Matthew 2.1-12, Isaiah 60.1-6
Often when exploring and contemplating events from the bible it is helpful to create ‘word pictures’, that might build up images in our heads and make us feel involved in the stories that we hear.
When speaking of the wise men most of us already have our own ideas embedded in our brains, many of them from Christmas cards showing 3 characters with camels riding through the desert on their journey to Bethlehem.
This Pandemic year, there’s been cartoons circulating where one wise man says to the other two, ‘if anyone asks, we’re all from the same household’ and some of the three men arriving in Bethlehem after their long journey only to realise that they’ve forgotten their face masks, something we can all relate to!
It’s all symbolic of a Christmas none of us expected when we began 2020. Like many others, in my house there are gifts still waiting to be given when it’s safe and sensible to do so, it feels a bit like the wise men being told to prepare, but then to put their plans on hold.
Perhaps we too are people forced to go by another road from that we expected when we set out at the beginning of last year.
We don’t know how many Magi visited Jesus at the time Matthew tells of but with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh it fits well to have 3 bearers of gifts fit for a king in our nativity scenes, even if they are only representative of a greater number.
There’s a lot of other stuff around these men that has found its way into art, music and folklore which isn’t actually mentioned in the bible, but it speaks volumes of the enduring appeal of these people as characters in a story and how differently we may each relate to them.
Perhaps they are like many of us as we set off on a Christian journey, but unlike the shepherds who received angelic guidance to find God’s revelation, it sometimes has to be enough to just keep trying to head in the right direction, trusting that God will be there at the end.
Currently there is this tension between the routine journeys we are not making versus finding where we are on life’s big journey. Many people have told me that they actually miss the train to and from work or crawling through in rush hour traffic in a way they never thought likely. Maybe it’s enforced change that seems so unpalatable.
Yet rather than impatiently longing for a return to the previous normality we could use this extra time to reflect upon where we find ourselves on our personal life journeys. When we look back on this stage of our pilgrimage will we feel that we considered our fellow travellers?
God definitely offers possibilities beyond those we may have seen so far and it is possible that new horizons beckon us.
Imagine the journeys of those fleeing war and persecution. There is no certainty of the route, the conditions, whether they will meet kindness or evil along the way.
Think of those fleeing domestic abuse, will there be protection and guidance as they take those first few steps to what they hope will be freedom and safety?
What we meet on each of our journeys through life may make God hard to find or be his very revelation, but few will have a smooth journey and some will find it hard to keep going at times.
The Magi understood that they had met the true king of the Jews and that this would not be well received by Herod, who must therefore be an impostor and their judgment proved well placed when he later lashed out by killing all Bethlehem children under 2 years old.
‘They left for their own country by another road’ we are told. They saw things differently after meeting Jesus. Did they get an insight into the change that was ahead? The servant king, a helpless baby contrasted with a tyrant.
It becomes apparent that the best each one of us can do is to recognise that we depend upon each other when the star fades and we feel uncertain as to which is the best way forward. We are not left looking onto wise men journeying in picture postcard perfection but are fellow travellers finding ourselves in anything but the perfect Christmas scene, recognising that we step out each day in God’s grace.
The trouble with so many Christmas cards is that the star is so bright, Bethlehem so obvious, it’s all cut and dried. To be fair it wouldn’t be great on a card if it weren’t so, but neither does it reflect our own struggles for spiritual discernment.
Later in Matthew’s gospel Jesus himself helps us to understand this when he speaks of the kingdom of heaven as being like ‘treasure hidden in a field’ like a merchant in search of fine pearls, like a tiny mustard seed.’
We may not always recognise his kingship, manifesting itself in unpredictable ways, but however Epiphany may be understood or recognised by each one of us being open to finding God in unexpected places is all part of the journey.
Isaiah tells of light being brought into the darkness which will draw kings and nations to praise it. His portrayal of God’s revelation is one that grows as the light spreads further together with much rejoicing.
Isaiah knew that although the Israelites had returned from exile to ruin and poverty that once they came to recognise the grace of God in their lives things would begin to change, he told them ‘you shall see and be radiant’. This radiance would enrich their lives through new and restored relationships.
Both Isaiah and Matthew reassure us that each one of us is loved and called by God, a message of hope and comfort for all who currently find themselves in darkness that they will once again emerge to find the light.
3rd January 2021