Epiphany – the nativity in the Gospel of Matthew

Epiphany Sunday

(00:00:00) – We arrive at this epiphany, and the Magi have now made their way and have joined the shepherds there, in around the stable, around the manger. But what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with presenting the scene in this way? Well, of course, the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew tell two very different stories about the birth of Jesus. I saw the final Hobbit movie during the week, so it’d be a bit as if Peter Jackson, who’s known for making all kinds of alterations to the original book, adding characters who weren’t originally there in the story. But if he decided that, well, it’s about wizards and such things, so maybe we should have Harry Potter joining the scene in one of the battles of the Five Armies, and perhaps Professor Dumbledore would come and stride in and help to save the day. No, there are two completely different stories, and you can’t mix and match the characters between them. So the Magi shouldn’t be here in this scene, because that’s not the way that these stories unfold.

(00:01:14) – To get a sense of the integrity, you need to read the Gospel of Matthew simply as it is. Matthew begins the gospel by telling us about the lineage, the genealogy of Jesus. He wants to tell us that the remarkable events that God did fulfilled the whole plan of God’s people right across the centuries. Jesus doesn’t come into this story unannounced or out of context. He fits within the whole story of God’s people, a story that begins to finally make sense within the lives of people. He begins by telling us the story at the end of the first chapter of The Doubting of Joseph. Joseph is the prominent figure in the Gospel of Matthew, just as Mary is prominent in the Gospel of Luke, and so Matthew has Joseph confused and doubting, but not saying a single word. In fact, the first word spoken by any human character in the Gospel of Matthew is here. When the Magi say this question, where? Where is the newborn king of the Jews to be born? The first question that King Herod then asks is the same, where it’s obviously a crucial question for the community that Matthew is writing to, this community that’s struggling to make sense of who Jesus is in the light of their Jewish faith.

(00:02:45) – Because we know that Matthew writes to a community that’s steeped in the Judaism of its day, just as Luke writes to a community that’s pagan in its origin. And so Matthew tells the story that these central characters who are not Jewish, the foreigners, as far and as you could possibly get, this word, Magog, this the word that we translate as Magi or the wise ones, is translated. The only other place that occurs in the New Testament is in Acts 16, where it’s translated as a magician or a sorcerer. So it’s clearly people who are foreign in their methodology and their whole worldview and outlook. And yet it’s those people, those outsiders who come seeking the Lord. They come from the East, following the star in the West, following this miraculous sign that can have no natural correlation, that can be no natural phenomenon that attempts to describe something like this. Because again, we’re told that this is the work of God. This is God showing himself and revealing himself to these particular people, calling them, inviting them to lay down their all their preconceptions and ideas in order that they might come and do him homage.

(00:04:07) – But they might be the ones who will worship the Lord. The gift that Matthew wants us to know in his gospel is that this way of revelation is being opened to us. It’s the same characters that he he situates here in this story that he will again have in the Passion of Jesus. There again, it’s the scribes and the Pharisees who are the ones at the center of the attention, the center of the action. And Matthew wants us to know that these two bookends of the life and ministry of Jesus, that the way of the gospel, the way of grace, the way of life is being opened to all of us. All of us have this opportunity to experience this gift of light, this light that dawns, this light that begins to shine into our hearts. How do we experience that? How do we claim that for us? Selves by doing the same thing that the Magi did, by seeking the way of grace, by seeking to follow wherever our human guidance might lead us. Following the star.

(00:05:11) – Following the light of faith. Attempting to struggle with those questions that we have and seeing where they go. If we truly seek truth, we will always be led to God. God wants us to know him, to experience the richness of his grace and his mercy. So let’s indeed be the the Magi, the wise ones who go seeking to follow the way of the Lord, opening our hearts to wherever it is that these questions might lead us.

So we arrive at the feast of the Epiphany and the customary three wise men make their way from their hiding place elsewhere on the sanctuary or in the sacristy to their appointed places in the manger nativity scene, joining the shepherds, angels and animals in adoration beside the holy family. All very standard and wonderfully historically accurate. Or is it? What our nativity scenes attempt to do is offer a mash-up between the two very different Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus – the Gospel of Luke told from the point-of-view of Mary with the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census, the absence of room in the traditional lodgings, the making use of the ground floor room where the animals are usually kept, and the visit of the maligned shepherds as the first guests and witnesses to these events. Then the Gospel of Matthew told from the point-of-view of Joseph, situates the birth of Jesus within the greater story of the people of God. Matthew begins with origins of Joseph, Mary and Jesus in their genealogy and then the very simple recounting of the birth of Jesus to the virgin Mary. Chapter one gives us no details of where or when the child is born – only that he is as an act of God. Attempting to bring both shepherds and magi into the one scene felt a bit like all the extraneous characters in Peter Jackson’s third Hobbit movie – or even worse if he had decided that the most appropriate people to save the heroes (Bilbo and the dwarves) was Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore.

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Epiphany Sunday. Matthew 2:1-12

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