Message by Rev Jenny Carter
January 6, 2019
(Based on Matthew 2:1-12)
It can be difficult to hear the story of the magi and not have a church school Christmas pageant pop into our minds. It can be hard to banish the images of boys dressed in bathrobes and little girls wearing white dresses and angels wings, while their parents lean in to hear their child’s voice during the divine drama unfolding up front. It’s hard because we have grown accustomed to the story – so much so that we have left it in the realm of children. We have reduced it to a warm story about a little baby who will grow up and do wonderful things.
Which it is of course. It is a story about a little baby who will grow up and do amazing things. But it is so much more than that as well. It is a story about the abuse of power, and how a corrupt king and the religious leaders worked the system for their own enrichment and how they brought suffering to their own people. It is a story about some wise men, three gifts, and a long journey in search of an answer to a deep question. Yet first and foremost, it is a story about God, and how God is found.
The magi, or wise ones, in Matthew’s story would have been exotic novelties in a backwater like Bethlehem. They were from faraway Persia, they studied star charts and discerned the fates in the night sky. Who could be less likely to discover the Christ child, the messiah, than they? Their mystical craft, handed down from the ancient Sumerians, predated Moses. The religious authorities regarded their spiritual arts as deceptive, and even dangerous. Instead of waiting patiently for some messiah to show up, these strange people from the east were busy studying the sky and taking notes on comets and planetary movements. Yet they are the ones Matthew has coming to worship the messiah.
It is an interesting and shocking choice to have these ultimate outsiders be the ones who see the signs of God, and then act upon what they are seeing. Yet they serve as a very clever way for Matthew to make the important point – that no one is beyond God’s reach – even those who have not seen, nor heard of God – can find God. They can find God because the signs of God are everywhere, and if they choose to follow the divine leading they will find the salvation, the wholeness and healing, for which they long.
Yet even more than that, the author of Matthew is trying to convey a sense of divine power – the power to bring that very wholeness and healing – the power that can even manipulate nature itself. For Matthew, God’s power is love. God’s love as seen in the birth of Jesus – God’s love that raises up the lowly and the downcast and brings the powerful to their knees. While it can be difficult to see this love with our eyes, it is something we can feel with our hearts. It is big and real and ever present, and is what powers the universe. Like Dante (the medieval Italian poet) said, “God is the love that moves the stars”.
But not everyone can feel the love that moves the stars. The tragic comedy found in Matthew’s story is underlined by the way he juxtaposes the magi over and against King Herod’s bible scholars. Herod’s religious experts have scrolls; but they miss the very thing God is doing in their midst. They miss the birth of the messiah. And when they begin to get a whiff that the scripture might be taking on flesh, that God is doing what God had promised to do, they recoil and they lash out defensively.
When the author of Matthew’s gospel writes, he is keenly aware that while Gentiles are flocking to this new way, flocking to follow Christ, many of the Jewish people were not. Which posed the same question for him, as it poses for us now: do we ever hold the truth in our hands but miss the point of it all? Do we hold God’s revelation in our hands – see the signs of God all around – and fail to grasp it because we are holding too tightly to doctrine, past experiences, or to the status quo of things? You see, the love that moves the stars is a radical kind of power – it turns hearts and the world – upside down and inside out. The power of love that moves the stars, is all about transformation. Transformation of self, relationships and world.
Theologically, we all have good reason to shrink back from this story. It requires something of us. We are most comfortable on the surface of it where we can be soothed by comforting words – and not have to work too hard at our understanding of the Christ. Yet this story invites us to go deeper. It invites us to an encounter with the power of love that can move the stars. To look at all that we hold in our hands – all of the things we think we know, all of our past experiences both good and hurtful, all of the things we might believe about ourselves, our faith, and our world – and to open those up to the power of love. To let love rework our understanding of things.
When we open our understanding to the power of love – the world changes. We change. It’s not easy spiritual work, but it is important work. It’s transformational. Which is what an epiphany is. It is an encounter with the love that moves the stars.