Yul Brynner), who plays with her by gradually stooping lower and lower himself forcing her to eventually be prostrate.

We are in an age when we accept no superiors, where we do not doff our caps, or bow deeply, so have no pattern when we are faced with the one who is above all.   These Wise Men, men of learning and influence, who are greeted and treated with respect by the high court of Jerusalem — they kneel.

Back to Andrewes:

Again, if it be not He That gave us our worldly goods but somebody else, what He gave not, that withhold from Him and spare not. But if all come from Him, all to return to Him. If He send all, to be worshipped with all.

I cannot but help thinking of the rich young ruler.

Matthew 10:21:

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

and many lessons for us in hard economic times, when the poorest are penalised to be ‘fair’ to the rich.

Matthew 2:11:

Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Once when I was very little, I think maybe five and my sister Jacqui seven, we were not sleeping in our normal bedroom in the house, and while we sat up in bed Jacqui told me a story, based loosely on the Christmas story.   A baby was born and visited by shepherd and kings.  The former brought a lamb, the latter rich gifts, and the child thrust away the gold and precious treasure and took only lamb.

It was a romantic story, and certainly one that rings strong in my more socialist heart … but is not the Christmas story.

All were accepted before the Christ child: lamb and largess, shepherd and wise man.

THEY RETURNED

Matthew 2:12:

And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Most journeys are circular returning to where they start

In J. R. R. Tolkein’s “The Hobbit“, Bilbo calls the book he is writing of his adventures “There and Back Again”

And at the end of “Lord of the Rings“:

At last the three companions turned away, and never again looking back they rode slowly homewards; …
… And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. “Well, I’m back,” he said.

Mary and Joseph eventually return to Nazareth, and at the end Jesus in some ways returns to his beginning, Jerusalem is not far from Bethlehem, but moreover returns to his Father.

And life often seen like that, we say someone is “going home” as they die and return to the one who made them.

Hebrews 4:9:

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God;

So, the Magi returned to their own country.

But not the same

T. S. Elliot, Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T. S. Elliot, Journey of the Magi:

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.

If we were not told, we might imagine one of the wise men staying to watch over the child, but that is not what we are told, they returned to their own country.  And for us too we are most often called back from physical or spiritual journeys to our ordinary life, and yet to see in it and be in it something new and different.

  1. See  Andrewes’ “Sermons of the nativity preached upon Christmas Day, 1622.”, and commentaries “The star of Christmas” and  “The Holy Spirit and the Magi“[back]
  2. And I include myself, except once, at an evening service, when, almost as if physically pushed down, I found myself collapsing to my knees.[back]

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