King’s Acre Church, 2 January 2005
What a very odd story this is, about the wise men coming to Jesus. For a start, you only find it in Matthew's gospel, and not in Luke's. To carry on with, it's quite difficult to reconcile the course of events in Matthew with those in Luke – for instance, Luke seems to think that the family go straight back to Nazareth, stopping off at Jerusalem on the way to present Jesus in the temple, whereas Matthew seems to think they lived in Bethlehem all the time, fled to Egypt to escape Herod's vengeance after the wise men's visit, and only then settled in Nazareth.
I don't suppose it matters much, really, though, because we have also got an incredible amount of tradition mixed up with the stories – the ox and the ass in the stable, for instance; you don't find those in either gospel account. We don’t even know what time of year Jesus was born, but it probably wasn’t in December! Not that that matters, since if the Queen – and J***, for that matter – can have an official birthday, so can Jesus, and the darkest time of the year is a good time to celebrate the coming of the Light.
Nor, in the bible story we have just heard read, were there three wise men! It doesn't say how many there were. Tradition, of course, has made of them kings: Casper, Melchior and Balthazar. But that's not what the Bible says. And it is only tradition that identifies gold with kingship, frankincense with divinity, or godhead, and myrrh with death.
But seeing as we all have our own mental image of the Nativity stories, it doesn't matter very much. It wouldn't really be a Christmas crib without donkeys and oxen, would it? And it's a lot easier to depict Eastern potentates than Zoroastrian astrologers, or whatever they really were. And if we see gold, frankincense and myrrh as equivalent to kingship, godhead and death – well, why not? It helps us remember a bit Who Jesus is, and anything that does that is always helpful.
But what on earth has this story to do with us today? And, more particularly, what on earth has it to say to us in a week when each day brings us news of a higher and higher death toll in those dreadful tsunamis? I don’t know about you, but I simply can’t get my head around the numbers. It must be so dreadful there, I simply can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like.
There are no easy answers, of course. We don’t have a satisfactory answer as to why God lets this sort of thing happen, and I doubt we ever will. I remember on the Friday after Nine-Eleven, the speaker on Thought for the Day commented that the smoke rising from the debris of the Twin Towers seemed to come between her and the face of God whenever she tried to pray, and I remember thinking at the time that I totally knew what she meant. And that disaster was caused by human beings trying, and succeeding, to do evil. This one’s worse – there was no human agency involved, but what the insurance companies call “An Act of God”. We can’t even blame ourselves, indirectly, for it – we didn’t cause it through global warming, or anything like that. Not this time. As I understand it, these sorts of earthquakes do happen, simply because of the way the world has been made. It’s to do with the way the continental plates drift together and apart and so on.
So it makes this kind of disaster particularly dreadful. There simply aren’t any easy answers. We seem to come slap bang up against the dilemma that either God couldn’t stop it happening, or else He didn’t want to.
We don’t understand God, of course – and we hate it when we are reminded of that! We like to reckon we know all about God, and although we pay lip-service to the fact that we don’t, we don’t really believe it. And then something like this happens, and we come slap bang up against the fact that we don’t understand. We try to explain it in our terms, and we ascribe to God motivations that we understand which make God seem either uninterested in humanity or positively against us!
But even Jesus himself had trouble with this one, didn’t he. All he could say about a local disaster when a tower had collapsed was, allegedly, “Unless you repent, you will likewise perish.” Which rather evades the question, which was, basically, “Well, what had those folks done to deserve it?”
And perhaps that’s where we can find the seeds of hope in all this. The feast of the Epiphany is sometimes called “The manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles”. Back then, the Jews were convinced that the Messiah, when he came, would be for the Jews only; they were God’s chosen people, they were the only ones who would receive salvation – a position that seems often to be held by Evangelical Christians today. But, according to Jewish Matthew (whose gospel was aimed particularly at the Jews), some of the very first people whom God called to Bethlehem were these pagan astrologers. The Christ had come for the entire world. Jesus was born to be King of the Jews, granted, but he was also to be King and Saviour of the whole world. Jesus didn’t always quite haul that in while he was on earth; some of the Bible stories show that he was always rather surprised when Gentiles, people who weren’t Jewish, believed in him. And he had a bit of a struggle with himself before healing the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter, you may remember.
We don’t always notice this, because we are so used to the concept that Jesus came for all. We have, after all, Paul’s letters, and his view of himself as the apostle to the Gentiles. We’ve read the stories in Acts of the early Church’s struggles with the concept of just how far Gentile converts should keep the Jewish law, if at all.
But the Magi were the first Gentiles to come and worship Jesus. They may not have known exactly who He was, but something in the skies had shown them that something very special had happened.
And Matthew’s story also has its shadowy side, too. We hear of Herod saying that he wants to worship Jesus, but really planning to kill him. And, because he can’t be sure he has the right baby, he kills all the baby boys that have been born in the village over the past two years. The Holy Family, meanwhile, have had to flee to Egypt, becoming asylum seekers there. And, according to Matthew, when it was safe to return, they didn’t quite have the nerve to live so close to Jerusalem again, but settled in Nazareth.
Mind you, that story is exclusive to Matthew, and I’m not sure that it’s borne out by other sources. Luke rather contradicts it, placing the Holy Family firmly as residents of Nazareth, and sending them home via the Temple in Jerusalem, where Jesus is presented and old Simeon begs the Lord to let him depart in peace, since he’s now seen the Salvation of Israel. But that doesn’t matter – truth and factual accuracy aren’t necessarily the same thing, especially when it comes to the Bible! The accounts weren’t written by modern historians, and we shouldn’t hold them to the same standards.
Does it make it any better that terrorism, natural disasters and asylum seekers were familiar features of the landscape two thousand years ago? The other day, when I was preaching about the Advent Hope, K**** commented on the fact that they’d needed to lock up against burglars back then, too, just as we do today. Human nature doesn’t change, and nor, I believe, does God’s.
And that is why there maybe is a glimmer of hope to be taken from the fact that Jesus was shown to pagan astrologers. Because we know that Jesus came for all humanity, not just the Jews, not even just the Christians, we know that God loves all humankind. Every single man, woman and child. I’m sure that God’s heart is breaking with the grief of those families who’ve lost loved ones, over the fear and panic of those left homeless and without adequate food, clean water or shelter, and maybe over the fact that we can give six million quid overnight to Disaster Relief, but cannot ensure a fair distribution of wealth under normal circumstances, so that we have a problem with obesity while in many countries children starve.
But then, we say, well, why did God allow it to happen? The thing is, are we ever told “What would have happened”? We can’t see round the next corner, in the way that God can. It is possible that the earthquake and tsunamis, appalling though they were, actually defused a much greater disaster that might have threatened the life of the entire planet. You might have read about “super-volcanoes”, which could trigger a global ice age. Incidentally, the last one to erupt was in Sumatra, 74,000 years ago – perhaps the earthquake has defused it for another 74,000 years. Who knows? I certainly don’t, but I’m sure God does.
No explanation can be altogether satisfactory, of course. Scientists may understand the causes of earthquakes now, but they still can’t predict them satisfactorily. But they can’t, and I can’t explain how come God allowed such a disaster, nor indeed how come God created a world whose physical properties are such that earthquakes like this can happen. Yeah, like we’re so perfect we get to live in a perfect world – not!
I gather that some governments had decided not to put systems in place to warn people about tsunamis, because they didn’t want to cause panic – a decision they are probably bitterly regretting now. We are hearing stories that the Tamils believe aid is being delayed by the Sri Lankan government in Colombo – if we humans can make political capital out of a disaster, then we almost definitely will!
I don’t know why the disaster happened. But what I do know is that God loves each and every one of the men, women and children who died, each and every one of those who have been left homeless, each and every one, whether they have been identified, or their bodies found. Whether they were honest, upright citizens, or whether they were criminals. Whether they were Christians, Muslims, pagans, or believed in nothing they couldn’t see, hear, taste, touch or smell. God loves them. And our dear Lord Jesus was sent to be the Saviour of the whole world, not just one tiny corner of it. The Epiphany story is one of the first to make that clear.
The Magi came to worship, and let us continue to worship, too, despite disasters, despite tragedies.
I do believe that God is love, and that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. St Paul reminds us that these days we are groping after truth like someone trying to see their reflection in a grotty mirror – one day, of course, we shall see God face to face, and then either we’ll understand it all, or else it will become totally unimportant! Those who perished last week probably already know!