Epiphany 2009
Matthew 2:1-12
Marian Free

In the name of God who reveals himself to all who look for him. Amen.

I can’t speak for you, but I know that there have been times when I am a lazy bible reader. I don’t mean that I don’t read the bible, but that when I do, I pass over interesting points, inconsistencies, additions or omissions. For example, it took me quite some time to realize that the parable of the prodigal son – one of our most quoted and best loved parables –  occurs only in the gospel of Luke. Even now, after a Phd and lecturing on the letters to the Romans and Galatians, I am still surprised by expressions and ideas that I have failed to notice before.

Most of us are uncomfortable with dissonance – we tend to smooth over differences, or conflate stories so that instead of contradiction we have agreement. This is particularly obvious with the narratives about Jesus’ birth. Most of us would probably say that the angel appeared to Mary, that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem, that Jesus was born in a stable and was visited by shepherds and then by the magi. That’s well and good, but what do the gospels say? Mark and John do not report Jesus’ birth. The former begins with Jesus’ ministry and the latter with Jesus’ pre-existence. So it is to Luke and Matthew that we owe our knowledge about Jesus’ birth and they tell two quite different stories.

In Luke, Gabriel appears to Mary who responds to God’s call. We don’t know Joseph’s reaction to the pregnancy, only that he takes Mary to Bethlehem from Nazareth for the census and there the child is born and placed in a manger. Angels appear to shepherds who come to visit the new family. In Matthew Mary simply becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit. It is Joseph who is visited by an angel. In a dream he is told not to divorce Mary. We understand that Jesus is born in Bethlehem, because when the magi (number unknown) come seeking a child who was born “king of the Jews” they are informed  that they will discover him in Bethlehem as the prophets foretold. Because King Herod later kills all the children under two, we surmise that the magi appeared on the scene some time after Jesus’ birth.

It is quite obvious that part of Matthew’s purpose is to demonstrate that scripture has been fulfilled – a young woman’s pregnancy, the birth in Bethlehem, the killing of the children, the flight to Egypt and the return to Nazareth are all qualified by the statement: “This was to fulfill the scripture”. Another motive is obvious. In introducing the magi, Matthew is making the point that Jesus is to be seen as the Saviour of all nations, that Jesus’ birth has significance for all the world and not just for the Jewish people. So we notice that the magi come from the east. They believe that the strange star has a meaning, and have deduced from their reading that it indicates the birth of a king – the king of the Jews. Apparently they do not have access to the Jewish texts, which is why they need to ask Herod where the child has been born. They have studied the sky and believe that they are able to interpret it, they are presumably educated people, and while not kings, are possibly members of a royal court, advisors to the rulers of their own country.

The point is, that even though they are not Jews, they find something in Jesus that is worthy of homage, and on finding him are overwhelmed with joy.

For most of my life, I have heard the lament that no one comes to church anymore. I have been bombarded by programmes to encourage people to come back to church, I have been in more study groups than I can remember that have looked at how the world has changed and how the church can respond (in order to attract people to attend). In all this time, I have never once been party to a discussion about what it is that we believe that the we have to offer or what is the mystery that we have to share with the world.

The proliferation of “spiritual books”, “healing techniques”, meditation groups and so on, indicates that while people may not be in church, there remains a hunger to find a deeper truth, a desire to connect with a force greater than oneself. The reason that truth is not always sought in the Christian church is that we have been poor at identifying who and what we are, bad at naming what we are really about and diffident about what it is we have to offer  We have spent so much time worrying about why people are not coming to church and have been down so many side-tracks to attract people to our number that we have not paid enough attention to our core business – sharing with the world the life-giving power of the gospel, the saving event of Jesus.

In a world in which many are searching for answers, we need to be clear about who and what we are and who are what we are not. We are not the moral guardians of society. We are not a social club. We are not about placating a God who demands unquestioning obedience and deals out punishment to those who fail.

We are those who believe in a God who was and is fully engaged with us through the person of Jesus. We know that God, having experienced what it is to be human, understands the full gamut of human existence – what it is to laugh and cry, to have friends and to be betrayed by those friends, to suffer and to die and to find life on the other side. Because of Jesus, we know that we have been set free from sin to live life to the full and through his life, death and resurrection, we know ourselves loved unconditionally, understand that God’s forgiveness knows no bounds and believe that even the worst situation can be redeemed.

We believe in a God who constantly surprises, who refuses to be limited and contained, is comforting and challenging, liberating and encouraging and who sent Jesus into the world to set us straight and to set us free – in short we believe in  a God who has so much to offer a world that is looking for answers.

Instead of asking ourselves why people no longer come to church, perhaps we should ask ourselves – Why are we here? What does our faith mean to us and what difference does it make to our lives? What is the saving message of the gospel? What has God achieved in Jesus Christ? When we can answer these questions we can share those answers with others, and when the incarnate presence of Jesus is visible in our lives, others will seek what we have and, having found it, will be overwhelmed with joy.


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