A few years ago, my nieces – Emily and Lydia – were visiting my Mum and Dad at their home. Lydia was quite young at the time; and when she walked into my parents’ sitting room; their television was on; and on the screen there was a news report about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christmas Day Sermon – it was Rowan Williams who was the Archbishop at that time.There he was dressed up in all his finery with his mitre, bishop’s staff, chasuble, cloak etc; and Lydia apparently took one look at him and shouted out to my Mum: “Look Nanny! One of the Three Kings! He’s on the telly!”

Well today as I have said is Epiphany Sunday; and on this day we remember of course, the Three Kings; or rather the Wise Men as we should more appropriately call them. We don’t actually know if there were three of them or more or less. There were the three gifts that we know that they bought for Jesus – Gold; Frankincense; and Myrrh.  And popular tradition has inferred from the three gifts that there must have been three men and has indeed given them names – Caspar; Melchior; and Balthazar.

But the Bible doesn’t say how many there were; and it certainly doesn’t call them Kings. Rather Matthew – the only gospel which contains their story – emphatically refers to them as Magi – or Magoi – in the Greek.  For him, they are not royal figures but rather are astronomers.  Magi in the ancient near eastern world of Jesus’ birth were experts in the science of the stars and in the interpretation of dreams. Priests and sages from Persia who followed the Zoroastrian religion. And their practice of ancient astronomy was regarded by many cultures as an extremely well revered and well respected occupation.

The Magi would track the movement of the stars and would use the alignments of stars and planets to give meaning to events in the present; and occasionally to predict the future as well. And so for the Magi in our gospel reading for today from Matthew; when a new star suddenly appears in the sky in the East; they interpret it as a sign that a new king has been born; and they follow the star to Israel – first to Jerusalem; and then to Bethlehem where Jesus has been born.

Now the story of the Magi is undoubtedly a very familiar one to us all – even people who are not regular church-goers know something of their tale from pictures on Christmas Cards or School Nativity Plays. Some one here may actually have had the distinction themselves of starring as one of the Magi in their school play when they were young! But actually despite what we might picture from our school plays and Christmas cards; underneath all the comforting familiarity and tradition, Matthew, in his story of the Magi, is actually trying to say something incredibly important about them and about what they symbolise and represent in his understanding of God’s salvation plan which has been revealed in Jesus Christ.

For firstly, the Magi are presented in the gospel as being willingly led and guided by God from the very beginning of their search for the new born king. God gives them the star in the East which leads them to the land of Israel; and then when they make the mistake of looking for Jesus in the palace of King Herod in Jerusalem; it is by hearing a passage from the Old Testament – a prediction from the prophet Micah – that they realise that God’s Messiah will be born in Bethlehem – not in Jerusalem. So the Magi are led and guided by God. And moreover, when, after their long and arduous search, they finally find Jesus, and Mary and Joseph; they can do nothing more than fall down on their knees and worship him. They offer to Jesus their praise, their wonder, their awe, their thanksgiving. And they also offer to him those three gifts which reveal how much they understand of the nature of Jesus’ person and mission. Gold – the gift for a king, a Messiah. Frankincense – the gift of a priest – reflecting Jesus’ priestly role – the bridge between God and humanity. Myrrh – a prophecy, a foretelling, of Jesus’ death. The Magi are led by God. They bow down and worship Jesus. They offer gifts which reveal the depth of their spiritual knowledge and understanding.

However, and secondly, what is remarkable about all of this is that of course the Magi are NOT Jews. And Jesus, let us not forget, was born first and foremost as a Jew. Ethnically and in terms of their nationality, the Magi are not Israelites. They are not members of God’s Chosen People. They are instead Gentiles – foreigners; outsiders; people from a strange country, far, far, away from Judah.

They didn’t even worship the Jewish God. In terms of their religious and spiritual beliefs, they were not converts to Judaism but rather, as I have said, probably practised Zoroastrianism – a religion which was very different to that of Jesus and his people. In other words, from a Jewish perspective – the Magi were totally other.  And yet, here they are, in Matthew’s gospel – the only gospel that mentions them; the gospel often regarded by scholars as the most Jewish of all the gospels. Here they are, worshipping God’s Anointed One, the Messiah, the King of the Jews. And this tale of their worship of Jesus is included quite deliberately by Matthew, I think, to give the clearest indications, the clearest sign that can be given, to show that in the coming of Jesus’, in the birth of Christ, God’s salvation – God’s love, and mercy, and forgiveness – is open to all – regardless of race or religion; or colour or creed; or nationality or belief. And Matthew, in presenting the Magi thus, is also alluding to the prophecy from our Old Testament reading that is set for Epiphany Sunday, from Isaiah chapter 60 where the prophet foretells of a time for Israel when, “Nations shall come to your light… and they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” For Matthew, the Magi are representatives of all non-Jews; and as they kneel and worship Jesus, by their very presence, they symbolise the revelation of God’s light and God’s glory – not just to Israel; but to the whole of the world – a revelation that, as Isaiah’s prophecy reveals, was part of God’s plan of salvation from the very beginning…

But what does this tale of the wise men who studied the stars mean for us over two thousand years later in Short Heath in Willenhall?  Well as I have pondered the story of the past week, I have been struck by the challenge it presents to me about how I regard people who are different from me – people who are from a different country than me, or who have a different religion to me; people who have a different culture to me; a different educational experience to me; people who are a different age to me; or who have a different outlook on life to me.

How do we respond to people whom we think are different?  That’s the challenge of the story of the Magi.  Do we accept them? Do we respect them? And in our churches, do we allow ourselves to embrace those whose worship and religious perspectives and even their image of God may be different from our own? And do we allow ourselves to listen to them, allow them perhaps to teach us a different understanding of God which stretches our own faith and and our own spirituality?

In her book about the Nativity story, the writer Maggie Dawn has written about the Magi and she says this about them and about their story: “In the story of the Magi, Jesus is seen as receiving gifts and worship from people of other nationalities and religions. These men were not converts. Rather they recognised something greater in a context other than their own. The Church often waits for people to affirm their beliefs before we will accept the genuineness of their worship. Perhaps these visitors to the holy child act as a reminder that God does not stand at the door of the church, checking people’s doctrinal credentials before he will receive their worship…”

So the Magi then, are symbols, representatives, of the inclusiveness of the gospel, of the all-embracing nature of the God news of God’s love that Jesus came to reveal to the world.  Where people from all nations and creeds, are embraced and welcomed by God; and where we the Church are called, I believe anyway, to mirror that divine embrace and divine welcome in all we speak and do in Christ’s name.

As we enter into the Season of Epiphany, may we be led by the Magi, to worship Christ, and to kneel alongside ALL those who seek him from whatever background they come from, from whatever creed they profess, and with whatever understanding they offer to him. Amen.

Revd. Helen Duckett.

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