Sorcerers from the East

A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, on 5 January 2012
Epiphany (observed)
Matthew 2:1–12
To hear the sermon, click hear to go to the Our Saviour website.

It’s commonly known to anyone who cares to notice: the Western world is changing, it’s changing rapidly, and much of it is not for the better. Society is fragmenting, families are breaking up, the economy is a mess, immorality and godlessness march on at speed. Darkness is called light and light darkness. These are the classic signs of the beginning of the end of a great civilisation.

But perhaps the one thing that worries many people most is the feeling that our civilisation is being taken over by another. Many Christians are among those who are particularly concerned about the threat from Islam, the growing number and influence of Muslims in this country and in the West in general. While churches are being abandoned, Mosques are being built. Immigration past and present have brought a once-distant and ‘foreign’ religion to our doorstep and into the centre of our communities. It may not be particularly visible within a square mile of the present location, but you only have to drive a few minutes along the coast to encounter the reality.

Now, that is something to worry about. Even if it isn’t likely that the West will get swamped, it wouldn’t be the first time in history. Of the five great bishoprics of the ancient Church, only Rome remains in a country that is at least nominally still majority-Christian. The others, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople are in Egypt, Syria and Turkey, with only small Christian minorities. The same is true of the rest of North Africa. At one time, the Muslim armies were at the gates of Vienna and in Southern France and Spain. The world has changed, but the threat from the East is still there.

But unlike in the early centuries of the rapid spread of Islam, the threat doesn’t come from violent invasion by hostile armies. Islam has arrived in Western Europe by more a more amenable route: by setting up home there, first as a guest, then as a permanent resident. British Muslims, like British Jews, Hindus and Sikhs, came to this country peacefully as immigrants to take up opportunities to work, or to leave behind persecution. They haven’t invaded Britain: they have simply arrived in Britain and stayed.

The first post-war wave of immigration into the UK wasn’t the first time that benign but potentially threatening strangers from the East had left their homes with their strange gods to travel to a place where people worshipped the true God. They came in search of a new life of opportunity, with their own ideas of what that involved, and ideas of what they would leave behind, what they would bring with them and what they would take up once here.

The story of the three kings of Orient is the story of just such a journey: of sinister characters from the distant East arriving with half-open minds and bag-loads of strange ideas. Now, there probably weren’t three of them—Matthew doesn’t give us a number—and they certainly weren’t kings. Sometimes, as in our Bible translation, they are called ‘wise men’. In Christian art, as in Christian tradition generally, they come across as wealthy and wise, altogether benign.

But as is the case with so many of our Christmas traditions, this one too leads us up the garden path. Matthew doesn’t speak of wise men any more than he does of kings. He speaks of μάγοι—Magi. And what are these μάγοι?  The Greek word gives us the English magic. In the book of Daniel in the Old Testament, the sorcerers in the court of the king of Babylon are ma’goi: astrologers and diviners whose dark arts give them access to secret knowledge and secret powers. In Acts 13, we encounter a μάγος, a Jewish false prophet called Bar-Jesus. Paul curses him, calling him “son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy.”

So when Matthew’s first audience heard of ma’goi being the first to turn up following the birth of Jesus, we can well imagine a sharp intake of breath. What are they doing here?  The child who is born is the king of the Jews!  Why, even Matthew puts in a ’behold’ of suprise: “… after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold—no, lo and behold—Magi came from the East. Who would have thought?  But as the story unfolds, it turns into a story of salvation. Because that’s what happens when Jesus is the main character in a story.

The Magi came, not because of a word from God, but following their own astrological superstitions about stars. Hardly an auspicious start in their search for a king. And because they followed their own nose and their own imperfect knowledge, they headed for Jerusalem and the court of the king, far from the infant Jesus. So far, so wrong. But the moment they turned up at Jerusalem, they came into the presence of the Word of God. In a typical display of His sovereign grace, God used the evil king Herod and his murderous motives to bring His Word to the Magi. The chief priests and the scribes read to them the prophecy of Micah, and because they knew no better, they believed the Word.

And this is where the story gets turned upside down. The Eastern magicians, the sorcerers from Arabia, heard the word and believe it. They followed the Word as well as the star, and found the newborn Jesus and worshipped Him. In the meantime, both murderous Herod and the chief priests and scribes stayed in Jerusalem. They not only heard the prophecy—they had already known it. But they never went to Bethlehem, and never met Jesus. The Arabian sorcerers gave gifts to the newborn king of heaven and worshipped; the Jewish teachers of God’s word didn’t even enquire. They had the Law and the Prophets, but it profited them nothing because they did not recognise Him to whom the Law and the Prophets point, Jesus, our Immanuel.

The Magi sought the king of the Jews in the corridors of power, in the shadow of the magnificent Temple of Jerusalem. They were pointed to a family home in little Bethlehem. They went and they found. They looked sinister, out of place in the story; Bethlehem looked least among the rulers of Judah. According to God’s promise and by the power of His Word, the Magi found themselves in the centre of the universe as they worshipped Jesus in Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Son of God. Not knowing it, they fulfilled the word spoken over seven centuries earlier by the prophet Isaiah. Concealed behind the Eastern magicians was the powerful working of God to fulfil His promise to bring all the nations to His light by His only Son.

We do well to hear, mark, learn and inwardly digest the message of this Epiphany. We, too, are hard-wired into looking in palaces and temples, into judging the meaning of events in their earthly appearance. We see the church sore oppressed, and we despair. We see the powers of darkness rise, and we fear. And all the while, Jesus assures us: all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me; fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom; take heart; I have overcome the world. When Jesus says so, it is so, however things seem. Every one of us is more impressed with the palace or temple in Jerusalem than with the humble home in the hamlet. But the presence of Jesus transforms every place: without Jesus, the palace and the temple are empty, lifeless halls. With Jesus, the humble home in the hamlet—or in the market town—is the royal palace of the King of kings and the Temple of Almighty God. He is the ruler and shepherd of Israel who will shatter the kings of the nations on the day of His wrath. His people have nothing to fear, because they have overcome the world with Him.

The mystery of the redemption of the Gentiles began not with the work of missionaries going out to preach the Gospel but by the unsolicited arrival of Gentiles in the house where Jesus lived. They travelled for their dark and superstitious reasons West, and there they encountered God’s Word. Through God’s Word they came to know the Son of God and for the first time, they worshipped the God of heaven and earth as they worshipped the infant in Bethlehem.

Latterly, people have travelled again from East to West, from pagan lands to places where God’s word is known. Like the Magi, they haven’t come seeking the God of Israel or to learn true worship. Is it a threat to us that they come, or is it an opportunity for them, to hear the Word that makes true worshippers of pagan magicians—that removes the dividing wall of hostility and makes known to ever new Gentiles the mystery of Christ.

Have they come to take over, or are they here to be won over?  If they do take over, is it because they are evil, or because Christians have failed to preach the Good News of Jesus to them?  And if we have failed, is it because we fail to trust the power of that Word and the promise of God, just as the scribes and high priests of Jerusalem knew the Scriptures but did not find the Jesus whom the Scriptures proclaim?

May God give us grace that we hold to His word, seeking Him where He has promised to be; courage to follow Him where He leads, regardless of the storms that engulf the world; and perseverance that we remain faithful unto death so that we receive the crown of life which He has promised.

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