God’s Inclusive Purpose
Isaiah 60: 1 – 6; Matthew 2: 1 – 12
Did God intend to have another religion or just expand the vision?
I went into the sailing shop this past week to buy a sailing hat. When I went up to pay there was a new person at the counter. The owner, whom I know, was possibly taking a break or on the water around Hobart. As he handed my credit card back he said; “You’re having some time off after your busy season?” I realised he had noticed my title ‘Reverend’ on the card. I replied, ‘No, just back to normal.’ He quickly responded saying that it must be the Wisemen’s soon. I commented that he was spot on as it was Epiphany this Sunday. Then he remarked how some German visitors had expressed their amazement that the Australian churches have the wise men at Christmas time, whereas in Germany they celebrate the Wisemen’s visit two months after Christmas. I said that the Germans are right. The wise men were nowhere near Jesus’ birthplace at ‘Christmas’ according to the Bible.
Our celebration of the birth of Jesus tends to telescope everything in a short time frame. It is liturgically helpful but historically unhelpful. That doesn’t mean that magi or wise men didn’t come from the east. It just means that we have to be more reflective to understand the meaning of all these events.
So what does Epiphany Sunday stand for? This story of the wise men’s visit tells us that the Gentile world recognised the importance of Jesus’ birth. These wise men or Magi are Gentiles. They are most likely from Iran where the study of stars and planets was a developed practice. The study of the stars combined the physical study of planets and stars – astronomy – and the interpretation of stars and planets and their affect on humans – astrology. What the wise men had observed were actual phenomena in the night sky. About 11 BC Halley’s comet came close to earth. There were three conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC causing a single bright illumination in the night sky. Jupiter was a royal planet and Saturn sometimes represented the Jews. So this makes the Nativity star credible, although the notion of resting above the stable is mere literary licence.
What most likely happened was that these men saw the phenomena in the night skies. They reflected and studied and came to the conclusion that the heavens pointed to the birth of a significant king. They concluded from their reflection that Israel was the most likely place. They then resolved to travel and search for this king to be born. They did the most obvious thing. They went to the royal house of Israel, King Herod. There they were pointed to Bethlehem. These wise men were rational and determined pursuers of truth. The heavens had shown the importance and they resolved to be part of it: a not uncommon human trait.
Epiphany is the revelation or manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. The magi / wise men are the first examples of the Gentiles coming to Christ. The coming Christ meant the inclusion of the Gentiles as we shall see. Paul sees himself as the apostle to the Gentiles saying;
This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles who have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel … . [See: Eph 3: 1-12]
To understand the full significance of the Gentiles inclusion we need to start the story at the beginning.
Firstly, let us remind ourselves that Jesus was a Jew, as were the disciples and the first Christians. The Jews traced their history back to God’s call of Abraham and Sarah. The Creator God called them to form a new community beginning with their family. God agreed to bless Abraham and Sarah and their offspring forever if they followed God, and that Abraham and Sarah’s children and their children would be a blessing to all peoples. In Genesis God says to Abraham and Sarah, “Go from your country … to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, …, so that you will be a blessing … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” [Gen 12: 1-3] How could that happen? Abraham and Sarah began a community that pointed to God the Creator.
Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac, who in turn had Jacob. Jacob’s name became Israel because he wrestled with God [Gen 32: 27-28]. Israel had 12 sons one of which was Joseph. What followed was that during a major drought the family migrated to Egypt, the breadbasket of the world. Their brother Joseph was already there and had become a high official in the Egyptian government. God’s people found it very comfortable in Egypt and over stayed their welcome. They got caught up in slavery. 400 years later under the leadership of Moses, Miriam and Aaron the children of Israel with other slaves escaped [Ex 12: 38]. That escape we call the Exodus, which is remembered each year in the Jewish Passover. These escaped slaves became part of God’s Covenanted people – the Hebrews. They entered what we generally call today Palestine and settled there. They first lived in tribal groups, which were based on the 12 sons of Israel. Their leaders were prophetic and priestly figures. In time they wanted a king and Samuel the prophet and priest finally led them into a monarchy. From then on kings ruled the Israelites, while prophets worked at keeping the people faithful to God. King David was the stand out king. King David became the model king for the Messiah figure. (Of course Jesus didn’t fit the model of a successful military ruler and governor.)
Israel’s structures of temple and priests, Law and prophets and the rule of kings cemented the Israelites’ faith in the one Creator God. However the nation never fully reached its potential as God’s kingdom on earth. It needed something more to fulfil its destiny as a light to the nations. They realised that their structures were riddled with sin and human self-interest. They understood that when they were taken into captivity in Babylon in 587 BC and Jerusalem and temple were destroyed that God was displeased with them. It cause a major re-think about the faith
The prophets spoke of God’s future when God would come and build the temple and gather all nations together. They even spoke of a child coming and God writing the Law on their hearts [Is 9:6; Jer 31:31]. So by the time of Jesus the Hebrew people, we refer to them as Jews, had come to understand that –
- God would send a Messiah/ Christ;
- the Christ would establish God’s Kingdom;
- the Temple would be re-established; and,
- all nations would be drawn to the Temple.
The book of Isaiah tells us that God would bring all nations to the Temple [Is 60:1]. In chapter 66 we are told of a more radical action of God. God would include some Gentiles in the priestly and Levite ministry. That’s amazing because the privileged role of priest and Levite would no longer be exclusively reserved for Jews [Is 66:21].
Following the Resurrection Jesus’ followers understood that –
- Jesus was the Christ;
- the kingdom was present wherever Jesus was;
- the Temple was the people of God; and
- the Gentiles were included. [See Ephesians 3:1-12]
Through Christ Jesus the Church became the temple welcoming and drawing all and sundry into the presence of God.
The story of the wise men reminds us that Jesus has come for all people, not only the Jews, the people of the Covenant. The story of the wise men tells us that God uses creation and human wisdom to reveal the Christ to us. In this instance it was the use of astronomy and astrology that brought the wise men to Jesus.
The story of the wise men reminds us that Jesus’ birth signalled a major shift in human understand about God.
God comes to us as one of us. God comes and re-structures temple and priesthood. Humans gathered in the Christ’s name become the temple. And all who follow Christ become priests – servants of God. We are one in Christ. We are together. Barriers are broken down between priest and lay, male and female and Jew and Gentile. This is what our texts declare on this Sunday.
The Wise Men (by Janet Soo)
The wise men came from quite afar
By camel power and guiding star
There was no road, there was no car – but reason was theirs.
The travelled from the very east
By weary foot and lofty beast
No sat.nav. or Melway at least – but vision was theirs.
For many days and many nights
By moonlight and the sunshine bright
In valley deep and hills of height – but resolve was theirs.
They reached the house, the babe to see
And all went down on bended knee
With gifts they came, those wise men three
– for faith was theirs.
Now we have faith in God above
Who sent his own dear son, with love.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 06/01/2019