There are two quite different accounts of the birth of Jesus in the bible, one in the gospel of Luke, and the other in the gospel of Matthew.
Luke shows us the lowliness of Jesus’ birth, so totally unexpected for a messiah. In Luke’s picture, Jesus identifies with everyone who has ever felt left out or felt like they have been cast aside. The holy family has no place to stay in Bethlehem, and so they have to take the room at the back of someone’s house, near the animals. The infant is placed in an animal feeding trough. And it is shepherds, who were at the very bottom of society, who receive the good news of the birth from the angels. It all makes for very pretty Christmas cards. More importantly, it shows us that God has a bias towards the poor.
Matthew, on the other hand, tells a darker version of the events surrounding the birth. Magi, short for magicians, possibly astronomers or astrologers, come from the east, following a star. In the east in those days, probably in Persia, there was much interest in the stars as signs of the future. They thought the stars controlled people’s destiny. Astrology was condemned by the Old Testament prophets because it is worship of a creature rather than the Creator.
So in the magi we have visitors in a discredited profession, who have known nothing of Israel’s God, yet amazingly they come looking for a king. To add to the wonder in this account of the birth, the magi get directions to the birth place from a scheming, jealous and fearful ruler in the person of King Herod, who then sets out to try and kill the infant king.
Today we call all this coming together around the birth of Jesus an epiphany. Epiphany means a revealing. In this case Jesus was being revealed to the world, represented by the magi from another country.
There are at least three truths that come to us through this Epiphany.
The first is that our world is not empty of signs of God’s presence. God leaves hints. There is a trail to be discovered when we seek to follow the Holy One. The trail and sign in Matthew is the star, an object that is part of God’s creation. If they had not been star gazers, if they had not noticed something unusual and applied totally unscientific pagan logic, the magi would not have picked up on this sign. It is as if the star sign had been set there in the universe to be noticed by these astrologers at the right time in history for the unfolding of God’s great plan of salvation.
Our experience of God is usually not so noticeable. Most of the time the call of God comes by nudge and whisper, not by shove and shout. We hear or see the footprints of God when we are seeking. The magi saw the star because they scanned the night sky, questioning and discussing together what they saw. And they were ready to take the journey when they saw something promising.
The second thing about Epiphany is that it shows that the gospel is for everyone. One of the things that has really impressed me in coming to St Mary Mag is how true this is. We are from all over the world, we are a rich mixture of nationalities, and we are surrounded by even more nationalities and religions here in Dallas. It is an area where God must love working and making himself known.
The very inclusiveness of God’s epiphany also challenges us with respect to our Christian welcome. We are always tempted to lump together everyone of certain backgrounds, because of the few that do acts of evil. The story of the star in the life of the pagan astrologers from the east reminds us that God may be calling anyone and by any means. It shows that nothing and no one is beyond being used for God’s sovereign purposes.
I think we rely on this truth when we submit ourselves to treatment in the Australian health system. God works through secular, non-believing health workers to deliver God’s healing in abundance.
Although you never know where God has placed his agents. When I was doing a locum in another parish about 3 years ago, a young man in his 30’s had a massive stroke and wound up in the Royal Melbourne in emergency intensive care, where I went to visit him. He was waiting to go into theatre for brain surgery to save his life. I happened to get there just in time to be with him and his mother.
All of a sudden the surgeon and her team of assistants and nurses arrived to meet the patient, all dressed in their surgical gowns. I tried to slip back out of the way of this very important crowd on their very important mission. I just assumed they would think a priest like me was quite useless.
All of a sudden the chief surgeon turned to me and said: ‘Who are you?’ I managed to splutter out the name of my parish. Then she said: ‘Good, we will both be praying for Robert this afternoon. I attend the cathedral for worship, and I’m a member of the Archbishop’s Council.’
For me, in all the pain of that situation, it was also a time for rejoicing. We never know the full extent of the wondrous workings of our God. He surrounds us with his love, beyond our imaginings.
Thirdly, Epiphany reminds us that meeting with Jesus changes us. After the magi got their directions from Herod, they followed the star to Bethlehem, they arrived at the house of the Holy One, saw the child and his mother, and knelt down and worshipped. They recognised the authority that had been given as a gift to the world in the baby.
And the magi acted on what they found. They did not return home by the way they had come. They returned to their country on a different road. No doubt their way of life was changed also. We can imagine it upset their whole idea of power and authority, when they discovered a king in such lowly circumstances. They learned that it is not rich kings in glamorous palaces who really matter.
As we have worshipped at the crib for another year, our lives must also have changed. We cannot return to the same place, we cannot do things in the same way. An encounter with God leaves us altered.
I found this quotation during the week: ‘As we come close to God, we move from one beginning to another beginning. So begin, let go of discouragement. Let your soul live.’
Christmas is about God taking a risk with us, in sending his Son to become human. Epiphany is the next logical step: we take the risk of living in his shoes, in his life, knowing that he is in our world, and that we are in him, now and always.