Introduction and Call to Worship
As we come to worship God on this Eve of Epiphany, may we turn our hearts and minds to our guiding star who is Jesus Christ – our Lord and Saviour - and ask, ‘What is he calling us to give him in return for his great love for us?’
First Reading Isaiah 60:1-6
Isaiah speaks of God’s glory arising among his people and the peoples of the earth coming to praise him.
Second Reading Ephesians 3:1-12
Paul speaks about the mystery of Christ which was formerly hidden but now has been made known, which allows the Gentiles to come close to God.
Gospel Matthew 2:1-12
The wise men follow a star which leads them to Jesus where they present their gifts before the manger throne.
HOMILY “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:2)
A popular form of literature over many generations has been the travel book, recording the exploits of some explorer in wild and unknown lands, inspiring others to make exciting journeys. When I was at Theological College I took part in an exchange programme between Cambridge University and Rhodes, based in Grahamstown, South Africa. I spent three months studying there, while a student from The College of the Transfiguration enjoyed three months of Cambridge mid-winter! Back then there was very little on the internet and so I was heavily reliant upon my Good Travel Guide to show me the way. But the truth is, that having made some wonderful friends, it was our adventures together that really made for a brilliant learning experience. Our guide books were very helpful but, in today’s Gospel according to Matthew, the Magi followed a star to their destination, expecting to find a Royal Palace and a newborn King. They travelled from afar and met the local leader, Herod, who took an interest in their quest for the worst possible reasons.
So, what was it that made them follow this star? What could it mean to “follow” a star? And how did they know it indicated the birth of a new king? Clearly this account is rich in mystery – but we can say that as astrologers and scholars they must have been aware of the great promised Messiah for Israel, and the arrival of a comet inspired their search for a King. Indeed, the mystery is deepened by the fact that God is not mentioned as the originator of the star, though the reader may well make that assumption! Yet we know God is very much at work in this situation – having brought his only begotten Son into the world to live among us, as promised of old.
In Jerusalem, the Gentile wise men make inquiries about the whereabouts of the new king. This throws the Jewish King Herod into a bit of a panic, but he makes himself out to be interested and gets his priests to say where such a child might come from: Bethlehem. He then encourages the wise men to seek out the young king and report back on his whereabouts. The tragedy of Herod is that, despite his many advantages - being Jewish (admittedly by conversion), having the scriptures and scholars on hand, his only concern is the impending threat this new-born baby could bring to his own position. The depth of his feeling is dramatic with his terrible “slaughter of the holy innocents” after the wise men depart. The Magi make their way to Bethlehem and are thrilled when the star stops. This band of star-gazers had travelled hundreds of miles, bearing gifts for a new-born King, following the stars as their guide in order that they may present before the Saviour of the world. They find the house in which the Holy Family are staying (notice it is not described as a stable but the back of an Inn), they enter it, kneel in homage before the child and bring out their offerings which are highly symbolic: Gold of royalty, Incense of holiness and Myrrh for embalming the dead. What fitting presents for the King of all time and eternity!
This rather mysterious account ends with the wise men returning home without visiting Herod, after being warned in a dream to go back another way. Again, as with the star, we’re left to make up our minds about the origin of the dream for, unlike the Shepherds before them, there are no Messengers (Angels) to tell them what to do. Perhaps they needed a lonely planet guide too?!
We too are on a journey, whatever age or time we are at in our life and work. And God has given us the best possible travel guides to help us – not a star this time, but the gifts of his Word to teach us, the Sacraments to nourish us and the Holy Spirit to inspire and lead us. It is up to us to study the bible and reflect upon it, to meet regularly to break the bread and share the cup of salvation and to discern the work of the Holy Spirit and its leading.
Yet the journey of the Magi results in the presentation of gifts. Each of us has them and they are unique and wonderful to each one of us. We carry our gifts, talents and abilities along the road of life as we journey on. Sometimes we don’t even know we have them – occasionally we choose to hide them away in our treasure chests. Our task then as we journey on is to offer those gifts back to God in thanksgiving for all the good things we receive along the way. May that be our New Year’s resolution 2018, that we may be willing to examine ourselves and ask, ‘What gifts has God given me that I could use to his glory and for the building up of his Church this year?’
As the poet Christina Georgina Rossetti wrote in 1904 in her popular Christmas Carol, in the bleak mid-winter, so we should reflect:
What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet what I can I give Him? Give my heart. Amen.
1. The story of the wise men is one full of mystery. How do they know the significance of the star? What does it mean to follow a star?
2. In Jerusalem, Herod makes a pretence of interest in the new king. There is an implicit contrast made between the Gentile wise men, who faithfully seek God and ultimately bow to Jesus, and the Jewish King Herod who sees the child as a threat.
3. After presenting their gifts the wise men are warned in a dream not to return to Herod.
4. Like the wise men, our own stories of faith are full of mystery as we seek to respond to God’s guiding star: Scripture, sacraments and the Holy Spirit.
5. What of our own gifts, talents and opportunities can we give back to God in thanksgiving and celebration of his love and faithfulness to us?