Sheepscott Community Church December 27, 2009
Isaiah 60: 1-6
Ephesians 3: 1-12
Matthew 2: 1-12
Reading the Signs
Red skies at dawning, sailors take warning.
Red skies at night, sailors’ delight.
I thought of those familiar lines on Tuesday morning when I was thinking about this sermon. I had been thrilled that the sun was actually shining after days of overcast, wind, snow showers and colder than seasonable temperatures. With our passive south-facing solar glass unable to really take the edge of cold off in the house in those days, because of the overcast, I rejoiced in the thought that we could finally get a bit more comfortable in the house.
About 10 o’clock I noticed clouds overspreading from the East. Darn! What happened to that blue sky? that bright sun? I felt betrayed by what is only par for the course in now astronomical as well as meteorological winter. I went back and checked the weather blurb in the newspaper. There it was: overcast with snow showers in the later afternoon.
If like the sailors, we can read the signs in the skies, everything depending on whether that rosiness is evident on the horizon at dawn or at dusk, at sun’s rising or setting. If we can interpret those meteorological signs, why not the signs that attended the birth of Christ? While I grant it is accepted scholarship that legends have grown up around the myth of the birth of Jesus, as with the birth of other great religious figures, it is nevertheless worth investigating any individual who rises to that stature, especially in this case, to someone who is seen as a divine figure, in fact the Godhead itself realized in a human being. That proposed reality wants very close scrutiny from every individual.
What am I getting at here? What am, I suggesting? This is the day we are marking Epiphany. Although it occurs on the calendar date of January 6, today is the day it is liturgically possible for us. I remind you that Epiphany is a showing forth, and especially the showing forth of a divine or superhuman figure. It has come to be associated with the showing forth of the Christ, Jesus, to the Gentile world, represented by the three Wise Men, the Magi, the Three Kings. It is the twelfth and last day of Christmas.
We have talked before about our old friend Herod, who was the insanely jealous king of Palestine, who reigned from 47 BCE to 4 CE. It was he who murdered his wife and her mother because he suspected they were rivals for his power. But he didn’t stop there. He assassinated his eldest son and two other sons for the same reason. The Roman Emperor Augustus had bitterly said of Herod that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than to be his son.
One more anecdote about him to convey the depth of his brutality in the service of jealousy and warped sense of morality. When he came to be 70 years of age, he knew that he didn’t have long to live, and so he arranged to have a group of the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem arrested on trumped-up charges and imprisoned with the order that the moment he died they should all be killed. He was well aware that no one would mourn his death and he wanted to be assured that there would be tears shed in Jerusalem when he died, regardless of whom they were shed for.
This may give you more understanding of the heart squeeze that Herod must have felt when he heard the story that wise men from the East had arrived searching for a little child, born to be King of the Jews. The chief priests and scribes were summoned into Herod’s presence to tell him what Jewish scripture had to say about where this anointed one should be born. They responded with the quotation from Micah, which you heard in this morning’s gospel reading: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,/ are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,/ for out of you will come a ruler/ who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.”
It was then Herod sent for the wise men, charging them to make a diligent search for the little child who had been born. And he said that he too wanted to come and worship the child. Yeah, right. We know the sad ending of the tale, but it is not used in this cycle of readings. When the wise men returned to their home port after receiving directions to do so in a dream and not return to that dog Herod, Herod was outraged. Using the calculated birth date from the chief priests and scribes, he ordered all of the male infants under two years old in Bethlehem to be slaughtered. This event has come to be marked by what is called and onserved as the Feast of the Holy Innocents in some churches. It’s a sad tale we don’t like to hear and imagine, but it is entirely consistent with Herod’s character.
Now, let’s look at the signs I alluded to earlier. First, we have the sign of the wise men from the East, traveling to find this child born to rule. The writer of Matthew introduces the Magi, here translated as wise men. The Magi were originally members of the Persian priestly caste, but the word came to mean any possessor of supernatural knowledge and power, often with a pejorative bent. These wise men were understood to be astrologers, interpreters of the movements of the stars and planets in the heavens in relation to events on earth, and consequently, people’s lives. Gazing at the heavens, as they no doubt did, in order to practice their art and craft, the Magi would have noticed an unusual star.
It was a common motif in antiquity that a new star marked the birth of a ruler. Consequently, it is an exercise in futility to seek out astrological phenomena of the time, e.g., the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 CE., to explain what is a literary and theological motif. Nevertheless, I would like to take this opportunity to sound a positive note in this area of astrology, commonly associated in some religious circles with wickedness and evil. It is here clearly put in the service of calling attention to the birth of the Christ. Is sinfulness vs. usefulness for the purposes of God all in the mind and heart of the practitioner? I’m inclined to think so.
Astrologers as either scientists, or necromancers have been around for thousands of years. In the case of the Magi, they are what we would consider astronomers, a little bit of both old science and what we would consider astrology, predicting or explaining world events by the positions of the stars and planets in the heavens. Remember the wise men as astrologers when you hear someone indicting other ways of knowing about God. It is God who knows the heart and the reasons why any individual practices as he or she does. Just an aside, but a significant aside. As I understood from a recent dream I had and would pass on to you, in case it’s useful, hear God saying, with regard to any area we might be troubled about, and think we need to make a judgment about, “Let me be the judge of that.” Burden lifted Just love. That’s all you have to do. Love well, and leave the rest to God. There’s plenty to keep us busy there.
So, we have the star as a literary and theological motif indicating the birth of a ruler, in this case a religious ruler, and yet the King of Kings, as we believe. Other signs are the gifts themselves which the wise men brought to the child. We’ve known these since childhood, and just sang about them in the hymn “We Three Kings” just moments ago. “Gold I bring to crown him again;” “Frankincense to offer have I; Incense owns a deity nigh;” “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom.”
The three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh gave rise to the idea that there were three Magi or astrologers with specific names: Casper, Melchior and Balthazar. In fact scripture does not specify how many men there were, but the tradition developed into three wise men, who morphed into kings themselves. The stuff of evolving legend, but legend grows out of truth, and the underlying story is that truth. A very important person born. How do we know that? By important personages coming to honor that one, and that brings us back to the gifts.
Gold, the king of metals, is a fitting gift for the king of human beings. So then, Jesus was the man born to be king, but different from most kings because he was born to reign, not by force, but by love.
Frankincense is the gift for a priest. It was in Temple worship and at Temple sacrifices that the worshipper could smell the sweet fragrance of frankincense when it was burned. The function of the high priest during worship or sacrifice in the Temple was to open the way between God and the worshippers. The Latin word for priest is pontifex, which means bridge-builder. The priest was a bridge-builder between God and human beings. This certainly is what Jesus is and does: he opens the way to God for all of us. He makes it possible for us to enter into the presence of God.
Myrrh is the gift for one who is to die because it was used to embalm the bodies of the dead. While Jesus came into the world destined to die, as we all are, he came into the world to live, to show us how to live, to be the bridge-builder between God and man.
Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for one who is meant to die. The three gifts which the wise men, the astrologers, the Magi, the kings brought to the child–– signs to the world then and now of that child’s meaning, which each person is bound to figure out for him- or herself.
If we look at today’s gospel reading, we can see that no sooner was Jesus born than men began to group themselves in one of three ways in response to him. There was the reaction of Herod, one of hatred and hostility. Herod was afraid that this child would interfere with his exercise of power and so he wanted to destroy him. There are still those who would destroy Jesus as the Christ because they see in him one who would interfere with their lives as they want to live them. They see Jesus as the Christ as someone who will take away their access to what they want when they want it.
A second grouping is that of the chief priests and scribes, whose reaction was one of relative indifference. They were so engrossed in their Temple rituals and legal discussions that they completely disregarded Jesus. He meant nothing to them. Poof and piffle. There are still some among us who react the same way to Jesus as the Christ, viz., with complete indifference. Jesus? What? What about him?
The third reaction was that of the wise men, who were truly wise. They came searching for understanding about the significance of this birth. Do we come searching for its significance? Their reaction was to drop to their knees in worship. To be in the presence of God does that to us. We don’t think about it. We don’t analyze it and wonder what the one on our right might think; what the one on our left might think. No. We drop to our knees. We don’t make a choice. The reality of God’s presence chooses us; it drops us. That’s only one indication of what and whom we are dealing with.
Worth remarking again is that the wise men brought gifts. Besides dropping in worship, they laid their gifts in acknowledgment of the one whom they had found, the one to whom the star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright pointed.
Go in the company of the wise men, the astrologers, the Magi, the kings, the searchers whom God knew by name and intention. Tolstoi’s last words were, “To seek; always to seek.” Those are words to indeed live and die by. I suspect that when we actually encounter the Christ in the fullness of his meaning, only then will the seeking, the search be over. Amen.