The trouble with television these days, say many people, is that it is all repeats, especially over Christmas – films you’ve seen before, reruns of old Christmas specials…Even what’s actually new can seem like just rehashing of old themes – a big bust-up on the soaps, Doctor Who saving the day from yet another Christmassy threat.
And it’s no better when you get to church. It’s that same old story again – the one with the woman and the baby, the manger and the shepherds, the wise men and the star. You’ve heard it a hundred times before; I’ve told it a thousand…. Sometimes I rather wickedly wonder about introducing a surprise or two. “Come on in and have the best room,” said the innkeeper – “there’s plenty of space…” Perhaps the shepherds could sleep through the whole thing, or the magi miss the star behind a cloudy sky… or even “It’s a girl!”…
But no. Tempting as it is, we all know that there will never be room at the inn. The shepherds will be filled with excitement and the magi will make their long journey to Bethlehem somehow. And it will always be a boy.
Our familiarity with these stories, though, can blind us to the fact that they were far from predictable to those who first heard them. The whole point of the things that happened within them was that no one could have seen them coming. This wasn’t how the successor of David, the Messiah, the chosen one of God was supposed to appear in the world, born to an ordinary family in a cowshed, welcomed by shepherds and foreigners rather than the religious experts. It was a story full of surprises.
The part of the tale we have heard today – the magi coming to seek the Christ Child - was no exception. The fact is that these Magi have no idea what they’re doing, where they are going or what they are going to find when they get there. It is all surprise to them.
“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they ask King Herod, apparently not knowing of his brutal reputation, his paranoia and jealousy. Their question will have devastating repercussions for the children of Bethlehem, but they don’t know that. Their ignorance of Herod’s true nature shows just how unfamiliar they are with this part of the world. I don’t know whether you have ever found yourself in completely foreign territory, where you don’t know the language and customs; it’s easy to get it wrong in those situations when you can’t read the unspoken rules as you normally would. That is the situation these Magi are in as they blunder around in Jerusalem leaving a trail of suspicion and alarm that will trigger a massacre in Bethlehem after they’ve gone home.
Matthew doesn’t tell us exactly where they’ve come from, except that it is somewhere to the East. The point is, though, that it was a long way away; these men were undertaking a demanding and risky journey into a culture and faith of which they knew little or nothing.
And that tells us something else as well. These men really, really wanted to find this child.
What would you make a journey like this for? What would induce you to leave everything you knew, home, loved ones, security and recognition, to travel so far into the unknown? It seems to me that people who do this are usually either propelled by great fear, seeking refuge from war or oppression, or drawn by a great wonder, something they know they simply have to see. That is what has happened in this case. These magi know, somehow, that this star signals the arrival of something, someone, they can’t live without, and they aren’t going to be put off by the distance, the hardship, or the mistakes they make along the way. When they find what they are looking for we are told that “they were overwhelmed with joy” – the Greek actually says that they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. It’s a great pile up of words denoting happiness. Never mind the pain and uncertainty of the journey, never mind the unlikeliness of the surroundings, and of the family itself – very ordinary, not at all what you’d expect for a king - never mind that most people would say that this foreign Messiah is nothing to do with them anyway, it has all been worth it.
The fact that Matthew’s account of the birth of Christ focuses so much on these foreigners is not an accident, of course. It reflects a reality the early church was struggling with. Many of the first Christians were Gentiles too, like these Magi, non-Jews who had come to this new faith from a long way away – metaphorically if not literally – and who knew nothing of the culture, laws, expectations and assumptions of their Jewish brothers and sisters. That caused all sorts of tensions, and it was touch and go whether they’d be accepted.
In our second reading today we heard St Paul talking about these Gentile believers. These were people he would once not have associated with at all, people he was convinced were unclean. But he’d come to realise that this wasn’t how God saw them. In God’s eyes they were not a danger but a blessing. In his former life Paul would never have imagined he could declare Gentiles to be “fellow heirs, members of the same body, sharers in the promise”, but now he’d changed. People he would have once denounced as a deadly threat to the purity of the faith he had grown up in had become for him a life-giving, love-bringing treasure, who came bearing “the wisdom of God in all its rich variety”.
Matthew’s Magi symbolise the new and inclusive vision of the family of God which people like Paul had championed – God’s welcome is for Jews and Gentiles alike. This may seem like old hat to us; it’s not something that bothers us, but in fact it is still just as relevant. It is relevant not only to the issues of inclusion which the Church as a body faces today, but on a personal level too. Each of us as individuals, wherever we have come from, needs to know deep down that we are welcome in God’s presence if our faith is to grow and thrive, and for different reasons we can have trouble hearing that.
It maybe that there are some here today who, like those Magi, feel as if they’ve come from far away – and perhaps feel that this Christian faith thing is still just a glimmer on the horizon, something which could just be a mirage, an illusion. But something has drawn you here, and whatever it is, it is worth responding to. Like the Magi, you might feel you are in foreign territory, encountering words and practices that seem ancient and odd – probably because they are ancient and odd. It might be a winding path, and you might encounter people along the way who give faith a bad name. But whatever it was that drew you here is a star worth following, a call worth heeding and taking seriously. If you’ve come this far it is because there’s something in this story that you need to find, and treasures the rest of us need to receive from you from the ups and downs of your life too.
For many of us here though, Christian faith is familiar territory, home ground over many decades, something we’ve known all our lives. If that’s so, perhaps by this stage our faith ought to be rich and deep, our lives marked by the kind of love, joy, peace and patience which the Bible says are the fruit of the Spirit. Perhaps we ought to feel full of knowledge, with the Bible at our fingertips…I can see some of you desperately hoping that there isn’t about to be an exam…
The truth is, though, that for all sorts of reasons it is quite easy for us to find that despite having hung around in churches all our lives, we haven’t really grown much at all. When something is so familiar that we can do it in our sleep, that’s often exactly what we do do. We know there is more exploring to be done, questions to be asked, things to be discovered, but somehow we never seem to get started. Other pressures in our lives – real, urgent and important – squeeze out time for the reflection, prayer and service that will deepen our Christian lives. Or perhaps we’re afraid that if we question our faith too much we’ll destroy it. Or maybe we just don’t want to admit after all this time that we don’t know where to start. There are as many reasons why we might not really be feeding our faith as we should as there are people, but if we don’t do so, we’ll find that all we have left is the empty shell of habit, and that won’t be strong enough to sustain us when we really need it to.
I’m often struck by the fact that while the Magi travelled thousands of miles across the desert to Christ, it doesn’t seem to have even occurred to Herod’s religious advisers – people who should have been dead keen to know more - that they might make the short trip down the road to Bethlehem from Jerusalem to check out this report for themselves. Bethlehem is only about 6 miles from Jerusalem. If the Messiah, the long awaited deliverer, the saviour of the world, had been born in Borough Green, would we have just shrugged our shoulders and let someone else check it out? Sometimes it seems as if that is just what we do, taking for granted the things that others might travel long and hard to find.
Mercifully God’s star of welcome shines for us all, this day and every day, whether we’re travellers from afar who feel like strangers in a foreign land, or old-timers who have become blasé about the treasures of faith – the loving community we are invited to help to make, the stories which inspire us, the sense of God’s closeness which we can feel when we pay attention to worship rather than just reciting the words mindlessly. God loves us just the same – whether we are arriving for the first time, or returning for the umpteenth.
My prayer is that today, as we celebrate the Epiphany, we’ll get a glimpse of that star light again, a glimpse which will draw us to the God who seeks to bless us all with his boundless riches, and make us a blessing to others too.