Epiphany sermon 2007

Today is the Epiphany – the day we remember visitors from the East coming to worship Jesus, and bringing with them their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The temptation, when preaching in the West of Scotland is to dwell on the idea of people coming from the East and tell jokes about people from Edinburgh. However, I would not stoop so low.

No, I want us to think this morning about where these visitors came from and what Matthew is doing telling us this strange story.

We are talking about people from East of Jerusalem. In recent years we have learnt much about the land to the east. We know a lot more about Iran and Iraq than once we knew. They have been painted as places of great evil and darkness. It is hard to believe that much that is good has come from there. Yet our religious debt to those places is huge. And this year, as the magi stoop to worship at the manger, I want us to take seriously the question – what are these people doing in this story.

The Magi were the priests – the wise ones of that region to the East of where Jesus was born.

The Magi were the priests of Persia. Or more precisely, the priests of the Zoroastian people. Zoroastrianism is something that most Christians know almost nothing about. (Perhaps you remember that Freddy Mercury turned out to be a Zoroastrian and had a funeral which was centred around a burning fire – such is the Zoroastrian custom).

The fact that the Magi – or Zoroastrians are almost unknown to us is not to our credit – for the impact that Persian religion had on Judaism and then on Christianity is very significant.

Perhaps you are familiar enough with the Old Testament to know of the exile of the Jewish people when the movers and shakers of Jerusalem were carried off to Babylon. This is not merely a story or a historical fact – it is much more than that. For once the exile was over, the Jews came back from Babylon to Jerusalem carrying a lot of new ideas with them. These were Zoroastrian ideas which then came to be synthesized into forms of Judaism and then into Christianity.

And it is sometimes quite important to know whether the things we are reading came from before the exile or afterwards. For example, the first reading we had this morning is from the second of the Isaiah prophets, who was preaching his message after the exile. The chapters of Isaiah up to chapter 39 were written before the exile. And they are very different. And they show a clear influence of some of the ideas of the East.

The Jewish people learned much from the Magi and took on many of their ideas. No doubt this was a two-way process.

Some of the strands which came from the East would have been important to some of the Jewish groups. And no doubt there were some who wanted a return to a “purer” Jewish identity. Denominations are nothing new.

This had its effect on the Christian faith. It is no accident that we have four gospels which, though broadly similar are sometimes contradictory and though each purports to be the story of the life and death of Jesus the Christ, each of the authors or editors writing in community had their own special emphasis.

By putting the Magi at the Christmas Crib, Matthew is making a significant statement. He is saying something about the kind of faith-tools which his community was living and working with – ideas which might have been different to those which other gospel writers might have had or which they did not think were important. Remember that Matthew is the only one who makes tells the tale. He must have had a reason for doing so.

By making the Magi bend the knee at the manger, Matthew is saying – look, look at Christ – he fulfils and completes all that we learned when we were in exile in Babylon. Look no more over your shoulders at the Zoroastrians for inspiration – look now to Christ for he is what they were pointing to all along.

These are some of the things that Judaism may have got from Zoroastrianism which Matthew may have been calling to mind by taking the Magi on their journey to Bethlehem:

  • Firstly the idea of a revealed religion – Zoroaster was a particular figure in history with a message for the world that was cosmic – yet revealed through himself.
  • Secondly a particular interpretation of monotheism – there being only one God. After the exile, the Jews started to talk about the one true God as being benignly present everywhere rather than just being the greatest amongst all the gods of the day.
  • Thirdly, the association with light. Last week, we went to some dark places thinking about the Holy Innocents – this week, at Epiphany we think of light alone – and Mark makes those who revered fire and light worship in front of the light of the world.

And there was much more. For the influence of the Magi religion had brought into Judaism lots of stories about angels and demons – a particular way of understanding the fall of humanity which earlier Jews would have found incomprehensible and also a whole cosmology of heaven and hell.

These were the things which Matthew was pointing to by bringing Magi into his Christmas story.

And they must make us take pause and think about the nature of what we ourselves believe.

People are often critical of modern people for having a syncretistic faith – taking a bit from here and mixing it with a bit from there to make something unique and personal.

It is something that has been going on for ever. Matthew was doing it by introducing us to the Magi whom he and his community clearly thought significant.

One of the questions which we face in living as modern people is where we will take our influences from. And perhaps it is that task of the church to lay out a palatte of colours from which people are invited to take their pick.

Lots of people don’t like that idea. Matthew and his community may not have liked that idea, but it is what they were doing all those years ago as they brought this gospel together.

How to finish today? What better than a prayer from the Zoroastrian tradition which we might ourselves take to Bethlehem and pray at the crib:

How should I pray? Teach the art of prayer to me, that I may devote myself to you. Should I meditate upon the wonders of your creation? Should I give thanks for the wisdom of my elders? Should I praise you for your many gifts to me? Should I reflect on all the things I have done wrong? Or should I simply wait until you speak to me?

Tell me truly: how should I pray?[1]

[1] From the Fount Book for Prayer, edited by Robert Van de Weyer.

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