Start as you mean to go on
Isaiah 60:1-6 Matthew 2:1-12
Getting the beginning right is hard. A meaningful sentence, an intriguing quote, am arresting anecdote – how we begin reveals so much about how we will continue, about the kind of person we are, about the kind of story we will tell. Our gospel writers knew this profoundly, beginning their messages of good news in spectacular fashion. In John we have the majestic theology of the Word made Flesh, in Luke the unforgettable encounters between Gabriel and Mary, between the angelic host and the shepherds, with the baby in a manger. And here today we have part of Matthew’s opening, this mysterious story of wise men travelling through the desert with gifts for an infant king. Its wondrous strangeness draws us into a world where nothing will ever look the same again.
Surely these wise men are some of the most shadowy characters in the New Testament. We know only that they come from the East, that they have seen a star at its rising, and that they have risked everything in response to its light. They come to a distant land, whose customs and traditions they do not know and with the most impractical gifts imaginable. They blunder into a political situation fraught with danger – for them and for the child they seek; they need a timely dream to save them from Herod’s wrath. Yet the wise men are not discouraged. When they find the child their joy is overwhelming, an ecstatic, physical response that leaves them kneeling in awe and reverence before an infant boy. A response seemingly all out of proportion to the birth of a stranger’s child, a response so extreme it moves them to offer costly treasures to a tired, teenage mother who can give them nothing in return. Ancient philosophers thought wisdom lay in moderation, measure and good sense. But these ‘wise' men prefer risk, excess, abundance. With the wise men, Matthew’s gospel has begun.
For this opening story is carefully written, shaping our hopes and expectations for the drama that is now beginning. The wise men, we are told, saw a star and they sensed that it was connected to a new kingdom, a new way of being, for which – though they barely knew it – they had been preparing all their life. Thanks to their astrology charts and their knowledge of the heavens they noticed the star and they could follow it; and with their precious gifts, chosen from their own experience, they fulfill prophesies unknown to them. God calls to those far off wise men in the signs that they can recognize, as long as they have the courage and commitment to read and follow them – however unexpected or dangerous the path may be. And when at last they arrive in Bethlehem, what they find there is not any reward they might have anticipated, no recognition of their skills and wisdom, no new honours or exotica to take back to their homeland. There is no proportionate, diplomatic exchange of gifts. Instead, what they find is the joy of encounter, of awe and reverence in the presence of God.
As Matthew’s gospel unfolds, what we glimpse so mysteriously with the wise men will come more clearly into view. Soon, Jesus will call, not kings or scholars, but the fishermen Simon and Andrew, inviting them to help him in fishing for people. Like the wise men they will respond fully and completely, putting their skills and talents to new use in the service of the Kingdom. Like the wise men they must travel and teach, sharing the expertise and experience they have, and without demanding anything in return. Jesus tells them, when he first sends them out with the ten other disciples, to heal the sick and to preach the kingdom, and to do so without reserve or expectation. ‘Freely’, he says, ‘freely, you have received, freely give’. And Jesus reveals to them what this might mean in the stories he tells all through Matthew’s gospel of the Kingdom God, where God showers gifts upon those who will receive them, on those who will respond in generosity. For, Jesus tells them, what God wants is not the stable, measured kindness of one acquaintance to another, but drastic, reckless hospitality even to our enemies, and to those who cannot or will not pay us back.
This generosity, which gives freely of itself, is seen in the wise men, but Matthew’s readers soon find it too in the disciples, in Jesus’s followers, and most completely in Jesus himself as the cost of his ministry becomes ever clearer. For just as the wise men found danger and peril from those who felt threatened, so the disciples and Jesus will meet resistance and rejection. So the story gathers pace, as we hear of Jesus’s words and miracles and as we move towards his suffering, his death, and his rising to new life. Yet, as the gospel text comes to its close, Matthew makes clear that this is not the end of the story, but a transition point, as the risen Christ tells his disciples to go out, to draw others in, assured that he will be with them always, till the end of the age.
In those opening moments of the gospel, the wise men needed a special star to draw them to Jesus; that star soon faded, but the invitation the wise men received is not confined to the past, to those miraculous early days in Bethlehem. The light that drew them still shines for us today, even if differently - shining in our world and inviting us too to share in the joy, and the risk, of that encounter with God’s presence. We, like the wise men, like the shepherds, like King Herod, must choose how to respond, what part we will play in this unfolding story.
On this Sunday, the feast of the Epiphany, it is traditional to bless chalk and to mark our doors with the letters CMB. These letters are, in part, in honour of the visit of the wise men who came to be called Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, and in writing their initials on our doors we are joining our story with their story. The distance between us and those brave and mysterious travelers is not perhaps so great, as we too enter into the drama begun at Bethlehem and announced in prophesy. Our chalk marks, our prayers, our reading of the gospel – through these we allow our homes and our lives to be shaped by the dedication and commitment of some of Jesus’s first followers. Like them, we allow ourselves to respond in love and in awe to the gospel light.
This dark and difficult January, when our lives feel so uncertain and our relationships fractured, it can feel hard even to imagine what love and awe and generosity might look like, as we struggle to keep each other safe in this ongoing pandemic. Like the wise men setting out, we find ourselves journeying into the unknown, unsure what to bring or where we are going. But we know that the divine light that guided them surrounds us still, and that no darkness can ever overcome it.