3 January 2021
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Two years later…the magicians came.
And they really are magicians since they are forever transmogrifying themselves in front of us.
We can’t even say with certainty how many there were? I mean we’ve all learned that there were three—but that’s mostly because there are three gifts…
And some of us can score at Early Christian Trivial Pursuit by coming up with their names: Caspar (or Gaspar), Melchoir, and Balthazar.
But Matthew says nothing about any of this…He gives them no names…and doesn’t even say how many there were just, “in the days when Herod was king, look: Magicians arrived,” David Hart Bentley, The New Testament, p. 2)…How many magicians?…more than one and less than 10.
They will not become wise men until the King James translation in the 17th century. They do transform into kings much earlier…a document from around the year 500 CE says they were kings of Arabia, Persia, and India. Around the year 800 CE, another document surfaced possibly from Ireland which in typical Irish fashion embellishes the story even more; Melchoir is described as an “old-white haired man with a full beard” who gives gold, Caspar is a “beardless boy” giving incense, Balthazar is “dark-haired with a full beard,” bearing myrrh.
But that’s only in the western church…Syrian Christians, Ethiopian Christians, and Armenian Christians all have different names for them. And there are Chinese Christians who are convinced at least one of them came from China.
They are magicians; they can be who we need them to be…Matthew is clear about that. He calls them “magi” which means “magician.” In scripture, it never means “wise or “king.” It’s the same word Luke uses to describe Elymas the sorcerer and Simon Magus also a sorcerer in the Book of Acts. It might refer to a priestly caste in Persia, but more commonly it meant largely the same thing we mean when we use the word “magician”…a trickster…and sleight of hand artist…a manipulator of arcane knowledge. It’s an interesting choice…shepherds I can see, but why magicians?
Are they hucksters trafficking in the occult? Maybe…but if so…what does it mean that even they (literally) see the light before Herod does?
Are they priests, or court astrologers serving distant lands? Possibly, and if they are, are they here to highlight how the centers of power shift under this new “king?”
Are they representatives of how “nations will stream to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawning,” as we sing in our song of praise this season? If so, do they stand in for all outsiders who decide to follow the “King of the Jews.”
They can be all of that and more, these magicians from “the east”…Literally “from the rising light”…
If the shepherds in Luke, can represent the sudden…sky-rending and heart-opening revelation…one of those moments that does take your breath away…as when you see a infant born…or witness a dying person’s final breath…when you experience the divine in such a palpable, visceral way that you have no choice but to stand in awe…If the shepherds are a window into that experience…I wonder if the magi provide clues about value of the studied, intellectual, practiced pursuit of God.
See, Matthew doesn’t use the word “wise,” but certainly draws them as studied…they know their start charts…they know their history…they know scripture and prophesies…they are the people you go to when you want something explained. But they are not ivory-tower elites…like all good experts they have both book-knowledge and practical wisdom…they study, but they also pay attention to the world around them…They are prepared for this revelation…this “epiphany.” They are prepared for this journey and they actually go on it….They seek external confirmation for their theories. They don’t just follow the star directly to the manger…they go to Herod and get confirmation and further instruction…They adapt! They know something is up with Herod, and they return “by another road.”
If the shepherds can help remind those of us who tend to get stuck in our heads that sometimes you just have to be open to whatever is standing right in front of you, then the magi can also serve to remind those who wonder why some great revelation has never happened to them…that fortune often favors the prepared…that careful study, and consistent practices often enable you to see revelations of the divine that others miss. We need both shepherds and magicians to fully experience this story of God coming to live among us. We need both an openness and a studiousness…We need shepherds and magi and courageous women and faithful men…dreamers and doubters…students and skeptics…to help guide us on our way…to enlighten our path.
Let us pray: O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Collect for Epiphany, Book of Common Prayer)