Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Epiphany 2013
6 January 2013 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
The visit of the Wise Men from the East who come to worship the Christ child, the story told by St Matthew that we have just heard read in the Gospel, is, I imagine, familiar to us all. St Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus is not though as well-known as the story recorded by St Luke in his Gospel. For us, that narrative is more closely linked to the celebration of Christmas, the feast of the Nativity of Christ, since we hear it read on Christmas Eve at the Midnight Mass. And, it is St Luke’s account that forms the basis of nativity plays in schools and churches all over the country. It is the story of Christmas.
St Matthew’s is the story of Epiphany. The word Epiphany means showing forth or manifestation or revelation. We may think of an Epiphany as a moment when something suddenly becomes clear: we see something afresh; the penny drops; suddenly we get it, in a way we failed to earlier. In this case, it is the Wise Men who have the Epiphany, who come to see things afresh – so that we might see things afresh too.
And yet the two celebrations, Christmas and the Epiphany, are really one. Or to put it slightly differently, they are two variations on the same single theme. Indeed the Holy Orthodox Churches of Greece and Russia, and of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, many of which look to the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Patriarch of Constantinople, as their leader, focus the entire celebration of the Nativity of our Lord on this very day. So today we should pray for our brothers and sisters of the Orthodox Churches, as they celebrate their Christmas, many of them living lives of great risk, facing persecution for their faith, and yet persevering and remaining faithful.
Preaching on Christmas Eve at the Midnight Mass, I aimed to identify two or three ideas that St Luke was determined his hearers should grasp about the meaning of the birth of Jesus. Taking the same approach, looking at the message behind the story, or the story within the story, what do we learn from the birth narrative of St Matthew? Can we in the same way identify two or three things that St Matthew really wants us to know and understand?
First, it is important to recognise that we can see much in the Lucan and Matthean narratives that is the same. For both, the birth is miraculous without the intervention of a human father; for both, the birth is accompanied by a revelation from God via his angelic messenger; for both the birth takes place in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King.
For St Matthew as for St Luke, it is clear that Almighty God has planned the moment and foreseen it from the beginning. The Gospel of St Matthew begins with an extensive genealogy. Starting with Abraham it traces the descent to Joseph, the husband of Mary. St Luke has a genealogy too, which works in the opposite direction and ends with Son of Adam, Son of God. Both genealogies speak of God’s long preparation for this decisive moment. St Matthew sums up his account: there are fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the deportation to Babylon, and fourteen generations from the deportation to the Messiah. Seven is for the Jews a particularly holy number. The genealogy recounts three pairs of seven, six sevens: the birth of the Messiah, surely St Matthew implies, takes time on into eternity, the seventh seven, with the fulfilment of hopes in the arrival on earth of the incarnate Lord, the Son of God and Son of Mary, Jesus the longed-for Messiah, God’s long-planned moment of full self-disclosure.
In our Gospel reading this morning we heard King Herod enquiring of his learned men how the birth of this child fulfilled the expectations of Israel, the Old Testament, in relation to the coming Messiah. Time and again, in St Matthew’s Gospel, we hear, ‘All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.’ God’s planning from the beginning was now coming to fruition in the birth in Bethlehem. St Matthew would go on to show throughout the Gospel how all that Jesus did and preached was coherent with what God had already revealed. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, ‘I have come not to abolish but to fulfil the Law and the Prophets.’ Jesus is a second Moses and Elijah; as a baby fleeing Herod he would go down to Egypt so that like Moses he would emerge from Egypt, bringing freedom from slavery to sin for God’s holy people.
What else does St Matthew wish us to grasp? The first visitors in his account, the Wise Men, are utterly different from the shepherds. St Luke, a Greek physician recounted the visit of poor Jews to worship our Lord. St Matthew, by contrast, a Jew particularly interested as we have seen in the fulfilment in Christ of the Mosaic and prophetic tradition of old Israel, tells of wealthy and wise men from the East, perhaps Persians. We may say that both St Matthew and St Luke recount a birth narrative that seems to run counter to their own particular preoccupations and predispositions. Both the evangelists speak, each in their own way, of the wide importance of what they recount: not just to people like them but to people markedly different. Both the evangelists in this way tell of the manifestation in Christ of God to the wider world.
An eighth-century text, ascribed probably inaccurately to the Venerable Bede, perhaps dependent on a sixth-century tradition, described the kings this way: ‘The first was called Melchior; he offered gold to the Lord as to his king. The second, Gaspar by name, offered to Jesus his gift of incense, the homage due to Divinity. The third, of black complexion, was called Balthazar; the myrrh he held in his hands prefigured the death of the Son of man.’ None of this later legendary material is in St Matthew’s Gospel. The detail is not very important; what matters is that the worldly-wise, the learned, see that their earthly wisdom is as nothing before the revelation Christ comes to bring. We may recall St Paul’s words, ‘Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ And Christ is for the whole world, for all people, for the Gentiles not just for the Jews.
Very particular to St Matthew’s account is the role of Herod, called the Great but in fact no more than a client king of the Roman Empire, who had been given by the Emperor the title King of the Jews. He was afraid for his throne and in St Matthew’s account saw the news of this child who ‘has been born king of the Jews’ as a terrible threat. There is heavy irony in the request of Herod to the Wise Men that they should bring him word ‘so that I also may go and pay him homage.’ He had no intention to do so, and only wished to seize this baby and destroy him. This world’s kings and rulers must in the end pay homage to our Lord Jesus Christ, who is a King, indeed the King of kings, but one who understands his kingship quite differently from the lordship of earthly kings. About our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, St Matthew says, ‘This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, "Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey."' For our Lord Jesus Christ, kingship is humble service. For us who follow him it must be so too.
The Wise Men followed the star God had sent to guide them and came to worship the Christ child. They offered him gifts. As must all the rulers of this world, they laid at his feet their self-reliance and their human wisdom, to discover from him a better way. So must we lay at his feet our self-reliance and our human wisdom. If we offer the gift of our whole selves, what we receive in return will be incomparably greater.
We like them, in St Paul’s words from this morning’s second lesson, must come to see ‘what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.’