A sermon preached in on Sunday 7 January 2018 by Canon Edward Probert, Acting Dean
(Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12)
The crib scene in the middle of this church remains largely unchanged each year for about six weeks right up until its removal at Candlemas at the beginning of February. But within that period there is one significant change, which takes place on the 6th January; yesterday, the Epiphany. On that day the three exotic figures are brought from the wings to cluster close in the scene of the Holy Family, nestled in their manger and straw.
There’s an ancient tradition for this setting of the scene, but don’t take it for granted. We learn of the stable and the manger, and by implication of the straw and the animals, from Luke’s gospel, and we only know of the ‘wise men from the East’ from Matthew’s; the only details on which those two gospel accounts actually agree is that Jesus had parents called Mary and Joseph, and that he was born in Bethlehem. All the other familiar details are particular to one or the other. Matthew shows no interest in a census or a stable or shepherds; he may not even have been aware of these things. Instead, he gives us this rather peculiar account of complete strangers making their journey to pay homage to the child.
It is a story that raises as many questions as it answers: since the conventional number of 3 is tied to the list of gifts, how many people were they?; where exactly did they come from?; what happened to their fantastic gifts?; why didn’t everyone in a little provincial town remember such an astonishing visit?; why was this suspicious Herod so naive as to trust these strangers to come back? So it’s strange, it’s about foreigners, and we never hear another peep about these people or their gifts for the rest of the gospel - but still it belongs properly in this gospel, the one we call Matthew and which in many ways is a distinctively Jewish text. We have some echoes of those Jewish preoccupations of the writer in this passage - the way he quotes from Old Testament scriptures, the ways in which the contrast between the baby Jesus and the threatened king resemble the narrative in Exodus of the murderous Pharaoh and the baby Moses, who will save God’s people from their enslavement.
But the meat of the story, the nugget contained within this ore, is in the contrast within it: between the obedient aliens, who are looking for indications of divine purpose and who, when they see them, act upon them; and the hardened hearts and dulled vision of the leaders of Israel - yes, their king, but also, Matthew tells us, all their chief priests and scribes as well - who don’t understand God’s purposes and when they get a glimpse of them, are frightened to death. So, right here at the outset of his good news, Matthew anticipates both the rejection which the adult Jesus was to experience at the hands of these powers within Israel, and the subsequent painful experience which Matthew, like Paul and other later Jewish followers of Jesus, had of being excluded by their own Jewish community.
This experience of exclusion by their own people accounts for the undercurrent of bitterness which emerges from time to time in the texts of Matthew and John: in John, it frequently happens that, even though everyone (Jesus, his disciples, and everyone around them) involved in an argument is Jewish, it is only the opponents of Jesus who are referred to as ‘the Jews’; and in Matthew’s account of the crucifixion, the crowds shout out to Pilate ‘His blood be on us and on our children’. We have to be aware of the toxic later consequences of this alienation - the ways in which these biblical texts have been used down the centuries to stoke up hatred of Jewish people, and to justify repeated persecutions.
But there is an irony in this subsequent historical fact of alienation between Christian and Jew. The real preoccupation of Matthew, as it was for Paul, was that the very Jewish phenomenon of Jesus the Messiah is a means not of exclusion, but of inclusion. The purposes of God, previously only apprehended by his special people, through their history and their prophets and writings, had now reached out and embraced the countless alien communities who surrounded them. So Paul writes that ‘the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body’; and Matthew begins his gospel with this account of aliens worshipping the infant saviour, and ends his gospel with the risen Jesus telling his team to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’.
This is the abiding theme of our current season of the Epiphany: strangers can see the purposes of God and are brought in. We hear the Paul speak of ‘the rich variety’ of the wisdom of God, and realise that we are part of it. His purpose is not to refine his tribe, or to create a new tribe, but a new creation, which like his first creation is of ‘all things’. We are some of those strangers; we have been reached out to, and brought in. There is a world of strangers out there, God’s beloved. So, lest we forget, whilst we rejoice at our experience of the grace of God, it is our calling as Christians to focus not on ourselves and those like us, but to break down barriers and see the goodness of God in all that is alien and strange to us. Because it most certainly is not alien and strange to God who made it.