Christ Church Cathedral
24 December 2017
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” [Matthew 2:1–2]
In churches around the world, and in many of our homes, the three wise men are kept off stage tonight. They may be down by the church door, or on the far side of the lounge room. But they will rarely be found adoring the Christ Child before January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.
The reasons for this are complex and misplaced. We shall not bother with them tonight.
Suffice to say that the Western Church has tended to focus on the angels and shepherds on December 25, and to delay the wise men until the twelfth day of Christmas, January 6.
Guess what? There will be very few people in church on January 6, so most of the time most of the people miss out on the message of the wise men.
Tonight, I want to bring these oriental visitors in from the cold.
I want to make room for them in the presence of the Christ Child. Indeed, I want to base my reflections in this sermon around the wise men.
To do this we need to gently deconstruct the version of the Christmas story that we each carry in our mind.
As we welcome the wise men into the Christmas scene, we suddenly notice there are no shepherds by the manger when the wise men arrive. Indeed, there is no manger. And no inn with limited rooms available.
The annunciation, the census, the long trip from Nazareth, the shepherds, the angels, the inn with no space, and the manger—all belong to Luke’s story of Christmas. They have no part in Matthew’s story of the Saviour’s birth.
We blend these two stories together, and that is fine. Then we add other elements found in neither Matthew nor Luke. The story grows richer and more elaborate.
The Christmas story that we all know and love is not found in the Bible, but that does not make it any less precious to us.
But for tonight, since I have chosen to make room for the wise men, we find ourselves paying attention to Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth. In doing so I hope to enrich your appreciation of the Christmas story, by paying attention to one of its overlooked themes.
There is one other important difference between Luke and Matthew, which we miss when we blend their two stories into a single narrative.
Luke is very upbeat.
Everything is great. All is going well. Even the Roman Empire is unwittingly collaborating with the divine purposes, as it orders a census that causes Joseph and Mary to visit Bethlehem just in time for Jesus to be born there.
Matthew is more sombre.
There is a shadow hanging over the Holy Family, as Herod seeks to destroy the Christ Child. They will flee to Egypt as refugees, in Matthew’s account. No triumphant visits to the Temple in Jerusalem for this story teller. The family will only return to Palestine after Herod has died, and even then they go north to Nazareth rather than returning to their home in Bethlehem. The only time that Jesus visits Jerusalem in Matthew’s Gospel he is killed. A dark shadow indeed.
Who is this Matthew whose account of the birth of Jesus suddenly seems so unfamiliar to us?
The short answer is that we do not know.
We can tell what kind of person he was by reading between the lines of his gospel, but the identity of this person remains unknown.
What we can discern about this person is that he was a Jewish follower of Jesus, most likely living in the NW corner of ancient Syria, close to the important trading city of Antioch.
Antioch was a melting pot. Christians and Jews had a long history of mixing and interacting in this city. According to the Acts of the Apostles, most likely written by Luke as the second volume for his history of early Christianity, Antioch was the place where the name ‘Christian’ was first coined. It was also the base from which Paul set out on his missionary journeys that brought Christianity to Europe.
Antioch was not only a place where Jews and Christians mingled. It was also a place where East met West. Already by the end of the first century, when this gospel is taking shape, Christianity has begun to spread East and beyond the confines of the Roman Empire.
Enter the wise men!
The Gospel according to Matthew is the most Jewish of all the gospels in the New Testament. For Matthew, Jesus is the great lawgiver, a new and bigger version of Moses.
Yet Matthew is also adamant that the message of Jesus is for all people, and not just for the Jews.
He concludes his story with an episode that has no parallel in any other gospel. Jesus appears to the small group of disciples (‘the Eleven’) on a mountain in Galilee, far away from Jerusalem. He commissions them to go on a universal mission to share his message with all nations:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:19–20]
That is how the gospel ends for Matthew.
How does it begin?
With foreigners from the East, wise men from another spiritual tradition, travelling from far away to adore the Christ Child.
These magi were advanced practitioners of pagan religion. They were not proselytes, converts to Judaism. They were privileged members of pagan religions, and as such they were completely outside the scope of the Jewish faith as well as the yet to be born Christian faith.
As a Jew, Matthew should have condemned these pagan astrologers.
Instead, as a Christian he welcomes their part in his story of the birth of Jesus because they represent where the future of the faith belongs.
Not with the insiders, but with the outsiders.
The miracle of Christmas is that we cease drawing circles to exclude those who are different.
The miracle of Christmas is that we open our hearts to welcome the stranger and the pilgrim.
The miracle of Christmas is that we do not waste time checking if others have the same beliefs as us.
The miracle of Christmas is that we proclaim, PEACE.
Peace to those who are far off, and peace to those who are near.